Karavan: Mikronovellernas universum

I guess magazines are the only thing I read anymore?

My third and final subscription (though Med andra ord looks interesting, and we won’t count Asymptote since I don’t send them any money) is Karavan, a literary magazine that focuses on literature in translation, primarily from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The theme for this issue was “micronoveller,” or microfiction. That makes this the first issue I’ve read where all the literature featured was self contained, i.e. no extracts from novels.

What did I learn? In brief, that microfiction is a rich tradition in Iraq, a popular new form of content on apps and websites in China, and that Ana María Shua is Argentina’s reigning microfiction queen. In addition to the (very short) stories and poems translated from Arabic, Mandarin, and Spanish, this issue featured interviews with Pilar Quintana and Monique Ilboudo, a précis on Jeferson Tonório by Balsam Karam (whose novel Singulariteten I recently finished) and an essay by Mariana Enríquez on journalism and Argentinian cuisine. Out of the new releases reviewed, this is my note to myself that Samar Yazbek‘s Where the Wind Calls Home (Swe: Där vinden vilar) sounded the most interesting.

Karam and a Palestinian poet from Gaza featured, Somaya el Sousi, were both featured at Stockholms litteraturmässan this past weekend. I was unable to attend el Sousi’s reading, though I did pick up her volume En flöjt av mörker. Karam’s panel discussion on libraries was much later in the day, however, and fit nicely into my schedule. She was very funny and very light, not at all what I would have expected from her writing here in Karavan or in Singulariteten, but those are separate thoughts.

En japansk näktergal

My sambo has tremendous thrift shop karma, which is how I came to be in possession of this lovely hardback book, a Swedish translation of an English melodrama/romance by Winnifred Eaton writing under the pen name Onoto Watanna*: A Japanese Nightingale.

Cover of the Swedish edition of "A Japanese Nightingale" by Onoto Watanna

As a hardback book from 1907 with several full color illustrations, it seems like it should be kind of rare and expensive, yet the going price for this book on Bokbursen wasn’t anything more expensive than your standard new paperback release and there were several listings for it. I guess it just goes to show how much I don’t know about actual book collecting.

Full color illustration from "A Japanese Nightingale."
There were maybe half a dozen of these full page, full color illustrations throughout.
Pages from the Swedish translation of "A Japanese Nightingale" featuring pastel green illustrations behind the text.
My photography wasn’t the best here, but those green splotches are illustrations. Left: three figures singing or playing musical instruments in a tea house. Right: flowers in a landscape.

All-American wealthy playboy Jack Bigelow is in Japan for unclear reasons. While he is waiting for his mixed-race friend Taro to come join him, Bigelow marries Yuki, a charming and mysterious mixed-race geisha. Even as Bigelow reflects on Taro’s contempt for foreigners who take temporary Japanese wives, he lets himself be talked into just such a marriage. Still, their relationship is a happy one, except Yuki’s mood swings and constant requests for money. Bigelow acquiesces, though not without misgivings and suspicions.

Taro finally arrives and—here’s a shocker—Yuki is his sister! Taro is shocked and appalled, both at Bigelow’s actions and at Yuki’s condition. It turns out that Taro and Yuki are from a noble family that conveniently ran out of money while Taro was at university in the US with Bigelow, and rather than reveal the change in their fortunes Yuki began earning money to support her brother by performing in teahouses. When that proved insufficient, she agreed to be married off by a nakoda.

Taro and Yuki are stunned to see each other. Yuki runs away, distraught at her brother’s perceived disappointment in her. For plot-related reasons, neither Bigelow nor Taro immediately follow her, so she is allowed to slip away and disappear. In her absence, Taro falls ill and dies. Bigelow promises the dying Taro that he will spare no expense in tracking down Yuki. He wanders all over Japan, Yuki wanders all over Asia, but eventually they have a heartfelt reunion at their old house in Tokyo and swear to never leave each other again.

The end!

On its own, A Japanese Nightingale is very dated reading. Is it an improvement over Madame Butterfly, which it is theorized to be a response to? I…don’t know? How are we defining “improvement” here, anyway? The happier ending with a reunited Bigelow and Yuki seems to imagine better prospects for interpersonal relationships between white Westerners and Asians (or just Japanese) than Madame Butterfly, which makes sense given Canada-born Eaton’s English father and Cantonese mother.

But much of the book feels predicated on Orientalism and appealing to Western fascination with Japan, which I guess still happens today but not in the same way as in the years immediately following the Perry Expedition. There are didactic little asides about Japanese culture and beliefs and customs, but judging from her biography Eaton never visited Japan. She was also “rebuked” by maybe the only Japanese person she actually knew, the poet Yone Noguchi, for her “masquerade” (to use the language of that linked timeline), but I don’t have the Google-fu to dig that referenced article up.

All of that said, I think it’s ridiculous to go into a book like this with the expectations and standards we have for books today. And I don’t just mean expectations about race and Strong Female Characters TM and gender relations—I mean even just the construction of the narrative itself. Authors in 1907 were writing to meet different expectations than they would be today. One of the more obvious examples of this might be the shift in narrative distance that’s come to be regarded as acceptable in third-person narration, but also things like suspension of disbelief, the role of luck and coincidence in a plot, characterization, etc. etc.

The clues about Taro and Yuki’s relationship are there for readers to pick up on, but the suspension of disbelief required to accept that plot twist is a big ask. Taro’s death makes no sense on a surface level reading (he faints and hits his head  and then…wastes away from a mysterious illness?) and is equally baffling from a plot perspective, since there’s no action or realization it prompts within Bigelow. Nor would Taro’s survival have impeded Bigelow in any way in his quest to find Yuki. The whole episode feels like nothing more than a melodramatic flourish to no purpose. Omatsu, Taro and Yuki’s mother, appears for a while during Taro’s lingering Mystery Illness, and Bigelow swears to look after her like she was his own mother, but then she gets shunted off to her own parents and never appears again.

To a modern reader, all those aspects and more are enough to make A Japanese Nightingale stylistically passé, never mind how completely unappealing a character and hero Jack Bigelow is in the Year of Our Lord 2023 or whether or not the depiction of Japan and Japanese characters is ProblematicTM and if so to what extent. Even though the book was by all accounts at least moderately popular in its time (it was turned into a stage play, and then a movie), it’s so “of its time” that the appeal today is one of historical curiosity rather than rip-roaring good yarn.

Oh! This was a translation, after all. Is there anything interesting I can share about Hilda Löwenhielm?

Not really. She was a teacher and a translator and died in 1927. Never married, no children. Well, cool.

The story itself may be underwhelming, but it at least it was delivered in a singularly attractive package that can serve a much more aesthetically pleasing purpose as an objet d’art.

*Onoto Watanna, what a wonderful phrase! Onoto Watanna, it ain’t no passing craze! It means no worries for the rest of your days. It’s our problem-free philosophy: Onoto Watanna!

Döden till mötes

I rescued this book from a “free to take” box along the sidewalk after a run sometime in summer 2020? 2021? What is time? Along with Miss Marples sista fall, because I can never say no to a free book, especially if it’s Agatha Christie.

There’s a Rian Johnson Tweet somewhere about how Christie’s novels are anything but formulaic and how she used the mystery novel as a front for experimenting in all kinds of other genres:

Something I love about Agatha Christie is how she never tread water creatively. I think there’s a misperception that her books use the same formula over and over, but fans know the opposite is true. It wasn’t just settings or murder methods, she was constantly stretching the genre conceptually. Under the umbrella of the whodunnit she wrote spy thrillers, proto-slasher horrors, serial killer hunts, gothic romances, psychological character studies, glam travelogues.

This element of Christie’s writing eluded me in my middle school whodunnit phase, but I think you can forgive a 12-year-old for not considering the finer points of genres like spy thrillers.

This quote came to mind as I was reading Döden till mötes (Appointment With Death), as did the fact that Christie rather famously couldn’t abide her fan-favorite protagonist. Appointment With Death came out in 1938, so there were still other Poirot books and stories to come, but already you can see Christie sidelining the Belgian detective as much as possible in order to tell another story.

Most of the book happens without Poirot present and, as Johnson’s observation above suggests, is a combination of gothic romance (the mysterious and alluring Raymond Boynton trapped by a domineering stepmother and protagonist Sarah King’s determination to rescue him) and glam travelogue (Christie’s eye for character is also turned to the landscapes of Jerusalem and Petra). And as far as that story goes, it’s…fine but dated. Anything set in Jerusalem these days is just going to come across as oof, to use a technical term. Even without the “aged like milk” setting, there’s a lot of surface-level psychoanalysis from the French psychologist Dr. Gerard that is meant to be narratively sound, and maybe even came across as reasonable and plausible in 1938, but today reads like pompous buffoonery.

On the other hand, Christie has a few conversations and observations that are still timely 80-odd years later. I don’t remember her roasting women quite so thoroughly in other books, but it’s been a while since I’ve read any so who can say. We have the tyrannical murder victim, Mrs. Boynton, who is quickly established as a vile and hideous creature through and through (the book never lets us forget that she’s fat!)*; we have the tiresome but accomplished Lady Westholme who is constantly the butt of everyone’s jokes, both for her domineering personality as well as her unattractive looks (powerful Hillary Clinton energy); and scatter-brained Miss Pierce is more or less dismissed by everyone. The golden mean of all three of these seems to be protagonist Sarah King, who can neither abide the airheaded Miss Pierce but who also finds Lady Westholme too much. As a result, King feels like a mouthpiece for Christie’s own opinions about women’s place in the world.

As for the whodunnit itself, it’s clever (to be expected!) but not as satisfying as other Christie novels. Some bits I untangled right away; other asides are dropped in that sound like they’re set up for a big reveal, but ultimately they just fizzle and go nowhere.

The Swedish translation is a job well done, though perhaps it’s easier to convey Agatha Christie in Swedish than Elmore Leonard. Regardless, Einar Thermaenius succeeded where Einar Heckscher failed; while my copy was fairly old, even new Swedish editions of Agatha Christie today are often still Thermaenius’s translation (his translation of The ABC Murders from 1938 saw an eleventh printing in 2015). Even “new translations” of Thermaenius (and others) are more often new edits of old translations rather than entirely new translations. Why mess with perfection?

*And a weird postscript to that. The English book covers all have covers that feature the landscape, elements of the plot, or spooky murder imagery unrelated to the actual story. It took a fair bit of scrolling to find one older example of a cover featuring Mrs. Boynton herself, and then rendered fairly neutrally:

The cover of "Appointment With Death" featuring an illustration of an overweight old woman in a pink dress in profile against a desert backdrop.

It took me zero seconds and zero scrolling to find much less flattering Swedish portrayals of Mrs. Boynton:

Cover of Swedish version of "Appointment With Death" featuring a caricature portrait of an overweight old woman with yellow cat eyes looking directly at the viewer. Another Swedish edition of Appointment With Death. There is once again an illustrated rendition of an overweight old woman sitting on a chair, but it only takes up a fraction of the cover space and she's not immediately menacing.

Are…are you OK, Sweden? Who hurt you?

Dix heures et demie du soir en été

This is the year of me obsessively reading Marguerite Duras (in French), for mostly circumstantial reasons.

  1. She has plenty of relatively short novels.
  2. They are available from the Stockholm library, along with Swedish translations.
  3. Did I mention they’re short?

Compared to Moderato cantabile or Les petits chevaux de Tarquinia, there’s a lot that actually happens in Dix heures et demie.

Maria and her husband Pierre, along with their (mutual?) friend Claire and their daughter Judith, are a French couple on vacation in Spain. Inclement weather forces them to stay at a small village, where their lives quickly become entwined with that of a man who has just murdered his nineteen-year-old wife and her lover. At the same time, the sexual tension between Pierre and Claire ratchets up to eleven—all while Maria seems just as drawn to Claire as her husband is.

Like Les petits chevaux, I read the French original in parallel with the Swedish translation (one section in French, then in Swedish, then in French again). There appears to be only one Swedish translation, the one from Ingmar Forsström. (A different translator than Les petits chevaux, Suzanne Palme, but equally skilled.) There’s not much to find online about him except that Wikipedia entry, not even a paywalled obituary. Dead at 40 years old, a stone’s throw from where I currently live. Memento mori, etc.

Do I even like Duras? She has an eye for landscape and weather, and weaves them deftly into the plot to lend tension to what is otherwise just brooding, unhappy people who drink like fish. The fact that she can instill such a sense of foreboding in the reader when so little actually happens in any given story is remarkable. I respect that. But her brooding, unhappy characters are also seen at such a distance that they’re hard to really distinguish. These aren’t books I viscerally enjoy, in the sense that I find the characters interesting or relatable or very complexly sketched. But for mood and for technical skill (and for language practice) you could do a lot, lot worse.

Turkish Tag Team: Requiem över en förlorad stad during Cold Nights of Childhood

I was debating whether to make this one post or two, and in the end decided to make this a single post for a variety of reasons:

  • In terms of sheer practicality, my posting schedule and reading schedule are such that my usual rate of posting will have me bleeding 2023’s books into 2024, which I emphatically do not like.
  • These are authors that are in a kind of dialogue with each other, or rather one of them is clearly inspired by the other.
  • The books themselves were even very similar in terms of mood, themes, structure, etc.
  • I didn’t have much to say about either book on their own.

So, first of all, which books are we talking about?

The first was a Swedish translation of Aslı Erdoğan‘s Requiem över en förlorad stadI read an interview with her in an old issue of Karavan that I brought with me on vacation for airplane reading; in the end I was so taken by how insightful and interesting and brainy she was that when I got back to Stockholm I immediately grabbed what book of hers I could from the library.

The second book was a recommendation from a American friend now residing in Turkey that served to underscore an author I had apparently added to my Storygraph TBR (probably mentioned in the same issue of Karavan): Tezer Özlü. An English translation of her Cold Nights of Childhood was published this year, which I was able to track down at the Stockholm library.

My process was something like this:

  1. Read Erdoğan
  2. Solicit an opinion on her from a bookish American friend in Turkey, who recommends Özlü
  3. Read Özlü

As you might guess from that turn of events, I wasn’t entirely taken with Requiem. It’s a lot of mood and imagery and lovely turns of phrase, but nothing I could really sink my teeth into (or that I can remember now, at the time of writing, a week or two later). Trying to summarize the book is a struggle: “unnamed woman wanders around an unnamed city at night”? I guess?

My best explanation is that Requiem functioned as a sort of literary therapy for Erdoğan, and therefore concrete experiences are abstracted into an etheric dream world rather than relived in all their terror. Art as a process rather than a product, written for Erdoğan and not for an audience. The end result is that I would finish each chapter unsure of what happened and without any sense of the human being behind the words, and that last point is ultimately the make or break thing for me.

As Bookish American friend in Turkey tactfully put it, Erdoğan’s literary reputation might be overstated due to her (obviously important and brave and impressive!) political activism. But I also get the sense that Requiem is a very different beast than her earlier books, so perhaps I don’t have an entirely fair picture of her work. The same bookish friend also tipped me off that Tezer Özlü had finally been published in English for the first time, in an off-the-cuff follow-up to her estimation of Erdoğan that implied a comparison in Özlü’s favor.

What bookish American friend couldn’t have known, or maybe she did, was that Requiem reads like a riff on, and a response to, Cold Nights of Childhood. Both books ground a woman narrator in a city (or several cities) as she wanders not only through space but also through time, emptying their memories on the page the same way you empty your pockets before throwing a pair of pants in the wash. But if Requiem is an etheric and abstract dream world, then Cold Nights is waking life, or maybe better put a lucid dream. Instead of fuzzy, surreal abstraction, Özlü names everything with precision and clarity: people, streets, cafes, flowers. The same clarity holds throughout, even as the narrative skips through time or across space; she eschews poetic metaphor and favors stark depictions of her external circumstances and experiences, whether it’s stays at psychiatric wards or adolescent sexual desire or family gatherings in their cramped rural home. I might not have learned anything about Özlü by the end of Cold Nights, but unlike Requiem I still felt like I had met her. All of the English summaries make comparisons to The Bell Jar and it’s honestly a pretty apt one.

Both of these books raise the question of I’ve been taught to expect in stories, not only through school and writing advice, but also in the kinds of stories available for consumption in popular culture. Building expectations through repetition is another way of teaching, after all, and the stories in most conventional media usually have story arcs, character arcs, conflicts, changes, a sense of narrative unity. By the end of the story, situations and characters should be different from how they started, and we should be able to clearly trace the progression of those changes. How many of these expectations can go unmet and a story (a book, a movie, a TV show) still be satisfying? How else can we look at stories? What other shape can they take? What other purpose can they serve?

Les petits chevaux de Tarquinia

One of the pitfalls of my English education is that I ended up with a huge blind spot when it comes to contemporary authors. It’s not anyone’s fault in particular; it’s just how my course load worked out. Though, I don’t know if Marguerite Duras would have ended up on my English curriculum. Maybe French, if I’d taken more than two semesters.

Duras didn’t even become a familiar name to me until a couple of features over on LitHub. Then, browsing a small (and predominantly Farsi?) international bookstore in Stockholm, back in the before times, I noticed a Duras title in the French section: Moderato Cantabile. It also looked mercifully short, something that I could probably manage with my limited French. Manage I did, and so I began scouring Stockholm library for other books by Duras. Les petits chevaux de Tarquinia was the first to meet my requirements of being available in Swedish as well as French.

Not a lot happens in Les petits chevaux. We have five Parisians on vacation together in a sleepy Mediterranean village, two couples (Sara and Jacques, Ludi and Gina) and the freewheeling Diana, stuck in their rut of swimming, bocce, and endless Camparis until they’re knocked out of their  orbits when a new vacationer shows up with a boat. Sara is immediately attracted to him, their flirting eventually leads to a tryst, but then in the end Sara decides to go on a trip to Tarquinia with Jacques and Diana rather than to stay behind and have an extended affair. At the same time, they’ve all become involved in looking after an elderly couple in the village who have arrived to claim the remains of their son. He was killed in the course of his work to decommission leftover landmines and now everyone is waiting for the mother to change her mind and sign the death certificate. There’s also a forest fire at some point?

It sounds like a literary Seinfeld episode (“She wouldn’t sign the death certificate, Jerry, would you believe it?”), which is also how I’d describe Moderato Cantabile, but somehow it works. Maybe because of the undercurrent of “will they, won’t they” sexual tension that appears in the first conversation between Sara and Boat Guy and persists throughout the entire book. Maybe it’s because Duras lets her characters have pretentious philosophical conversations that are usually the purview of stoner insights. Maybe it’s because even though on one level, nothing happens, there’s also a lot of nothing that happens: people go on boat rides, go swimming, have dinner, hike up and down the mountain to visit the mourning couple. If everyone just sat around in the bar drinking, it might come off entirely differently.

At any rate, this kind of slow, ponderous, talk-y book is exactly my jam. Which is good since I essentially read it three times (French first, then Swedish to fill in the gaps, then French one last time). I don’t know that I have any quibble with Suzanne Palme’s translation, either. Palme also seems to have passed away, but since her obituary is paywalled at DN I don’t know more than what journalisten.se has to say:

Suzanne Palme
26 OKTOBER, 2000 | Oslo, har avlidit vid 73 års ålder. Hon arbetade en tid som vikarie på Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning innan hon övergick till förlagsbranschen.

I assume that’s the right Suzanne Palme, at any rate. According to boksampo, she has just half a dozen or so translations to her name. They’re a rather scattershot collection; De små hästarna is the only Duras novel there.

Picknick vid vägkanten

It’s always interesting to me to read books that had to undergo significant censorship for their initial publication. Sometimes the ideological clash between author and state is pretty clear, but other times it’s a head-scratcher. Picknick vid vägkanten is one of the latter. It’s difficult for me to find what Soviet censors would have objected to, as opposed to books like We or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. All the implied black market and organized crime, maybe? Regardless, a censored version was published in the Soviet Union, and Tartovsky worked with the Strugatsky brothers to turn the idea into the 1979 movie Stalker. (The entire movie, with English subtitles, is available for free on YouTube from Mosfilm.)

A strange alien visitation in the near future (officially the book takes place at some unspecified year in the twentieth century) has resulted in six Zones around the world, all filled with baffling scientific marvels and unpredictable hazards. Picknick follows Red, one of the people who now make a living by navigating the life-threatening terrain to bring back items, a group of people who have come to be called “stalkers.” It’s implied that Red’s regular exposure to the Zone is the reason for the strange mutation in his daughter, who is born mostly normal but covered with long fur and black eyes. She starts out life with the same mental capacity and personality as any child, but eventually becomes withdrawn and non-verbal. Hoping to cure his daughter, Red makes one last incursion into the Zone to reach the Golden Sphere, which is rumored to grant wishes.

Picknick is another classic that feels a bit pointless to review, established as it is within the science fiction canon. I appreciate its weirdness and its refusal to provide any kind of explanation for the Zones or the items, or to descend into a pew-pew space lasers alien invasion story. Instead it’s just people dealing with the fallout (pun intended) of a brief and inexplicable encounter with an alien Other. Science fiction really does get an unfair reputation because everyone’s seen Star Wars and no one’s read books like Roadside Picnic. Next thing you know, we have Ian McEwan convincing himself he’s invented an entirely new genre.

Sigh.

The Swedish translation is worth noting, since it took a lot more research than one would expect to dig up the details of its history. Ola Wallin—who was also responsible for translating and publishing Trötthetssamhället—put out a new translation of Picknick in 2020.  That’s the one I read and it’s a fine translation. I think. My Russian is far too gone to attempt a meaningful comparison.

But! Before Ersatz and Olla Wallin, there was a Swedish translation from Delta by Kjell Rehnström, which Wikipedia purports (by way of Neil Cornwell’s Reference Guide to Russian Literature) won the “Jules Verne prize for best novel of the year published in Swedish.” Confirming that last part is proving trickier than one might expect, and will involve a trip to the library over the weekend to check an actual physical reference book. Stockholm Library also appears to have a copy (in addition to Wallin’s), which I might read for comparison’s sake if the mood strikes me.

Olla Wallin is alive and well, so finding out more about his biography isn’t particularly difficult. Kjell Rehnström is, well, alive at least, but if Ratsit is to be believed he’s also 85 years old. Unsurprising that he doesn’t have much of an online presence, then, though it seems he also translates from Polish, including Nobel Prize winner Czesław Miłosz.

Axplock ur idéhistorien II

I guess the theme so far in 2023 is “reading other people’s books.” I closed out 2022 with The Power of the Dog and then ended up reading Stick (twice! for translation’s sake!) straightaway in 2023, both at the recommendation of a friend. In between those, Axplock ur idéhistorien II arrived on my doorstep—a book I’d promised to babysit for a digital nomad friend who wanted to order it off Adlibris but had no Swedish address to ship to.

And one does not ask me to babysit a book without expecting me to read it.

It’s a tidy little collection spanning just about two hundred years of Western thought, with a focus on the major social ideas that continue to leave their mark on politics today. (This is a polite way to say that a few of the selections are nothing less than noxious.) The selections are abridged when necessary, with context for each selection as well as a short biography of each author:

  • Kant, “Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”
  • Hegel, “Reason in History”
  • Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity
  • Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety
  • Marx & Engels, “The Communist Manifesto”
  • Gobineau, “An Essay on the Inequality of Human Races”
  • Bremer, Hertha
  • Darwin, On the Origin of Species
  • Mill, “The Subjection of Women”
  • Spencer, The Man Versus the State
  • Nietzsche, On the Geneaology of Morality
  • Freud, Introduction to Psychoanalysis
  • “Program of the NSDAP”
  • Mussolini, “The Doctrine of Fascism”
  • Beauvoir, The Second Sex
  • Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
  • Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition

If you took the above table of contents as a reading list it would probably keep you busy for a year, so collections like these with just The Hits and the central theses are great to have on hand and are much cheaper than, say, a first-year philosophy survey course textbook. (Did I keep mine because I knew I would want to revisit it later? Yes. Have I done so? Actually, also yes.)  I might buy my own copies of both volumes just to have around for reference, who knows.

Do I have a similar English recommendation? Not really. Passion of the Western Mind has a similar, if broader scope, but it’s entirely a secondary source. I had Ten Great Works of Philosophy in my library for years and kind of wish I still had it.

Stick (and Einar Heckscher)

Back in January I was having a few beers with the same friend who recommended The Power of the Dog and we got on to the topic of Elmore Leonard.

Stick! There’s one for you. Classic Leonard.”

Elmore Leonard is a legend and there’s nothing interesting I can add to the conversation about him. What’s noteworthy is that I read Stick in English (available from the good people at archive.org) and then, immediately thereafter, the Swedish translation by Einar Heckscher. Unlike the last time I became fixated on a translation (Gösta Berlings saga), there’s only one translation (so far as I’m aware?) and thus no comparisons are possible.

My drinking companion was adamant that no Swedish translation of Elmore Leonard could possibly work. I didn’t really have an opinion one way or another, maintaining neutrality as a professional courtesy to a fellow translator. Nonetheless, I’m a hyperactive golden retriever when it comes to talking about books, and once I cracked open the Swedish version he was subject to a slew of random WhatsApp messages, complete with screenshots and photos, whenever I thought a particular translation choice was interesting. Which, despite heroic efforts on my end to practice at least a modicum of restraint, was still pretty often. Sorry, Richie!

This translation of Stick came out in 1987, essentially contemporaneously with the 1985 original, as I guess is usually the case with popular commercial fiction. My biggest takeaway from the book, just viz a viz translation, was, “The internet is a life-saver.” How many times a day do I dump a term into Ecosia, Linguee, Folkets, Google ngrams, whatever else, just to wrap my head around it? How do you handle running up against the brick wall of foreign slang when you don’t have instant answers at your fingertips? If you can knock that one down, how do you dig through the slang of your own language beyond the scope of your personal usage? This is how I ended up asking my sambo and coworkers and bilingual friends how they would translate the recreational drug term “mainline” into Swedish.

My second thought was to wonder what a new translation would look like if it came out today. I think a lot more of the English would remain as calques, or be only moderately “Swedefied,” and I think there’d be a fair amount of förortssvenska. (Förortssvenska was already a thing when the book came out, but I don’t think the nearly-50-year-old Heckscher was spending a lot of time with teenagers in Rinkeby.)

My third thought was to go down a rabbit hole on the topic of Einar Heckscher himself, just because there’s actually information about him online. There’s a whole back catalogue of Swedish culture that I can’t ever hope to catch up with, and Heckscher is one of many, many items in there. I only learned about him, and by association the rest of his highly accomplished family, because I was curious about who translated this Elmore Leonard novel—judging by at least a couple Flashback posts,* though, I should have already been acquainted with Heckscher as a 70s prog rock figure from bands like Sogmusobil and Levande livet. A couple of interviews in Svenska Dagbladet and Socialpolitik got me up to speed, as did a couple of obituaries. Son Björn is hard to track down anywhere online, but his daughter at least followed in her father’s footsteps and translated? contributed to? a Swedish collection of Bukowski. Hard to say, since her father was also celebrated for his Swedish translations of Bukowski and that appears to be her only published work to date.

Incidentally, the Swedes on Flashback seem largely to share my drinking companion’s spitting rage at Heckscher’s translations, which can roughly be summed up as:

Han förvandlar allt till buskis och pilsnerfilm och förvränger allt han kommer över.

*Apologies for linking to The Bad Place, but as Flashback threads go it’s pretty innocuous.

Another point in favor for those left-field, organic and algorithm-free random book recommendations. Without the prompting and social context, would I have bothered to dip back into Elmore Leonard after a twenty years’ absence? Would I have gone down this weird little rabbit hole of Swedish prog rockers, politicians, and pundits? Absolutely not. But now I have, and so have you, and knowing is half the battle. G. I. Joe!

Outline

Sometimes I read English books in Swedish translation out of personal (and I guess professional) curiosity. Is the experience any different? Will I pick up some new vocabulary, learn how to express a particular English sentiment that I still struggle with?

Other times I’m desperate to find any copy of a particular book and only Swedish is available, at which point the exercise is more pragmatic and akin to mental ambidexterity. (See The Jakarta Method.) Such was the case with Rachel Cusk’s Outline, or Konturer in Swedish. This was a selection for the local book club; by the time this post goes up, we’ll have already met for dinner and discussion. I needed a copy by a particular deadline and the Swedish was what was immediately available, so that’s what I went with.

The whole book plays out over just a few days. The narrator is a writer, Faye, an Englishwoman teaching a creative writing workshop in Athens. Most of the book consists of the stories other people tell her, presented in reported speech from Faye’s first-person perspective.

I also might have lied a little bit when I said I only read the Swedish because of availability. That is true, but I was also relieved to find out that the Swedish was more readily available because nothing about this book sounded appealing and because a friend whose taste I trust implicitly hated it. Yes, yes, let’s not judge a book by a cover, either literally or metaphorically, but silly to pretend I’m not influenced by other people’s opinions. Hence I was hoping that reading the Swedish would bypass everything my friend found tedious about the book and let me enjoy it regardless.

James Lasdun notes in his review in the Guardian that

…in funnelling all the characters’ stories through Faye’s very refined sensibility (there’s little direct speech), Cusk gives them all a certain high-polished sameness, at least at the purely verbal level. I can’t say that bothered me, but no doubt it will keep some readers from responding to the book as enthusiastically as I did.

And that is exactly what happened. All of these people had backgrounds not particularly different from each other (disappointed middle-aged parents, often divorcés), meaning that Cusk’s “high-polished sameness” made for extremely monotonous reading.

Outline also requires a huge suspension of disbelief that I’m frankly not willing to give a book if I’m not having a great time. People tell their entire life stories to strangers in the most unlikely environments: during flights, writing workshops, over dinner. These accounts are always eloquently and coherently presented in language that sounds like no conversation I’ve ever actually had with another human. Much is often given in reported speech or summarized by Faye, and when direct speech appears it doesn’t sound all that different from Faye’s own voice. The latter is maybe a fault with me—I no doubt still lack some nuance and sophistication in my ear for Swedish, so I might have missed the elegance of Rebecca Alsberg‘s translation in places—but it doesn’t make the actual structure of the book any less repetitive.

The only mildly interesting moment in the book comes in the last chapter, and I’m not sure if Cusk actually intended this to be self-reflexive commentary on the rest of the book or if she was just taken with the idea without realizing how it applied to what she was writing. On her last day in Athens, Faye runs into her replacement (they are staying in the same apartment provided by the hosting school), who tells Faye that she’s had the worst time trying to write since she was mugged. Instead of being able to properly write or read a story, she can only fixate on a one-word summary that essentially drains the narrative of all life. Her once-beloved Beckett, for example, she can now only think of as “meaninglessness.” This summarization fixation has also bled beyond literature and into real life, where she’s now facing a crisis of sorts after she realizes that her entire existence could be summarized merely as “Anne’s life.”

That’s all Outline is: a bunch of lives, summarized in more or less the same voice, with nothing interesting arising out of their interaction or juxtaposition. The comparison that comes to mind is Ten Women from Marcela Serrano (English translation by Beth Fowler). Both are a fairly disjointed collection of life stories anchored in the one person all of these people have in common, but at least in Ten Women the characters are from all walks of life (from a TV celebrity to an elderly sales clerk to a young computer science student) and each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective and in a different character’s voice. Moreover, their presentation together as a collection gives rise to a more coherent organizing principle than anything in Outline: we can see at once the huge gulfs in experience for all of these women, as well as the struggles they share, and the book functions as a fairly straightforward feminist critique of socio-economic conditions in Chile.

If there is any kind of organizing principle in Outline, it’s a much more banal and self-indulgent one: Faye is sad about her divorce. And since the book gives me no real reason to care that Faye is sad about her divorce, or to understand why it’s such a spectacular tragedy in the world of divorces, everything else collapses into a bunch of tedium.