Lit Seen: Joshua Ferris at Housing Works, n+1, Bolaño's Hit Translator
National Book Award nominee Joshua Ferris didn't win the prize last year—he played runner-up Richard Yates to Denis Johnson's Walker Percy. But the 2007 nomination did earn the California resident a New York encore lap. Hence a brief stint in town last week, hosting everything from this year's NBA after-party to Housing Works's Fall Book & Gin Mingle.
"I'm more of a beer guy, so the gin is lost on me," said Ferris, late in the evening at the November 18 bookstore benefit. "But it's very good gin, from what I hear. I know a few people who have partaken, and who seem to be enjoying themselves inordinately."
Like Yates, it was Ferris's first book—Then We Came to the End, a first-person-plural, now uncomfortably prescient satire about a series of layoffs at a Chicago ad agency—that netted him the award nomination. His new project? "I'm working on a book called The Unnamed. It's about a guy with a mysterious affliction."
Ferris—who hosted alongside unlikely literary candidates Moby (who blogs, I guess?) and Fab 5 Freddy, as well as Get Your War On cartoonist David Rees and Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet—gave the evening's one permitted speech. His brief toast featured cameos from his father and brother, temporarily living together after a divorce and failed marijuana-sales gambit. "They couldn't make their rent," Ferris said, "because I think my brother was smoking more than he was selling."
The assembled literary guests were all too ready, in exchange for donating $10 and a book or two to Housing Works (and, by extension, to the organization's twin causes of homelessness and AIDS), to hold up their end of the charitable exercise. It foggily occurred: Why gin? "It sounds better than the Campari Mingle," explained board member and New York Times critic Dwight Garner. "And the White Russian Mingle doesn't sound so good," either. "Anyway," said Garner, getting into the spirit of the evening and, incidentally, pointing out the one inhibiting factor left in the room, "I've had too many beers to stand around a tape recorder."
A few days later, far from the cozy Manhattan confines of the week's earlier soirée, n+1 celebrated the release of its seventh issue in a drafty, unheated Brooklyn Lyceum: jackets, scarves, isolated pockets of dancing. Founding editor Keith Gessen, though, had already jetted off to even colder climes: "My final act before going to Moscow," he wrote, before heading to Russia, where he's presently watching over his grandmother and writing dispatches for the LRB, "will be to buy 10 cases of wine and order 60 cases of beer for delivery on Friday." There was, regardless, an issue to celebrate: A.S. Hamrah on Iraq War cinema; Mark Greif on food; Wesley Yang on pickup artists.
Hamrah showed up early, looking dapper and, above all—after a summer spent watching nothing but war-on-terror-related films—relieved. "I am done," he said, laughing. He'd been recovering via Samuel Fuller. "Everybody," said Hamrah, quoting Pickup on South Street, "likes everybody when they're kissing." Given the layers everyone was wearing, this seemed an unlikely outcome. Yang drifted by. "All of us who have tried and failed to break through to the opposite sex think about what works and what doesn't," he'd written, "when it comes to the entirely unnatural sociability one must learn to master in a city full of strangers." Had he done any field research, so to speak, for the piece? No, he indicated, backing away into a cloud of defrosting partygoers and cigarette smoke: "Pure theory." Hours went by, and the DJs changed over. On the dance floor, Yang could be spotted: Practice at last.
With the astonishing rise of novelist Roberto Bolaño, Natasha Wimmer finds herself the translator of the moment, having rendered both The Savage Detectives (2007) and all 898 pages of Bolaño's newly published, careening masterwork, 2666, into English. We e-mailed Wimmer about her prominent new literary role and—what else when it comes to Roberto Bolaño?—critics.
As a translator, you're in the somewhat unenviable position of being reviewed along with the author you're translating, often by critics who've never seen the work in its original language. Can you tell who's faking it? I must admit that I'm usually glad to get any positive mention, justified or unjustified—but I do know what you mean. There are certain all-purpose adjectives [used to describe the translation] that can seem a little rote. . . . I understand why critiques tend to be vague. It's not just that reviewers can't read the book in the original. Translation is all about imperfectly achieved goals, and if reviewers were being honest, they would probably base their judgments on the degree to which they were able to appreciate a novel despite the translation.
Do you think there's a critic who has really nailed 2666 thus far? I was particularly struck by Adam Kirsch's Slate piece, in which he quotes Proust, saying that "one proof that we are reading a major new writer is that his writing immediately strikes us as ugly." I think that's exactly right. Bolaño is allergic to easy eloquence; he is a lyrical writer, but his brand of lyricism takes some getting used to.
Bolaño's writing is often ugly. Was it a challenge to re-create some of the more tangled, self-consciously wooden passages? Yes, very much so. The translator's inclination is to smooth things over and make passages read seamlessly, so it's a counterintuitive process. After translating certain lines, I had to actively restrain myself from prettying them up.
Exhausted 2666 readers like myself might hope you're presently on a well-deserved vacation. I'm not working on a book-length project, but I'm not exactly on vacation. I had planned to take some time off, but little projects keep cropping up, and I have an 11-month-old daughter, which is consuming in itself. Meanwhile, though, I'm realizing now how much I learned from translating The Savage Detectives and 2666, and I'm eager to test myself on the next book, whatever it is.
More with Natasha Wimmer here.
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