The Foreign Service
On the predictable American response to translated literature.
It is impossible to write about such a book as Best European Fiction 2010 without also writing about America's disinterest in such a book. Neither Zadie Smith nor Aleksandar Hemon could do it — and they're the author of the introduction and the editor of the anthology. It's a well worn angle by now: the fact that only three percent of literature published in the U.S. is work of translation, the fact that most of that work is being published by small independent presses and university presses. How else to explain how this anthology came to being in Champaign, Illinois from a small press named Dalkey Archive, its very name being an obscure Irish literature reference. Rather than from, say, Harcourt Houghton Mifflin, which produces almost identical anthologies of every other subject in the world: travel writing, sports writing, short stories, essays, whatever the hell that McSweeneys one is. Nonrequired Reading? Comic books, sure, they're all over that. But literature written in another language? God. We're not running a charity here.
- Best European Fiction 2010 edited by Aleksandar Hemon. 448 pages. Dalkey Archive Press. $15.95.
We should also probably talk about the Nobel. It's our annual dose of international literature, the one time of year there's a rush on a writer from Romania or France or Hungary. Ever since the head of the Nobel literature committee, Horace Engdahl, said that American culture is too "insular," Americans have had issues with the Nobel. Who am I kidding — we have had issues way before then. Mr. Nobel made a true statement, but not a profound one. It presupposes that other cultures are not insular. Are the Nigerians really that interested in the literature coming out of Denmark? The Latvians in Filipino poetry? No. Each culture is primarily interested in its own subject, plus whatever is coming out of America. With that arithmetic, we are even with everyone else. We just don't have a market larger than our own to aspire to. We'll occasionally look to Britain, mostly as something to simultaneously aspire to and rebel against, sort of like our father — but for the most part, we honestly believe we are making the great contributions to culture.
Before the announcement of every Nobel Prize, some guy on some blog will make a statement identical to the one I read this year: "Until Philip Roth wins that prize, it’s a sham." You would think Philip Roth is this obscure genius, his mastery of the written word unheralded. Man, do people ever want Philip Roth to win the Nobel. (John Updike's death put a sudden end to similar whining on his behalf.) Does Roth speak across all cultures, get at the heart of what it is to be human, and not just white, upper-middle-class, East Coast, Jewish, and male? Either the Nobel Committee has already decided no, or they think he does and they just enjoy watching Americans jump up and down every year. There are probably literary blogs in Bulgaria, grumbling every year, "Until XXX wins that prize, it's a sham." I am not even going to pretend to know a Bulgarian writer to put in that blank spot, although maybe it's Georgi Gospodinov, whose entry in Best European Fiction, "And All Turned Moon," was a damn fine story.
Reading Best European Fiction, I began to wonder if when people think about European literature and decide they probably wouldn't be interested in it, they're thinking of something like Jean-Philippe Toussaint's short story "Zidane's Melancholy." It reads like a stereotype. Toussaint, a Belgian writer, uses Zidane's headbutting of an Italian player in the 2006 World Cup game as the basis for a philosophical discourse on immigration, existentialist grief, and the decline of one's powers. There are multiple references to other famous moments in other famous matches. So, basically, soccer + French language + Sartre = the American not knowing what the fuck to do with the story.
Except for me. I got the story. I understood Zidane's position on the French football team because I watched that game as it was being played and recognized the references. Never mind the fact that that particular match was the only soccer game I have ever watched from start to finish, or that I was watching it with a person obsessed with Zidane and he explained everything to me, and that never again have I ever given a shit about soccer. Despite all of that, there was a satisfaction, a smugness, to reading the story. Yay me, I am smart and cultured. I could be European. Had I been at a public reading of the story, I would have been in danger of turning into that asshole who nods and hmms loudly to alert those around him: "Attention everyone! I get the author's obscure reference to Ovid's Tristia and I understand what makes it both funny and profound. Please find me either impressive or sexy."
In a recent interview about Jane Austen, Fran Lebowitz said that great art is "not a mirror, it's a door." Mediocre art is a mirror, and either you get it or you don't, either you relate to it or you don't. Jean-Philippe Toussaint? His story is a mirror for a small segment of Europeans and Americans who are obsessed with the World Cup. And, embarrassingly, me. But your own country's mediocre, mirror-like writing is going to hold more appeal than, say, France's. (The Greats, the doors, the Tolstoys and Kafkas and Flauberts don't even enter the conversation of translated literature.) The signs are the same, you know how to decode the jokes and the metaphors, and you probably don't have to Google Image Search plant names to picture the scene in your head. Of course, it's not just your own country that can provide the mirror, if that's what you want. France's entry in the book — Christine Montalbetti's "Hotel Komaba Eminence (with Haruki Murakami)" — is a little too self-conscious, a little too interested in the nuances of its own reflection. But those obsessed with Murakami's writing might be on familiar territory with Montalbetti.
One should be able to just enjoy the stories of Best European Fiction 2010 without taking any of this into consideration, but the way it's set up — its foreignness and the uniqueness — prevent that. But if one wanted to remove, say, Iceland's Steinar Bragi's "The Sky Over Thingvellir" from its place in this book and publish it in a place where it can stand on its own, you could. The story of a couple's conversation, one in love and the other trying to figure out how to break things off, would survive nicely. It's funny and touching and true without actually being factual. As in, no one has ever had this conversation. No one has ever had the presence of mind to defend the philosophical viewpoint that they have built their lives around but is making you repulsive to the other person in quite this way:
Cliches — both yours and the ones even the guys like you find trite: guys who actually enjoy sitting around and spouting off about this shit — don't change anything. People need to understand that. If the possibilities really were endless, we wouldn't all sit around feeling impotent all the time — people could change, learn to cope with their problems, go to a monastery, do asanas, reflect on life, whatever. I know for a fact that we can't do a thing to reality — all we can hope to do is carve out a small plot of land for ourselves in the formless, gigantic universe around us, pretend that we deserve it, and call it truth or knowledge or good or a 'real experience.' That's obvious! But at least I see things as existing within some kind of framework, while you just want to blow everything apart, as usual — you just go on making everything meaningless over and over again, and that's all you'll do as long as you live.
Conflicting worldviews really do break couples up, just maybe not in this specific way. Bragi, however, found a fresh way of conveying that. There are other marvels, too. And there are stories that will make you wonder what the hell is going on in that country, that this is the "best" it could find.
Horace Engdahl was at least right with one thing: The word "insular" should be taken as an insult. None of the images it conjures up — hermetically sealed jars, a hall of mirrors, sterility and inbreeding — could be mistaken for a compliment. Without the insertion of foreign DNA, evolution is not possible. That's true with life, and that's true with art. American literature could probably use some new genes to mingle with our Philip Roths and Updikes, Hemingways and Fitzgeralds. There are other traditions, ways of being, landscapes that might suit you better than those with which you have been provided, and how will you know that unless you go wandering? • 20 January 2010
Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Berlin, but spent many years in Chicago.