Friday, 29 May 2020

Rethinking Literary Categories

Sensing a "deep affinity" between stories by Chekhov and Dickens prompts Tim Park to wonder if there's another way we might classify novels, leading him to a category he dubs "The Belongers":
All Dickens’s stories, and all Chekhov’s, are about being in or out of groups. About belonging. The desire to belong. The fear of exclusion. The pleasure of inclusion. The fear of not being worthy of the group. The pleasure of being the most worthy. But also the fear of belonging to the wrong group, the wrong company. Or marrying the wrong person. Worst of all, of going to prison. The fear that others in the group are not worthy. Not as worthy as the character who directs our sympathy first thought, that is. They must be expelled. Or the protagonist must leave the group. David Copperfield is ashamed of his wife, Dora. He made a mistake to bring her into his family. “It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home,” says Pip in Great Expectations.
The new category looks to be quite capacious:
Were there other writers, I wondered, for whom this hierarchy of values held, novelists whose plots, one way or another, hinged around belonging and its attendant emotions, however differently they might come at it—just as Dickens and Chekhov come at it differently, and position themselves differently, though obviously obsessed by the same questions and construing life in the same way?

Over time, reading and rereading carefully, I found these authors who fit the description: Virginia Woolf, Natalia Ginzburg, Elsa Morante, George Eliot, Haruki Murakami, Graham Swift, François-René Chateaubriand. Many other lesser names, too, in genre fiction as well as literary. Many Italians, perhaps because I read a lot of Italian literature, or perhaps because the values of belonging are so powerful in Italian society. Dante, writing in exile, is obsessed with belonging; the deepest circle of hell is reserved for the treacherous, those who betrayed family and community.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Designing Réjean Ducharme’s Swallowed

One of Canada's top book designers, David Drummond has been helping our poetry and fiction stand out for two decades. We asked him to walk us through his process in designing the cover for Swallowed, a new translation of Réjean Ducharme’s L’avalée des avalés, due out in the Fall.

"I knew from an early point in the design process that I wanted to show the main character in this novel, Berenice, being trapped or consumed by her life. These are the first two approaches I came up with, which I never showed because they weren’t quite on the mark."

"Graphically, I found this next treatment more interesting. The response from the press was that it was a fine cover, but too elegant and restrained. They wanted to convey a bit more of the madness of the girl through bright colours—vividness and extremity."

"This is the cover that was put in the catalogue because the deadline was looming. The press liked aspects of it—'how the eye appears swallowed by the yellow, to indicate the creeping madness of the young girl.' They still had some reservations about it, and wanted to revisit it in the future to see if their concerns could be addressed."

"Sure enough, the time came when they asked if I could take another crack at it. Sometimes it helps to revisit a cover design with fresh eyes. I tried to synthesize what was missing from the previous sketches and I decided to capture this notion of being swallowed. I printed out a repeating pattern of a face of a young woman with the title underneath it and made it into a cone shape. I didn’t want to distort the image in photoshop, but wanted to create an analog solution by photographing it."

"I liked the slight roughness in the image quality. You can see lines from the laserwriter printout and decided to leave them in without much retouching. The press loved the result, and felt it was the right cover for this book. They wanted to see a colour exercise before deciding on the final background colour."

How To Write A Blurb

Blurbs, argues Jason Guriel, are "a species of micro-criticism worthy of our scrutiny." One indicator of their quality, he says, is proportion:
It’s not promising when a book’s first few pages are nothing but blurbs—pull-quotes from an endless roll call of major newspapers and magazines, each one ecstatic. (See, for example, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in paperback.) Few books deserve that much praise (few books deserve praise, period) and it’s a minority of critics who can identify them anyway. The avalanche of good press is often triggered by groupthink: the unconscious, uncoordinated conspiracy that develops when the editors who assign reviews have bought into some book’s advance marketing or are responding to the pressures of the Zeitgeist.

One or two decisive blurbs is a much better look. You can trust the book that carefully curates its praise. My copy of Lolita features a single statement from Vanity Fair: “The only convincing love story of our century.” Blurbs should drop the mic.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

My Summer with Alice Munro

An extended period immersed in Alice Munro's stories transformed Montreal writer Kasia van Schaik:
One summer, while visiting my hometown, a small mountain-locked settlement in Western Canada, I read an Alice Munro story every day for a month straight. After days spent serving customers and wiping down counters in a local cafe, it felt like a necessity; the only assemblance of an intellectual routine. I read her stories by the lake, on the margin of sand between the shoreline and the industrial train track; I read them on my back, legs crossed, book blocking out the sun like a small square flag. Sometimes a train would rumble past and alert me to my environment, which seemed less real than Munro’s black spruce or her fast-flowing, dark and narrow streams, which coursed through many of her stories, linking them the way rivers connect distant parts of the continent.

It was a lonely summer, my summer with Alice Munro. I was frustrated by the fact that my old friends now had boyfriends and permanent jobs and no longer made time for me, a precocious humanities student back from her studies out east, eager to show off the new words she’d learned. No one cared. I was—and the irony was not lost on me—essentially, an Alice Munro character. Juliet visiting her parents in Runaway—subtly punished for her “odd” life choices. (“Odd choices were simply easier for men,” remarks Juliet, “most of whom would find women glad to marry them.”) Or Del in the Lives of Girls and Women, whose restless ambition, but simultaneous desire for conventionality, disturbs the social equilibrium of her rural community. I read Munro’s stories to find myself in them but also to distance myself from the unhappy women I encountered in them. I would do better. (Secretly, I knew I would not.)

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

A Primal Hunger

Olivia Gatwood explains her abiding fascination for a poet she describes as "a woman willing to laugh at those who sought to tame her, as much as she was willing to scream."
Edna St. Vincent Millay took an interest in poetry early in life, publishing her first poem at age fourteen in St. Nicholas Magazine, a publication for young people. She was encouraged by her mother to pursue the craft, eventually publishing several more poems toward the end of her teenage years. “Renascence” (1912), the title poem in her breakout collection, brought Millay her first acclaim as a writer. The poem is significantly less carnal than her later work but preludes the feeling that Millay would become famous for articulating—an urgent need to lessen the space between the individual body and everything around it, a primal hunger to grasp it all at once.

Friday, 15 May 2020

But Was The Book Any Good?

Alexander Larman asks why it's such a struggle for reviewers to say what they think about a book. It doesn't help, he says, that editors basically have two choices when it comes to handing out assignments.
The first is to allow a significant literary figure to write a lengthy piece displaying their erudition, and which permits sub-editors to come up with a headline along the lines of ‘Julian Barnes on Jean-Paul Sartre’ or similar. The book itself is secondary, its coverage almost an irritation. And the other is nuts-and-bolts criticism, an engagement with an author’s intentions and aims where the fascinations of the subject are secondary to whether the writer has managed to make them accessible to a general audience. This may be less lofty, but is undeniably of more use to the profession, and probably to the potential purchaser, too.
The problem is that the "nuts-and-bolts" approach keeps losing out:
There is certainly a time and place for long thinkpieces about authors and subjects, but one also hopes that a brave editor will have the courage to say to the fellow of the Royal Society of Literature who has filed their piece, ‘Sir David, this was marvellous, but could you please let us know whether you thought the book was any good?’ There may be a moment of wounded pride, but the extra paragraph of pure criticism appended to the review could make all the difference for the practice’s survival in its current form. And, on behalf of writers and reviewers alike, I can only hope that such a survival takes place, to give us all something good to read.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Réjean Ducharme’s Masterpiece—Now In English

On September 2020, Véhicule Press will be publishing Swallowed, a new authoritative translation of L’avalée des avalés, the late Réjean Ducharme’s 20th century masterpiece. Originally released in France in 1966 by Gallimard, after being rejected by every publishing house in his native Québec, Ducharme’s debut has been unavailable to English readers since 1968. The story of Véhicule Press acquiring the translation rights to Swallowed is a fascinating tale in itself—one that is part ambition, part luck and part fate. You can read Esplanade editor Dimitri Nasrallah’s vivid account of attaining those rights below. (When you're done, you can pre-order the book here.)
I first discovered that L’avalée des avalés had been out-of-print in English since 1968 when The Walrus magazine asked me to write an appraisal in the weeks following Réjean Ducharme’s death. The novel’s absence struck me as a significant cultural omission. An important part of Québec’s literary foundation was missing from Canadian letters. As an editor, I immediately sensed an opportunity, though I wasn’t sure how realistic a pursuit it was.

On the one hand, times had changed since Barbara Bray’s translation of the novel had first appeared in 1968. Canada now had a publishing industry that was now half a century strong. The oft-tumultuous relationship between English and French Canada had calmed and matured over the past two decades. Generations of legislation in Québec pertaining to the French-language had also groomed a wealth of homegrown translators who were better equipped to tackle Ducharme’s slippery prose, complex wordplay. and multi-layered allusions. But there were other obstacles. Gallimard is half a world away and used to selling English-language rights on a global scale, while Véhicule Press is a boutique independent in a country that is itself a subset of Gallimard's North American territory. Surely a half-century-old book from their back catalogue was a low priority for an organization preoccupied with international book fairs and a raft of contemporary titles to sell. They could consider our market too small for them. Would we approach the venerable institution responsible for publishing many of the twentieth century’s great authors?

An exchange began with their rights department. They were initially receptive to the idea, but had little background on the linguistic particulars of our region and no prior knowledge of our publishing house. Would we not want to publish the existing 1968 translation by British academic Barbara Bray, they asked. Our ambition was to have the novel re-translated by someone who had a natural understanding of Québécois idiom, and who could communicate the particularities of the original French in a way they had never before been served. Without a track record in international publication deals to bolster our cause, we were concerned our publishing circles were too far apart; Gallimard probably had more pressing activities underway.

As luck would have it, in March 2018 I was invited to attend the Paris Book Fair to promote my novel Niko, which had just been published in France. With a trans-Atlantic visit in hand, we restarted the conversation with Gallimard, to see if I could meet with their rights director in person and articulate the unique case for bringing Ducharme back to Canada. I am grateful to Camille Cloarec, at the time the Book and Debates Officer at the Consulate General of France in Toronto, for taking up our cause and communicating our desires to Gallimard from a much more reputed vantage point than our own. A few days later, I found myself in Paris, standing outside the unassuming door of the legendary publishing house, with less than two hours’ sleep after an overnight flight.

Once we were able to sit down in the same room, we were fortunate enough to hit it off and an agreement emerged quickly. It turned out that Anne-Solange Noble, the head of English rights at Gallimard, was born and raised in Montreal. She understood the underlying cultural value of what we were proposing, and saw it as part of the ongoing unique relationship between the French and English languages in Canada. We rhapsodized about the city, its street life, as well as people she remembered from Montreal’s Anglo literary community of the seventies. A new English translation, she agreed, could be useful to Gallimard in brokering rights requests in other markets.

Two years have passed since that fortuitous meeting. In that time, translator Madeleine Stratford has produced this new translation of L’avalée des avalés. Swallowed differs from Barbara Bray’s The Swallower Swallowed not only in its translator’s proximity to the regional roots of the original French, but also in its rendering to a looser and more figurative, more acrobatic English. Stratford’s translation of Ducharme is, to my ear, playful and lyrical and utterly timeless.

After more than half a century of languishing out of print, the book that transformed Québécois culture during the Quiet Revolution is finally available for Canadian readers to discover.