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No Nightmares in English: New European Fiction

By David Varno

On what now feels like a long-lost spring afternoon, in these chilly weeks following the PEN World Voices festival, Aleksandar Hemon and Colum McCann speculated on the value of the genre tag "European Fiction" for both American and European markets.  Hemon, who edits the Best European Fiction series, suggested that the large crowd assembed at Bleeker Street's shadowy Le Poisson Rouge on a lovely Saturday was evidence that this was a conversation worth having.  The series' inaugural edition is selling well not only in the United States but in Europe.  The sales figure of 10,000, “good for any book,” as Hemon noted, might not rival Steig Laarson or Roberto Bolaño, but it’s certainly strong for a literary anthology. 

The anthology signals a hunger for new voices in America as well as for exchange within Europe itself, and it puts the business of three percent into a new light: translations may account for only a faction of American publishers’ output, and some European countries publish a majority of translations, but what this boils down to is a majority of work on both sides of the Atlantic that has originated in English.  American literary culture, as McCann pointed out, is good at absorbing writers from abroad.  There is a tradition with writers such as Nabokov who come here and write in English while maintaining their identity.  And writers such as Joyce have shown how the English language can be a tool for violence and taken it for themselves. But English shouldn’t replace one’s own language, McCann continued; co-opting English doesn’t make up for a lack of translation.

There is an element of nationalism going on with the Best European Fiction anthology.  Partial funding for the project has come from nations represented by the writers included.  But Hemon made clear that the series has been conceived in the spirit of exchange. “What writers only read in one’s own language?” he asked us.  English translations allow writers to continue working in their own languages, and for readers both here and abroad to participate in the exchange.  It’s not a perfect system, but it certainly seems like a better plan than letting the market force everyone to write in English.  Jean-Philippe Toussaint, one of the three readers who were brought out for the second hour, stressed that language is more important than nationality, and responded to Danish writer Naja Marie Aidt’s confession that she dreams in English by saying that he is afraid to have nightmares in English.   As Hemon noted in a reference to Brodsky’s response to Frost: “poetry is found in translation.”  Foreign literature, as McCann said, gives readers the ability to travel, that translation is a project of empathy and readers are given special privilege.

The PEN website features video of the complete presentation, including readings from Toussaint, Aidt, and Valter Hugo Mãethe, the highlight being Toussaint’s discussion of “Zidane's Melancholy,” a remarkable blend of fiction and reportage on the French football player’s fateful World Cup head butt.  Toussaint discussed the story in more detail later that day, on a panel moderated by WWB editorial director Susan Harris titled "The Essay."  A Flaubertian overture, in which Zidane sees the sky over the stadium like that of a Flemish painting, gives way to straight-forward play by play. Toussaint achieved this juxtaposition because he was actually in the stands to report on it, but he didn't see or even know about Zidane's sudden act of violence until after the game, and so he was forced to imagine it. This is where ficiton moves beyond the essay, even if it retains the form; fiction recreates what happens off-screen.

Published May 14, 2010   Copyright 2010 David Varno

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