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The Watchlist: January 2018

By M. Bartley Seigel


Every month, from his home on the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, emeritus Words Without Borders reviews editor M. Bartley Seigel reaches out into the big wide world of books to share a handful of recently released or forthcoming titles in translation that he’s especially excited about, books he hopes you’ll agree are worth all of our good attentions:
 

From Penguin Random House, The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, translated from the French by Sam Taylor | fiction | 240 pages | ISBN 9780143132172 | US$16.00

Says the publisher: “When Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, decides to return to work after having children, she and her husband look for the perfect nanny for their two young children. They never dreamed they would find Louise: a quiet, polite, devoted woman who sings to the children, cleans the family’s chic apartment in Paris’s upscale tenth arrondissement, stays late without complaint, and hosts enviable kiddie parties. But as the couple and the nanny become more dependent on one another, jealousy, resentment, and suspicions mount, shattering the idyllic tableau. Building tension with every page, The Perfect Nanny is a compulsive, riveting, bravely observed exploration of power, class, race, domesticity, and motherhood—and the American debut of an immensely talented writer.”

Says NPR’s Weekend Edition: “One of the most important books of the year.”

Says me: “If you’re reading a book in translation this month, this is likely to be it, touted, as it is, as one of the it books of the moment, despite its being a work of translation and its being utterly outside the realm of experience of virtually every citizen on the planet. It is a good book, objectively, across various criteria for what makes a book good, and it hardly needs my paltry boost, and you should read it on its own merits, but with this caveat. Here is yet another book written from privilege, about privilege, with nary an interesting thing to say about its state of grace except that rich people have problems, too, and that money can’t save us from our petty jealousies. I liked the book, fine, but I’m imagining Slimani lunching with Donna Tartt, discussing with zero self-reflexivity the relationship between mothers and nannies, and I’m just already asleep.”

***

From Black Cat / Grove Atlantic, Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon | fiction | 224 pages | ISBN 9780802127501 | US$16.00 

Says the publisher: “Winner of the Icelandic Literary Prize, Hotel Silence is a delightful and heartwarming new novel from Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, a writer who ‘upends expectations’ (New York Times). Told with grace, insight, and humor, this is the story of one man’s surprising mid-life adventure of self-discovery that leads him to find a new reason for being. Jónas Ebeneser is a handy DIY kind of man with a compulsion to fix things, but he can’t seem to fix his own life. On the cusp of turning fifty, divorced, adrift, he’s recently discovered he is not the biological father of his daughter, Gudrun Waterlily, and he has sunk into an existential crisis, losing all will to live. As he visits his senile mother in a nursing home, he secretly muses on how, when, and where to put himself out of his misery. To prevent his only daughter from discovering his body, Jónas decides it’s best to die abroad. Armed with little more than his toolbox and a change of clothes, he flies to an unnamed country where the fumes of war still hover in the air. He books a room at the sparsely occupied Hotel Silence, in a small town riddled with landmines and the aftershocks of violence, and there he comes to understand the depths of other people’s scars while beginning to see his wounds in a new light. A celebration of life’s infinite possibilities, of transformations and second chances, Hotel Silence is a rousing story of a man, a community, and a path toward regeneration from the depths of despair.”

Says Library Journal: “Witty, soulful, lighthearted, and tender . . . charming and immersive.” 

Says me: “In the hands of a lesser writer, the story could maybe still pull off the quirk, but probably not the charm nor the impact of Hotel Silence. By turns funny and really quite sad, Ólafsdóttir pulls off a redemption narrative without ever succumbing to the maudlin, which always seems a true feat in our era of cheap parlor sentimentality. I’m giving this one all the thumbs up.”

***

From Dalkey Archive, American Journal by Christine Montalbetti, translated from the French by Jane Kuntz | fiction | 152 pages | ISBN 9781628972535 | US$16.00

Says the publisher: “Beginning as a road novel reuniting Donovan and Tom Lee, old friends from their college days, Christine Montalbetti’s novel quickly becomes a playfully unpredictable exploration of American culture. Reflecting on college football, small-town gossip, and the automobile, among other American institutions, the dreamlike quality of Montalbetti’s narration creates fresh, often very funny new vantages on aspects of American life usually too familiar to be noticed.”

Says World Literature Today: “Montalbetti encourages us to think about storytelling and its uses, and more particularly about the set of attitudes, norms, and expectations that we assemble when we sit down to read a novel.”

Says me: “So, ‘encourages us to think about storytelling and its uses, and more particularly about the set of attitudes, norms, and expectations that we assemble when we sit down to read a novel’ sounds like an excuse to step firmly away from the speaker at the cocktail party. I teach literature. Really, don’t talk like this to people in public, to anyone, ever. What was cool about this book for me was that in the shitshow United States of today, Montalbetti showed me my country through different eyes. Formally, sure, it’s interesting, and good on you, Montalbetti and Kuntz, for giving us such a nice little slice of art. But for me, the book stole the show as desperately needed palate cleanser, washing a little of the terrible taste of the last year out of my mouth, and for that I’m grateful.”

***

From Archipelago, Love by Hanne Ørstavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken | fiction | 180 pages | ISBN 9780914671947 | US$17.00

Says the publisher:Love is the story of a single mother, Vibeke, and her son Jon, who have just moved to a remote small town in the north of Norway. It’s the day before Jon’s birthday, but with concerns of her own, Vibeke has forgotten this. With a man on her mind, she ventures to the local library while Jon goes out to sell lottery tickets for his sports club. From here on we follow the two individuals on their separate journeys through a cold winter’s night, their experiences nevertheless linked in seamless narrative. The reader is privy to each character’s intimate thoughts as suspense builds and tragedy looms.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “[A] haunting masterpiece . . . The deceptively simple novel is slow-burning, placing each character into situations associated with horror—entering an unfamiliar house, accepting a ride from a stranger—and the result is a magnificent tale.”

Says me: “What was so striking to me about this slim novel was how quiet and circumspect it was given the emotional gut punch it delivered. ‘Deceptive’ is right, sneaky even, and at the risk of falling into the trap of stereotyping Norwegian lit, the power of quietly mushrooming foreboding is strong with Ørstavik. As I happen to be flying over the dark and snowy north of Norway as I write this, looking out my window at the icy fjords below, I feel the creep, even at 35,000 feet.”

***

From Dalkey Archive, Anatomy. Monotony. by Edy Poppy, translated from the Norwegian by May-Brit Akerholt | fiction | 216 pages | ISBN 9781628972290 | US$16.00

Says the publisher: “What is fidelity? In Anatomy. Monotony., Edy Poppy examines this question with an intimacy and ruthlessness worthy of Marguerite Duras. Vår, a young woman from a small Norwegian town, and Lou, a Frenchman from Nîmes, maintain an open marriage. But their polyamorous experiment is freighted with jealousies. Their life in London is broken into by one fascinating stranger after another, until eventually they decide to move away, back to Vår’s rural hometown—a decision that will change the nature of their relationship forever. Anatomy. Monotony. is a novel about sex, love, and the creation of literature in no uncertain terms.”

Says Elle: “Edy Poppy is a courageous writer, who dares to transgress the limits most of us set for ourselves. But she does it so playfully and with such elegance that the reader can’t resist coming along to explore forbidden realms.”

Says me: “Hold on, Elle, I’m with you most of the way, but let’s temper the titillation here. ‘Exploring forbidden realms,’ sure thing, but Poppy gives us something much more in the still-burgeoning trade of isn’t nonmonogamy scrumptiously naughty narratives we’ve been bombarded with this last decade: that nonmonogamy, like all other forms of human coupling, is a hot, steaming mess, as much or more so than its being hot and/or steamy. Beautifully rendered and complex, Anatomy. Monotony. throws its characters and us where we belong, not in front of, but behind the facade of fantasy, and into the sticky reality of lives more normatively complicated than we may care to admit.”

 

This is M. Bartley Siegel’s final “Watchlist” for Words Without Borders. We’ve enjoyed his hot takes on upcoming titles. But fear not, dear reader, this column isn’t going anywhere: we’re happy to announce that Tobias Carroll will be joining us as our lookout for new work in translation.


Published Feb 5, 2018   Copyright 2018 M. Bartley Seigel

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