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Posts from the ‘Cahiers Series’ Category

Recently Read: Michelle Bailat-Jones & Olga Medvedkova

Unfurled Going Where

Michelle Bailat-Jones. Unfurled. NY: Ig Publishing, 2018.
Olga Medvedkova. Going Where. London: Sylph Editions, 2018. The Cahiers Series 33.

Neither of us realized we had been living in a borderland all that time, a place where rules are too often unspoken, never declared. We didn’t understand there were passports and checkpoints involved. And that not all three of us would make it through.

So begins Michelle Bailat-Jones’s second novel Unfurled, whose narrator Ella is about to have one very bad week. Ella is a veterinarian, highly sensitized to the health and needs of animals, but prone to ignoring those things that make her own well-being precarious. Almost simultaneously, Ella’s father is killed in an accident and she discovers she is pregnant. What Bailat-Jones does here is to flip the obvious scenario, which would be to close down Ella’s past and open up her future. Instead, the death of Ella’s father reveals that there were secrets he had hidden from her throughout most of her life. And bearing a child is not a future that she envisions for herself. She decides she will eventually terminate the pregnancy.

Ella’s mother, as we see in flashbacks, was mentally unstable and walked out of her marriage when Ella was ten, leaving Ella and her father to build a new family of two. Or so Ella thought. For years, she has walled off any memory or hint of emotion about her mother except anger and blame. But with her father’s death she learns that he seems to have secretly been in touch with her mother for years. And then she learns he owned a cabin, which is now Ella’s. Did her father have secret rendezvous there—perhaps with her mother? Ella’s instant and stubborn reactions to these two life-changing events also begins to threaten her marriage with Neil.

What I found fascinating about Unfurled was the way in which revelation and concealment act like two tectonic plates that are approaching each other and vying to dominate. As Ella hunkers down within her fear and mourning, she seems to notice every little thing within her frame of vision: “Neil’s hands on the steering wheel, my boots on the floor, my knees shaking, my hands fluttering around and over the pocket of my jacket with the torn photos.” Ella notices exactly how long certain actions take, how far she has to walk, but she won’t acknowledge (or share with the reader) the core mystery of her mother’s departure many years before. By the end of the book we have learned a bit more, but not everything is revealed.

Ella and her father, who had been a ferry boat captain, share a deep love for sailing, allowing Bailat-Jones to use the language of sailing as a metaphor for the way in which Ella navigates her life. She writes with such emotional intensity that reading Unfurled suddenly seemed like the most urgent thing I needed to do.


Every few months or so I look forward to the next number of  The Cahiers Series, which is co-published by the Center for Writers & Translators at The American University of Paris and Sylph Editions in London. Since 2008, there have been thirty-three publications in the series, each of which is a beautifully designed combination of writing and imagery. I’ve written about a number of previous issues, and the newest Cahier is equally terrific. Going Where is a series of five brief stories by Olga Medvedkova, a Russian writer and art historian who lives in France. Each of her stories is named after the city in which the narrative takes place: Palermo, Athens, Venice, Lisbon, Jerusalem.

There’s an aura of both strangeness and estrangement in each story. The act of traveling disorients her characters, forces them into unfamiliar encounters, and provokes rash decisions. Each story is the encapsulation of a persona on the verge of doing something out of character. Here is Malvina Süstirn, a young archaeologist visiting Athens and about to sleep with a man for the first time:

The separation of the human race into two sexes did not make much sense to her. She belonged to a university world made up not of men and women but of colleagues, all of a certain neuter gender . . . She noticed others forming or breaking up their couples the way one observes the life of ants or frogs; it did not concern her. And, suddenly, this young man with the princely name pleased her. He belonged to the opposite sex, of course, but as if accidentally. Just as she, superficially, resembled a girl.

If I am not mistaken, this is Medvedkova’s first appearance in English and I can’t wait to read more by her. Her stories are translated by Richard Pevear and are accompanied by photographs of small brass houses made by the Japanese artist Hana Sakuma.


Two Cahiers

Cahiers 23 and 24

I can’t seem to stop writing about the Cahier Series, published by Sylph Editions in collaboration with the Center for Writers & Translators at The American University of Paris. I have previously written about five earlier numbers in this series and now I’m blown away by the latest two, both written by eminent translators.

Erica Baum 1

Clarice: The Visitor (Cahiers Series 23) is a series of two poem sequences by Idra Novey, the translator of a number of Clarice Lispector’s novels.The poems are accompanied by photographs from two different series by Erica Baum, an artist who usually works with texts and physical books. In one  series, Baum folds book pages over into concrete poems. In the other series, Baum has photographed books opened up in such a way that partial illustrations from multiple pages appear along with the ends of the intervening pages, making the whole thing look like an image on a half-closed shower curtain.

What does the visitation of an author’s voice do to your relationship with your own mind – mind being the place where thoughts come and go but mind also being a verb, meaning ‘to be troubled by’ as well as ‘to obey’?…One way I have found to scurry around such questions is to draft a poem or two on the matter.

Erica Baum 2

Angry in Piraeus (Cahiers Series 24) is an essay by Maureen Freely, a novelist who has translated five books by Orhan Pamuk (including Snow). Freely writes about growing up in Turkey (her family moved there from Princetone when she was eight) and the challenges of translating from Turkish. She begins the process of translating by trying “to feel my way to the centre of the maze,” getting to the place where she is “translating from the heart, not from the head.”

If I can begin to translate from that place, I can, if I am lucky, begin to understand the point from which the author created something out of nothing. I can, if I am patient, become attuned to the cadences, not just of the words but of the narrative.

The illustrator chosen for Angry in Piraeus is Rie Iwatake, who created a lovely series of collages using found envelopes, stamps, old book illustrations, hand-written documents, and probably a few other elements.

Rie Iwatake


Cahier Series

The remarkable collaboration between the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions continues to put out thoughtful and beautifully-produced publications.  They have just released numbers 21 and 22 in their Cahiers Series, with texts by Anne Carson and Paul Griffiths.

In The Tilted Cup: Noh Stories (Cahier 22), Paul Griffiths translates eleven traditional Noh plays and turns them into eloquent, brief stories. In a brilliant bit of pairing, the stories alternate with color photographs by John L. Tran showing mostly empty shopping malls and other indoor public spaces. As the editors of the Cahiers Series put it, Tran’s photographs “explore the relation between theatricality and narrative, while offering hints of a very different vision of infinitude.”

Cahier 22

Anne Carson’s Nay Rather (Cahier 21) deals largely with the act of translation.  It opens with the essay “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” in which Carson discusses “where one language cannot be rendered into another,” moving through Homer, Joan of Arc, Friedrich Hölderlin, Paul Celan, and the painter Francis Bacon.

The essay is followed by seven translations of the same fragment by the 6th century BC poet Ibykos, which I found to be the highlight of this Cahier. Here is Carson:

What follows is an exercise, not exactly an exercise in translating, nor even an exercise in untranslating, more like a catastrophizing of translation. I shall take a small fragment of Greek lyric poetry and translate it over and over again using the wrong words. A sort of stammering.

What Carson does is to translate the fragment using different restricted vocabularies. In one example she uses only words found in Bertold Brecht’s FBI file, while in another she draws upon the names of stops and the words found on signs from the London Underground, while in a third she limits herself to the words found in the owner’s manual for her microwave oven. Purists may recoil at the very concept of translating with “the wrong words,” but I found the the results to be immensely intriguing.  Even though the fragments are strikingly different from one another (with the single exception of the line that reads “Nay rather,” which is found in every translation), each version uncannily manages to point back to the original, suggesting that a gifted poet/translator can create linguistic approximations of poems even with an extremely limiting vocabulary.

Finally, Cahier 21 includes a poem by Carson called “By Chance the Cycladic People” (one page of which is shown below) in which the lines have been shuffled by a random number generator. The poem is accompanied by a series of simple, elegant drawings and gouaches by Lanfranco Quadrio.

Cahier 21

Jelinek Plays with Walser

Cahiers 18 cover

Sylph Editions and The Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris continue their outstanding collaboration with their Cahiers Series 18, Her Not All Her: on/with Robert Walser, a play by Elfriede Jelinek. The only stage direction in the play is this: “A number of people to each other, all very friendly and well-behaved (perhaps lying in bathtubs, as was once the custom in mental hospitals),” which obviously provides wide latitude for producing the piece on the stage.

There are no characters or voices identified; instead, the play is written in paragraphs, just like a short story or essay. Without the clue provided by the stage direction, it would be eminently reasonable to read straight through Her Not All Her as if there was but a single voice that probably emanates from Walser. “Would you like to hear the novel of my life?”  But on closer inspection, it becomes less and less clear who might be speaking at times.  In some paragraphs the first-person narrator seems as if it could be no one but Walser. At other times it appears that someone else might be addressing Walser; or, it could well be that Walser is addressing himself in the third person – a not unreasonable possibility. But even when it seems like it might be Walser speaking, it isn’t always discernible which Walser is speaking – the young Walser-as-successful-writer or the elderly Walser who spent the final three decades of his life in a mental institution, where he wrote but meagerly.

Memory is a hardware store where writers try to help themselves to something for free until all of the suffering falls on their heads because they pulled the bottommost plank out of the pile first. So now I garb myself in delicate absentmindedness and no one can ask anything of me now, I’m dreaming, or temporarily dead at the moment.

“Who speaks?” asks Reto Sorg in an afterword to the play. “This question returns insistently in modernity… What Jelinek’s play highlights is that the act of literary confession, striving for self-determination, is always also an attempt to free oneself from just this obligation to have any identity at all.”

To be sure, an overriding attribute of this play is uncertainty. Her Not All Her forces the determined reader – and even more so, the stage director – to invent distinctions in and contexts for the text.  As Jelinek says in a statement about the play:

Robert Walser is one of those people who do not mean themselves when they say “I.” It is true he never stops saying “I”, but it’s not him.

The title Her Not All Her is an English adaptation of the German original (Er nicht als er), which itself is a wordplay built out of the German syllables of Walser’s name, as if Walser was himself was a literary construction. 

Cahiers 18 inside

This is the first time the play, which premiered in 1998, has appeared in English. The 40-page pamphlet also includes a brief statement by Jelinek, an essay on Jelinke and Walser by Reto Sorg, Director of the Robert Walser Centre, and reproductions of thickly impastoed paintings of faces by British artist Thomas Newbolt. The translations are by Damion Searls. 


…all preliminary conjectures about who I am will prove in retrospect futile…” (v)

If you want to know what language and literature permit us to do, read the fourteen short untitled, numbered pieces that comprise László Krasznahorkai’s Animalinside. The best of these pieces transcends any literalness or point of reference and simply speak to us in an oracular, disembodied voice that suggests the impossible, the unimaginable, the indescribable.

You can’t touch me. I have no eyes, no ears, no teeth, no tongue, no brain tissue, no hair, no lungs, no heart, no bowels, no cock, no voice, no smell; …useless for anyone to scream at me, I don’t understand, because I don’t hear anything, useless for anyone to strike at me, I don’t see, I am entirely blind, you don’t know what I’m like and what I am, because you can’t picture it, you can’t even conjure me up in your dreams, because I am absent from any picture that you have ever seen…  (ii)

It’s the voice of a vengeful god warning us of what true, unlimited power really is.

And I am strong.  Too strong.  So strong that I break a knife in two with my teeth, that I break a sword in two with my teeth, that I break a house in two, that I break one hundred houses in two, one after the other, that I break one thousand houses in two, that I break every building in every city in two, so strong am I that I smash in the middle every bridge on earth…and if I want to break the entire Earth in two, I grab it by one end and – whoop! it’s snapped in two already… (iii)

Animalinside, a forty-page chapbook, is number 14 in The Cahiers Series being issued jointly by Sylph Editions, New Directions, and the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris.  According to the Preface by Colm Tóibín, the work is a collaboration that began when Krasznahorkai wrote a piece based upon one of German artist Max Neumann‘s powerful, enigmatic images of two-legged dogs (they have no forelegs).  Neumann created more images in the series for which Krasznahorkai then wrote responding texts.  The chapbook is beautifully produced, especially Neumann’s images, which are stunningly printed and selectively varnished to achieve vivid blacks and real texture.

…because my coming is violent, just a few moments now, and I shall break out of you, and you will be that which I am, and that which I have always been.  (vii)

For an excellent introduction to Krasznahorkai’s work, try to find a way to read James Wood’s piece on the author in the July 4, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.