Last week, Ben Roth published an essay on The Millions entitled “Against Readability,” which was provocative in a fairly predictable way. But as he drew lines between the praiseworthy (e.g. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder) and the forgettable (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch), it pushed a button that prompted a version of this kneejerk comment:
As someone who has spent nearly 20 years recommending the work of Evan Dara to receptive readers–brimming with the conviction that The Lost Scrapbook is the best novel of the past 25 years–I, too, am not thrilled with the use of a readability quotient as a critical criterion in an age of bingeing. These days, talented writers and cagey editors are more attuned to the idea of flow, sculpting prose that provides a flattering level of challenge to their readers while reducing friction wherever possible, in an effort to keep the pages turning. This diagram lays out a version of the theory of flow, with the reader’s skill level sitting on the X axis and the challenge level of the book sprouting from the Y.
But, as I thought about this further, I realized that the works which Roth rips aren’t actually optimized for flow state, but sit within the control and/or relaxation quadrants, providing optimized consumption experiences, like watching Stranger Things or listening to Serial. The downside is that this kind of pleasurable immersion can slash the time a reader needs to pause and reflect. As Roth himself reports, he barreled through The Goldfinch and Jonathan Franzen’s most recent offerings in about two days, on average. When dealing with 500-page novels, this kind of breakneck pace forces the brain to purge much more than it can thoughtfully digest. But does the blame for this rest squarely on the shoulders of the author? Moreover, does hypnotic, mellifluous prose prevent a good book from entering the pantheon?
In “Mr. Difficult,” Franzen takes William Gaddis to task for making things too hard in JR, for asking too much from the reader, no matter how active or intelligent they are. Looking at the diagram again, I wonder if his/our skill level is equal to the task, or if he’s exhibiting the kind of anxiety that many of us faced when climbing its craggy conversational cliffs. Admitting failure, he goes on to derisively question the novel’s defenders for focusing on what he sees as its explicit flaws and turning this demanding lemon into elitist lemonade. Franzen brazenly legsweeps William Gass by taking one of his lines–“If the author works at his work, the reader may also have to, whereas when a writer whiles away both time and words, the reader may relax and gently peruse”–and concluding that with friends like these, who needs readers?
Franzen doesn’t make a very persuasive case, but it’s not entirely invalid either. I also agree with Roth’s original thesis, but I question his somewhat arbitrary placement of the border between the great and the mediocre. From my perspective, readers need to remain vigilant, and stay alert even as the writer seduces them to put down their pencil and post-it notes. Great books are neither defined by their readability nor their inherent difficulty. But they should ask you to put them down from time to time and entice you to take a long walk and think. Readers have a central responsibility for the experience, and need to be prepared to rise to the challenge of works of unconventional brilliance, like The Lost Scrapbook. Or The Easy Chain. Or Flee.
Then again, I always tend to agree with Gass.
Earlier this month, I reached out to José Luis Amores, who is the founder and chief translator for Pálido Fuego, a publishing house based in Malaga, Spain, which is the birthplace of Picasso and one of the oldest cities in the world, established by the Phoenicians in 770 BC. Pálido Fuego means Pale Fire, a tip of the hat to Nabokov (and Shakespeare) that also telegraphs Amores’s desire to tackle bold and audacious works. Four years and change after launching its first title, a translation of Conversations with David Foster Wallace, they’ve managed to make their mark with an impressive catalog of innovative fiction, including William Vollmann’s The Royal Family, Mark Danielewski’s The House of Leaves, Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, and Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity, among others.
In April of 2015, Pálido Fuego published the first translation of Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook, called El cuaderno perdido, and its success has generated a fresh wave of interest in Dara’s work. I wanted to learn about the genesis of this project and hear how Amores approaches his craft as a translator and a publisher.
Editor’s note: Some passages were edited for clarity.
Q: What do you like about translating challenging works of literature?
José Luis Amores: I think it’s more about why I like reading challenging works of literature versus, let’s say, normal works of literature. I’m 48 right now, not a youngster at all, and I’ve read many normal books, and translated a ton of normal documents and works, operating as a business consultant for many years. I’ve also watched an enormous amount of bad TV and shitty movies and listened to loads of terrible music. And one day, you run into a book—or a movie, or a song— which is in some way different: not silly, or easy in a negative sense, but it’s beautiful. Probably for me it was something by David Foster Wallace or a story by William Vollmann, I can’t recall it well. After that, books I once considered pleasurable became insipid and boring; it was like when you taste a good foie after years of eating fast food: you’ll never want to go back to your previous diet.
So, translating them is all the same. I approach each book as a sort of rereading, so it’s a real pleasure to go and build sentences into my language from English, trying to retain their essence as much as possible. I see this job as a sort of restoration, you know, like those guys who work perched on a scaffold, applying layers of paint with a variety of brushes. This is the kind of care I take.
Q: Who are your favorite writers to translate? Who would you like to tackle in the future?
JLA: My favorite authors are Vollmann, Dara, Robert Coover, Wallace, Thomas Bernhard, Tom McCarthy, Lars Iyer, Stephen Dixon, Steve Erickson, Ryan Boudinot, Nabokov, and more. I’ve been lucky enough to translate works by a bunch of them, and I hope to continue translating them (at least those that aren’t already in Spanish). Some people think Spanish is a good language to translate works into, because its wide potential audience makes it easier to sell books, even those that are hard or challenging. However, since the different Spanish-speaking countries are very far from each other, and have their own particularities, it’s hard to disseminate something from, let’s say, their cradle in linguistic terms. There are a ton of countries which could be potential markets, but they are either small in terms of reading audience, or large but mostly uninterested in literature. And our books are, in general, challenging—literary foie—while most people are used to reading banal stuff. So, it’s hard and, at the same time, exciting to publish authors who somehow go against the dumb tide, those who struggle with the real and urgent questions with true art and without cheap tricks.
Q: What sparked your decision to translate The Lost Scrapbook?
JLA: Our first book was a collection of interviews with David Foster Wallace, edited by Stephen J. Burn. We became friends, and he told me about The Lost Scrapbook, in such terms that I had to contact Aurora—Evan Dara’s publisher—to get a copy. My decision to translate a book is based on a very personal feeling. Usually, I begin to read a lot of books but I give up after a few pages. It’s not necessarily because they are bad or something like that—many of them are considered to be masterpieces— but they just don’t come to feel alive to me, so I drop them. In a few cases, the book sparkles, and I keep on reading. The Lost Scrapbook was certainly one of them. If this spark doesn’t happen, I might continue reading it, but I won’t try to publish it.
Q: How many times do you generally read a book before you begin your work? Did it alter your appreciation of The Lost Scrapbook?
JLA: Well, usually, my second reading of a book is when I decide whether to translate and publish it, and of course this rereading is a very thorough one, with lots of second thoughts, deeper appreciations, and even new findings. And I’ll reread parts of it while I’m still translating it, like gloating in it, and thinking, “Wow, now I realize this little thing here, which I missed in my first reading and even after I translated it.” And then I’ll reread the full work over and over again. In some cases, I don’t know how many times I’ve read a book published by my press (Pálido Fuego), but there are some I’ve read six, seven, or even eight times. Even after publishing them, I’ll find myself pulling a book down and reading paragraphs, and then pages and full chapters. And enjoying them. So, actually, I don’t know how many times I’ve read each one of these great books.
Q: How long did it take to complete the draft and finalize your edits? Was Dara involved in the process, or were you left to your own devices? Did he offer suggestions along the way?
JLA: In this case, with The Lost Scrapbook, I think it was two months working hard, translating and editing it. Then I put it to rest a few weeks, before rereading it to proofread it. By the way, the last proofreading was done by my partner, who reads very carefully, with two glasses and a load of pencils, markers and stuff like that. And at one point I had to go to Dara, with a few questions and suggestions about punctuation, which he solved nicely. Except for the translating phase, which I handle on my own, Dara was a great example of a helpful author, offering precious insights and making smart remarks.
Q: What parts of the novel did you find to be the most challenging to translate into Spanish? Which portions of the book left you scratching your head the most?
JLA: The Lost Scrapbook, as I see it, is not a very hard book, except for the changes of narrator. A funny detail: Dara sent me a copy of the book, which I started to read immediately. As I began to read it, I noticed this aspect of the changing narrator, the change of character and situation. And I enjoyed it a lot, because as someone said in a review of El cuaderno perdido, “Dara has an incredibly powerful ability to tell stories.” But at some point, a guy is speaking about his teenage son and the conflict they’re having over a set of drums that the boy has his heart set on, and just then someone is struggling with some sprinkler, and it was like “What?”
I wrote to Dara, asking him whether maybe my copy was incomplete. He was very understanding with me, and explained the situation, but probably became a bit nervous. But because I hadn’t read any reviews of the book, and neither Stephen nor Dara had warned me about the nature of the thing, I had started to read happily, was completely caught off-guard, and boom! The first blow, right on the chin, ha ha! So, except for this initial misunderstanding, I think the book reads like silk. It’s like watching TV, channel-surfing, but every station you find is interesting, all of them, and it’s the remote control that decides when it’s time to change channels. In the end, you have a beautiful and terribly smart mosaic of stories and characters and feelings, like an Indra’s net, tens of interconnections that form a kind of powerful narrative that takes you back to the epigraphs of the very first page. And then you think that there will never be another book which can achieve that.
Q: Dara uses some narrative techniques in which he threads multiple, unattributed voices for long stretches. Did you need to make any accommodations for El cuaderno perdido? What are the problems you faced when translating the dialogue?
JLA: Obviously, the main problem was figuring out the narrator’s gender in each case, because in Spanish you need to accommodate the adjectives for female and male persons. But, as you keep reading, it becomes clear who is who, and who is a she or a he. And the same applies to dialogue, where Dara is careful to give clues and to repeat linguistic tics that allow you to know key details about who is speaking. As I said before, when I’m translating, I don’t read quickly, and it’s not only because I want to do it right; it’s also because I work for myself, and I don’t have any clients or chiefs breathing down my neck. The same applies when I’m reading for pleasure, too, because reading books as if something were burning, or you were in a contest with someone, doesn’t make sense. That would be like swigging a glass of expensive and fine wine, instead of tasting it and rejoicing in it. For me, reading has all kinds of culinary and sensual connotations, and I feel sad when I see people who read like gluttons, guzzler readers who are vainglorious about their numbers, and quickly forget their feelings, if they have any at all. Anyway, to answer your question, I didn’t have many problems with unattributed voices, and I didn’t need to change or accommodate anything in the translation.
Q: How did you handle the unique punctuation and typographical patterns in The Lost Scrapbook?
JLA: Dara uses punctuation in a manner much like the Spanish do, perhaps due to some European influence in his readings. So, except for his semicolons instead of periods (which I kept as in the original), almost everything was similar to Spanish.
Q: I believe that you are working on translations of The Easy Chain and Flee. Are readers of El cuaderno perdido excited about digging deeper into Dara’s catalog?
JLA: We want to translate The Easy Chain and Flee. In fact, I want to publish The Easy Chain as soon as possible, maybe this fall. I keep a lot of notes and comments about it, made while I was reading it, and I think the process will be very similar to El cuaderno perdido. But, sincerely, I don’t know about excitement from our readers. We do have some very faithful readers, who get everything published by our press, and they are precisely the people who keep this working. I truly hope that The Easy Chain will achieve relative success in this time of skonky politicians.
Q: Where do you feel El cuaderno perdido sits within the ranks of American literature over the past 25 years?
JLA: In terms of ranking, I put El cuaderno perdido very high on my mental list, within the first few positions. When I started Pálido Fuego (my press, named after Pale Fire, by Nabokov), I wanted to publish a lot of books, but above all The Royal Family, and Pinocchio in Venice. Then I learned about The Lost Scrapbook, and a novel by Ryan Boudinot (Blueprints of the Afterlife) which, for me, is the epitome of contemporary sci-fi. So, after publishing these four, I feel like my job is done: it will be difficult to find books that reach the same heights.
I’m in the midst of a re-read of Dara’s The Easy Chain, which has been slowed by the furious underlining and marginalianizing that the story demands. There are threads that I plan to pursue in future posts (e.g. Has there been a better novel involving Chicago in the last 20 years? The parallels between the rise of Lincoln Selwyn and a particularly problematic politician who has recently occupied the West Wing; The pestilent proliferation of skonk, etc.), but I’m still struck by how untilled this field seems to be.
Stephen Burn, who pointed me toward a number of the publications populating the Resources page, is currently editing a new collection called American Literature in Transition: 1990-2000, which he says will contain a longer piece on Dara (the projected pub date is 10/31/17). Based on the time parameters, it’s safe to presume that the focus will stay on The Lost Scrapbook. With Scott Pruitt’s recent appointment to the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, odds are improving that TLS will again prove infuriatingly prophetic, so it will be good to attract fresh attention and analysis to the novel’s manifold blessings.
However, it would great to see some enterprising and scrappy scholar take a shine to The Easy Chain and expend some ink unpacking its Second City mystery. I’ll be sharing some thoughts over the coming weeks, but I encourage you, gentle reader, to point me in the direction of any articles or essays I may have missed along the way. This is a bewitching book that tickles the same nerve endings that lean toward the light of Gaddis, Wallace, and Gass. Attention should be paid:
“…Trams crash down Rozengracht. Treeleaves curtsy and flipper, go butter-yellow while palming the July North Sea sunbreeze. Scooters buzz through clouds of midges rabbling at canalside. Tides of tourists, fat German, fat American, sandaled Italian, twist creased subsections of maps, spiderwebs in which they’re caught, down to canal-curves, up to facade-splays, seeking orientation. The narrow, brick-herringboned streets, upbuckled by lusty treeroots, sinkholed by time and rainwater. Backpack-size, forever-overflowing trash bins, hip high on twin metal legs. Housestone restored, stucco restored white, stucco rotting smudge to dark. Lincoln sees all these. Lincoln moves on…”
While I don’t visit Largehearted Boy’s site as often as I did a few years ago, I’m not ashamed to concede that one of the primary reasons I would publish a novel is so that I could cook up a submission to his long-running Book Notes series, where authors create and discuss a playlist that relates to their book. Flush with deep-seated opinions and a propensity for making lists, I would hazard a guess that most writers gladly volunteer for this assignment, with little or no arm-twisting from their agents or publicists, even if they were told in advance that it would have absolutely no impact on sales. Many would do it even if they were guaranteed a dip in sales.
After reading Evan Dara’s Flee for the first time, back in the summer of 2013, I started drafting a playlist for the book, since I was pretty sure that the author wouldn’t. But instead of pulling from the far reaches of my iTunes library, I employed more of a Paul Thomas Anderson approach, seeking a singular singer who could sound the book’s themes of dislocation and dissolution, animating the inanimate while reflecting light into the crumpled dark. The best artist for the job was John K. Samson and the Weakerthans, a delegation of Winnipeg’s finest emissaries.
This is a revised version of that original soundtrack, which includes a couple of additions made after a recent re-reading.
1. Theme for Flee: “Left and Leaving” – “My city’s still breathing but barely it’s true/through buildings gone missing like teeth”
2. “Everything Must Go!” – page 22. “the cordless razor that my father bought when I turned 17, a puke-green sofa and the outline to a complicated dream of dignity.”
3. “Night Windows” (for Marcus) – page 46. “But you’re not coming home again, and I won’t ever get to say, ‘Remember how… I’m sorry that… I miss the way… Could we…'”
4. “Aside” – “Armed with every previous failure, and amateur cartography, I breathe in deep before I spread these maps out on my bedroom floor. Leaving. Wave goodbye/ Losing, but I’ll try, with the last ways left, to remember. Sing my imperfect offering.”
5. “Pamphleteer” (for Ian) – “I walk this room in time to the beat of the Gestetner, contemplate my next communique. The rhetoric and treason of saying that I’ll miss you. Of saying ‘Hey, well maybe you should stay.’ Sing ‘Oh what force on earth could be weaker than the feeble strength of one’ like me remembering the way it could have been.”
6. “Letter of Resignation” – “Farewell to piles of bills, unpaid utilities. All rolled up and unfurled like a flag. Wake up and pack your bag. To whom it may concern…So she sits there with her luggage at her side. (yours sincerely yours) leaving empty stations, leaving empty lives.”
7. “Utilities” (for Rick Pasternak) –
“Seems the most I
Have to offer
Doesn’t offer much
Make it something
Somebody could use”
8. “None of the Above” (for Carol and Rick) – “warm coffee tastes like soap. I trace you outline in spilled sugar, killing time and killing hope. This brand new strip mall chews on farmland as we fish for someone to blame. But we communicate in questions, and all our answers sound the same.”
9. “My Favorite Chords” (for Marcus) – “Hey, I found the safest place to keep all our tenderness/Keep all those bad ideas, keep all our hope/It’s here in the smallest bones, the feet and the inner ear/It’s such an enormous thing to walk, to listen”
10. “Time’s Arrow” (for the upstakers of Anderburg) – “All the streets lie down, deserted in the darkest part of night, to lead you through the evening to the light. Pulled along in the tender grip of watches and ellipses. Small request. Could we please turn around?”
11. “Sun in an Empty Room” (for Ezra and the upstakers) – “Now that the furniture’s returning to its Goodwill home, with dishes in last week’s papers—rumours and elections, crosswords, an unending war—that blacken our fingers, smear their prints on every door pulled shut. Now that the last month’s rent is scheming with the damage deposit, take this moment to decide if we meant it, if we tried, or felt around for far too much from things that accidentally touched.”
12. “Heart of the Continent” (for the upstakers) –
“There’s a billboard by the highway
That says ‘Welcome to;’
But no sign to show you when you go away.”
13. “Taps Reversed” (for Carol) –
“The calendar requests a meeting to discuss the time we waste,
when would be good for you? And the sidewalk cracks spell the
way back home in one uninterrupted palindrome. The old house
keeps all of our receipts in envelopes secured with rubber
14. “[past due]” – “And darkness comes too early, you won’t find the many things you owe these latest dead: a borrowed book, that cheque you didn’t sign. The tools to be believed with, beloved. Give what you can: to keep, to comfort this plain fear you can’t extinguish or dismiss.”
15. Paul Kelly, “Everything’s Turning to White” – page 217. This is more of a bonus cut for close readers, but Marcus has a particular fondness for the actress Laura Linney, an object of desire “in just about everything except Jindabyne.” Jindabyne is an Australian adaptation of the Raymond Carver story, “So Much Water So Close to Home,” which features the music of Kelly, who originally penned this back in the late 1980s.
16. Epilogue: James McMurtry, “I’m Not From Here” –
“Onto some bright future somewhere
Down the road to points unknown
Sending post cards when they get there
Wherever it is they think they’re goin'”
Down the road, I’ll share a playlist of music featured in the book itself, heavily drawn from Chapter X.
Last week, Mark O’Connell shared a quote attributed to Anthony Burgess about the Irish shapeshifter, Flann O’Brien, which O’Connell opined was the “greatest blurb of all time”:
“If we don’t cherish the work of Flann O’Brien we are stupid fools who don’t deserve to have great men. Flann O’Brien is a very great man.”
It calls to mind Steve Earle’s notorious summation of the Texas songwriter, Townes Van Zandt:
“Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan‘s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”
It was one of those gloriously heretical quotes which dogged Earle for years, but it served a deeper purpose:
“I was asked for a blurb [for a Townes album], and that’s what I said,” he explains. “It was literally a sticker. Do I believe that he was a better writer than Bob Dylan? No. Do I believe he deserves to be talked about in the same breath as Bob Dylan? Yes. And I think Bob Dylan does, too. I was opening for Dylan in 1988, and the first night I was on the tour Bob played ‘Pancho and Lefty.’”
Game recognizes game. And while I can’t determine the exact provenance of the Burgess quote, he never stopped banging the drum on behalf of O’Brien, even long after the author of At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman was no longer here to make (or undercut) the case himself. Re-reading one of these appraisals this week, where Burgess placed O’Brien on the same pedestal as Joyce, I was reminded of the stage we’re at with Evan Dara right now, which is primarily getting his name (back?) into the conversation:
“When a major author’s reputation is settled, his readership secure, his works comfortably in print, then a critic may legitimately set about the task of diminishing him. O’Brien is unquestionably a major author, but he awaits still, after the publication of his first major work, in 1939, a following devoted enough to make him a profitable commodity to the commercial publisher….It must be the purpose, then, of at least this critic to propagandize rather than objectively assess. Let more readers discover Flann O’Brien; let his fire keep in; then the time for spitting on it will come.”
Scouring the web for articles about Dara’s work, it seems that the number of papers tackling his books dropped off considerably during the first half of this decade, punctuated by the publication of Flee in 2013, which received a grand total of one non-Goodreads review. It certainly deserved more notice, but even the faithful understand that we’re not exactly operating in a meritocracy here, and that it will take a more concerted effort to raise Dara’s profile.
One of the most promising developments has been the response to the Spanish translation of The Lost Scrapbook, which Palido Fuego published as El Cuaderno Perdido in 2015. The Resources page contains links to most of the reviews they’ve collected since it was released, which demonstrates the beneficial power of a committed publisher, especially one with an established a reputation for pushing quality fiction. They are currently translating The Easy Chain and Flee, so we will get a chance to see if they make the commercial and critical headway that eluded the self-published originals.
Both Earle and Burgess were validated over time. Townes Van Zandt is revered by nearly everyone who knows anything about songwriting, and it’s never been easier to find his albums (with Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas remaining the best place to start). Meanwhile, much of Flann O’Brien’s work is currently in print, thanks in part to the good folks at the Dalkey Archive and members of the International Flann O’Brien Society, which is holding its 4th conference in Salzburg this summer (#Flann2017).
Securing the reputation of Evan Dara has its own challenges, but, to quote Burgess, it’s an endeavor not without enjoyment:
“The pleasure available in these books should require no advocacy from me, but we are all so desperately unfanciful, inarticulate, pseudo-tough these days that it may require as much effort to get into Flann O’Brien’s work as into heaven—which it much resembles when it does not resemble hell.”
Thanks in large part to the efforts of its tireless publisher, Palido Fuego, links to numerous reviews and essays for El Cuaderno Perdido have been added to the Resources page. We’ve adopted a stylistically inconsistent variation of MLA to display the information, which will need to be cleaned up over time. But, for now, our simple aim is to collect and compile these links under one roof.
Readers may also notice that a number of blurbed reviews of The Lost Scrapbook are not listed here, due largely to the fact that many of them appeared in publications—from the Los Angeles Reader to Oculus Magazine—which have ceased operations at some point over the past 15 years. If you have digital or print copies of any lost review, please contact us through the standard method.
While the launch of the site on Sunday was somewhat inadvertent (we prematurely plugged into Twitter without realizing what happens when you hit the Publish button), work continues behind the scenes. One of the first orders of business was to stake out an area to collect and compile links to books, articles, and sites that discuss Dara’s work. You can click on the Resources tab to monitor the progress on this front.
Two quick notes: