One French Philosopher’s Obsession with Stones


This post comes from Emily Wolahan, Associate Editor of Two Lines.

Excellent writers fill the pages of Issue 25 of Two Lines. From Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi, to Kobi Ovadia, translated by Yardenne Greenspan. You should pick up an issue or subscribe now to get in on all of this fantastic writing.

One of the writers and pieces that I tell people about when I get excited about this issue is Roger Caillois, the late French philosopher, poet, and lover of stones, and his lyric essays on stones from La lecture des pierres. Translated beautifully by Elizabeth Deshays, these three short, poetic pieces praising stones blew my mind. On the level of obsession of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, the essays include lines like:

The scoriaceous volumes of native metals were molded in fearsome underground melting pots and seem still to be bristling almost to the point of explosion.


I speak of stones: algebra, vertigo, and order; of stones, hymns, and quincunxes; of stones, stings, and corollas, the threshold of dreams, the leaven and the image.

And aside from the beauty of the three pieces in Issue 25, there’s so much more to know about Caillois. The stones that he describes he has also collected, and many were displayed in “The Encyclopedic Palace” at the Venice Bienalle in 2013. You can view his incredible stones here and here.

Roger Caillois spent a lifetime exploring the imagination. He began his intellectual life as a Surrealist until he famously split with André Breton (but, then, who didn’t at some point split with Breton?). Their feud hinged on a disagreement over how to conceive of the unknown. Breton wanted to hold on to the magical and disregard a material explanation. Caillois, however, could see the magic in the material explanation.

Caillois went on to found College of Sociology with Georges Bataille, where he was interested in exploring the sacred within society. But for Caillois, the sacred was not an anthropological interest; it was material, philosophical and poetic.

Marina Warner writes in her excellent essay on Caillois from 2008 in Cabinet, “Materialist mystics, among whom I count Caillois, do not search for self-knowledge, nor for foreknowledge of their destiny, the sirens’ secret; but they emphatically investigate hidden meanings and scan the deepest horizons of time into infinity: the world turns into an inexhaustible book written in hieroglyphs.” Caillois regards the world with a relentless eye, applying meaning to whatever seems to not yet be graced with it. He explores the subjectivity of our gaze, and increases that subjectivity by framing the objects he regards.

The cross-sections of these stones are displayed as if floating in white space, alit, glowing. We can’t help apply some meaning to their swirls and blended color, or to the sharp circles and angles some hold. Warner quotes Caillois from his first book on the stones, Pierres, “‘Philosophers have not hesitated to identify the real and the rational. I am persuaded that a different bold step . . . would lead to discover the grid of basic analogies and hidden connections which constitute the logic of the imaginary.’” Caillois’s exploration of that logic infuses his prose poetry.

In “Stones: Dedication,” included in Issue 25, Caillois writes, “Like someone who, when speaking of flowers, makes no mention of botany, nor the art of gardens or that of floral arrangement—yet still will have much to say—so shall I disregard mineralogy, [. . .] and speak only of bare stones, fascination, and glory.”

Pick up an issue or subscribe now to read Deshays’s great translation of Roger Caillois. There’s no one else quite like him.

AUDIO: Lidija Dimkovska in Conversation with Michael Holtmann on A Spare Life


Last Thursday we were very happy to welcome a large and enthusiastic crowd to Diesel, a Bookstore to celebrate the release of Lidija Dimkovska’s EU Prize–winning novel A Spare Life (tr. Christine Kramer). This event was the 9th of 10 events Lidija had been in since October 5, when she launched her U.S. tour at Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore.

Below you will find audio of the bilingual reading and conversation between Dimkovksa and Center Executive Director Michael Holtmann. Among other things, they touched on how A Spare Life’s central conceit—the story of conjoined twins growing up in Yugoslavia—metaphorically looks at the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the post-Communist era.


0:00 Introductions

2:54 Bilingual readings in Macedonian and English

13:20 Where the voice of the narrator, one of the conjoined twins, came from?

22:55 The optimism in the twins’ lives

27:05 The relationship of the book to the wars surrounding the disintegration of Yugoslavia

39:55 The “lost generation” of Yugoslavian writers and the writing of the wars

47:10 What does the Macedonian language mean to you?

53:40 Audience Q & A

5 Ways of Looking at Lidija Dimkovska

A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska (tr. Christina Kramer) has been racking up attention since its release last week. Here are five different takes on the book, giving you 5 different methods to find you way in to this great saga of sisterhood, war, communism, and living as a conjoined twin.

1. Publishers Weekly: A “kaleidoscopic, bighearted novel”

Publishers Weekly gets the best 3-word summary of A Spare Life. The book is indeed kaleidoscopic—subjects it takes in would include: the fall of communism, sisters coming of age, the strangeness of being conjoined twins, growing up in a communist country, love, heartbreak, the occult, the Balkan Wars. And indeed, the book is very bighearted, never shrinking from all the terrible things that get thrown at Zlata and Srebra, but doing it all with an honestly and poignancy.

2. Words Without Borders: “Dimkovska’s résumé reads like a beehive of transnational literary success in the making”

Who are we to disagree? Dimkovska won the EU Prize for this book, she’s gotten a rave from Dubravka Ugrešić, the reigning queen of Balkan literature, she’s studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she has released acclaimed poetry collections with Ugly Duckling Presse and Copper Canyon Press. If that isn’t a beehive of transnational literary success in the making, we don’t know what is. A Spare Life is her biggest, most complex book to date, and we think it’d be great if it gets ther the English-language acclaim she deserves.

3. Lidija Dimkovska: “I felt guilty to be from Macedonia, which was then the so-called oasis of peace”

In a must-read essay over at Literary Hub, Dimkovska talks about the generation of literature that was lost thanks to the Balkan Wars and how the writers who lived through that (as did Dimkovksa) have internalized it in their work and made it into literature. A Spare Life is very much in this tradition, as Dimkovska explains in the essay. And she also discusses the awkwardness of being from Macedonia, which was a relatively safe, stable place during the wars.

4. Unabridged Bookstore: “Keenly observed, poignant, and penetrating, A SPARE LIFE is quickly becoming one of our favorite books of the year”

To make a huge understatement, when you’re writing a book about life from the perspective of a twin conjoined at the head, it really puts your observational skills to the test. One of the most rewarding things about A Spare Life is seeing just how authentically Dimkovska brings this world to life. But not only does she nail that world, she also nails the bureaucratic, provincial, weird world of living in a communist country, and then seeing that all fall apart. Just on the level of observation alone, we can see why A Spare Life wins such big praise.

5. Elliott Bay Bookstore: “Glad to have Lidija Dimkovska here tonight with @CopperCanyonPrs’s Tonaya to discuss A SPARE LIFE from @TwoLinesPress”


In addition to being an award-winning novelist, Dimkovska is also a very talented poet, having released acclaimed collections with Ugly Duckling Presse and Copper Canyon Press. Here she is with Copper Canyon’s Managing Editor Tonaya Craft during an event earlier this month at Seattle independent bookstore Elliott Bay Bookstore. Although A Spare Life is first and foremost a novel, you can definitely see Dimkovska’s poet’s eye in the acute observations and the interesting way she puts words together.

Nine Writers from Lesser-Known Languages That You Should Check Out

In the wake of Indigenous People’s Day (also known as Columbus Day) this past week, we thought we’d put together a list of some of our favorite poets who write in languages we rarely encounter. The fact that we so uncommonly see translations from these languages suggests to us that colonization continues to unfurl its consequences. As a few select languages continue to dominate and spread across the globe, it becomes easier and easier to ignore those who write in less “accessible” languages.

That’s why we are offering this list to help celebrate these writers and their translators. Fortunately, as translated literature becomes more popular, we’re beginning to see books translated from a wider range of languages and previously ignored regions, but they are still few and far between. This roundup is a good place to start, and we hope you’ll seek out more writers from cultures that are currently at the margins of the translated world.


Poet Margaret Noodin writes and translates her own poetry from Anishinaabemowin (also called Ojibwe), the language of the Anishinaabe people. Today, just over 90,000 people in southern Canada and the northern United States speak Anishinaabemowin as a native language, despite the fact that the great state of Michigan gets its name from the Anishinaabemowin word “mshigem” meaning “great lake.” Listen to Noodin’s rhythmic song-poem “Umpaowastewin” then check out her book Weweni.


John Smelcer is the only remaining member of the Ahtna Tribe of Alaska to read and write in Ahtna. Sharing roots with Navajo, Ahtna is an extremely endangered language, with only 30 remaining native speakers worldwide. These three poems written and translated by Smelcer from the Ahtna are clever and will linger in your mind long after you’ve read them.


Phoneme Media published an incredible anthology, Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry, edited by Isthumus Zapotec poet Víctor Terán and translator David Shook. The book collects the poetry of six contemporary Mexican poets, translated from (among other languages) Nahuatl, Tsotsil, and Isthmus Zapotec, three of the over 50 indigenous languages spoken by more than 6 million Mexicans today.


Two poems and a few more poems by Mikeas Sánchez, translated from the Zoque by David Shook. Zoque is an indigenous language of Mexico’s state of Chiapas and the native language of roughly 70,000 people.


Reading these three poems by Haitian poet Paul Laraque, you can feel the poet’s fierce use of language as he confronts—both directly and indirectly—decades of political oppression. (Laraque spent 25 years living in exile in New York City during the course of the Duvalier dictatorship.) Translated from the Haitian Creole by Rosemary Manno and Jack Hirschman, these poems are charged with a captivating energy.

On the other side of the globe are the Uyghurs, a Muslim community living primarily in the Xinjiang province of China. The Chinese government has continually attempted to suppress the Uyghur cultural presence in the region. We published a folio of Uyghur poets in Two Lines 17: Some Kind of Beautiful Signal. And, more recently, Jeffrey Yang wrote an essay about Uyghur poetry in Two Lines 24, titled “On Thirst.” Here are some more Uyghur poets to check out:

For a bold defense of nonconformity, read “Against Tradition” by Osmanjan Muhemmed Pas’an, translated by Joshua L. Freeman.


Uyghurland, the Farthest Exile is a vibrant poetry collection by Ahmatjan Osman, translated by Jeffrey Yang with the author. This is the first book of Uyghur poetry to be published in English translation.


Groundbreaking Tanzanian poet Euphrase Kezilahabi introduced the concept of free verse to Swahili poetry. Read “Welcome Inside,” translated by Annmarie Drury, which begins courageously: “The traditional poets are playing now at sleeping . . .” Kezilahabe continues to grapple with the difficult and disappointing reality of postcolonial Tanzania in Stray Truths, a book of poetry translated by Drury.


South African poet Moses Mtileni describes the inescapable distress of leaving and returning home in “I Have Gone Away Many Times.” Mtileni writes in and self-translates from Xitsonga (or Tsonga), a Bantu language with roughly 3.6 million speakers. An official language of South Africa, Xitsonga is also spoken in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland.

Audio: Yoshimasu Gozo Performance, and In Conversation with Forrest Gander and Emily Wolahan


We were very pleased to welcome major Japanese poet Yoshimasu Gozo and translator and poet Forrest Gander to the Bay Area to perform and discuss Yoshimasu’s new book of selected poetry, Alice Iris Red Horse, translated by a number of leading Japanese translators. Yoshimasu (assisted by Gander) first gave a performance of his work and then was interviewed by Two Lines Press’s Emily Wolahan.

Below you will find full audio of the performance and conversation.

Two Lines Spotlight: Emma Ramadan on “Contagion” by Balla


This post comes to us from Emma Ramadan, whose translation of Anne Parian’s “Monospace” appeared in Issue 21 of Two Lines.

“One day, when I began to feel troubled by the furniture in the old house I inherited from my parents, I asked some people to help me clear out all the rooms, load the furniture onto a truck and drive it out to the outskirts of the city where we tossed all the trash into a ditch and covered it with big sheets of fabric.”

From the first sentence, “Contagion” (from Issue 20) has thrust you into a stranger’s nightmare. All the worst parts of this person are infecting his house, and the only solution is to shuck out all that has been contaminated. The furniture isn’t enough. Soon the rugs, the wallpaper, the walls themselves must go.

I read through the short story in a frenzied five minutes, straining to see what was going on, what end was in store. There are no answers. Balla has said in an interview that his stories do not offer the reader an escape, but rather force pain on the reader as he or she is forced to confront the misery lurking in his or her own lives. Indeed, the narrator of “Contagion” speaks in a way that nearly convinces us we’re not in a fictional place but rather in a corner of our own world where the nightmare of this stranger’s life might be lying in wait for us, too. When we snap out of the story with its last line, this lingering feeling is all the more alarming.

Balla has won Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize (the Anasoft litera) and has repeatedly been labeled as the “Slovak Kafka,” but there’s an urgency and a Hilda Hilst–like mania on the surface of his writing, in place of Kafka’s calculated slow builds. Every sentence is eerier than the last, launching us into the next line; there is no filler. But enough with the comparisons: Balla’s “Contagion” is unlike anything you’ve read before, which is reason enough to dive in.

See Lidija Dimkovska and A Spare Life in a Bookstore Near You

“A kaleidoscopic, bighearted novel”
— Publishers Weekly


Come see Two Lines Press’s latest author and its biggest book ever! Throughout October, we’re putting TLP author Lidija Dimkovska on an epic, 10-city, coast-to-coast tour for her major, EU Prize–winning novel A Spare Life (beautifully translated by Christina Kramer), which we release next month.

“Bringing to mind Elena Ferrante and Magda Szabó in its social observation and mordant humor” (Katie Kitamura, author of The Longshot and A Separation), A Spare Life is the story of conjoined twin sisters growing up under communism in Yugoslavia. It’s a story of transitions: transitions from communism to capitalism, the disintegration of the Balkans, and the poignant story of two sisters whose bond is repeatedly tried.

Dimkovska is already known in the U.S as an incredibly talented poet (with books from Copper Canyon and Ugly Duckling), and A Spare Life introduces her as a major novelist. Dubravka Ugrešić, reigning queen of Balkan literature, says “Lidija Dimkovska enriches our contemporary museum of literary wonders with her powerful, grotesque, weird details and episodes told within the merry old novelistic tradition.”

Thank you so much to all the incredible partners across the nation that have made this tour possible! See Lidija Dimkovska at these amazing venues:

October 5, 7:00 pm
Community Bookstore
143 7th Ave.
Brooklyn, New York 11215
on Facebook

October 7, 7:00 pm
The Ivy Bookshop
6080 Falls Road
Baltimore, MD 21209
on the Web

October 12, 7:00 pm
Malaprop’s Bookstore
55 Haywood St.
Asheville, NC 28801
on Facebook

October 13, 7:00 pm
Prairie Lights Books
15 South Dubuque St.
Iowa City, IA 52240
on the Web

October 14, 6:00 pm
Seminary Co-Op Bookstore
5751 S Woodlawn Ave.
Chicago, IL 60637
on Facebook

October 15, 1:30 pm
Twin Cities Book Festival
TAXI STAGE, Minnesota State Fairgrounds
1265 Snelling Ave. North
St Paul, MN 55108
on the Web

October 18, 7:00 pm
Elliott Bay Bookstore
1521 10th Ave.
Seattle, WA 98122
on the Web

October 19, 7:00 pm
City Lights Booksellers
261 Columbus Ave. at Broadway
San Francisco, CA 94133
on the Web

October 20, 7:00 pm
Diesel, a Bookstore
5433 College Ave.
Oakland, CA 94618
on Facebook

October 21, 7:30 pm
Skylight Books
1818 N Vermont Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90027
on the Web

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature Roundtable

The Nobel Prize in Literature is set to be announced very very soon (the Nobel Committee doesn’t reveal the exact date in advance, but we know it will be on a Thursday in October, possibly as soon as October 6).

Every year, the Prize is always one of the most entertaining things to speculate about, so we’ve lined up three of our own to give their thoughts. Below you’ll see Senior Editor Scott Esposito, Associate Editor Emily Wolahan, and Editorial Assistant Sarah Coolidge say who they think should win—and who they think shouldn’t.


Haruki Murakami 6 to 1

Scott: At this point, I feel like Murakami is kinda the default odds-on favorite. He basically hits all the Nobel tropes: huge international reputation, international tropes all over his work, very well-translated into English, has picked up a lot of the major international prizes, from a country that hasn’t gotten one in a while (Kenzaburō Ōe, 1994) . . . heck, in recent years he’s even gone out of his way to write big books engaging in major historical themes to shore up his credentials. At this point Murakami is basically the guy everybody knows should win, which, at length, seems to be the best argument against him.

Sarah: I don’t know. Murakami is certainly a well-established figure, and he’s been passed up several times, but I wouldn’t put any money on him personally. It seems to me that the Swedish Academy likes to honor writers that they feel are underrepresented. And so in the cases of Murakami and Joyce Carol Oates, their widespread success actually hurts their chances. Then again, nobody really knows what the Academy is looking for . . . Could it be Murakami?

Scott: I would say, out of all the people you “know” should win, he’s probably among the better chances of winning, but I still don’t think his chances are great. And to be honest, I feel like he’s gotten worse in recent years. His later books just don’t have the freshness and the energy of the first ones.

Emily: Mu-ra-ka-mi! Mu-ra-ka-mi! If I march down the street chanting his name, will the Nobel people hear me? While this choice would be “obvious,” and maybe the Nobel peeps are like teenagers who detest the expected, I have loved Murakami for twenty years. He taught me about writing and about how to be an inquiring person in the world. MURAKAMI!


Philip Roth 9 to 1

Scott: I don’t even know what to say here . . . I mean, Roth has gotten every award, like every award. He’s probably the most critically acclaimed American author ever. The Library of America edition of his life’s work covers 9 volumes. He’s basically the closest thing we have to state-sponsored writer. But I honestly don’t know what these 9 to 1 odds are based on. Does the Nobel really give out prizes for meta-fictive, semi-autobiographical depictions of neurotic Americans in grotesquely inappropriate extra-marital relationships? Honestly, if Roth is 9 to 1, Houellebecq has got to be in the teens at least. Wait a minute . . . where is Houellebecq? He’s like the more philosophical, more contemporary, European Roth, with Muslims. Seriously, where is he? Anyway, it’s not going to be Roth.

Emily: UGH. I cannot say anything about Philip Roth because I have never read Philip Roth. He is a writer who leaves me, a woman, completely out of his intended audience pool and, frankly, Mr. Roth, there are plenty of great writers who don’t do that. I kind of don’t want the world seeing American literature as Roth. Hey, how about Lydia Davis? How come she’s 51 to 1?

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o 11 to 1

Scott: I feel like Ngugi is a pretty solid candidate. He’s done a lot of very valid literary writing that has discernible political angles. He can be considered pan-African (which is important when your last African laureate was JM Coetzee in 2003, and the one before that was also South African (Nadine Gordimer, 1991)). He’s well-known internationally but has nothing like the reputation of a Murakami. He’s been working for 50 years and has constructed a very diverse, substantial oeuvre. He’s been politically persecuted. Basically, every year I’m a little surprised that Ngugi doesn’t get the Prize. At this point, the best arguments against him are that: a) he has pretty good name-rec in the United States, which sometimes seems to be a mark against potential laureates, and b) he’s getting into Murakami territory, where more and more people seem to expect him to get it each year.

Sarah: Ngugi is my choice this year. He’s been a favorite for the Prize for several years now, and I think this year may be his year. He’s one of the most famous writers from Africa today, and not many African writers have won the Nobel. Plus his oeuvre is incredible, spanning nearly every genre, and he recently came out with a memoir. On top of all that, he’s written across two languages—English and Gikuyu. While I think he’s well-known, I don’t think he’s been recognized enough in the wider international community. I’d like to see him win.

Emily: I agree, Sarah! I’d like to see Ngugi win. Not only is his work wonderful, his stance on writing—and the language in which you choose to write—has been influential and important. He strikes me as author and emissary to how the world ought to be.


Joyce Carol Oates 17 to 1

Scott: People always like to ask, when will another American win the Nobel Prize in lit? It has been a long time (Toni Morrison, 1993). And I think Joyce Carol Oates has done a lot of writing that you can recommend to people. But seriously? Joyce Carol Oates? On what grounds? When was the last time you read anything about her that wasn’t some kind of highbrow celebrity gossip thing focusing on graphomania? Do people really think the Swedish Academy is going to award a Nobel for work done in revitalizing the American gothic genre? How many people betting on her at 17 to 1 even know anything about her other than that she’s famous and has written a ton of books? And the tweets. Don’t get me started on the tweets.

Sarah: Wow, Scott, haha. I guess I agree that most people I talk to have liked her writing but been overwhelmed by the quantity rather than the quality of her writing. I’ve never really been able to keep up with Oates’ books myself. I’ve liked a few things, but she wouldn’t be my first pick among American writers.

Emily: Another American will win the Nobel Prize when JOHN ASHBERY wins the Nobel Prize. Team John!

Scott: OK, just one tweet.



Ismail Kadaré 17 to 1

Emily: When I was twenty, my mom gave me a copy of The File on H. This is remarkable because my mother and I don’t share the same taste in books, so when we arrive at the same spot (like with Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, when I was in high school), it’s a big moment for me. The File on H was my introduction to Kadaré (spoiler alert: two Irish linguists travel to Albania in the 1930s on a Homerian quest to record the dying oral tradition and then the story turns into a thriller). I’d be excited to see him win and draw attention to a region of literature that doesn’t get a lot of attention.

Scott: I feel like Kadaré might be a sleeper. He’s one of the more esteemed writers on this list, and he checks a lot of boxes that the Academy likes to have checked. I could definitely live with him as the choice.


Adunis 26 to 1

Sarah: Adonis/Adunis is way overdue for the Nobel. Besides being a pioneer of avant-garde Arabic poetry, he has been an important voice in Middle Eastern politics. He’s a regular on the list of favorites, but I’m afraid he may have been passed over for good. His political involvement has been questioned recently. I know, for example, that there was some controversy in 2011 when he won the Goethe Prize. Since he’s lived in Europe for so long, people have been challenging his understanding of contemporary Syria. His critics pointed out that, while he wrote a letter asking Syrian dictator Assad to step down, he didn’t seem to show much sympathy for Syrian revolutionaries or refugees. Basically, I’m wondering if the Swedish Academy will want to choose such a controversial candidate, despite his incredible literary achievements.

Scott: I’m in agreement here on Adonis. He’s in that territory that Murakami seems to be reaching, in the running so long that he’s basically out of the running. And insofar as his political relevance goes, it seems like Nobel Prize possibles have a sell-by date that Adonis has passed. That said, the last poetry winner was Tranströmer in 2011, and he was also Swedish, which always raises everyone’s eyebrows a bit, so maybe the Academy will be aiming to go a little off the map with a poetry pick this year?

Emily: The Syrian connection makes this a prescient choice, calling attention to major crisis. But, as Scott points out, does Adonis really address that aspect of Syria in his own work? I’m at a disadvantage here because I don’t personally care for Adonis’s poetry. Now, Mahmoud Darwish . . . I’d be excited to see him up here.

Scott: Darwish would be a great contender, but one of those many writers who, sadly, passed away before the Swedes could get around to acknowledging him.

Emily: Oh dear, I’ve arrived late to the party again. RIP Darwish.


Peter Handke 31 to 1

Scott: So . . . Peter Handke has written roughly a million books, he’s had a good proportion of them translated into English, he’s picked up some of the big German awards, as well as others internationally, but he, too seems like one of those people fated to never win it. I’m sure it didn’t help that Milošević wanted Handke as a defense witness at his trial (based on some controversial things Handke had written; he wisely declined). Also, when he received the Ibsen Prize in 2014, one commentator noted, “awarding Handke the Ibsen Prize is comparable to awarding the Immanuel Kant Prize to Goebbels.” So, needless to say, not the sort of thing the Academy really goes for. On the other hand, Jon Fosse has defended him and even said he’s worthy of a Nobel, but Fosse also seems like the kind of writer exactly engineered to be ignored by the Nobel committee. Question for Sarah and Emily: have either of you ever read Handke, or even really have any idea what the guy is about?

Sarah: I’ve never read Handke! But that may actually improve his chances of winning the Nobel!

Emily: Me, too, Sarah! Never read him. But some buddy of Milošević? Snap judgment: no.


Adam Zagajewski 34 to 1

Emily: I’m embarrassed to admit that my awareness of Adam Zagajewski has been solely in an American context—he has taught poetry in the U.S. for quite some time and I was at the University of Houston when he was there. It’s not that I didn’t know he’s Polish, but, in truth, it had kind of slipped my mind. His work is beautiful and he’s in a similar vein as Seamus Heaney, I think. I suppose Czeslaw Milosz won back in 1980, and Wislawa Szymborska in 1996, which seems long enough ago to warrant another Polish winner. That said, is Zagajewski a Szymborska? My money isn’t on Zagajewski.

Scott: That seems fair. And it’s a good point, with two Polish poetry laureates, it’s hard to argue for a third. Especially with so much interesting prose happening in Poland. The Poles pretty much own the literary nonfiction category that Svetlana Alexievich got recognized for last year. Hanna Krall (who has been translated a little but not nearly enough) is canonical here, as are Mariusz Szczygieł and Wojciech Tochman. And I think on the fiction side Olga Tokarczuk might be a contender one of these days, especially with a major translation of her career-defining work The Books of Jacob forthcoming, but that’s probably for the future. And of course you can’t forget Andrzej Stasiuk.


Ko Un 34 to 1

Emily: I am very new to reading Ko Un, which I have encountered only in The Three Way Tavern, translated by Clare You and Richard Silberg. He’s described as the “preeminent” poet of Korea, a country that’s getting a decent amount of attention in the poetry world thanks to Don Mee Choi’s great translations of Kim Hyesoon. Ko couldn’t write more different poetry than Kim; his seems to be rooted in a longer standing tradition of Buddhism and the pastoral. What do I think his chances are? By Sarah’s logic alone—if we haven’t heard of him, that increases his chances with the Nobel board!

Scott: Ko Un is definitely one of those perennials, a poet of immense stature but probably not someone that the Nobel committee is ever going to recognize. But I think Emily raises a good point: so many people are telling me that the interesting work in Korean literature right now is among the female poets, and certainly with the historical treatment of women in Korea (and with the treatment of female Korean poets especially) there’s a definite political angle to be had here. So I think, let’s see some people like Kim Hyesoon and her colleagues on this longlist.

Gerald Murnane 51 to 1

Scott: I really love Murnane . . . I mean, I think Murnane is probably one of a handful of English-language authors of his generation that you can say have indisputably contributed to the rejuvenation of the English language and found an original way to create literature, but there’s just no way he ever gets a Nobel. I mean, one of his early books (autobiographical) was all about a kid masturbating. A later one was about his writer’s block and some weird and sexually frightening reminisces about his childhood. Do I need to say that this is exactly the kind of writing that the Swedish Academy despises?

Emily: I can’t really weigh in here, Scott. I’ve never read Murnane, but I can say that Australia never seems to get enough love. How about poet Les Murray? Odds: 51 to 1.

Scott: Les Murray is definitely the go-to dude in Australia, but I’m feeling like his politics aren’t going to make a Nobel Prize happen any time soon.


Bob Dylan 51 to 1

Scott: Definitely the fact that Bob Dylan has odds equal to László Krasznahorkai and superior to Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and a ton of other writers basically proves that this is all an exercise in bullshit. In effect: he’s not going to win, he’s never going to win. He’s just up here so that nostalgic Boomers can tell their grandkids listening to Pitbull that they bet on Dylan.

Sarah: Why does Bob Dylan show up on every list of potential Nobel winners? It’s not funny anymore . . . I’m not trying to criticize the guy as a songwriter, but he’s the only songwriter appearing on all these lists! Suggestion to folk fans: give up on the Nobel. Or else work on setting Cormac McCarthy’s writing to music—because otherwise it isn’t gunna happen.

Scott: I do wonder what it is about Dylan. Why the mystique? Why not Mick Jagger while you’re at it? Brian Wilson? Paul McCartney?

Sarah: Joni Mitchell? Edith Piaf? The list goes on and on . . .

Emily: What? Dylan? Pshaw. Mickey Mouse for President.


László Krasznahorkai 51 to 1

Scott: I feel like Krasznahorkai might have a chance, though probably not for a few years yet. His international profile has been on the rise in past years, and he writes about the sorts of questions that the Swedish Academy really loves to cover, all about power and questions of society, civilization, cyclical violence, fascism, etc, etc, etc. He’s found his own tone and language to do that in, though he also writes out of a very recognizable European tradition, albeit at the periphery, being Hungarian. He’s even traveled to Asia to give his writings an added dimension. He’s even a little on the outs with the government of his country. It’s all stuff that the Nobel tends to go for.

Emily: I agree. I think Krasznahorkai has a good chance, if not now then in the future. He’s certainly one of the writers I enjoy—and it’s no mean feat to read one of his books. War & War is a place to start, but there’s a lot to choose from. Seiobo There Below is sitting on my proverbial nightstand waiting to be read.


Cormac McCathy 67 to 1

Scott: I really love McCarthy, a whole, whole lot, and I think he’s opened doors on to the American South and the American/Mexican border regions that nobody has ever opened before (and probably never will again). He’s also clearly one of the major writers in the American English vernacular. All that said, it’s not clear to me that these are things the Academy cares about.

Emily: Man, I love McCarthy, too. Is it a sign of my age that many of the writers on this list, Murakami, McCarthy, DeLillo, were the writers I read in my early twenties / late teens that blew my mind and made me want to write? In any case, I’d be pretty pleased if McCarthy won.


Don DeLillo 67 to 1

Scott: I feel like if DeLillo were to get the award now, it would be too much like a lifetime achievement award. He’s past his Nobel sell-by date. Probably there was a moment in the late ‘90s when DeLillo was looking as prophetic as he ever has been, when basically he was reaping the rewards of a lifetime of dedication and forward-looking writing that really captured the cultural moment of the developed world. Of course, then on 9/11/2001 DeLillo instantly became possibly the most belated writer in the history of literature (if not the most belated, high among them), and everything he’s done since then—which actually includes some pretty good writing—feels like an asterisk. So it just seems like his moment has passed, the world has moved on to different writers, different concerns.

Emily: That’s harsh, Scott, but I kind of see what you’re talking about. At one point, he was a god I was sure lived only in the pages of his books. Then, he was a writer I saw take part in a group reading of Italian-American authors in a Barnes & Noble in New York. Go figure.


Karl Ove Knausgaard 67 to 1

Scott: I’m not really sure on what grounds Knausgaard is a valid candidate for the Nobel Prize other than having pretty good literary celebrity status among European intellectuals at the moment. I don’t mean this as a dis. I like Knausgaard and his work. But his oeuvre at present basically is nowhere near what anyone would consider Nobel-worthy work.

Sarah: I agree, Scott. For one thing, Marcel Proust never won the Nobel. And if we’re going to go nominating celebrity writers, where’s Elena Ferrante? In fact, why is Joyce Carol Oates the only woman getting any decent odds . . . ?

Scott: That’s a great point—where is Elena Ferrante? If mystery and celebrity are our measures, she’s far beyond Knausgaard by now. And also, she’s got a much more complete oeuvre at this point than Knausgaard. And how could the Academy pass up the opportunity to get her to dox herself?

Emily: Yes, he’s a flavor-of-the-month still, which isn’t to say he won’t become much more. For some reason I’m really feeling Lydia Davis today: 51 to 1 everyone!

Scott: If it was strictly just a matter of quality of writing / contribution to literature Davis would be less than 10 to 1 odds in my book. But this is the Nobel, which seems congenitally disposed to hate the kinds of writing Davis does: small, abstract, weird, impossible-to-define, absurd, apolitical. I think maybe the last writer like this they honored was Gao Xingjian (2000) but he writes these gigantic novels that are pretty much the exact opposite of what Davis does, and he’s also Chinese, which probably didn’t hurt.


John Ashbery 101 to 1

Emily: Dear John: I’m on your team. Sure, the odds are high against you, but you’ve been writing influential poetry in America for decades. American poetry wouldn’t look the same without you. You’re beloved by many Europeans! Do your poems respond to political strife? Have you ruffled the feathers of an oppressive regime? While those things are not past your talents, dear John, your poetry has chosen, instead, to grapple with art, to search the interior, to stretch language. And I adore it. Love, Emily.

Dear Swedish Academy: Please seriously consider American poet John Ashbery for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He’s getting on in years. And he’s just swell. Yours, Emily

Scott: Emily, I really respect this outpouring of enthusiasm for Ashbery. I’m touched! In a way I’d kind of love for it to be him, but I’d also kind of hate for it to be him in a sort of poetry version of if Philip Roth got it (not a great comparison, exactly, but kinda makes sense?).

Emily: I do see what you’re saying, Scott. The Nobel Prize isn’t only about great writing and there are plenty of other ways to celebrate Asbhery. But he’s no Roth, that’s for sure. I guess when I think of a poet winning the Nobel, I often think of Seamus Heaney. And, while I think Ashbery is on par with Heaney as a poet, his political presence and public persona does not hold the same weight. Still, Team John consists of at least one.

AUDIO: Bela Shayevich in Conversation with Scott Esposito on Svetlana Alexievich

Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 12.05.53 PM

We were very proud to host acclaimed Russian translator Bela Shayevich discussing her translation of Second-Hand Time by 2015 Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich for our first Two Voices Salon of fall 2016. In this wide-ranging conversation, Shayevich delved into the challenges of translating from 70 years of different kinds of speech all across the immense geography of Russia, as well as discussing the necessity of footnotes to this project, critiques of Alexievich for fudging her facts, and what it was like to wake up and suddenly find out the author you were translating had just won a Nobel Prize.

Full audio of this event is below for your listening pleasure.


0:00 Introductions

2:00 What it was like the morning Alexievich won the Nobel Prize

6:08 Why translate Alexievich?, and the editing process for the book

7:39 What Second-Hand Time is about

13:03 The critique that Alexievich fudges her details

19:39 Translation challenges in Second-Hand Time and what’s up with the Russians and salami?

26:50 The footnotes in Second-Hand Time

30:50 The question of freedom in Alexievich’s work

35:40 Activism in Russia and the final monologue in Second-Hand Time

40:50 Audience Q & A

How Vila-Matas Got to the Garret

Attic bedroom

(Here, Scott Esposito writes about “Sea Swell,” found in Issue 25 of Two Lines. To read that and so many more translations, purchase the issue here.)

It’s hard to believe that Enrique Vila-Matas first became known to me nearly 10 years ago. I was living in Mexico and I happened to read an interview with him in the Mexican journal Tempesdad, right as New Directions was releasing the first two books of his ever to be translated into English: Bartleby & Co and Montano’s Malady. That was back in 2007, some 30 years after Vila-Matas had first begun publishing his work.

Ever since that first interview I’ve been a big fan of Vila-Matas, so it’s very much an honor to be featuring his work in Two Lines Issue 25, both in print (“Sea Swell”) and online (“Vampire in Love“).

I’d have to say that “Sea Swell” is the Seinfeld of Issue 25—it’s your quintessential story about nothing, the shaggy dog tale. It very much seems to come out of the Surrealist tradition of André Breton, sort of like a (strange) slice of life. Although (in correct Surrealist tradition) it lacks anything at all like an epiphany—maybe an anti-epiphany, if anything—and what you get is simply a lot of very weird texture adding up to . . . well, that’s hard to say. You just have to read it.


“Sea Swell” takes us back to the early days of Vila-Matas’s career, when he was a very young writer and was just beginning to venture out from Barcelona to the wider literary world. One of the first things he did was to go to Paris to meet his literary idols and learn from them how to become a true writer. It was there that he famously (or infamously) rented a small attic room from Marguerite Duras, where he wrote his second novel and received the wisdom of the ages from the French master.

Vila-Matas tells the story of his Parisian time with Duras at length in his novel Never Any End to Paris, and “Sea Swell,” which comes from the upcoming short story collection Vampire in Love, is a sort of prequel to it. Here, a terribly shy, disastrously awkward Vila-Matas gets hopped up on amphetamines and then is brought by his friend to Duras’s apartment to meet the legend for the first time.

She is cooking squid and managing to drop her lit cigarette into the pan while, implausibly, Sonia Orwell, the second wife of the English author George Orwell, looks on from the dining room. (In true Surrealist tradition, we never figure out exactly why Orwell is there.) In order to secure the attic for rent, Vila-Matas just needs to say a few charming things, but he can hardly get a word out. To make matters worse, his friend suddenly steals all the attention by concocting a bizarre and oddly detailed rant about being born in Atlantis.

It’s pure Vila-Matas—the whole story feels like some grossly distended MacGuffin (and Vila-Matas loves his MacGuffins, particularly when they’re grotesquely disproportionate). We’re not really sure if the narrator is Vila-Matas or not, if Sonia Orwell is that Sonia Orwell, what the point is, or what Atlantis has to do with anything.

But then, the ending, when it at last arrives, is completely unforeseeable and pitch perfect. There is something unquestionably true and deliciously enjoyable about reading this ridiculous, hard-to-believe quasi-reminiscence.

You can read “Sea Swell” and over a dozen more works from around the world in Issue 25. Also, subscriptions to Two Lines are absurdly cheap.