Audio: Donald Nicholson-Smith on Abdellatif Laâbi

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We were very pleased to host French translator Donald Nicholson-Smith to discuss his translation of the career-spanning collection of Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi work In Praise of Defeat. Newly released by Archipelago Books, In Praise of Defeat is a massive selection of 40 years of work from the poet many consider the leading voice of his generation in North African poetry. Nicholson-Smith was in conversation with Two Lines Press’s Scott Esposito/

Below you will find full audio of this event. Because of a recording error, the introductions do not appear on this audio. It begins with Nicholson-Smith discussing Laâbi’s career.

And here is a bio for Nicholson-Smith. In addition to translating Laâbi, Donald Nicholson-Smith has translated French intellectuals and authors including Gianfranco Sanguinetti, Guy Debord, Antonin Artaud, Henri Lefebvre, and Jean-Patrick Manchette. He has worked with Seagull Books, New York Review Books, City Lights, University of California Press, and many others.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

0:00 Donald Nicholson-Smith overviewing Laâbi’s life and career

5:30 Laâbi’s “prison poetry”

8:50 a reading of some of Laâbi’s prison poetry

13:15 The challenges of translating Laâbi’s poetry and Nicholson-Smith’s unique approach

22:50 The reasons for publishing Laâbi’s poerty bilingually in French and English, and the advantages to this presentation

29:00 Why Laâbi to chose to write in French and what this meant for Morocco’s poet tradition

36:05 Audience Q & A

The 2017 Two Lines Press Holiday Subscription Offer

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Tis the season to spread some holiday cheer, curl up by the fire with a good book—and re-up (or begin) your Two Lines Press subscription for 2017!

If you’re a U.S. resident and are ready to subscribe, click right here!

Two Lines also makes the perfect gift! If you’d like to give a subscription to that literature-lover on your list, just enter the recipient’s name and address instead of your own during checkout.

2017 is going to be a special year. In addition to Atlantic Hotel by João Gilberto Noll (tr. Adam Morris) and My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye (tr. Jordan Stump), we’re also going to have a new book by our widely acclaimed East German master Wolfgang Hilbig (tr. Isabel Fargo Cole), plus a novel by Granta Best of Young Spanish-Language author Elvira Navarro (tr. Christina MacSweeney). And of course, two new issues of our flagship journal Two Lines, fully redesigned and in two colors!

To help get you in the holiday spirit, we’re knocking the price all the way down to $45, plus shipping ($90 if you live outside the U.S.), and we’re going to give you a bonus.

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The first 15 subscribers will get a signed copy of Naja Marie Aidt’s acclaimed book-in-stories, Baboon. Subscribers thereafter will get the two most recent issues of Two Lines (#25 and #24).

To order, just use these buttons:

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12/8: Two Voices Salon with Chris Andrews in Conversation on César Aira

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On Thursday, December 8, join us as super-translator Chris Andrews discusses his in-depth and wide-ranging work with Argentine maestro César Aira on the occasion of the publication of Aira’s Ema the Captive in Andrews’ translation. Andrews will be in conversation with Two Lines Press’s Scott Esposito.

The author of over 80 books in his native Spanish, Aira has seen more than a dozen of them translated into English in recent years as his reputation has caught fire. Andrews, his lead translator, will provide rare insight into Aira’s surreal and playful works, which also discussing the sizable challenges an author like Aira presents.

As always, free snacks and alcoholic beverages. Doors at 5:30, event starts promptly at 6:00 pm.

  • Chris Andrews in conversation with Scott Esposito on César Aira
  • Doors 5:30, event 6:00 – 7:00
  • Two Lines Press offices
  • 582 Market St., Suite 700, San Francisco, CA 94104
  • Free snacks and beverages

Tell Us Your Tryst! #tweetyourtryst

This week we’re publishing Trysting by Emmanuelle Pagano (tr. Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis) an amazing, fragmentary collection of nearly 300 vignettes from relationships of all types, reminiscent of Edouard Levé, Maggie Nelson, and Marguerite Duras.

Trysts can be any relationship moment, from breakups to makeups, everything in between, and everything that happens before or after. They can involve almost any household item, a lot of things you can’t find in households, and kind of pairing (or more) imaginable, and they can be risque or perfectly chaste. It’s all about capturing the full spectrum of that thing we call love.

You can order Trysting with one click, or get it as part of a 2016 subscription and save almost 50%!

To celebrate, we asked a number of writers, booksellers, and other friend to share a tryst with us. So here are our trysts after Trysting.

And we’d love to see yours! Share them with us on Twitter at @TwoLinesPress with the hashtag #tweetyourtryst

Here are our trysts:

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Lauren Elkin, author of Flâneuse

That day when we were together from 10 in the morning to midnight, when you didn’t leave my side even once, when you sat in all the chairs that were beside me in every place we went, the day before the day before you left, I felt like I was carrying around an anvil with me. You asked me why I was quiet and I could only point, wordlessly, to the anvil.

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Lauren Cerand

As I walked out of the restaurant, I asked the maître d’—handsome, younger, six and a half feet tall—to call me a car. Noting my accent, he asked, “How long will you be in town?” “Just ’til tomorrow.” “Oh, that’s too bad.” “Why, what do you want to show me?” “Meet me at Raoul’s in Jericho at midnight.” I certainly did.

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Mark Haber, Brazos Bookstore

It was her laugh that ended it. Her laugh that made me call it quits. At dinner, over coffee, sitting adjacent or across from or ever too-close at the movies, it erupted from her mouth like a bird in distress. A cackle. A shriek. I tried to be patient. I told myself, a laugh isn’t everything. I considered her good qualities, of which there were infinite. I weighed them against her flaws of which there were . . . what? Did she even have flaws? Everyone adored her. She was as perfect as a single soul could be. She was thoughtful, kind, gave of herself through myriad acts tossed off in the easy glow of her good nature. She volunteered on weekends at the soup kitchen; readily bequeathed spare coins to the needy. And beautiful too; stunning to observe bending to collect her clothes or pouring steaming water for tea. Redheaded. Pale. A face whose perfect symmetry betrayed the cacophony that left her mouth and forced me, at what would be our final dinner, to end things. Anyone who says a laugh is something minor, some trifling iota of the human soul, knows very little about people. And thresholds.

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Sarah Coolidge, Two Lines Press

When you’re driving all night along the dark freeway, there are only two kinds of music: that which will keep you awake and that which will not. We rotated through every CD and cassette tape in the car during those late night hours. Listening to everything from Dave van Ronk to Jay Z. We found that Blink 182 could keep you alert for 40 minutes before the power chords transported you to a sleep-like paralysis. Bob Dylan was only useful for the first 3 tracks, his harmonica jolting you from the lull of headlights bending around guard rails, until he too dissolved into the hum of the highway. Mix CDs were great, but you had to skip the slow songs, which made them good for only about seven songs

We had planned to stop in Detroit, but decided to push through and try to get to campus by morning, in order to see the sun rise over the Hudson River. We were practically the only car on the road. The semis hurdled past, going 80 in a 65, making up for the daylight hours in which they were forced to ride the brake, single file in the right lane. We tried to peer into the windows as they passed, but only ever caught a flash of a silhouette before the white cargo container took its place and whisked them off.

We pulled off the highway just as the sky was turning from black to dark blue. After twenty minutes on the winding country roads—left at the white barn, right at the fork, the familiar dips and curves—we reached the dirt parking lot of the library. The sun was just beginning to peak up over the trees, as we slid into the back of the car and tried to get comfortable on the seat. It was too early to call anyone for a place to crash. And we were too tired, anyways. So I curled my body around hers and we drifted off under the white lights of the parking lot.

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Naja Marie Aidt, author of Baboon and Rock, Paper, Scissors

When we first met he sat down in a worn out office chair in the farthest end of the room. I didn’t want to get up from my desk. I worried that he wouldn’t adore my pants. I noticed that his nails were very long. I got the impression that he was a classical guitar player. He was not. Four months later he moved in with me and my three kids. I liked the way he slept. I would stay awake all night to watch over him. His dreams seemed so much more dramatic and interesting than mine. The way his hair got all sweaty aroused me.

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Scott Esposito, Two Lines Press

A hot summer, we spent our days in a stuffy garret office typing letters. They were by a gray eminence who had waited over 100 years to have his private missives brought to light. He could wait a little longer. We slowed down our pace and talked. Jobs, the real world, whether or not our degrees would factor into any of that. She liked books a lot. I showed her how I brought my coffee every morning in a thermos with a little cup in the lid. She found it cute. Before long, from her bag she pulled a thermos full of coffee with a little cup in the lid. Morning after morning we drank our coffee together there and talked. Then one day she didn’t show up. I waited, waited; fifteen minutes; half an hour; an hour. Her seat was still just as empty. That whole office had never felt so empty. I asked around and someone told me she was going to be out for a week. As the days passed by I began to miss her. And so I knew, when she came back I should ask her to have a coffee after work.

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Brad Johnson, Diesel, a Bookstore

The transition form 1999 to 2000 was supposed to change the world—machines were to grind to a halt, planes plummet from the sky. None of that panned out, but it was the setting for the beginning of my tryst. The plumes of weed smoke at the New Years Eve party had sent us both to the backyard of the house, whose residents we knew only through others—and we didn’t know one another, this Belgian (visiting but for a week) and I (visiting but for the night). We were mellow (see again, the plumes of smoke above), and chatty. I don’t remember the details much, other than the abiding fact that I preferred being out there in the cold with her.

Eventually, when the silences grew longer than the temperature would comfortably allow, we returned to our respective parties within the party. We didn’t speak again until we helped one another find our coats among those heaped on a bed. Zipping up, we agreed it was nice to have met. She politely suggested that should I ever be in Belgium I should look her up.

Four months later, I impolitely did just that.

Sixteen years later, we’ve never left a party without one another again.

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Angela Woodward, from her novel End of the Fire Cult

“What if we got a dog?” I said. “We could walk her in the evenings, rambling around the neighborhood, looking in people’s windows when they haven’t drawn the curtains yet.”

I was unable to conceive because of some earlier complications, and we had stopped discussing that.

“Is that how you see us now,” he said, “out for an evening stroll with Sheppie?”

“Sheppie!” I said. “Or Biscuit.”

That’s all we needed to do, walk down the street, our gloved hands sometimes bumping. That would have been enough for me. When we first met, he’d told me a particularly vivid dream he’d had about me, that he had been standing in line at the grocery store and I was at the next station. I had come over to his line, to stand behind him, and neither of us had spoken. He was strongly affected by this dream, the simple offering of my company. He used to plead with me not to leave him. “Even if I ask you to go,” he said, “I need you to remember that you shouldn’t.” I had promised to stay with him no matter what, but privately I didn’t consider this kind of contract enforceable.

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Emily Wolahan, Two Lines Press

A hot night in August. He doesn’t have air conditioning. He lives in a fifth-floor walk-up and sleeps in a room with a bed shoved into the closet so that when we lie down, we look at his clothes hanging above us. I focus on the cuffs of his three work shirts, which are white, but the edge of the cuff is gray. The bedroom window is a shaft-way window and pigeons are perched on the ledge of the one opposite, where a sticker has been placed in the middle of the pane. I have to look at it a long time before I realize it’s Hello Kitty’s face. He likes to refer to the roof as the sixth floor. Late, he calls me and says, Come over. I get there before midnight and he has moved his bed up the stairs to the sixth floor, exactly above where it usually sits in his room. Like it floated up, through the ceiling, without getting filthy. I don’t think it’s any cooler up here, but he says, I like the air, takes off his shoes and jeans and shirt. Lies on the bed looking up. I lie next to him, keep everything on, my bag still strapped across my body, and look up to the same spot.

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Michael Seidlinger, author of The Strangest

Where there used to be a text message in anticipation, there is only now a conversation archived, a reminder of days so much simpler—where I hadn’t thought twice about what I said—so much simpler than now, where even the act of looking at myself in the mirror becomes a trigger, the result of which is the reopening of that archived conversation, rereading every single word, the last few lines being the ones that so effectively placed so much distance between us. I read and recite them by heart, as if by doing so the distance might somehow seem that much smaller.

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Joanna Walsh, author of Hotel and Vertigo

I saw him today, where he lives in North London. We lay in bed all afternoon & he put on Ride, who I used to go see in Oxford in the ’90s, then he went to sleep, leaving the record on the turntable where it clicked & hissed its final cycle on repeat, and I wondered if it was rain.

Salon Preview: “I exist, / rebel”: In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

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Next week we’re going to be joined by Donald Nicholson-Smith to talk about his deft translation of In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi, a career-spanning work by a poet widely considered to be the leading contemporary voice in North African poetry. I recently had the chance to immerse myself in Laâbi’s In Praise of Defeat, and it was a memorable experience.

Poet, activist, former prisoner, exile—these words all define Laâbi, and each of these identities exists in the liminal space of being and not being. These are the spaces where a poet observes, an activist takes action, a prisoner leaves one prison for that of memory, and an exile is present in his current city, one foot remaining in his home country. What makes Laâbi so important for me is how he as made these liminal spaces his own.

As In Praise of Defeat shows, Laâbi’s early poems are poems of protest and of incarceration. They powerfully evoke the need for poetry to bear witness. Laâbi was jailed in Kenitra Prison 1972 for because of his writing and as a co-founder of Souffles, the influential literary journal. He was sentenced to ten years and served eight, spending some of that time in solitary confinement. His poems detail the torture that he suffered.

The powerful poem “Beneath the Gag, the Poem,” an excerpt of which appears in In Praise of Defeat, is at once account of torture and incarceration, a cry to humans and poets to bear witness, and evidence of the transporting power of metaphor. The directive “Write, write, never stop” propels “Beneath the Gag.” As a poet of witness, Laâbi explores how memory and the need to record the experience are the primary tools at hand:

Write.
When indifference vanishes. When everything speaks to me. When my memory gets rough and its waves break against the shores of my eyes.

I tear amnesia apart, rise up as an armed and implacable reaper of what is happening to me, of what has happened to me.

In “Beneath the Gag,” you can feel the writer trying to survive. The pace at which the poem is delivered, the passion, and the choice of metaphors conveys a singular mind attempting to sustain itself and not break. That command over metaphor, knowing when to use some metaphorical language and when to keep his words startlingly unadorned, makes the poem more than just a chronicle; it is an experience.

This is just the beginning, as In Praise of Defeat spans 40 years of Laâbi’s writing, from 1972 through 2014. If this kind of powerful, visceral poetry is your kind of thing, we hope you’ll join us on November 10 when Nicholson-Smith discusses Laâbi’s entire career in depth and delves into the challenges of bring such remarkable words to life in English.

Here are the details if you’re able to join us at the Salon:

  • Thursday, November 10
  • doors 5:30, event 6:00
  • Two Lines Press offices, 582 Market St., Suite 700, San Francisco, CA 94104
  • free drinks and snacks

The Summer of Bolaño: Q and A with Mark Haber of Brazos Books

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Mark Haber of Brazos Books is one of the indispensable booksellers of the translation scene. If you’re on social media, you’ve probably seen him pushing fantastic authors like Yuri Herrera and Enrique Vila-Matas, and if you’ve ever visited Brazos Books in Houston, you’ve probably seen his staff recs and thoughtful floor displays. Maybe he’s even handsold you a great title.

Mark is dear to us at Two Lines, and, in fact, he’s given our latest book, Trysting, a wonderful rave—”universal, yet utterly personal . . . beguiling and uncategorizable, it celebrates the joys and heartbreaks of being alive.” (We liked it so much that we printed it at the top of the back cover!)

In addition to all of those things Mark does to push great literature, he also runs Brazos’s book group, which recently finished up a multi-session reading of Roberto Bolaño’s massive novel 2666. Although 2666 is among Bolaño’s most popular works, even with that book’s great popularity, it’s no mean feat to get 40+ people eager to tackle it and produce remarkable conversations around it.

Our own Sarah Coolidge recently corresponded with Mark to find out about his experiences running the Bolaño book group and helping readers discover great works of translated literature.

Sarah Coolidge: Can you tell me about the book group at Brazos Bookstore? How long has it been going on and how long have you been a part of it?

Mark Haber: The Brazos book group has been going on for many years, I don’t now the exact number, but I inherited the group when our old book buyer left about two-and-a-half years ago. We meet once a month and we vote for the book we want to read next, so it’s very democratic. I cull the store and choose five or six titles for the group to vote on, almost always leaning toward fiction, but there’s always at least one non-fiction in the mix, memoir or something similar.

SC: What are some of your favorite books from the book group? Which generated the best discussions?

MH: Some of my favorite books and similarly, ones that generated the best discussions would be Stoner by John Williams, The Door by Magda Szabo, The Hare with Amber Eyes (surprisingly), The Infatuations by Javier Marías, The Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda , The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, and lesser-known works like Dreamers of the Absolute by Anna Sun published by Sylph Editions. We actually were able to livetweet questions to Anna Sun when we had our book group.

SC: Did 2666 in particular draw a lot of attention? How many people took part in the discussions?

MH: 2666 drew a lot of attention. A lot more than I expected. We began choosing a big book for the summer months (June through August), three years ago. The first year we did Swann’s Way and last summer we did Don Quixote. I really wanted to try something a little more daring and contemporary. As anyone who knows me realizes, I’m a Bolaño fanatic, so any chance to reread 2666 and discuss his writing was welcome. The first meeting we had around forty people, which is just enormous, really, almost too big for an intimate discussion. And, unlike previous years, the book groups didn’t really get smaller as the summer wore on. July and August had about thirty-plus people. Unlike last summer; Don Quixote started out big but by the end of summer there were like eight of us.

SC: 2666 seems like a tough book to tackle in a book group. Bolaño is known for amassing details and leaving it to his readers to piece them together. And the book is made up of five very distinct sections, only loosely related. How did you deal with covering such a massive and intricate novel in a limited amount of time?

MH: Covering Bolaño, especially 2666, had its challenges. But we tried to tackle each third of the book as it came. Many people hadn’t read him before and, admittedly, it’s not the ideal starting point for reading Bolaño. What a lot of people in the group had to come to terms with, and they said this, was letting the story just flow, to stop caring about what details were and were not important. Because 2666 is packed with digressions and characters. If you give too much importance to a character, they’ll likely end up dying or disappearing. A lot of people in the group enjoyed the routes Bolaño would take the reader on, and just as many people resented it, I think! All that aside, each book group could’ve lasted another hour probably. We discussed a lot of the broad strokes and what we thought were Bolaño’s intentions. We discussed the role of dreams in the novel, as well as the sense of impending doom. We all agreed Bolaño must’ve been a huge David Lynch fan because 2666 feels a lot like a Lynch film. But, in all fairness to Bolaño, I find him to be an immensely readable writer, so even at its most difficult parts, the language is always stellar. I find Bolaño a pleasure to read, and that’s important.

SC: Several sections of the book take place in the fictional, crime-ridden Mexican city Santa Teresa, based on Ciudad Juárez. And the section “The Part about the Crimes” deals specifically with the city’s epidemic of female murders in the 1990s and early 2000s. What was the discussion like about this section? Did people have trouble talking about it? Did you reach any kind of consensus about why Bolaño wrote this section the way he did?

MH: I warned the group before we started “The Part about the Crimes” and was almost apologetic when we met to discuss it. However, not a single person was offended by the section, even though a lot of people wondered why it had to be so long. Many argued its length was the point. Murder and violence perpetuated and never solved has to be given scope. It can’t simply be an article or two from a newspaper. Also, we repeatedly returned to the quote from Baudelaire at the beginning of the novel, “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.” There are a thousand ways to decipher that quote. Is Santa Teresa the desert? What is the oasis? Are the murders so frequent that they’ve become numbing and boring? I think our overall consensus was that the style of the writing, cold and detached like a police report, was the only sensible way to express the lack of sense in all of these murdered women.

SC: Do you think that living in Texas, as opposed to anywhere else in the country, had any effect on how the group related to this part of the novel? Were people familiar with the real life murders over the border?

MH: Geography had a vital part in how we discussed the novel. Here in Houston, the sheer number of Spanish-speaking people is enormous. One of my favorite people in the book group, whom I consider a friend, is a medical student who grew up in Northern Mexico. All of his immediate family still lives in Monterrey. He read the book alongside us, but in the original Spanish, and we’d often ask him questions about maquiladoras and large-scale corruption and lots of the slang or expressions used in the book. We asked a lot of social questions. One thing he said that I doubt I’ll forget is that when he was finished with the book he simply cried. He cried because he said the causes of all of this are too manifold to consider solving or even fighting a single way. It’s not a serial killer, it’s not corrupt police or corrupt politicians or a corrupt society, that’s all too easy, he said. It’s all of it. There were also a few members of the book group who knew people affected by the murders in the ’90s or knew of people that were.

SC: How did you prepare to discuss this book? Did you do any research on Bolaño? On Ciudad Juárez? Did you search for a real Archimboldi? Do you think context adds anything to the reading of this novel?

MH: Honestly, I didn’t do a lot of research. My real research was reading the novel. I already know a lot of personal details about Bolaño’s life that I’d share with the group if they were relevant. But mainly the book, I think the book is the thing. I did a little research into the real-life murders, but Bolaño wrote this book while living in Spain, he hadn’t been back to Mexico in decades, so even though his research was deep, it was still a work of fiction.

SC: Did you find that talking about the novel as a group clarified anything? Or did it only generate more unanswered questions?

MH: For me, and I think I can speak for everyone else, talking about the book as a group helped immensely. Even when you’re confused by something, isn’t it always nice to find another person who’s as confused as you? Plus, we were able to answer people’s questions, give one another context for the novel’s setting as well as what Bolaño was trying to do in the canon of large-scale books like Moby-Dick or Infinite Jest.

SC: Do you read many books in translation in the book group? Have you noticed a growing interest in translated literature at Brazos Bookstore and/or nationwide?

MH: We read a lot of books in translation in the book group. Mainly my personal tastes (and luckily the group’s personal tastes) run that way, so when we choose from a group of 5 or 6 books, at least half are probably translated. In fact, our past three summers, all the “big” books have been translated: Proust, Cervantes, and Bolaño. In the three-plus years I’ve worked at Brazos I have seen a huge interest in international/translated literature. It seems more accepted in general, but also a deeper interest in writers from other countries seems to have emerged. Magda Szabó’s The Door, a book written by a Hungarian woman and originally published in the 1980s (I think) was this runaway hit for the store, months before The New York Times named it one of their top 10 books last year. I mean, we’re a small independent bookstore in Houston and we’ve sold almost 350 copies of this book! But yes, in general, the interest in translated literature only seems to be growing stronger. People will come in and ask for books by Valeria Luiselli or Elena Ferrante, and that’s really encouraging. Plus, the things that Open Letter, Deep Vellum, New Directions, Two Lines Press, and Seagull are doing are really exciting.

SC: What books are you reading next in the book group?

MH: We were reading Pale Fire by Nabakov, and then Walker Percy’s classic, The Moviegoer. I’m not sure about November yet since we still have to vote.

Two Voices Salon: Donald Nicholson-Smith on Moroccan Poet Abdellatif Laâbi

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Abdellatif Laâbi is without a doubt the major francophone voice of Moroccan poetry today, and Donald Nicholson-Smith has translated a massive, career-spanning collection of his work, In Praise of Defeat. Join us for the next Two Voices Salon on November 10, as we present a spirited discussion of this classic and contemporary Moroccan poet.

Per Wikipedia, “Laâbi was imprisoned, tortured, and sentenced to ten years in prison for ‘crimes of opinion’ (for his political beliefs and his writings) and served a sentence from 1972-1980. He was, in 1985, forced into exile in France.” His poetry is a gripping, visceral trip through that experience, as well as the politics and events in the years to follow, including such incidents as the Atocha Station bombings in 2004.

Donald Nicholson-Smith is a leading translator of French literature, with over a dozen titles to his credit, including titles with City Lights, New York Review Books, University of California Press, and Seagull Books. Join us as he talks about his impressive career and this remarkable poet.

As always, the Two Voices Salon provides free beverages and snacks, plus great conversations and new translation-loving friends!

  • Thursday, November 10
  • doors 5:30, event 6:00
  • Two Lines Press offices, 582 Market St., Suite 700, San Francisco, CA 94104
  • free drinks and snacks

One French Philosopher’s Obsession with Stones

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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.

and

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

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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.


CONTENTS

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”

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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.