In the river Maeander there is said to be a stone called “wise” by contradiction; for, if one puts it into anyone’s lap, he goes mad, and murders one of his relations.
— from De Mirabilibus Auscultationibus (On Marvellous Things Heard), found in Aristotle - Minor Works, trans. W. S. Hett.
Tell me, if I caught you one day
and kissed the sole of your foot,
wouldn’t you limp a little then,
afraid to crush my kiss?…
— Nichita Stănescu, “A Poem” from Bas-Relief with Heroes, trans. Thomas Carlson
Poetry is the weeping eye
it is the weeping shoulder
the weeping eye of the shoulder
it is the weeping hand
the weeping eye of the hand
it is the weeping soul
the weeping eye of the heel.
Oh, you friends,
poetry is not a tear
it is the weeping itself
— Nichita Stănescu, from “Poetry”, Bas-Relief with Heroes, trans. Thomas Carlson
You mustn’t be afraid of people, my friend, people are only flesh.
— Jakov Lind, from Landscape in Concrete, trans. Ralph Manheim
(Paintings: Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962)
No one reads Reinhard Lettau (1929-96), a German-American writer, activist, and scholar who wrote: numerous short stories, a radio play, critical works, poetry, English translations (with Ferlinghetti) of love poems by Karl Marx; and, whenever permissible, avoided noting his middle name: Adolf.
Among the vast archipelago of short(-short) fiction—near the islands of Buzzati, Calvino, Thurber, Barthelme, and Hildesheimer—there is the seldom visited and often uncharted islet of Lettau’s short works. Chief thereof is found in his American debut Obstacles (1965), a volume that contains English translations of his first two books of stories: Schwierigkeiten beim Häuserbauen (Difficulties in Housebuilding, 1962) and Auftritt Manigs (Enter Manig, 1963).
The 21 of the three- to eight-page prose pieces that comprise Difficulties in Housebuilding are Lettau at his most charming and inventive. A favourite of mine is the epistolary “Potemkin’s Carriage Passes Through”; here is an excerpt that reveals the essence of the book (my emphasis):
April 11, 1784
[…] Of course the roofers are really painters, and so are the glaziers who insert windows with deft brushes. The bricklayers are painters and so are the masons; the only people who work at their true trade here are the stagehands who put up the scaffoldings and lent a hand with our lodgings. But since then no one’s seen them do any work. I am told that they are lying around drinking behind the wooden wall that looks like a tavern from the road. One of them supposedly had the idea of throwing a stone through one of the not-so-well-painted windows in the village, the other day, and replacing it with real glass. If this practice spreads, I almost fear for the success of my mission.
April 12, 1784
The meaning of my last sentence in yesterday’s annotations can best be illustrated by the fact that more and more fake window fronts have, since then, been replaced by real ones. […] Sometimes I can’t help feeling that we are in reality building two villages: a false one and a real one, without actually wanting to build the real one, as though it were growing by itself out of the false one, as if by necessity.
All the stories in the American (Pantheon) edition are translated by the prolific Ursule Molinaro. The British (Calder & Boyars) edition of Obstacles (1966) supplants eight of Molinaro’s translations with new ones by Ellen Sutton and adds a Sutton translation of another Lettau story (“The Road”) to the end of the first book. However, in all eight cases, I prefer Molinaro’s translations for their economy and diction, and her in-sentence sequencing of events makes for better poetic and comedic effects.
[The 57 shorts, none longer than a page, are centered on the character Manig, who] is treated like a tracing powder that is thrown into turbulent water to expose hidden currents: Lettau uses Manig to isolate and depict behavioral patterns, only to cleverly undo them. Manig is portrayed predominately through pantomime, and some of his gesticulations are clownlike. […] Lettau disrupts reality by equating the thing with the word and the absolute with the relative, and by separating image from reality through leaps in logic and optical illusions.
Lettau’s other works in English translation:
- Enemies (1973), Agnes Rook’s translation of Fiende (1963). A six story collection that is best saved for completists, because the set of three new stories ridiculing war are outdone by the two similar war stories in Obstacles: “A Campaign” and “A Pause Between Battles”. The three shorter, supplemental stories, one of which is Rook’s version of “The Road”, are also redundant.
- Breakfast in Miami (1982), Lettau’s and Julie Prandi’s translation of his radio play Frühstücksgespräche im Miami (1977). Caricatures of deposed dictators meet in Miami and say their piece. Yet another only for the completist, but, on the strength of Obstacles, I remain optimistic about his still untranslated later works, which can be found—with promising cover art—in Alle Geschichten (Complete Stories, 1998).
For more about his life and writings:
- BookRags.com has most of the DLB’s article on Lettau.
- The obituary from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where Lettau taught Writing and German Literature from 1968-90.
(Images: the cover art is by Günter Grass; here’s an online gallery of Grass’ graphic work, 1972-2007.)
GPOY: Meine (geistliche) Geburtsort
Nobody knows why everything around here is so placental, but everybody realizes that it’s normal, because here everything is normal. This is my town.
A town made of Liptauer cream cheese, Lipizzaner horses and Lilliputians of roast chicken, bauernschmaus, liver dumplings and liver sausage, a rhyme, a phrase, a proverb and perhaps not even that but only a waistline, a shoe size, a collar size, a hat size and perhaps not even that but only the family vault of Maria Theresa and Franz Josef and the children Kalifati, Rübezahl, Krampus, and Nikolo Christkindl and Andreas Hofer, who died of scarlet fever, whooping cough, measles, chicken pox and Basedow’s disease.
In the municipal hospital, where the saviour was born into the world, the saviour of Kahlenberg, who went upstream to Kriau to free Richard Lowenherz from Mauthausen, but now he too is dead and buried at the central cemetry, to sleep forever side by side with Lueger and Seitz Kaltenbrunner and Mozart. There he lies with Dollfuss and Fey and Robert Stricker of the Zionist league, and Prince Eugene, who freed Vienna from the Turks, and the heroes of the Karlmarxhof and the heroes of the Heimwehr, and nobody knows how there can conceivably be such a city.
Which calls itself the teat of the occident and has suckled nothing but madness.
— Jakov Lind, from Ergo, trans. Ralph Manheim
How dark it is. The moon must have stolen away secretly. The stars have thrown their spears down and departed.
Excerpt from “Anticipate Doom: The Millions Interviews László Krasznahorkai”
TM: Your contemporary Péter Esterházy writes, “The nineteenth-century sentence was long-winded, the meaning wandering through long periodic structures, and in any case the Hungarian long sentence is a dubious formation because the words do not have genders and the subordinate clauses are more uncertainly connected to the main clauses than in the reassuring rigor of a Satzbau (German sentence construction). Such sentences totter along, uncertain even of themselves, stammer a little; in short are extremely lovable.” Does Esterházy’s description fit your own conception of your long ecstatic sentences?
LK: No, I don’t think that means anything to me. Esterházy is probably thinking of certain 19th-century Hungarian writers, or of a particular kind of writer, I can’t tell, but what he says certainly doesn’t apply to Hungarian literature as a whole and not at all to the Hungarian language in general: it is particularly untrue of my own way with sentences. It seems to me that this definition reflects his own literary practice and that the generalization that follows from it is only natural. If I go on to consider my “ecstatically long sentences,” at first nothing particular comes to mind. Then, on reconsideration, I suspect that these long ecstatic sentences have no relation to theory or to any idea I might have about the Hungarian language, or indeed any language, but are the direct products of the “ecstatic” heroes of my books, that they proceed directly from them. It is not me but they who serve as narrators behind the book. I myself am silent, utterly silent in fact. And since that is the case I can hear what these heroic figures are saying, my task then being simply to transcribe them. So the sentences in question are really not mine but are uttered by those in whom some wild desire is working, the desire being that those to whom they address their sentences should understand them correctly and unconditionally. That desire lends their speeches a mad urgency. The urgency is the style. And one more thing: the speeches these heroes are so desperate to rattle off are not the book, not in the least! The book is a medium, a vehicle for their speeches. They are so convinced of the overwhelming importance of what they have to say, that their language is intended to produce a magical effect without necessarily carrying a concrete meaning: it is an embodiment of the ecstasy of persuasion by magic, the momentum of the desire for understanding.
No one reads Junnosuke Yoshiyuki (1924-94), a prolific Japanese author who wrote short stories, novel(la)s, essays, translations of stories by Henry Miller and Kingsley Amis, and, for a time, edited and wrote for—what he later described—a “third-rate” scandal sheet.
With the additional intent of briefly highlighting anthologies of Japanese literature, here is an annotated list of Yoshiyuki’s writings available in English translation:
- “Sudden Shower” (Shūu), trans. Geoffrey Bownas, New Writing in Japan (Penguin, 1972). This is the anthology that Bownas compiled with the legendary Yukio Mishima, they completed their collaboration just a few months before Mishima’s coup attempt and seppuku. In the introductory essay, Mishima wrote:
The delicacy of Yoshiyuki’s language and sensibility is probably more subtle and sophisticated than that of any Japanese writer since the war. “Sudden Shower” is not just a love story; Yoshiyuki gives us first-hand experience of the woman’s sensuality and we are made to feel somehow like skin-divers on the sea-bed of man’s passions and emotions. […] The lyricism of Yoshiyuki’s writing is semi-neurotic and, by restricting his subject, he is able to convey a deeply sensual experience in a world as confined as a bath-tub. The idée fixe of Japanese youth today—that love is impossible and impracticable—lies deep at the root of Yoshiyuki’s thinking.“Sudden Shower” was Yoshyuki’s first literary success, he was lying sick in a hospital bed when he was told that it had just won the 1954 Akutagawa Prize. (Also, this collection begins with Bownas’ translations of two excellent stories by other Japanese writers no one reads, “Icarus” by Taruho Inagaki and “Cosmic Mirror” by Yutaka Haniya.)
- The Dark Room (Anshitsu), trans. John Bester (Kodansha, 1975; orig. 1970). Yoshiyuki’s only novel, thus far, available in English. It was awarded the Tanizaki Prize. With that said, he is often compared to Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, and they do have much in common, but Yoshiyuki’s subdued style makes his writings bleaker and more haunting. The narrator’s pessimism toward domesticity and procreation is the basis of this disconcerting novel—however, I think Yoshiyuki achieves as much or even outdoes this novel with some of his shorter works.
- “In Akiko’s Room” (Shōfu no heya; literally, “A Prostitute’s Room”), trans. Howard Hibbett, Contemporary Japanese Literature: An Anthology of Fiction, Film and Other Writing Since 1945 (Alfred A. Knopf, 1977). Another historic anthology; the 2005 reprint is a bit pricey and it only adds a two-page preface by Hibbett, so look for the older editions.
- “Are the Trees Green?” (Kigi wa midori ka), trans. Adam Kabat, The Shōwa Anthology - Modern Japanese Short Stories, 1929-1984 (Kodansha, 1985). One of my favourite Yoshiyuki stories, and it’s only found in this must-have anthology, which features neglected authors and lesser-known stories by well-known authors, e.g., Kōbō Abe, Ōe, Kawabata. (Note: it’s common that sellers only have one of the volumes from the older, two-volume edition: Yoshiyuki is in the first book.)
- “Three Policemen” (Sannin no keikan), trans. Hugh Clarke, The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories (1997). Even though this anthology covers a broader timespan, and it’s easier to track down, I prefer the overall selections in the aforementioned anthologies. “Three Policemen” is a quick and entertaining introduction to Yoshiyuki’s portraits of (postwar) nightlife.
- “Personal Baggage”, trans. John Bester, The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, vol. 2 of 2 (2007). The most ambitious and comprehensive anthology to date. (One of the editors, Van C. Gessel, also worked on the above Shōwa collection.) “Personal Baggage” is a clear example of what Yoshiyuki meant by “internal realism”, a term he proposed as a more accurate classification of his later works. The story is a nightmarish and disorientating account of the mind’s unsteadiness and unreliable self-righting mechanism.
- Fair Dalliance: Fifteen Stories by Yoshiyuki Junnosuke and its companion Toward Dusk and Other Stories were published by Kurodahan Press in 2011. Fair Dalliance features two biographical essays on Yoshiyuki and fifteen previously uncollected stories that span his diverse career; “My Bed is a Boat”, “The Man Who Fired the Bath”, “I Ran Over a Cat”, “Three Dreams”, “The Flies”, and “Katsushika Ward” are my favourites from the collection. Toward Dusk and Other Stories opens with an interesting exegesis on Yoshiyuki’s fiction, and presents nine previously uncollected short stories, plus the title novella; “Burning Dolls”, “The Molester”, “Treatment”, and the seven (somewhat loosely connected) chapters of “Toward Dusk” are the standouts for me.
For more online material about Yoshiyuki and his works, see:
- “Obituary: Junnosuke Yoshiyuki”, one of the three hundred obituaries the poet and translator James Kirkup contributed to The Independent. (Fittingly, here’s a snippet from The Independent’s obituary for Kirkup: “He was a one-man world literature necrology department, […] an evangelist for the untranslated […]”.)
- Two reviews of The Dark Room: one by Nihon Distractions and another by Bibliophilia Obscura.
- A review of Toward Dusk and Other Stories in The Japan Times.
(Image: the front cover of the first edition of The Dark Room: “Jacket design by S. Katakura, incorporating a pen-and-ink drawing by Masuo Ikeda from My Imagination Map (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1974).” Ikeda was also a film director and an award-winning novelist, see: obituary (another by Kirkup), blog article, web gallery, and 50 Watts.)
A woodcut by Russell Edson, from The Brain Kitchen (1965).
(It’s a shame that The Tunnel, the only readily available anthology of Edson’s oeuvre, doesn’t feature any of his woodcuts or drawings that appeared in the original collections; the visuals really do amplify the domestic nightmares and other absurdities found in his writings.)
Imagine my horror and my stupefaction when, on my return, the first thing to meet my eye was my little fellow, the playful companion of my life, hanging from the closet door! His feet were almost touching the floor; a chair, which he must have kicked from under him, was overturned at his side; his twisted head rested on one of his shoulders; his swollen face and wide-open eyes, with their frightening stare, first gave me the illusion of life. Getting him down was not so easy as you may think. He was already quite stiff, and I felt an unexplainable repugnance at the thought of making him suddenly fall to the ground. I had to hold up his whole body with one arm while with the other hand I cut the rope. But once that was done, it was not all over; the little monster had used a very thin string, which had cut in deeply; and now, in order to set his neck free, I had to pry with a pair of small scissors between the two rings of swollen flesh.
— Charles Baudelaire, from “The Rope”, trans. Pierre Schneider.
(While I was reading O’Sullivan’s stories, his sensibility reminded me of the above excerpt.)