Monday, November 12, 2007

MIRCEA CARTARESCU, THOMAS BERNHARD, ERNST JUNGER< JOHN JAY COLLEGE OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE CUNY, TRISTRAM SHANDY

The Romanian writer Mircea Cartarescu is interviewed and profiled in the latest post at www.signandsight.com, which is the most important culture site in the world. It is based on the best cultural articles from the three major German newspapers and is one of the very very rare sites that seems to be genuinely interested in a real cross-section of political and aesthetic view points. It used to come every morning, five times a week, but now it is only comes twice or so a week.
The site was celebrating Cartarescu's trilogy ORBITOR (Glaring) originally published in 1996, 2002 and now finished in 2007. The site reports that it, "describes a city awash with thrills and nightmares... captures the socialist capital (Bucharest) in the moment of its downfall. His magical realism gives a prefab block--- in reality a celebration of the perpendicular--- on oval window and the socialist years a metaphysical superstructure. Bucharest becomes a mystical city." Cartarescu says of his book, "Sometimes I explain my book as a mystical butterfly or a flying cathedral."

In 2005, I reviewed for the LATimes Cartarescu's first book to be translated into English, NOSTALGIA. (New Directions) I talked in terms of Joyce, Pessoa, Hamsun and could have easily gone on to Faulkner. And if you may forgive the blurb I buried in the review, "NOSTALGIA is gripping, impassioned, unexpected--- the qualities the best in literature possesses."

Earlier in the review I had gone on about reverberating nuance and self-consciousness but I tried to lure readers into the book with: "NOSTALGIA opens with "The Roulette Player, a hypnotic suspenseful prologue in which a man rises to an unimaginable level of success playing Russian roulette and, when no longer facing any challenger, decides to challenge himself by adding bullets to the revolver."


After reading the interview profile of Cartarescu I got in touch with New Directions his American publisher and heard back that it is unlikely that they will be doing any more of his books as NOSTALGIA has sold only around 500 copies.

No reader should think that figure is unusual. Back in 1979/80 I remember talking with the publisher of Alfred A. Knopf after CORRECTION by Thomas Bernhard had been published. This guy reported to me that to date they had sold a combined grand total of around a thousand copies of all three Bernhard books they had published, GARGOYLES, THE LIME WORKS AND CORRECTIONS.
Happily, Knopf was not discouraged by that figure and maybe New Directions will have a change of heart.

I had wanted to talk about my own books but that will have to be for another day.

Before I go, I was also thinking that today in two sections of a freshman composition course at John Jay College of Criminal Justice CUNY, students were describing their experience of reading Ernst Junger's STORM OF STEEL. I also was re-reading it in preparation for talking about it on Wednesday and found this tiny bit that seems to be a fitting end to this writing.
It is from late in the book in the year 1918:

"I led my three platoons string out in file a cross the terrain, with circling aeroplanes bombing and strafing overhead. When we reached our objective, we dispersed into shell-holes and dug-outs, as occasional shells came lobbing over the road.
I felt so bad that day that I lay down in a little piece of trench and fell asleep right away. When I woke up, I read a few pages of TRISTRAM SHANDY, which I had with me in my map case, and so apathetically, like an invalid, I spent the sunny afternoon."

3 comments:

Will Schofield said...

I recently bought "Nostalgia" which I think I stumbled across on Amazon -- that's terrible to hear it only sold 500 copies, though having attempted to market/publicize some translations for a small press, I'm not surprised. A book I worked on -- "For Solo Violin" by Aldo Zargani (literary memoir, translated from the Italian) -- received a glowing review in the LA Times when it was released, and I remember we got one single phone call from an old man in LA who wanted to buy the book. No spike in Amazon, Ingram, B&T sales. No requests for review copies from any other publication. After the review we did email blasts, follow-ups, fliers. Nothing! A similar thing happened with a (very) literary memoir translated from the German, An Invisible Country by Stephan Wackwitz. It got a starred review from PW but no matter what we did it didn't translate into sales. (I realize this may mean I just really suck at my job.) Knowing that an author as important as Thomas Bernhard sold so few copies is not exactly consolation, but thanks for sharing the information. It does put some things in perspective for me.

Thomas McGonigle said...

At your prompt I looked up AN INVISIBLE COUNTRY and of course can well understand the difficulty of publishing... it is the chicken and egg problem: a slightly obscure publisher with an obscure book--- Dalkey Archive and New Directions for that matter take or took a very long view of the matter: it takes many many years to establish the press: each book is a starting over again and there has to be some sort of program behind the individual books, some sort of idea a head of time before the books are chosen: New Directions had the ideas of Ezra Pound and Dalkey Archive continued in that tradition with the additional input of the thinking of Gilbert Sorrentino

Meropi Papagheorghe said...

This is the first entry on Mircea Cartarescu I read on a ferign blog. I stumbled upon it while googling the signandsight article you mentioned and I must confess I was indeed thrilled to be reading an outsider's opinion of him. In Romania, Cartarescu is generally well-regarded. He had one bestseller which consisted in a collection of short stories he wrote for ELLE-Romania. This was frowned upon by most of his dedicated readers, however none of those who had rushed to buy "Why We Love Women?" (the afore mentioned bestseller) and had praised it, went any further with reading Cartarescu. So his more significant work, although available in various reprints, remains quite unpopular with the "average" readers. Nostalgia and Orbitor have developed a sort of cult following and last summer, in the weeks prior to the launch of The Right Wing, the last book of the Glaring trilogy, literary blogs were sizzling with excitement as everyone was rereading the first two. I haven't got a clue if Glaring has been translated into Eglish, I certainly hope so and I hope you'll get to read it. I bookmarked your blog.