Monday, November 1, 2010

A Look at Michel Houellebecq's New Novel

Though it has yet to be released in English translation, ArtInfo provides a sneak peek at French provocateur Michel Houellebecq's new work, La Carte et le Territoire, dealing with the art world.

Apparently the novel satirizes artists Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons and includes a character named Houellebecq, who, as one might expect, is an alcoholic and spends his spring and summers in Thailand sampling the whorehouses.

Like most of Houellebecq's work this sounds like an interesting read.

The novel will be published in the U.S. in 2011.

Absinthe #13 Review at recently reviewed Absinthe 13, our special issue on Romanian fiction, and concluded that "like the Romanian literature featured in this issue, the writing in Absinthe appears intended for readers who think literature should have something of substance to say about our lives and should matter."

Read the entire review here.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Depravity of Anonymity

Arriving in Frankfurt, I feel like an alien. The only word I am capable of uttering in German is ‘mayonnaise’. Even when I am addressed in English, I continue to stare helplessly. What has happened to me? Have I not travelled in so long, at least to a country whose language I do not speak? Here everyone smokes and everyone rides a bicycle. Outside the railway station (is that the meaning of ‘Hauptbahnhof’?) there is a shop: WOS – World of Sex. I came (for the book fair) expecting culture.

Meanwhile a tram goes by, dressed up as a restaurant, so that the unassuming passengers look like diners. If I was an alien (and as a translator I am), I’d be in a state of shock (and I am). Everything seems designed to take my money. I go down to the lavatory in McDonald’s to find a man with a table. ‘I have to pay?’ I ask, using intonation instead of the usual auxiliary. ‘Any amount!’ he replies cheerfully.

A little further away from the station and I reach Moselstrasse, which is full of sex shops, starting with Dr. Müller’s Video-Show and Blue Movie Kino Center (why blue?). WOS was just the tip of the iceberg.

I am grateful for the sight of a florist’s – something natural. Old men look at me awry. Young women project their breasts provocatively. I have reached the Dolly Buster Center. Is the whole of Frankfurt a brothel?

By Gallusanlage I seem to have emerged into normality. An open thoroughfare, some trees, a drunk, a large euro sign, tall glass buildings which must be banks or departments of health. Well, it feels like normality. Lots of bikes. Bikes on the pavement, bikes jumping lights. Bikes for hire… can you just take one? I realise I’m standing in the middle of the cycle lane, watching an old lady complimenting a small child’s mother. There are glimmers of humanity, which remind this alien what life might once have been like, I suppose, in the briefest of interludes between Primitive Man and Primitive Man II. Even schoolboys seem obliged to text on their phones and drink Starbucks coffee. Coffee? I didn’t drink coffee until I went away to university.

After the depravity of the railway station, I am beginning to enjoy my otherness. I take a risk and dive into St Catherine’s Church. A bubble. Isn’t this what ‘other’ means? Lord, have mercy. I light three candles. ‘Alien’ might mean ‘alone’; ‘alone’, ‘all one’. A post-middle-aged man quietly recites prayers in German. The candles on the tray form a pool of light. ‘What does “belong” say to you?’ my wife once asked me. ‘“Alone”,’ I replied, ‘and “noble”.’

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Mohammed Cartoons and Local Ethnocentrisms – A Finnish Perspective

A Guest Post by Rita Dahl

In this essay I will discuss the Finnish case involving the Mohammed cartoons, as well as mentioning some other recent situations that have again brought art and ethics back into the spotlight. Where does the line between art, general ethics, and especially the artist’s individual ethics go? According to the general opinion of western, liberal democracies, art needs more liberty than do individuals, although it cannot escape national law, which ultimately sets the final frame for art.

My general point, which I hope to prove along the way, is that perhaps for Islamic Arab countries criticizing one´s own beliefs, particularly religion and its basic truths, is the sore point, whereas in western countries we are especially sensitive to criticism that touches upon our national history and historically influential national figures. To continue my point, I would like to add that both the Islamic and Western world have their own ethnocentrist traits that we would like to especially protect. I intend to illustrate, through concrete examples, some of them.

We are dominated by our political correctness in both (all) worlds. This means for example, in a western country constant reluctance toward Islamist fundamentalism. In this way a free speech organization can also condemn something which they call "hate speech". These kinds of attitudes provoke monologue, never dialog.

Some decades ago – during the 60s - the Lutheran religion was one of the delicate topics in Finland (and a few other western countries), nowadays however the criticism of religion has almost become a cliché. You need to do a lot to shock the audience today, especially in the field of visual arts, which has used religious imagery to scandalise during at least the last two centuries.

The cultural magazine Kaltio, based in Oulu, was the first magazine to republish the Mohammed cartoons in Finland. The 6-page-long comic appeared on the internet in September 2006 and was drawn by the Finnish comic artist, Ville Ranta. The prophet Mohammed was presented in the comic as a very furious, fundamentalist figure, who was wearing a mask and criticizing the Western world for the bad deeds it had done in the past to Arab countries and at the same time imposing the demand for freedom of speech in Arab countries. At the end of the comic the Finnish prime minister, Matti Vanhanen, and president, Tarja Halonen, burn the Danish flag in the hope that the Islamists would not get angry with them. (This burning of a flag refers to the apologies already made by Vanhanen and Halonen in February 2006, after the Finnish magazine, Suomen Sisu, had published the Mohammed cartoons for the first time in Finland.)

We call this heritage of bending the knee to other countries Finlandization. I will shortly explain what this way of reacting (still common among Finnish politicians) means. Finland has a long history of being suppressed, first by Sweden, then by the Soviet Union, until our independence in 1917. Even after that our political leaders continued to bend the knee to Russia whenever it was considered to be politically wise. Our country became famous for its unique foreign policy-- Kekkonen´s and Paasikivi´s line. That meant precisely that--bending the knee. Finlandization became another term for that foreign policy.

In my opinion, Ranta criticizes in his comic both Western and Islamist countries for their own kind of fundamentalisms. His starting point is that it is never good in the long term for anything--be it religion or politics—to be presented and heard only by its most fundamentalist representatives. His argument is that it is especially not good for anything--be it a religion like Islam, or western politics—to be represented by its most fundamental figures, be they fundamentalist Islamists, or Finnish politicians, who in their fear of losing good relations with other neighbouring countries, bend in every possible direction.

In late February 2006 editor-in-chief Jussi Vilkuna of the cultural magazine Kaltio, based in Oulu, northern Finland, got fired, because two big sponsors of the magazine, Sampo Bank and insurance company Tapiola had announced that they would not place their advertisements any more in Kaltio, because of the stir the comics had caused.

Vilkuna did not understand the decision. His point was: it is the principal function of a cultural magazine to stimulate discussion of different topics. Furthermore, he thought the Mohammed cartoons, drawn by Ranta, combined both freedom of speech and tolerance for other religions, which is one of the guiding principles in the ethical rules for an editor. These rules are universally valid in all western countries.

After having published the controversial cartoons, the artist Ville Ranta, was removed from another job, for which he had already been commissioned. The city of Oulu was afraid of the interpretation Ranta might come up with of our national hero and nation-builder, Johan Vilhelm Snellman, whose life the artist was supposed to depict in an album addressed to little schoolgirls and boys. Johan Vilhelm Snellman (1806-1881) was a philosopher, author, and statesman, who worked during his life in many various professions, starting out as a headmaster in Kuopio, but also worked as an editor of the Finnish-language cultural journal Saima and Swedish-language Litteraturblad för allmän medborgerlig bildning. In 1856 he was finally--after a long struggle--appointed to professor at the University of Helsinki.

In 1863 Snellman became a senator, responsible for a language decree: Finnish became an equal language to Swedish. Snellman was not a religious prophet, but a very worldly man, national hero and one of the central nation-builders in Finland. The city of Oulu could thus not afford to take a risk on Ranta´s possibly blasphemous interpretation of our famous nation-builder. Snellman was comparable to the prophet Mohammed, and here may also lie the western double-morality: we are eager to criticize phenomena outside own cultural sphere willingly, but when it comes to our own cultural heritage, national history and the remarkable figures responsible for it, we suddenly become as sensitive as most Muslims about the publishing of the controversial Mohammed cartoons.

Liberty of Art – Thin Line Between Art and Ethics?

During the last couple of decades we have needed to ponder the relationship between ethics and visual art. This started in 1998 when visual artist Teemu Mäki made a video where he killed a cat with three blows from an axe and finally ejaculated on it. This scene lasted 6 seconds. The Finnish Board of Film Classification demanded that the artist remove the scene. Had he done so he would have been given permission to show the video in public. The artist did not accept the demand and thus the video is owned by the Finnish National Museum but can never been shown publicly.

Let´s make one thing clear. I do not accept the killing of any living creature, be it an animal or a human being, even for artistic purposes. Life is holy and should be respected both in real life and in art works. Killing a living creature is also illegal and against Finnish law and art should first and foremost respect that law.

This brings us to another, more recent censorship case, which has made it necessary again to ponder the relationship between art and ethics. Visual artist Ulla Karttunen’s work Neitsythuorakirkko (Virginwhorechurch)--which was shown in early 2010 in a gallery in Helsinki--included pornographic material she had found on the Internet, depicting adults having sexual intercourse with what were clearly minors. Her artwork was confiscated by the police and she was accused of sexual obscenity. In May 2007 a local court found her guilty of the “crime”, but did not order her to pay any fines. The artwork was considered illegal: using openly sexual scenes with minors is a crime according to Finnish law.

The artist was especially unhappy with this kind of conviction: it was the one she had feared most. She felt that this verdict “made her even more guilty. A person who had been left to be punished.” Karttunen had since the beginning announced that this artwork was conceptual and political by nature: her intent was to show that in the margins of the Internet there was this illegal material to be found. According to the court decision, artistic freedom of expression differs from an editor´s and a scientist´s freedom of expression: the court’s statement was that the artist cannot represent “as part of his/her artwork illegal material in a way that influences societal opinion-forming.”

According to Karttunen the local court had understood the critical intent, but based their decision on an old-fashioned concept of art. In her opinion contemporary art is near journalism or science. She spoke for understanding the image[s] in different contexts: a pornographic image of a child in an artwork is not pornography. Its intent is completely different: showing the invisible mind-shaping forces in the groundwaters of our society, which--freely delivered on the Internet--pornography obviously is. Neitsythuorakirkko as an artwork was mainly political: its intent was to make visible these phenomena and criticize it.

Recently, animation director Katariina Lillqvist provoked discussion with her film about the Finnish national war hero from the beginning of the 20th century, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim (1809-1917), with a scene where his Caucasian male servant flies to Mannerheim´s flat and they have sex together. Mannerheim was known for defending Finland against Germany and Russia in the Continuation War in 1944--there is no doubt about his stance in Finnish history. Nor was Mannerheim´s sexual orientation news--his homo/bisexuality has been under serious discussion for several decades, but for some reason it caused a stir in the media and among the public.

To get back to comic artist Ranta and his latest news, I can tell you that the city of Oulu did in the end decide to let him draw the educational album about Snellman for schoolchildren. However, in his own latest comic album, he has taken up another national hero of ours, closely connected with Snellman, namely the folk poetry collector and creator of our first national epic, Kalevala, who was also a medical doctor, Elias Lönnrot, as his main character. This album is called Kajaani and it has largely “humanized” our other national hero. Despite his being a hard worker, he also has a human side that has physical, even sexual and emotional needs--as we all do, but are not willing to acknowledge them in our heroes.

To conclude, both Islamist and Western countries like Finland have their own delicate points, their own ethnocentrisms, which they so carefully want to protect. Could these ethnocentrisms be somehow transcended? Could we reach the situation where respecting the face of the other, as philosopher Emmanuel Levinas suggests, would be the guiding principle for our actions? People face to face are at the same time at their most fragile and at their most aggressive. It would help, if we would consider all the phenomena--be they connected with Islam, politics, or national history-- as colourful spectacles, which cannot be pruned to some trait only (for example fundamentalism), but vice versa: as phenomenon capable of containing all the sides, reaching from the most furious fundamentalism to the upmost tolerance.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Like everyone else, I have been eagerly awaiting Jonathan Franzen’s new novel. “Freedom” has been nine years in the making. Franzen just gave his first reading in New York City; he appeared on public radio, and his photograph made the cover of Time magazine with the caption “Great American Novelist.” Sam Tanenhaus in his New York Times review calls the book a masterpiece. He compares Franzen to Thomas Mann. Chick-lit author Jennifer Weiner, irritated by this ample publicity and the lack of such for many talented female writers, complained to her 15,000 twitter followers and termed the literary hashtag Franzenfreude.
Was she driven by what Germans call Futterneid (envy)? I can't help but be on Franzen’s side.”
“I became a writer because of German literature,” he said. His literary role models were Goethe, Kafka and Rilke. He spent two years as a Fulbright scholar studying German in Berlin and Munich. In an interview on German television he called 1981/82 in Berlin his most poetic year.
To Bernadette Conrad (Zeit, 8/04/05) he expressed his love for Thomas Mann’s fine irony and admitted to stealing some satirical passages from Karl Kraus for first novel The Twenty-Seventh City ( 1988). For a long time, he saw himself as a German writer. “Karl Kraus once compared French and German with a beautiful face and a face that has transformed itself into pure beauty," he said. "The attraction of German culture lies in the language. It is capable of horrific and wonderful things - incredibly ugly when spoken by the wrong people, but unsurpassable when used by others."
“What did you bring back from Germany?” Bernadette Conrad asked him. “An addiction to cigarettes, a higher tolerance for alcohol, skepticism about America, but also the certainty that I'd rather live in America than in Europe. I returned home cured from my longing to live in the old world,” he said.
Franzen was twenty-three in 1982 when he returned to the United States with a very German concept of literature. “Germans have a high tolerance for finding fun in challenging literature. American writers have to be entertainers; their readers expect to have a good time.” In Germany, he missed the playful, witty, and nonsensical in American literature.
Franzen once translated a book from the German. His translation of Franz Wedekind’s Frühlings Erwachen (Spring Awakening), made for Swarthmore College’s theater department in 1986, earned him $50 and was finally published in 2007.
Schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the pain of others. Franzenfreude, according to Jennifer Weiner "is taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen."
Freude is German for joy. I think all of us, writers and readers alike, should rejoice in his success. Why should only writers like James Patterson and Danielle Steele sell millions of books? Or to use Franzen’s words: let’s work a little harder, develop a higher tolerance and find fun in literature that makes us work.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Absinthe Names New Editor

Logan David Hayes has been named as the new assistant editor at Absinthe, effective May 4th, 2010. It is expected that he will take over as managing editor in 2028.

Logan's appointment confirms Alexis Levitin's belief than one does not need to be able to read or write to be an editor at Absinthe.

Absinthe editors Jessica Bomarito and Dwayne Hayes are very happy with the arrival of the new editor.

Friday, April 30, 2010

A Quiet Friday

A few short notes as we await the arrival of the new Absinthe assistant editor:

If you're near NYC this weekend you'll want to check out some of the events at the PEN World Voices festival. It runs through Sunday (May 2nd) and there are so many great panels and readings to attend. Wish I was there.

A fascinating new collection of writer's from Prague will be published in May. The Return of Kral Majales: Prague's International Literary Renaissance 1990-2010 is edited by Louis Armand and features work by over 90 writers and translators. Read more about it here.

Absinthe contributor Anne Milano Appel's translation of Blindly, by Claudio Magris, has just been published by Penguin Canada: "hailed as a masterpiece upon its initial publication in Italy, Blindly is a novel of highly original, poetic intensity, a Jacob's Ladder reversed to descend into the nether regions of history and, in particular, of the twentieth century." Magris is frequently mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature and an interview with him appeared in Absinthe 7.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Italian Film, Absinthe & Romanian Fiction, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt

It's that time of year when the Italian Film Festival comes to Detroit and they have a number of really interesting films this year screening at multiple venues, including the Detroit Film Theatre (a great place to see a movie), Wayne State University, and the University of Michigan, among other spots. Check out the festival schedule here and start living la dolce vita.

Despite the volcanic ash clouding the skies of Europe the London Book Fair went on as scheduled and so did an event to celebrate the release of Absinthe 13 sponsored by the Romanian Cultural Institute. Of course, I was sitting here rather than enjoying one of my favorite cities but hopefully a good time was had by those in attendance ... and hopefully it brought deserved attention to some great Romanian writers.

Fellow Dzanc Books imprint Black Lawrence Press has published a collection of poems by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, the prominent Swiss novelist, playwright, and essayist, who died in 1990. The poems are translated by Daniele Pantano, a Swiss poet, translator, critic, and editor, whose own poems appeared in Absinthe 10. I definitely recommend picking up a copy.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Thomas E. Kennedy's "In the Company of Angels"

Several weeks ago I was in a local Borders checking out the new fiction releases and one particular cover caught my attention. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the book was Tom Kennedy's novel In the Company of Angels. If you regularly read this blog or Absinthe you'll know that Tom contributes the "Shout from Copenhagen" column (in addition to contributing a number of translations to the magazine). He has been a good friend to Absinthe and so I was very pleased to see the attention his book is getting. In the Company of Angels is part of Kennedy's "Copenhagen Quartet" and is the first of the four to be published in the U.S.

A few days after my Borders visit I was fortunate to receive a copy in the mail and though I'm not yet done reading it I can say that it deserves all the accolades it's been receiving. Here's a sampling of some of the reviews:

It probably doesn’t reflect glowingly on American expat Kennedy’s native country that this watershed novel is the first to be published in the U.S. after a decade of acclaim abroad. Why it’s taken so long is anyone’s guess, as there’s plenty to admire in the serpentine unwinding of troubled protagonists adrift in contemporary Copenhagen.
--from a starred review in Publishers Weekly

An artfully written story with a conscience.

--Kirkus Reviews

If its stellar quality is any indication, the entire quartet promises to be an exceptional reading experience.... This novel offers much more than just a beautiful writing style. Each character's story is so undeniably interesting that the reader gains a sense of the wonder of disparate lives with unpredictable but intriguing connections.

--from a starred review in Booklist

Kennedy writes with unusual insight and compassion, depicting the best and the worst of the human experience. His work may be new to U.S. readers, but it merits greater attention, and we should look forward to seeing the other three books in his quartet published here.
--Library Journal

Pick up a copy for you and a friend!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky by Dmitry Trakovsky

The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.
--Andrei Tarkovsky

On April 7th and 8th Absinthe collaborated with Oakland Community College to present two films by and about the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. Last night we screened Tarkovsky’s autobiographical film The Mirror (1975) and the previous night we presented the documentary Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky by the filmmaker Dmitry Trakovsky. We were very fortunate to have Dmitry with us on Wednesday night to talk about his film.

In Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky, the filmmaker explores Tarkovsky’s continued influence through a series of interviews that take Trakovsky from Los Angeles, to Italy and Sweden, and eventually to rural Russia. In Florence, he speaks with the director’s son, Andrei Andreevich Tarkovsky, who shares memories of his father.

Dmitry also interviews Erland Josephson, the renowned Swedish actor, about the two films he made with Tarkovsky: Nostalghia and The Sacrifice.

The documentary includes many other interviews and clips from Tarkovsky’s films and is an excellent introduction to the work of a director whose films are just as significant and moving today as when they were released. Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky will definitely make you want to revisit Tarkovsky’s films or experience them for the first time.

I definitely recommend checking out Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky if it screens near you. And be sure to speak with the filmmaker. Dmitry Trakovsky shares a lot of fascinating anecdotes about Tarkovsky and the making of the film. He also has a very generous spirit and a great sense of humor.

Trakovsky was born in 1985 in Moscow, and grew up in suburban Los Angeles after his family immigrated to the United States in 1987. He recently founded a small production company, Trakovsky Film LLC and you can learn more about him and the film at

Some upcoming screenings of Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky include:

Northwest Film Forum, Seattle
Sunday, April 18, 5PM

Cinecenta, University Of Victoria
Tuesday, April 20, 3PM

Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York
Wednesday, April 28, Time TBA

European Film College, Ebeltoft, Denmark
Sunday, May 2, 2PM

De Spiegel, Heerlen, Holland
Thursday, May 6, 8PM

Monaco Charity Film Festival
Tuesday, May 11, Noon

Friday, April 2, 2010

Christos Anesti

It’s a Good and beautiful Friday here (and the start of my favorite month) so I’ll keep this post fairly short and just touch on a few things I’ve been listening to and reading.

Before that, congratulations are due to Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen for winning the Nordic Council Literature Prize for her novel Purge.

Purge will be published this month by Grove Atlantic and the publisher’s website describes the novel as “a haunting portrait of two generations of women, the ghosts of Estonia’s Soviet occupation, and the cruel realities of contemporary Europe.”

If you enjoy listening to podcasts you’ll want to check out the Reading the World podcast hosted by the ubiquitous Chad Post of Three Percent/Open Letter and translator and poet Erica Mena.

They are off to a good start with these podcasts, which have so far featured interviews with Lawrence Venuti, Susan Harris, and Suzanne Jill Levine.

The World Books podcast by Bill Marx is fascinating and includes over thirty interviews with writers and translators such as Hungarian novelist Ferenc Barnas (who appeared in Absinthe #6), Dubravka Ugresic, Norman Manea, and Susan Bernofsky.

Both podcasts can be downloaded at itunes.

I read Pierre Guyotat for the first time with Semiotexte’s publication of Coma, translated by Noura Wedell. What can I say about it? It’s not an easy read but is a complexly poetic account of the writer’s descent into physical and mental illness.

And today, as many begin to celebrate forgiveness, I completed Philippe Djian’s novel Unforgivable, translated by Euan Cameron and published by Simon & Schuster.

An entertaining read and not surprisingly being made into a film like some of his previous work. This film is said to star Carole Bouquet, who made quite an impression on me as a young man in her Chanel no. 5 commercials (featuring the great Nina Simone and her song “My Baby Just Cares for Me”, and directed by Ridley Scott).

Friday, March 26, 2010

Sergei Bulgakov, Bergman, and the Role of the Artist

Over the last few years I’ve been reading work by and about Sergei Bulgakov, the Russian thinker and theologian who died in 1944. Most recently I completed the fascinating anthology Sergii Bulgakov: Toward a Russian Political Theology, edited by Rowan Williams, current Archbishop of Canterbury.

In an essay on heroism he contrasts the hero who “cast(s) himself in the role of providence, arrogates to himself … a greater responsibility than can be borne … a greater task than a human being can encompass” with a “Christian” heroism that is “liberated from heroic posturing and pretension” and “is concentrated on (the) immediate task, … concrete obligations and the fulfilling of them.”

In a later essay this humility and clear-minded focus is deemed necessary for the artist who works amidst the “awareness of (arts) own impotence, in the appalling schism between what is revealed to it of the true splendor of the world and the concrete reality of its deformity and ugliness.” Bulgakov goes on to say that “art yearns to become transfigurative, not just pleasing or consoling; transfigurative in a real, not a symbolic sense” and invokes Dosteoevsky’s famous dictum that “Beauty will save the world.”

Bulgakov’s views reminded me of comments made by Ingmar Bergman in an essay on filmmaking in 1954:

… it is my opinion that art lost its creative urge the moment it was separated from worship. It severed the umbilical cord and lives its own sterile life,
generating and degeneration itself. The individual has become the highest form
and greatest bane of artistic creation. Creative unity and humble anonymity are
forgotten and buried relics without significance or meaning. The smallest cuts
and moral pains of the ego are examined under the microscope as if they were of
eternal importance.

Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our loneliness without listening to each other and without realising that we are smothering each other to death. The individualists stare into each other's eyes and yet deny the existence of each other, and cry out into the darkness without once receiving the healing power of communal happiness…

If thus I am asked what I should like to be the general purpose for my films, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragon's head, an angel or a devil - or perhaps a saint - out of stone. It does not matter which, it is the feeling of contentment that matters. Regardless whether I believe or not, regardless whether I am a Christian or not, I play my part at the collective building or cathedral. For I am an artist and a craftsman; and I know how to chisel stone into faces and figures.

I never need to concern myself about present opinion or the judgment of the posterity. I am a name which has not been recorded anywhere and which will disappear when I myself disappear; but a little part of me will live on in the triumphant masterwork of the anonymous craftsmen. A dragon, a devil, or perhaps a saint, it does not matter which.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Leipzig Book Fair

Leipzig has always been important for the printed word. The first newspaper in the world was printed here in 1650. Publishing and printing has been Leipzig’s most important trade for centuries; every second Leipziger was employed in it until WWII. When Leipzig became a Soviet zone at the end of the war, 360,000 businesses and most of the publishing houses fled to the west. The city continued to have an important book fair during GDR times, but here was no freedom of the written word. Since the collapse of the Iron Curtain—the Monday night marches that resulted in the peaceful revolution and the fall of the wall started here-- the city is once again an important laboratory for literature. The Frankfurt Book Fair is commercially more important. Berlin has more publishing houses, but for the sheer exuberance around books and reading, nothing beats the Leipzig Book Fair.

The fair lasted four days (March 18 to 21) and drew 150,000 visitors, 30% younger than twenty. There were 2,100 exhibitors from 39 countries. Events took place from 8:00 AM to well after midnight.Ulrich Blumenbach won the translation prize for David Foster Wallace’s “Infinitive Jest,” Ulrich Raulff won the prize for Non-Fiction/Essay for his book “Kreis ohne Meister,” a biography of the poet Stefan Georges. Georg Klein won the fiction prize for “Roman unserer Kindheit.” The Hungarian author György Dalos won the Prize for European Understanding for his books “Der Vorhang geht auf” (The Curtain Lifts) about the end of dictatorships in Eastern Europe.

The Leipzig Book Fair is pivotal for small independent publishers, especially those from Eastern Europe. Many Eastern European publishers can only afford to attend one international fair and most choose Leipzig. I enjoyed the exposure to literature from Bosnia-Herzegowina, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Ukraine. Many of the writers have not been published in the West. The translations were often financed by German foundations.

My first impression of the fair was visual and auditory overkill. Publishers staged a dramatic struggle for readers. They presented titles with the most commercial potential. VIPs were surrounded by autograph hunters. There were countless readings, discussion groups, book signing, mini-concerts by music stars, and garish manga-graphics. Visitors walked around with gigantic shopping bags to collect free gifts, buttons, stickers, pens, brochures, book samples, and audio books.

But then I discovered another Leipzig Bok Fair: the fair for writers and readers. With more than 1500 writers and 2000 readings and events, the fair is the largest reading festival in the world. Readings took place at 350 venues, in hair salons, cinemas, the cemetery, the opera, and the aquarium. My personal highlights were Balkan Night (music and readings) and the event at the Polish Institute where a collective of translators (Germany is worldwide the most important country for translators) spoke about translating the Ukrainian author Otar Dovzhenko, and the award ceremony of the Kurt-Wolff Foundation. Leif Greinus and Sebastian Wolter, two young publishers who started Voland & Quist Verlag in Dresden won the prize for most promising publishers. They specialize in authors from the spoken word scene. Klaus Wagenbach won the main prize for lifetime achievement. The event took place at the Connewitzer Velagsbuchhandlung, an independent bookstore and publisher. The upper floor of the bookstore was bursting at the seams. Voland & Quist introduced one of their authors, the talented poet Nora Grominger. I had seen her at City College New York a few months ago when the Creative Writing department invited her to present her work.

Wagenbach prides himself that he publishes books readers should read, not just books readers want to read. He spoke about his career and read from his forthcoming memoir. He started his publishing house after he’d been fired from Fischer Verlag and moved his business to Berlin in ‘64 when, because of the erection of the Berlin Wall, everyone else was leaving Berlin. He wanted to create an East-West Berlin press for he believes that Germans have a common history and language and that literature could be our bridge. He published the East German dissident Wolf Biermann—the manuscript was smuggled into West Berlin in installments. The GDR government retaliated by blocking all licensing of East German writers for him.

He is known as a courageous, courage-inspiring exemplary publisher who introduced Germans to the work of Alberto Moravia, Boris Vian, Natalia Ginzburg and Alan Bennett.

I listened enraptured to him and Nora Grominger sitting on a sofa made of books. After the event, I met Mama Hinke, the mother of Peter Hinke and owner of the bookstore. She had prepared a scrumptious buffet and had made all the Schnittchen herself. This too is love for literature in Leipzig, I said to myself, pleased that I had made the journey.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Absinthe and Silence

It appears that activity on this blog has come to a standstill and I’ve decided to try a different tact. Obviously I’m not writing here often and my time to do so is extremely limited so I’ll make an attempt to write a longish note once a week, most likely on Friday. I should also mention that we are always interested in adding contributors to this blog to write about all things European: writers, books, cinema, design, art, music, etc. If you are interested feel free to drop me a line at

Ok, in Absinthe news the special Romanian number is currently at the printer and will be available in early April. It’s an excellent issue with texts from eleven authors, selected by Bucharest-based author and translator Jean Harris. The art by Mircea Suciu is very cool and appears on the cover and in an 8-page insert. You can preorder a copy of Absinthe 13 here.

As mentioned previously, with limited time I’ve had little time to blog. And this time issue also impacts the books I choose to read. I rarely read books over 400 pages now. Yes, I agree, this is a problem. I’ve so far missed out on Verhaeghen’s Omega Minor and Bolaño’s 2666, both sitting sturdily on my bookshelves (though after completing Bolaño’s Monsieur Pain the other night I’m ready for more). However, I did recently finish Orhan Pamuk’s 500+ page The Museum of Innocence. It’s a very good read but am I the only one who grew weary of Kemal’s obsession with Fusun? Or was he obsessed with obsession? Still, if Pamuk is really opening a museum in Istanbul, I’d want to see it.

The schedule for the PEN World Voices Festival is up and it’s filled with great events. We were able to make it for a few sessions last year but unfortunately will not be able to travel this year due to the imminent arrival of mini-me.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Werner Herzog's Dark Corners

I had a pleasant return to Berlin. The Berlinale celebrated its 60th birthday. I had collaborated on the script and was one of the main protagonists of “New York Memories,” a documentary by Rosa von Praunheim, shown in the Berlinale’s Panorama section. Despite the rigorous selection process, the film was one of 50 selected from a pool of 3,000. Next to Cannes, the Berlinale is the most important European film festival. This year 300,000 tickets were sold.
Twenty-six prizes were awarded. In an interview published in “Die Zeit,” Werner Herzog, the jury president, explained the difference between great and mediocre art, taking an anti-psychoanalytic stance. “Today every dark corner of the soul has to be exposed at all cost, but an apartment where every corner is lit up is unlivable.”
Good films like good books don’t explain and they don’t reveal everything. They leave spaces that come to life in the imagination of the viewer. Good films and books irritate us by what they leave out, what they allude to. They inspire our own interpretations.
This year’ Berlinale honored films that allowed dark corners which Herzog believes are so essential. Some examples are: “How I Ended this Summer” a Russian film directed by Alexj Popogrebskiwon that won two Silver Bears for camera work and acting. It’s the story of two men who live in the Arctic solitude and work on a rundown meteorological station. The director uses a minimalist approach to chronicle an extreme emotional drama. Nothing is narrated to its conclusion; everything is disclosed through images, movement, and gestures. Another example is the Turkish film “Bal,” directed by Semih Kaplanoglu and the winner of the Golden Bear. The film is about a six-year-old boy’s catastrophic loss of his father. It surprises by its tranquility; there is no music, only the sounds of nature. The turbulent world of Eastern Europe was predicted in the Romanian prison drama “If I want to Whistle, I Whistle” directed by Florin Serban. The film won a Silver Bear. The leitmotifs in most Eastern European films were lonely men, neglected women, children who feel lost, and the family as refuge.
All these films raise questions without providing any answers. They leave room for our imagination; they allow us to come to our own conclusions. They aren’t politically correct, message-driven, not all dark corners are illuminated They simply are.
Collaborating on the script of “New York Memories” was a great experience as was attending the Berlinale, with its applause, parties, accolades, and drinks at the Hotel Savoy. I’m back to working ALONE at my desk, away from the hustle and bustle of New York and Berlin. Here in Görlitz, Germany’s Eastern most city, I started to work on a novel. It’s my first week and so far I have written 10,249 words. By the end of April, I will be back in New York City, hopefully with the first hundred pages in my suitcase.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Absinthe 13 and Romanian Lit

Coming in April:

Absinthe 13, a special issue on Romanian fiction with work by Dumitru Ţepeneag, Adriana Bittel, Bogdan Suceavă, Mircea Cărtărescu, Gheorghe Crăciun, Dan Lungu, Lucian Dan Teodorovici, Ştefan Bănulescu, Nora Iuga, Stelian Tănase, and Ştefan Agopian.

The cover features a painting by Mircea Suciu and his art also appears in an 8-page portfolio.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Eric Rohmer

Eric Rohmer, an important and influential filmmaker of the French New Wave, died on Monday at the age of 89.

The Guardian reviews Rohmer's life and career.

Monday, January 11, 2010

If only I could speak Swedish ...

The Ingmar Bergman Estate is now hiring its first Artistic Director. We are seeking someone rich on initiative, with sound judgment, cooperative skills, and a thorough knowledge of arts and culture. The Artistic Director will, in collaboration with the Bergman Estate Board, build and develop the organization according to the foundation's statutes and guidelines. The Artistic Director will be responsible
for the daily management of the Estate’s activities and their content. The Artistic Director will also be expected to initiate and develop collaborations with institutions on a national and international level. The position includes budgetary responsibilites.

The position of artistic director entails two main areas of responsibility:

• Planning and realizing the Estate's public events, such as an annual winter festival, activities for children and youth, film screenings, seminars, as well as other cultural activities
– many times in collaboration with the Ingmar Bergman Foundation and the Fårö Bergman Center Foundation.
• Evaluating applications from artists and scholars who apply for residency at the Bergman Estate, and forwarding propositions to the board for final decision. Coordinating the residencies is included in this responsibility.

• You are familiar with Ingmar Bergman’s work and well versed in the realms of film, theater, art, literature, and music.
• You will be the foundation’s public face, and must have the skills to communicate and cooperate on a regional, national, and international level. Strong language skills are an important criterion.
• You are an experienced leader, preferably with extensive work experience within art and culture.
• You have well documented administrative skills, including budgetary responsibilities, as well as capacities for analysis and comparison, and the ability to express yourself in writing.

The Artistic Director must be flexible when it comes to working hours and will be spending a significant amount of time on the beautiful island of Fårö and in the Gotland region. The position entails full-time employment for an initial two-year period, with the prospect of extension It is ready to be filled as soon as possible.
Salary is negotiable.

Send application including CV and references to:
Kerstin Brunnberg, Nordenskiöldsgatan 80,
11521 Stockholm, Sverige.
Tlf + 46 705 985 017

Friday, January 8, 2010

Interview with German Writer Judith Hermann

Over at the Goethe Institut web site there's an interview with writer Judith Hermann.

What do you expect from your next book?

Nothing. I don’t know it yet. Sometimes I ask myself whether it will be easier for me than the other books. And then I know – it won’t be easier. It will be difficult in a completely different way than Alice, than Nothing But Ghosts, than The Summerhouse, Later. It will simply have its own importance. Maybe I expect ... a certain pleasure. I look forward to my next book. I hope it will come off all right.

Read the entire interview here.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

2010 Best Translated Book Award

The fiction longlist for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award was announced a few days ago and includes 25 great titles, including work by Absinthe authors Ferenc Barnás and Ersi Sotiropoulos. The entire list and other great coverage can be found over at Three Percent.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Greek Poetry Now!

Greek Poetry Now! is a new web site presenting work by over a dozen Greek poets, including Dimitris Leontzakos (who appeared in Absinthe 11):

This site does not favor any particular tendency or movement, but aspires to present some of the most interesting work written in Greek language today, trying to include different and often contradictory points of view.

The poets presented in this site have been born after the year 1965 and most of them have their work published after the year 2000.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Romanian Cinema

Yesterday Monocle magazine's Monocolumn discussed Romania's film industry. Despite recent acclaim for films such as Cristian Mungiu's Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days, apparently all is not well:

Cinemas are closing and internet piracy is the norm for Romanian film-watchers. The national film body that disperses tax revenues to filmmakers did not fund a single production in 2009 because it is reworking its procedures following widespread complaints about corruption and nepotism.

Despite these difficulties, Romanian filmmakers continue to produce great films and several (including Corneliu Porumboiu's Police, Adjective) will appear in U.S. theatres in 2010.

Absinthe plans to screen a Romanian film this April at Oakland Community College in Farmington Hills. More on this soon.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Poets & Writers Magazine and Fiction Writers Review

If you're not yet a reader of the Fiction Writers Review there is a good reason to start now: Poets & Writers magazine is offering a special subscription rate for readers. Learn more here.

And don't miss the first installment of Jeremiah Chamberlin's series "Inside Indie Bookstores" about Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi in the current issue of Poets & Writers.

European Morosity

“Americans are so friendly. They talk to you, they smile at you,” Gaby said. It was her third day in New York. Like me she grew up in Moers, a small town on the lower Rhine. Geneva, Switzerland, is her adopted home. “Swiss people, like the Germans are not friendly to strangers. They always seem in a foul mood,” she added.
I’ve also noticed this difference between Europeans and Americans and still remember my astonishment upon my arrival in New York. White Americans physically resembled the Germans, but seemed a different species altogether. They did not walk with slumped shoulders; they did not drag their feet. They walked with a bounce in their step and held their heads high. They smiled at you. They were optimistic. I did not understand why they weren’t affected by history. Where was their Vergangenheitsbewältigung? How did they cope with the past? Why weren’t they burdened by guilt for what they had done to the Native Americans and the Blacks? Why weren’t they mourning their losses in the Vietnam War? Half of the world hated them, but they didn’t care. Unlike the Germans, they didn’t believe in guilt-ridden soul-searching.
Recently Dominique Moïsi’s book The Geopolitics of Emotion deepened my understanding of the differences between Americans and Europeans. Moïsi is the founder of the French Institute of International Affairs and a visiting professor at Harvard University. In his book, he examines the emotions that drive cultural differences and cause the divisions in the post-9/11 world. He shows how fear, humiliation, and hope are reshaping the world. For him both the U. S. and Europe are ruled by fears of the “other.” Both continents fear the loss of their national identity.
In contrast Muslims and Arabs are ruled by humiliation. They feel excluded from the economic benefits of globalization. Historical grievances and conflicts at home extend to the countries they emigrate to. This feeling of humiliation is evolving into a culture of hatred. In another part of the world China and India --with their economic might and focus on a prosperous future-- have created a culture of hope. Moïsi believes that “Chindia” will in the future come to dominate the world and that the U.S.A., with its huge debt and crumbling infrastructure, will no longer be a major player. According to Moïsi, Europe--stuck in the past and resembling a museum--won’t be able to move forward.
He sees more collective hope in the United States than in Europe and cites the election of Obama as an example. He observes that West Europeans experience more collective fear despite little real suffering. What my visitor from Geneva described as the foul mood of her fellow citizens, Moïsi calls the morosity of the continent.
His ideas are a thought-provoking and resonate with many of my own experiences. He is considered a leading authority on international affairs and I highly recommend his book:
Dominique Moïsi: The Geopolitics of Emotion, Doubleday
Price: $25.00
ISBN: 978-0-385-52376-9 (0-385-52376-9)