I wrote a review of Le statue d’acqua by Fleur Jaeggy. It opens a new section on minor literature[s], in which we will be publishing reviews of books not translated in English.
You can read the review here.
Below are some thoughts that I gathered while writing the review.
As a teenager growing up in a provincial Italian town pre-internet, I came across a lot of artworks by reading of them. The words of certain art historians still inform my understanding of those works even after I actually encountered them. Those reviews and essays were never perceived as ancillary, but as contributing to the artworks. In more recent years, my activities within the contexts of music and sound have led me to engage more closely with the tension that writing experiences when confronted with an elusive or absent material.
The review of an untranslated book heightens such tension. It is not derivative of the book: it merges with it, as it re-reads it and re-writes it. It exists around an intermittent emptiness, and temporarily fills it with its presence and its contingency with the substance of the book: it takes shape in more or less illicit traffics with the book, it is infected by it and infects it. What is quoted, echoed, stolen, paraphrased, misshapen into the review writer’s language? How do languages collapse into one another?
In the review of an untranslated book the complex relationship between a text and its references is made more vivid, priorities and hierarchies are disarranged.
The review of an untranslated book holds a tremendous potential for imaginary and fabulatory activities. It incorporates motions of desire, longing, and writing-as-telling, as it amplifies and heightens the fabricated element of writing, the doing and undoing of meaning, the fictions of reading.
I’m interested in how the review of an untranslated book could morph into an essay, a tale, a prose poem: in how a writer can take advantage of the not immediate availability of the book to shape up a text in the visionary, ambiguous space between document and fable.
I’ll never forget my first experience of that moment of displacement when a book, so close and so crucial in shaping up the sensorial-perceptual context in which I write, appeared to lose its bearing and substance because it was not translated into English. It’s a particular feeling, that I’ve encountered again and again since I switched my writing from Italian to English: the feeling of being on a threshold, as the material from an Italian book resounds in my English writing yet is silent within the context in which I write. The opacities and unheard layers of language, that every instance of reading and writing hold, become even more apparent.
All my books and all my texts exist in the unstable territory between understanding and misunderstanding, presence and absence, voice and muteness, brought about by my and by their being across languages. As I write and as I look for reviews of books not translated into English, I’m choosing to linger on this unstable territory: to insist on its relevance, and to see what sort of transmissions, at once precarious and exploratory, might be received and broadcast from there.
The review of an untranslated book is a prompt for everyone who’s been in a similar situation of displacement—a book so close, yet silent to many because it’s not translated: how to give it voice again? It is a prompt to begin to write through this silence, and not feel belittled by the hegemony of what is directly accessible. Just because it’s not there, sold, presented, available, translated, it does not mean a book doesn’t exist. This is not a time for counting lacks and losses: it’s time for writing.
And time to torment English words even, to make them say what they cannot say if they remain closed and confined. When I started writing in English, an editor (obviously maintaining there is only one way to write; he didn’t speak any other languages and neither was he bothered with being aware of them), an editor remarked that my writing had ‘too many metaphors.’ Of course, I thought: I grew up reading Dante! Elements such as this—the linguistic substance of a culture?—materially migrate from my Italian to my English as infiltrations that distort language but remake it too, and make it a language, one of many: like the gesticulations which I still retain from Italian, as much as I might speak in English.
The review of an untranslated book transmits despatches from another language and allows it to disturb another language. It exists in a tension with no fixed domain, articulated through time, where writing is also what exceeds it: not only a text, but the changing atmospheres around it, and the time spent turning around and around words, to hand them over to you, and you and another you.
I’m drawn to the elaborate ethnographies that may emerge in a review of an untranslated text, and in how a remote and other region might be presented, by someone who once existed in that other region, moved away from it, and occasionally goes back there—or who inhabits more than one of those regions at once.
I’m also drawn to see how a book—published recently, or years/decades/centuries ago, popular in another country, or forgotten and out of fashion—might emerge, from another language, in the English words of a writer today. I’m drawn to the book as much as to the words of the writers who will say something around that specific book: why that one of many, how does it affect the way they write?
The review of an untranslated book asks to be retold, turned around and over, never enclosed—discomfortable presence, distorted assonance. I’m interested in the type of signal that can be broadcast in these flows and transits, through words made present and heard. And in how someone else might pick that signal up and amplify it further. A frequency might meet another and resonate. Some of those books might be translated eventually; some might not. Misunderstandings, dead ends and noise make up the transmission as much as all the rest.
To interfere with language with languages.