Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Ward Just is always hard to classify and this novel is no exception. Here's what we know: Just is a fine craftsman -- his writing is lucid, not lyrical but able to conjure up a scene, a feeling, an atmosphere. He spent considerable time in France as an expatriate, I'm guessing, because his books with that kind of setting are filled with an authenticity and level of detail you can't get any other way. But he doesn't feel obliged to stick to any one kind of setting or even genre.

Just is part of the dying breed of solid mid-list authors. He doesn't write glitzy bestsellers. His plots are tame and his writing abjures pyrotechnics. He is decidedly quirky. In this book, for instance, he forgoes quotation marks so that dialog appears largely as indirect discourse. This is all very French, but not something we expect from an American author.

The protagonist here, Thomas Railles, is a portrait painter, pretty much retired in southwestern France, who at one time dabbled in odd jobs for the CIA because two of his hometown buddies worked for the agency. The story begins with Thomas's French wife, Florette, twisting her ankle during a walk by herself in the nearby Pyrenees. She is unable to walk and it is getting cold and dark. A band of foreigners -- smugglers? -- picks her up and carries her some distance before abandoning the effort. She is found dead the next day, her throat slit.

It emerges that the four men may have been Islamic terrorists. Thomas's buddies, who were visiting him and distracting him when Florette embarked on her lonely walk, speculate it might have something to do with Thomas's CIA past. Just never resolves these ambiguities for the reader. When, in somewhat contrived fashion, the band is later tracked down by French security forces, the leader, Yussef, said she was a silly woman who recklessly walked by herself and who had died of the cold before he half-heartedly attempted to slit her throat as an act of mercy. The doctor in Thomas's village said Florette might have survived hypothermia if she had been found just an hour earlier, implicitly blaming Thomas for her death because he was busy regaling his friends with stories well after he should have expected Florette to return and was late in embarking on a search for him.

There are flaws with this plot. Why would these men even waste any time carrying Florette down the mountain if they truly were terrorists? If they did bring her closer to rescue, why did it take so long to find her?

But Just's focus is more on Thomas, what he has made of his life as a painter. It's about his regrets, some things he's forgotten, but far worse, some things he can't forget. One clandestine assignment involved betrayal of a Spanish communist that resulted in his death, and Thomas felt guilty being involved in the assassination of a man he painted and considered to be essentially a good man.

The question Just seems to be driving at is how can we blame anyone or seek revenge for the seeming randomness of death. In a post-9/11 world, he seems to be saying, Americans may be engaged in a futile attempt to fight a ghostly Islamic enemy that is not really the principal threat in our lives. In all likelihood, Florette would have died of exposure on the mountain without any intervention from the terrorist band, because she was, as Yussef suggested, careless in walking on treacherous terrain by herself and Thomas was, as the doctor suggests, negligent in starting up a search for her.

Thomas is not really very sympathetic. He waves off any guilt in Florette's death much as he has waved off any real responsibility for any of his actions. Another friend of his, St. John Granger, had died of old age in the previous week. Granger improbably was a British deserter from World War I, presumed dead with his name engraved on a monument in northern France. His hidden life in a forgotten corner of France is a metaphor for Thomas's own cryptic existence.

Just's achievement is to open up these wide vistas through a relatively compact story. At the end, Thomas has a Fellini-esque meeting with one of his old hometown buddies, presumably his last, and is left sitting literally in a fog, with his best hope that he will forget things.

It was easy for me after my years in France to relate to Thomas's existence in Roussillon. I had a friend in Paris whose parents lived down there and so I visited a couple of times. Just's descriptions are tellingly accurate down to the smallest detail and he is clearly a francophile, even when he portrays common French faults.

The only other book of Just's I can remember reading is his 1991 novel The Translator, also set in France, though it seems to me I've read at least one other (obviously I have no trouble forgetting). I bought this one on remainder. I'll see how long it stays with me to decide on future books.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Found in Translation

Cross-posted on the Washington Independent Review of Books

I used to resist the notion of reading fiction in translation when I knew the original language. At one point, I was planning an academic career in comparative literature and learned French and German with ambitions to master other languages and read great books in their original form.

Sometimes, things get “lost in translation” and it is certainly true that even the best translations lose some of the nuance of the original or misinterpret the author’s intention.

On the whole, however, what is “found” in translation vastly more than offsets what is lost. Whole new worlds of experience and viewpoints, of character and description, are opened up through translation. The City Lights bookstore in San Francisco is the only one I’ve seen that actually segregates literature “in translation” from its general literature shelves.

Translations are generally so good these days that the verve of the original is preserved. I read Patrick Süskind’s virtuoso Perfume: The Story of a Murderer in the original German, but John Woods’ 1986 translation (which won the PEN prize for translation), making use of good Anglo-Saxon words from the same Germanic roots, preserves Süskind’s awesome linguistic achievement. This description of the stench in 18th century France is an example:

“The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. The people stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master’s wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter.”

I once did a translation workshop with Richard Howard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who has been one of the big translators of French works into English. His new translation of Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma was a big seller, and he was supposedly working on a new version of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, which, as he observed, should really be called An Education in Feeling in contemporary English.

Howard maintained that every foreign classic deserved a new translation in each generation, so that the shifting meaning of language, as in the case of “sentimental” in that title, can be made clear. Every generation seems a little often to me. By the same token, you could argue that our English classics, Shakespeare or Chaucer, should be “translated” into contemporary English, which is as abhorrent as colorizing classic black and white films. New translations of the Bible may make the text more compelling and clearer, but can any of the new versions match the majesty and power of the King James?

Howard himself comes in for criticism by an Amazon reader for his new translation of Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. While some reviewers praised Howard’s colloquial rendering, this Amazon reader, Allie Jones, remained passionately attached to the 1943 Katherine Woods translation and found much of the book’s charm lost in Howard’s new version. Jones cited a passage from the Woods’ translation: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Jones found the rhetorical “What is essential…” a beautiful rendering of the original French: “…on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” Howard’s translation she considered clumsier and more wooden, and missing “the essential” in what Saint-Exupéry was trying to say: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

Still, I think Howard has a point. Robert Fagles’ new translation of The Iliad, for instance, which I listened to on audiobooks read by Derek Jacobi, is a thrilling and powerful experience. I’ve had the new translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (another PEN translation prize winner) sitting on my shelf for sometime and look forward to reading that.

Beyond the classics, there are contemporary works that become global bestsellers, such as Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy featuring the girl with the dragon tattoo. Nobel Prize-winning authors become accessible to all. Anyone who hasn’t read Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy has deprived themselves of a truly remarkable insight into a whole culture. After recent events in Egypt, it takes on even more relevance, as does Alaa Al Aswany’s Yacoubian Building, which describes in such searing detail the corruption that burdens their lives.

So I find myself reading Nordic thrillers and Latin American surrealists, but also works in German and French that I could indeed read in the original if I wanted to take the extra time and effort. But I don’t feel like I’ve lost a lot in reading Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone or Schlink’s The Homecoming in translation.

Translations can sometimes be less than ideal. One of Orhan Pamuk’s early novels, The Black Book, first appeared in English in 1995, translated by Güneli Gün, his early translator. Pamuk and the translator of his later books, Maureen Freely, felt the book would be better served by a new translation in 2006. “The [1995] translation, though ebullient and faithful to the original, was opaque,” Freely wrote in a special afterword. “My hope is that this new translation will bring the book to a new generation of readers who know Orhan Pamuk only from his later works.” The Black Book, she says, is the “cauldron” from which his later works emerged.

Turkish, according to Freely, is difficult to translate, and Pamuk, a postmodernist writer, can be obscure. But thankfully, authors, translators and readers persist. The ambivalence of modernizing Islam, the interplay of terrorism and tradition, the intractable issue of women covering their heads – all of this is so much more understandable after reading Pamuk’s Snow, one of those later works.

I sometimes fantasize about reading Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu in its entirety in the original when I retire, or Musil’s Collected Works in German, which has been sitting on my shelf for literally decades. Maybe I will. I’m sure these could be very enriching experiences. In the meantime, trying to squeeze reading into spaces between work and the myriad other leisure-time activities that beckon, I will probably do better for myself by simply picking up the English version of whatever I want to read and benefiting from the able assistance of talented translators to enjoy these books.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


It is a fair question when you already have literally hundreds of cookbooks why you should ever buy a new one. It's safe to say that I could do a Julie and Julia and cook one recipe a day from my existing cookbooks and not run out until it was time to go to the old folks' home.

But, like everything else, taste in cookbooks change. Julia Child deserves all the credit she gets for revolutionizing Americans approach to food and cooking, but not too many people will be cooking the recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The only three I still use regularly are cassoulet, ratatouille and boeuf carbonnades.

I have numerous cookbooks I've picked up along the way that simply are not very good cookbooks. I have English-language books on Swiss cuisine I bought in Switzerland -- totally useless even when I wanted to do Zuercher geschetzeltes recently. I have another with South African cuisine that I've never used. I have a big book on Spanish cuisine, in Spanish, that I use every once in a great while simply to decipher the recipe for paella with the aid of a dictionary. I have the Larousse gastronomique in French, but it may as well be in Greek for all the use I get out of it. I still have a few cookbooks in German, but they're not very practical to use here. Chef's cookbooks are by and large useless, I find -- too complicated, too many hard to find ingredients, not practical, etc. -- and I think sometimes their purpose is to convince you that you have to go to a restaurant to get a really great meal.

The modern classics -- Julia Child, Marcella Hazzan, James Beard -- still sit on my shelf, along with Elizabeth David and others in that first wave of cookbook authors. There's no reason to think that just because these books are devoid of lovely color photos that the dishes produced from these recipes will be any less delicious. New cookbooks nowadays have a color photo virtually every other page. And that of course is an art it itself, and can sometimes bear little resemblance to what you will come up with following the recipe, given all the tricks and shortcuts the photographers use.

But times change, and just as translator Richard Howard says every generation should have a new translation of the classics, many of the standard dishes can use a freshening up and "translation" for the current generation. For one thing, Julia and Marcella had to find substitutes when ingredients readily available in France or Italy were not so easy to find in the U.S. Some dishes they would not even include for that reason. Now, many of these ingredients are much easier to come by and mail order is much more sophisticated.

A cookbook written today can cater to the new focus on fresh, local products, put more emphasis on vegetables like kale and broccoli, give advice on sustainable sourcing -- addressing concerns that hobby cooks a generation ago didn't have.

But cookbooks themselves are under threat from online recipe sites like Epicurious. These books with their gorgeous photos -- and it is the photos now that distinguish them from the online recipes -- are not searchable. In pursuit of the seasonal, it's nice now to go to the farmer's market and pick what is in abundance and looks good, and hunt up a recipe for it when you get home. But who wants to plow through a half dozen indexes to find a good treatment for rapini. Just put it in the search box at Epicurious and you have dozens of recipes to choose from.

So managing cookbooks becomes a logistical challenge. We keep about 60 in the kitchen in our pseudo-hutch -- several of the standards, many favorites, and others that get swapped out seasonally -- braising books in the winter, grilling books in the summer. But the only way I can actually get to the recipes in these books is to pick one or two at random and leaf through them, noting recipes that are appealing and seasonal, and then arbitrarily selecting some to put on a shopping list and actually cook. In this way, we find many wonderful dishes that you could easily repeat, though we hardly ever do. Some we cook for guests, others just for ourselves (concluding almost invariably that this would be great for guests).

Not surprisingly, I find myself gravitating most often to Mediterranean dishes -- French, Italian, Spanish, or regional cookbooks that include Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco and so on. Paula Wolfert is a current big favorite, but Sara Jenkins' Olives and Oranges is also one I turn to a lot. I have several Indian cookbooks, but it's not that easy to assemble the ingredients if you just want to cook Indian every once in a while. We have a number of Mexican cookbooks and perhaps we can do more with them this summer.

But it's a wonderful problem to have. As I've said before, we live in something of a foodie paradise right now, with a true cornucopia of choices. Who knows what tomorrow brings. While my attitude is not exactly "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die," I am inclined to order a new cookbook from Andrea Reusing when Steve Sando recommends it, and save the $20 to buy it by skipping that pizza and beer and staying home with leftovers instead. (It cost $20 from Amazon, but retails for $35, and I have to say cookbooks are something I will generally buy from Amazon. I don't understand why Politics & Prose, for instance, hasn't caught on and made it an incentive for their membership to offer a permanent discount on cookbooks.)

Friday, April 15, 2011

An Evil Eye

My review of Jason Goodwin's An Evil Eye was published today in the Washington Independent Review of Books:
This fourth installment in Jason Goodwin’s mystery series featuring Yashim the investigator once again transports the reader to the fabulously exotic world of the 19th-century Ottoman Empire. As he did in The Janissary Tree, his Edgar Award-winning debut, Goodwin brings this literally Byzantine world to life with vivid descriptions, authoritative detail and informed understanding of the historical context. In An Evil Eye, he fully exploits the drama and beauty of Istanbul, a city that geography and culture have conspired to make one of the most fascinating places in the world.

Yashim is probably the first and only fictional detective who is a eunuch. As a lala, Yashim is able to live and operate alone in a culture that normally embeds everyone in a family. He is able to freely enter the inner sanctum of the palace, including the harem, barred to other men. And though it does not play a role in this book, Yashim’s condition does not prevent him from experiencing the romantic urges of other men.

An Evil Eye begins with the discovery of a murdered Russian in the well of an Orthodox monastery, skillfully highlighting Istanbul’s situation at the crossroads of continents, empires and cultures. The grand vizier, who runs the imperial government for the young new sultan, calls in Yashim to investigate. This is the role he has agreed to play for the government in exchange for freedom to live outside the confines of the palace.

As the action begins in 1840, the Ottoman Empire is in the midst of its long decline. Austria and Russia have chipped away at the edges of its territory, and Egypt has become autonomous. Russia, in particular, has had its eye on historic Constantinople with the idea of reuniting Orthodox Christianity with its original home.

But Yashim’s investigation does not take him in the direction of power politics. Instead, subsequent events lead him into intrigues of the harem. This legendary institution, designed to ensure a smooth line of male successors in the Ottoman dynasty, resembles less “a perfumed bathhouse full of naked odalisques” than “an old-fashioned girls’ boarding school,” as Goodwin notes in the acknowledgements.

In An Evil Eye, the sultan has moved to a new palace on the Bosphorus, leaving behind the maze of Topkapi Palace on Seraglio Point. Only the sultan’s grandmother, the valide, remains in the historic quarters, with a small retinue of other aging harem members.

Yashim, a longtime confidante of the valide, spends much of his time shuttling between the two palaces, trying to unravel the hidden connections between new additions to the harem, the harem’s aging female hierarchy and a young child mysteriously dropped in their midst. He must find out who has the “evil eye” that has resulted in one defective birth, a fatal hysterical pregnancy and a wasting sickness for one of the palace musicians.

Yashim is also trying to determine why the admiral of the imperial fleet, Fevzi Pasha, betrayed the sultan by sailing the fleet to Alexandria and handing it over to the Egyptians, exposing Istanbul to Russia’s “protective” embrace. Fevzi was at one point Yashim’s mentor, and he realizes that his earlier doubts about the admiral’s loyalty were justified.

Yashim pursues his investigation with occasional retreats to his apartment in Stamboul, where he recovers his equilibrium by preparing simple but authentic meals. (Goodwin offers the recipes for these Ottoman specialties on his website.) He visits his old friend, the Polish ambassador Palewski, who has become a man without a country after the German, Austrian and Russian empires divided up Poland and eradicated it from the map. And he relies on another friend, the transvestite dancer Preen, for sanctuary from prying eyes when necessary.

This is Yashim’s little world and remains constant throughout the series, which also includes The Snake Stone and The Bellini Card. Palewski, who functions as a kind of Watson to Yashim’s Sherlock, is less prominent in this new novel — which is welcome, because the author has not succeeded in making him a very interesting character.

An Evil Eye also departs from the formula established in the first three books in that Yashim does not fall in love or bed the beauty in the plot. Perhaps Goodwin has realized that this is perplexing to readers who do not understand the sex life of a eunuch.

The author has sketched the back story to Yashim’s condition, describing his castration as a child as part of an attack on his family by his father’s enemies. In this novel, Yashim comes across new information regarding this heinous deed. Goodwin gives intimations of Yashim’s anguish and ambivalence about his condition, but has avoided over the course of four novels adding any depth to the eunuch’s emotional life. He seems content to maintain the series as an Ottoman version of a murder mystery rather than pushing the literary envelope.

Ottoman is in. Jenny White has another popular historical mystery series, featuring Kamil Pasha as an investigating magistrate in a series starting with The Sultan’s Seal. While White’s lyrical descriptions of Istanbul are if anything more enchanting than Goodwin’s, her Kamil Pasha is a good deal duller than Yashim. Set later in the 19th century, White’s novels lose some of the exoticism of the earlier period. Yashim is still able to wear a robe and turban, while Kamil, living in a more Europeanized culture, wears a frock coat and fez.

English writer Goodwin, who studied Byzantine history at Cambridge, has succeeded in turning his fascination with the Ottoman Empire into an entertaining detective series. He started with a memoir of his walking trip across Europe, On Foot to the Golden Horn, and followed with a history of the Ottomans, Lords of the Horizon. It was his sister, television producer Daisy Goodwin, the author explains in the acknowledgments to The Janissary Tree, who encouraged him to take a detective-story approach to Ottoman history.

Though the award-winning debut novel is probably the better book, An Evil Eye is a perfectly good entrée into Yashim’s world of palaces and harems, bazaars and cafés, of caïques skimming across the Golden Horn and villains chasing heroes through Byzantine tunnels. An exciting read for any reader who wants to take a magic carpet ride to a world of Oriental fable.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Borders In Memoriam

Bankruptcies are always a bit sordid and there's no reason a bookstore chain should be any different. Of course we all shudder at the thought of a CEO presiding over Ch. 11 getting a $1.7 million bonus.

I thought Borders was the greatest thing since sliced bread when it started. Before Borders, bookstores were little boutiques squeezed into strip malls with half the space given over to greeting cards and tchotchkes. I was living in Europe when the first Borders megastores were opened outside its Ann Arbor base. Two of the first five were in Philadelphia and Overland Park, the places where my parents happened to reside. So every visit home I was able to go to a Borders and load up on a stack of books that weren't two years old and double the cover price.

The rest, as they say, is history. Borders spread across the country, and publishing and reading enjoyed a renaissance. Barnes & Noble copied and many respects improved the model. Then came Amazon, the world's biggest bookstore.

Borders of course could have been Amazon if management had been more alert (just as Dow Jones could have been Bloomberg, if only...). But it takes more vision than these managers had. Even as caretakers, they proved inadequate. Borders stores started to look dowdy as years went by and the company failed to freshen up in any way. It not only failed to meet the competition in Amazon, it failed by and large to meet the competition in B&N.

It's hard to know what the future of bookstores will be. I personally doubt that Borders will be able to successfully restructure or find a sustainable business model. B&N may squeak by because of its Internet presence. Politics & Prose just got new owners who also have some capital to invest. They will need it, because at the very least bookstores will need the machines to print and bind POD books, if that technology is not rendered completely obsolete by eBooks. B&N at least is fighting the good fight with its own eBook reader, retailing the hardware in its stores and the eBooks online.

It's hard for my generation to imagine the disappearance of printed books, and who knows, perhaps they will survive in some legacy form. Borders was probably doomed once it missed the Internet boat and it will now become history like video rental outlets.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Mass for Arras

This book, the most widely known work of Polish author Andrzej Szczypiorski, is both depressing and disquieting. The medieval tale of faith versus reason, perception as reality and runaway mass hysteria, a story of corruption and damnation, is far too close to our current situation with the intolerant right-wing "Christians" for comfort.

There are no heroes in this novel. The narrator, Jan, is temporizing and profoundly corrupt. His mentor, Father Albert, who imposes a reign of terror on Arras, is mad with zeal -- but a cynical, knowing zeal -- and much too reminiscent of some of the ultra-right-wing Catholic governors like Scott Walker and Chris Christie, who now are imposing their crazy ideology on a captive citizenry. Bishop David, the bastard son of the Duke of Burgundy and a benefactor of the narrator, is cynical, agnostic and capricious.

Szczypiorski first portrayed Arras in the grip of the plague, a frightening descent into cannibalism and licentiousness. But worse was to come. The plague, in fact, unhinged the populace and led to a new frenzy of anti-Semitism and witch hunting, which resulted the executions of an dozens of citizens in an escalation of terror (ironically, even the executioner was executed after he accepted a bribe from one of his victims to kill him cleanly and quickly).

It culminates with Father Albert dying a slow and ugly death of dropsy, and David arriving in time to stay the execution of the narrator and then consign Arras to oblivion by forgiving the perpetrators and telling them "this never happened."

It is in part a philosophical novel with long and passionate arguments about faith and reason and integrity that probably bear more careful reading than I gave them as I barreled along in dismay following the terrible course of the narrative. But that is part of what makes the novel depressing, because Jan's lofty sentiments are undermined by his own lack of integrity.

Arras is a town in what is today northern France and historically is part of Flanders. It is near Cambrai, where my grandfather was born, and it is the origin of my brother Darras's name -- Darras is a common surname in this region, indicating people from Arras. I originally bought this book in German but never got around to reading it, and the other day, as I was writing about Darras's name in my BAKpedal blog, I ordered the English translation. It seems to me I passed through both Arras and Cambrai at one point. Both were badly damaged during the world wars but preserve some nice Flemish architecture.

The Duchy of Burgundy beckons across the centuries as a civilization almost as lost as Atlantis. Originating in Burgundy, the French region that gives its name to the wine, it extended as a patchwork of fiefdoms in an arc through the Low Countries, incorporating much of what is today Belgium. At its zenith in the 15th century, which is when the action of this novel takes place, it was a prosperous region with a reputation for high living. To this day, a Belgian who enjoys his food and wine is called a "true Burgundian."

It is the very prosperity and success of these rich areas -- Arras was a prime center for tapestries -- that makes the city's descent into a faith-driven savagery so frightening. The wealth and sophistication of the city did not prevent its enslavement to ignorance and fanaticism. Once the fanatics seized the levers of power, not even the urbane Count de Saxe with all his wealth was safe from the town's fury. But he at least showed the integrity of a genuine secular humanism and went courageously to his death, unlike the craven narrator, who understood his own cowardice and was able to live with it.

Since I learned that the name Delamaide is derived from La Hamaide castle outside of Brussels -- and this is why the Delamaides were found around Cambrai and Arras -- I have felt an affinity for this old Duchy of Burgundy. Their reputation as bon vivants doesn't hurt, either. The narrator of this novel speaks of Ghent and Utrecht; he relates his tale after settling in Bruges, that Flemish gem of city. It is a corner of Europe that should have been safe from the horrors described in this book. But it wasn't, and that's the message Szczypiorski, who took part in the Warsaw Uprising and survived Sachsenhausen to become a successful writer in Communist Poland, drives home. No one can say "It can't happen here" with any degree of certainty.