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3 works in translation: History and literature intertwined

Meghan Collins Sullivan
/
NPR

It is easy to act as if fiction and history were separate. But they cannot be completely divided.

Besides the fact that literature comes with a rich history of its own, it can give readers access to the past that is not less valuable for being, to some degree, imaginary.

Jenny Erpenbeck's Kairos and Oksana Lutsyshyna's Ivan and Phoebe offer this opportunity to connect with time past. Kairos takes readers into the final days of divided Germany, while Ivan and Phoebe, only a couple years and countries away, portrays the wobbly first moments of Ukraine's post-Soviet independence. On the other hand, Françoise Sagan's newly released The Four Corners of the Heart is a reflection of mid-20th-century French bourgeois society — but, primarily, an item of literary history: an incomplete and previously unknown work by a legendary writer. Both types of history count.

Kairos

Kairos, by the German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck, opens with a middle-aged woman named Katharina learning that her former lover, Hans, who was some 30 years older than her, has died. Very soon after, she comes home to discover that somebody has delivered two boxes of his writings to her home in Pittsburgh. Considering the boxes, she wonders, "Was it a fortunate moment... when she, just 19, first met Hans?" Kairos emerges from that question, traveling through memory to explore love and difference, the changing of historical seasons, and the crossing of borders both real and symbolic: Katharina and Hans' romance starts in East Berlin in the final years of Germany's division, in a moment when a starkly different future seems imminent. It would be too easy to take their relationship as an allegory for any sort of progress, and yet both the gaps between them and the nearness of their inner lives — Erpenbeck switches from his perspective to hers and back many times on each page, and often many times in a paragraph — manage to simultaneously echo and amplify the fissures between generations, and between East and West.

Erpenbeck is frequently named on lists of Nobel Prize contenders and, for newcomers to her work, Kairos easily demonstrates why. Its mix of intimacy and historical sweep is astounding. So is its prose. In poet and translator Michael Hofmann's rigorous translation, Kairos' writing feels purified, as if any emotional irrelevancy had been burned out. As a result, it is devastating. In one scene, Hans and Katharina have sex to the sound of an East German May Day parade, embarking on a "private emigration on the narrow bed." In that moment, Katharina's departure seems all but foretold — and yet who has not experienced intimacy as a radical private departure? Here and throughout, Kairos is a voyage far from the familiar, and toward the limits of what a novel can do.

Ivan and Phoebe

The Ukrainian writer Oksana Lutsyshyna should really have called her award-winning fourth novel Ivan, not Ivan and Phoebe. Although it is nominally an exploration of a marriage, Ivan and Phoebe, translated by poet and diplomat Nina Murray, is in fact a sprawling, freewheeling journey through its protagonist Ivan's mind, memory, and community — which does include his wife Phoebe, a young poet from his hometown, but barely. Ivan is an awful husband. He ignores Phoebe, fails to shield her from his domineering mother and, worst of all, "attempt[s] to silence her poems forever."

Lutsyshyna gives Phoebe almost no room on the page, but the novel plainly takes her side while exploring the roots of Ivan's misogyny and unkindness. In part, the former comes from a mix of tradition and thoughtlessness, but both are the result of trauma. As a university student in Kyiv around 1990, Ivan joined the Revolution on Granite, organizing and protesting against Soviet rule until persecution by secret police drives him home to the sleepy city of Uzhhorod. He tries to build a life there as the Soviet Union crumbles, but he's scarred, frightened, and profoundly confused. He isn't alone on any of these fronts. Early in the book, a man newly released from prison asks Ivan, [What's] this independence we've got going on now? How am I supposed to live?" Every man in the book seems to have the same question. Many drink heavily, some fatally. Nobody, Ivan included, can sustain the patriotism that fueled the Revolution on Granite. Among the people he knows, freedom has come, in a certain sense, too late: Ukrainian history now weighs on them so heavily that "[one] could not laugh about it. One could not drink to it. One could not live with it."

Ivan and Phoebe is, fundamentally, a moving, sympathetic portrait of a man and a community struggling through historical trauma, managing the aftershocks of seismic change as best they can. It's worth noting that Murray's translation is smooth, often elegant, but broken up by too many footnotes and by her decision to render Ivan's mother's speech in a rough approximation of dialect that verges on caricature. Still, these flaws aren't enough to stop the book's momentum, and sinking into Ivan's world is both painful and a pleasure.

The Four Corners of the Heart

In 1957, the French writer Françoise Sagan, then 21 years old and already the bestselling author of Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smile, nearly died in a car crash outside Paris. (The New York Times reported that Sagan's "hobby is fast sports cars... She had once been warned publicly by the Paris police to drive more carefully.") Her injuries led to a battle with opioid addiction; still, she wrote prolifically — plays, screenplays, stories, and more than 30 novels — until her death in 2004. Such abundance raises the question of why her son Denis Westhoff decided to release an edited version of her very unfinished manuscript The Four Corners of the Heart, translated by Sophie R. Lewis. The novel centers on a bourgeois family, the Cressons, in whose household "no one... was truly concerned with anyone — other than themselves." Their selfishness and venality are exposed after a car crash that nearly kills the adult son and heir, Ludovic. He spends three years in a variety of institutions before making an abrupt recovery. When he returns to his parents' enormous, tacky house, he discovers that his parents are ashamed of him; his wife, Marie-Laure, is repulsed. Unsurprisingly, misery and adultery ensue.

The Four Corners of the Heart, which is perhaps half-done in terms of plot, does not have the coolness or precision of Sagan's finished novels. Its satire is broad; its characters are cartoons and buffoons. It is evidently a draft — and although releasing it may contribute to literary history, doing so does not otherwise serve Sagan's legacy. In his afterword, Westhoff — whose biography notes that, "Despite her outstanding debts, [he] has chosen to fight for the posterity of her life's work" — writes that when he encountered the manuscript, its "patent weaknesses could have done real harm to my mother's oeuvre." He goes on to explain that he chose to revise the book only after "[s]everal voices intimated that I was the only person who could" do so. Far be it from me to speculate about whose voices those were, but it brings me some tristesse that he listened. Sagan's many fans would do well to turn their attention elsewhere.

Lily Meyer is a writer, translator, and critic. Her first novel, Short War, is forthcoming from A Strange Object in 2024.

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Lily Meyer