Nathaniel Popkin: in Conversation with Translator Lee Klein
NP: You’ve traveled to El Salvador, the subject of Revulsion. Did you know about the author Castellanos Moya?
LK: In 1995 I traveled by land from Austin, Texas (where I lived at the time) to Costa Rica and spent about a week in El Salvador en route south. I visited the beach at La Libertad described in the book and experienced San Salvador but I don’t remember seeing any book other than the one I was somewhat inappropriately reading at the time (Cheever’s big red collection of short stories). I hadn’t read Bernhard at that point. I hadn’t even heard of him. But six years later I became exposed to the Bernhard virus and started reading him like mad, hunting down copies (Vintage hadn’t re-issued new editions yet and the University of Chicago editions weren’t so easy to find, not even in NYC; in Iowa City, circa 2002 or ‘03, I found a first-edition hard cover of Gathering Evidence but not a single other Bernhard book in any of the town’s many bookstores, which, at the time, may have excessively disheartened me about humanity, as though I needed Bernhard to raise my spirits during the first G.W. Bush administration).
The first Moya I read was Senselessness in 2009 or 2010, attracted by Bernhard comparisons in reviews, but I didn’t really become aware of and, more so, driven to acquire a copy of El asco: Thomas Bernhard en San Salvador until 2011 when I read Roberto Bolaño’s mini-review in Between Parentheses, the great/amazing/unpredictable Bolaño miscellany that came out that year. [Of El asco, Bolaño wrote, in Natasha Wimmer’s translation: “Its acid humor, like a Buster Keaton movie or a time bomb, threatens the hormonal stability of the idiots who, upon reading it, feel and irresistible urge to string the author up in the town square. Truly, I know of no great honor for a real writer.”]
It was definitely the Bernhard bit in the title that drew me to it. Bolaño also called Revulsion possibly Moya’s darkest and best. I wanted to read the fucker. I was surprised that no English version existed. So I ordered the original Spanish edition. But once I started reading, probably after a few pages, I wound up translating as I read, really enjoying the process of simultaneous reading and writing. When I mentioned this to friends, they expressed interest in reading whatever I produced in English, so I committed to translating the complete book—and once they read it they encouraged me to find a publisher. At first, it hadn’t really occurred to me to try to publish it. At first, I really only translated it for fun and for friends who are Moya and Bernhard fans.
NP: The success of this book was an accident, it seems. For Moya, creating a novel in Bernhard’s voice was a kind of fun diversion (but also a way to speak some truth about the condition of El Salvador). It’s an accident of fate that this book, for which he never expected to get any attention, is, in El Salvador, at least, exactly why he is famous, or infamous. This is confounding, I assume frustrating for him (he calls it a “stigma”). People have asked him to write versions for their own countries and cities, as if all that matters is the form. But I wonder to what degree that’s not the case, to what degree it’s a genuine condemnation of El Salvador, of an essential poverty of culture?
LK: I can’t really speak for the author. It’s probably half-joking/half-genuine condemnation and an attempt at writing like Bernhard, which everyone does after reading him for a while. The repetitive phrases infect your thought patterns. Phrases composed in emails while reading Bernhard start to seem distinctly Bernhardian. It’s one of the most virulent/infectious prose styles. Otherwise, anyone who has ever released a stream of bile over beers with friends knows it can be fun, therapeutic, truthful. Exaggeration is also an essential part of it. Bernhard, in the guise of his narrator in his masterpiece Extinction, proclaims himself to be “a great artist of exaggeration.” Everything is the worst thing ever. Everything obliterates the narrator’s sense of wellbeing, etc. Extreme statements are funny and often truthful in a way magnanimity can’t quite muster. In 2007, I wrote a screed called “Thomas Bernhard and the Necessity of Complaint,” about my first year in Philadelphia (2006), comparing the city to NYC, ranting about cheesesteaks and the general not-so-cultured vibe picked up on by my seriously anhedonic sensibility at the time. There’s definitely something “fun” about writing in this mode. It’s a liberating constraint. I think Joyce called it “jocoserious”—seriously joking—or at least it’s a term associated with Joyce. And lord knows the United States merits a serious “Revulsion” right now—an an epic rant about gun control in the style of Thomas Bernhard, taking aim in part at Trump and the larger situation (economic, political, psychological, spiritual) that makes him appealing to some people.
NP: In some regard it’s easy to write in this form, to attack obvious cultural tics—bad food and beer, the hordes majoring in business administration (in Nicaragua I met these people, from El Salvador)—is simplistic. The attack is base and distinctively under-nuanced; as in Bernhard, it aims at middle class mediocrity. This kind of writing isn’t supposed to be good, according to rules of fiction that eschew the broad brush. Yet it’s delicious, funny, and a bit addictive. So what is it about Bernhard, or Moya here, that works? Is it the self-parody? Why are you drawn to it?
LK: I’m not sure I agree that it’s simplistic, base, under-nuanced, or eschews brushes of a certain width. The word “nuance” derives from clouds. But a good rant is a laser that disperses (or, to use a better Bernhardian word, annihilates) whatsoever shades the sun. It’s easy to write a few pages in this mode but difficult to write 100+ pages of paragraphlessness that someone would be willing to read. A lot of the nuance/subtlety involves seeing around the narrator, that is, getting an idea of the sort of guy the narrator might be, why he’s ranting, why he’s so disturbed by cheap greasy food devoured like celestial manna (as Philly residents, we can probably relate to the obsessively devoted consumption of grease more than most). The repetition and ranting also supply lots of opportunities for humor—again, I’d say the narrator’s bile is a bit self-consciously overboard. Also, there’s nuance in that the narrator in this and in the best of Bernhard is not against everything: he’s in favor of the bartender, he’s in favor of the whiskey he drinks, he’s in favor of the classical music the bartender lets him play at the bar, and also, importantly, he suggests that he’s very much in favor of the absolute inverse of everything he rips. He’s ultimately a super-sensitive idealist, not a blowhard negatron, and this is essential to an appreciation of Revulsion or Bernhard. Similarly, once I started realizing that all the complaining people in Philly who seem to always say awcummawn all the time were tender flowers I started to come around on the city some more. Contempt and compassion are two sides of the same coin.
NP: I have to say this is an awfully smooth read (aside from the jarring “pleasure of the diatribe”). Moya’s prose, never mind in the voice of Bernhard, can race along, mounting in clauses and intensity. That may not be so easy to render in English. But you have done it—and I would say with more finesse than previous Moya translations—and this is your first book length translation. I suspect you found specific ways to do this with punctuation and word choice. Care to elaborate?
LK: Thanks, man, although I’m totally revolted by your sense of jarringnesshood: “with the pleasure of diatribe and mimicry” is a damn fine phrase! “Finesse” means intricate and refined delicacy, subtlety. I very much enjoyed reading Katherine Silver’s translations and admired them although I didn’t specifically compare her versions with the original Spanish texts to see what she was doing. They definitely seem to preserve the general sense of Moya’s quick and conversational yet sometimes thorny Spanish prose. I’m not well versed in translation theory in general but as a reader and a writer I tried to maintain dual loyalty to the original Spanish text in front of me and to unseen readers of the English version. At first the loyalty was more to the original but in the end, once everything was rendered in English, I switched into full-on English editorial mode, concerned with aerodynamic language, etc., creating an English version that read as smoothly as the original one did. The final edits with Declan Spring (the fantastically kind, clear, and expert New Directions editor) and Moya were interesting in that Declan pointed out spots where I may have been too loyal to the original, where the phrasing still seemed to have a foot in the Spanish, and Horacio pointed out where I may have been too loyal to the translated English, where I had veered somewhat from the original sense.
NP: This is a book of semblances, I suppose. There is the narrator, Vega, who, the reader is warned, is based on a real person of that name, and who, like the character Vega has moved to Canada and changed his name. There is the semblance of Bernhard all together, San Salvador for Salzburg, the character Moya’s hope to create a semblance of a European, or even Mexican, literary life in El Salvador. So I wonder if when translating you had at hand not only Moya’s Spanish text but also the work of Bernhard, the voice of Bernhard (as translated into English I gather unless you read German) to draw on. How did Bernhard factor into your process?
LK: “Semblances” is a 2666 word. In the Ansky section (Part V) of that novel, the word is repeated over the course of a paragraph almost in Bernhardian rant style: “when the fearful soothed their fears with semblances.” I love it. Such a cool word. Like a monarch butterfly camouflaging itself to look less like prey than a predator, in Revulsion’s case, someone who’s very much too sensitive for existence in El Salvador or maybe really anywhere other than abstract realms of art, music, literature, and whiskey, takes on the semblance of Thomas Bernhard, to the humorously exaggerated point of changing his name, to become more like a predator. It’s like dressing tough as self-defense but this narrator’s self-defense against spiritual degradation is to appropriate a ranting prose style—as a concept, that’s pretty funny. Vega, the narrator in Revulsion, might also be soothing his fear with semblances. Appropriating Bernhard’s style when feeling down and gone to seed or assaulted by spiritually degrading bullshit might not be the best thing for you but it helps, sort of the way a downtrodden populace might support extremists who seem to convey to them a sense of power. I’ve read nearly all of Bernhard and have celebrated his books by positioning them on the central shelf of my primary bookcase, literally and figuratively. Bernhard’s prose style is central to my literary intuition. “Semblances” is also central to translation, which at best is maybe like a monarch butterfly trying to disguise itself as another monarch butterfly. They’re not the same entities but ideally the second one seems a lot like the first.
Cleaver reviews editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of five books, including the 2018 novel Everything is Borrowed, and co-editor (with Stephanie Feldman) of the anthology Who Will Speak for America? His essays and works of criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kenyon Review, LitHub, Tablet Magazine, and Public Books. If you are an author or publicist seeking reviews or a writer hoping to write reviews for Cleaver, query Nathaniel.