Friday, November 10, 2017

Master Class on the Novella in Translation

Bolaño's Una novelita lumpen
At the beginning of September, the fall semester always looks endless to me, like a river whose mouth or delta lies beyond the horizon of the looming holidays. Once class begin, however, the weeks and months always race by more swiftly than I envision. By December, I find myself remarking how the term has slimmed down to final papers and exams, with the restorative winter break--that terminus--only weeks away. Even still, I always worry about overloading and wearing myself out, which I have come to realize is unavoidable. Beyond classes these days, there is everything else, which was always there, but even more so with each passing year.

I nevertheless had the idea that a mere month's worth of--four--classes on a free Wednesday alongside my usual teaching and advising load would not be unreasonable and a pleasant change of pace, and it turns out that it was. For four weeks from mid-October through the beginning of November, I taught a masterclass on the novella in translation to a small cadre of MFA students at Columbia University's School of the Arts, and once I properly figured out the commute, which required heading in the opposite direction from Newark, things ran quite smoothly.

Having not headed into Manhattan regularly during morning rush hour in 17 years, I was reminded that the PATH trains are usually reliable, if stuffed like a coffee vacuum pack, at that hour, and that the trip into the city is especially quick because it only requires a few stops to Christopher Street station, which once was my destination when I was a student at NYU (except when I taught in the East Village and in the winter, when I would take it further, to 9th Street) and again when I worked in SoHo in the late 1990s. From the Christopher St. PATH stop, I walked down the famous street, still mostly shuttered at 9 am, to the 1 Train at 7th Avenue, and then changed to the 2 to speed uptown, then back to the 1 to end up right outside Columbia's main gate on Broadway. Trips back to New Jersey (and usually the Rutgers campus for afternoon meetings) ran more leisurely in reverse.

Since we had only four weeks, so I assigned four novellas in translation:
  • Roberto Bolaño's 2005 mini-masterpiece A Little Lumpen Novelita, the last work of fiction he published in his lifetime, which was translated by Natasha Wimmer and published by New Directions in 2016;
  • Amélie Nothomb's 1993 novella Loving Sabotage, translated by Andrew Wilson and published by New Directions in 2003;
  • Yoko Ogawa's The Diving Pool: Three Novellas, originally published as three separate works, in 1990 and 1991, and translated by Stephen Snyder and published by Picador in 2008;
  • and Abdourahman A. Waberi's 2009 Passage of Tears, translated by David and Nicole Ball, and published by Seagull Books, 2011.
I had read all of these books before, the Waberi and Bolaño texts most recently, and the Nothomb not long after it appeared a little over a decade ago. I chose these texts with the aim of linguistic, aesthetic, and thematic diversity, among other goals, yet still ended up with two Francophone authors, writing from rather different perspectives, and three works in European languages. (Since I can read French and Spanish, though, I had a clearer sense of the translators' skills.) Of the four works, Bolaño's and Ogawa's were clearly labeled novelas (or "novelita"), while Nothomb's and Waberi's were issued as novels. All four are authors I admire, Bolaño especially so, and though I had taught his work before, I had never included fiction by any of the other authors, nor these four works, on my syllabi.

I'd chosen Waberi's text, I realized after the course had begun, in part as a provocation, because its length suggests that it might not fit the criteria. And what are they? I won't reprise the essay, based on a talk I gave last spring at Northwestern's annual spring Festival of Writing, that I revised and shared with my students to start the class, but some of the key characteristics I asked the students to think about were the novella's usually limited scope (more than a story, perhaps, but less than most novels) and concentrated effects, its unity of voice and plot, and its concision in narration. One of my students metaphorized, specifically apropos of Ogawa's work, the novella's narrative focus to a "tunnel." I thought this a brilliant insight, and thought it applied, in varying ways, to all four works. The students' assignments included in-class discussion and writing, response papers, and, as their final submission, a set of novella starters. Each student produced several that I hope they pursue, if not as novellas then, plumped out as novels.

They were to a person smart, engaged, and original in their thinking. I did not see any of their creative work, but nearly all were fiction writers, and I got a sense of what each of them was working on. It was a pleasure to experience thinking through the texts with them. Each novella offers different challenges in terms of how it works, and the class as a whole was more than up to the case, puzzling out as well other aspects of the texts. One of the students who read French was able to point out how much more ironic Nothomb's original was compared to the English (and how it riffed off a variety of works that Francophone readers would know, though Anglophones might not), while Waberi's French was a bit more formal in places, and less so in others.

Will they write a novella or novellas? I hope my proselytization was effective, though I did discuss, in the essay and the class, the US publishing industry's reluctance about the shorter long form. I also hope I might have sparked an interest in translation among some of them. I did leave the very brief course--like an "eyeblink," as one student put it--as encouraged as I always am when I finish a semester with my MFA (and other graduate, and undergraduate) students at Rutgers-Newark, about the future of American literature and writing. The hurdle, of course, is to get inventive, talented writers (of all ages and backgrounds) like these students and my Rutgers students and mentees, into print, and their work to readers. The sharp, gifted novella class cohort, I sincerely hope and trust, will be doing so before long.