When I was asked a while back if I wanted to have a look at the latest edition of Music & Literature, I was, of course, happy to oblige. I didn’t hear anything for some time, and by the time it appeared in my letter box, I was just about to start my Women in Translation Month reading, so it was slotted in for September. Until, that is, I had a sudden realisation – the latest edition featured three artists, three women, all from outside the Anglosphere. Which gave me an idea…
For those who don’t know, Music & Literature is a literary journal (in book form) which… well, I’ll let them tell you:
Music & Literature is a nonprofit organization devoted to publishing and promoting the work of underrepresented artists from around the world. Each print issue of Music & Literature Magazine assembles an international cast of writers and critics in celebration of three featured artists whose work has yet to reach its deserved audience.
And it does exactly what it says on the tin – each edition looks at three artists (in the wider sense, including writers, musicians and film makers), with a focus not so much on giving the reader free samples of their work – although there is some of that -, but on creating a picture of the artist and their work through interviews, critical reviews and diary entries.
As mentioned, the sixth edition happily coincides with #WITMonth, with the Music & Literature team following Marie NDiaye’s lead in introducing the Anglophone world to three strong women: Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik, Ukrainian composer Victoria Polevá and post-Yugoslav writer Dubravka Ugrešić. Each of the artists is given a healthy amount of space for analysis, between eighty and one hundred pages, meaning that if you don’t know them after reading what’s offered here, there really is no hope for you…
First up in the latest edition is Alejandra Pizarnik, an Argentinian poet. A major voice in the Spanish-speaking world, she’s fairly unknown in the Anglosphere, perhaps (in part) owing to her early death. Alberto Manguel says in his introduction:
“In her diary, on 30 October 1962, after quoting from Don Quixote (“…but what pleased Don Quixote most was the marvelous silence that reigned in the whole house…”), she wrote: “Mustn’t forget to commit suicide.” On 25 September 1972, she remembered.”
p.5 (Music & Literature, 2015)
At the time she was just thirty-six years old…
What we get here is a picture of a poet constructed from a variety of viewpoints. One of the most important is her own, revealed through selections of her letters and diary entries, and Pizarnik’s own words show a woman struggling with her introverted nature, but fully focused on her poetry:
“What happens is that it never ceases to seem laughable and surprising to give up seven hours of my day, to give them up like this, knowing that death exists, and many beautiful things exist, many terrible things, and to work like this, as if nothing were happening, as if one weren’t on earth for a brief time.”
(p.49, translated by Emily Cooke)
Pizarnik had a drive to create, which makes it a shame that there aren’t more of her poems included in this edition (though a Google search can soon fix that if you’re interested…).
She might not be well-known here, but in the Spanish-language realm her reputation is set, and if we can tell a lot about a person from their friends and admirers, Pizarnik must have been an impressive figure. Her section of M. & L. 6 contains, among many other pieces, a poem about her by Julio Cortázar, a lengthy biography/lecture by César Aira and a short ode by Enrique Vila-Matas. If you’re looking for recomendations, that’s about as good as they come…
Polevá, by contrast, is very much alive, and much of this section is written in her own words (well, mostly filtered into English via Ian Dreiblatt or Rachel Caplan, actually), with several interviews and opinions on her work. I’d have to admit that the main thing I learned from this part was my complete ignorance of matters musical – virtually everything went over my head. This wasn’t really for me, but (again) if you’re interested, a quick search on Youtube will bring up several performances of Polevá’s rather dark, minimalist, Christian-inspired music.
For me, the third section was always likely to be the most enjoyable one, and so it proved. While I haven’t yet read anything by Dubravka Ugrešić, she’s most certainly been on my radar, and after devouring this section of the book, I’m sure I’ll be hunting down some of her work soon (I know that there are books available through Open Letter and New Directions, for example). While some might describe her as a Croatian writer, that’s not really the case. She’s more a post-Yugoslav artist, hounded out of her own (new) country for her ‘lack of patriotism’, an exile critiquing home and abroad in her old language.
There’s an excellent piece of fiction here to start things off, ‘A Story about How Stories Come to Be Written’. It’s a looping tale about a Russian writer, Boris Pilnyak, one which repeatedly veers off onto personal tangents:
“This however is not a story about my mother and father, but a story that wishes to say something about how stories come to be written.” (p.194, tr. David Williams)
This inability to stick to her ostensible theme is a running joke throughout the story, and it’s not the only evidence of humour. She writes with a clever, wry style, with subtle digs at at least two major writers in the piece. There’s a passing, disdainful, reference to Haruki Murakami’s famous ‘baseball’ anecdote – and:
“A volcanic dust of oblivion constantly falls upon us, slowly burying us, like insoluble snow. We are all footnotes, many of us will never have the chance to be read, all of us in constant and desperate struggle for our lives, for the life of a footnote, to remain on the surface before, in spite of our efforts, we are submerged. Everywhere we leave constant traces of our existence, of our struggle against vacuity. And the greater the vacuity, the more violent our struggle – mein kampf, min kamp, mia lotta, můj boj, mijn strijd, minun taistelu, mi lucha, my struggle, moja borba…” (p.205, tr. David Williams)
Don’t try to tell me that’s not a dig at a certain Norwegian writer.
Next up, there’s an interview with Daniel Medin, in which Ugrešić expands on her views of the importance of background, language and home. She also discusses the importance of a ‘literary apprenticeship’, stressing the need for budding writers to translate, edit and review at length before people can take your writing seriously (many potential writers in the Anglosphere could do worse than take heed of her thoughts here). This then goes off onto an examination of the importance of translation for writers from small languages, a rather apt topic for #WITMonth…
Having heard from the writer herself, it’s then time for others to talk about her and her work. Damion Searls has a short piece about meeting her, while Curtis White (Thank You for Not Reading) and Jeremy Bleeke (Europe in Sepia) look at a couple of her works available in English. What the reader will draw from these pieces is a picture of a writer able to work in both fiction and non-fiction, even if the two are so mixed at times that you’re not sure which is which. She’s also someone well aware of the trend (and folly) of modern writing – writing, as in Soviet times, with both eyes squarely on the demands of the censors (or publishers):
“[In commercial publishing] the writer knows that no deviation is allowed, that things must develop exactly according to the genre and the expectations of the broad reading public. He knows that every deviation increases the risk of failure and that regular testing of the pulse of the literary genre increases the chance of success… In short, if Stephen King had found himself in Stalinist Russia, he would undoubtedly have gotten the Stalin Prize.” (p.249)
And what Music & Literature is doing is fighting against this trend, highlighting the wonderful artists who don’t go with the publishing flow, preferring instead to forge their own path. In a way, what I found here was a glimpse of what I’d like to do some day, lengthy, thoughtful, intelligent pieces looking at an artist’s (and a work’s) wider context – definitely something to aspire to. The journal is a fascinating collaborative work put together by some great writers and translators (apologies for not mentioning all of them…). For those of you who are more content to consume than create, though, Music & Literature is still a great find. I’m sure if you get the chance to have a look at one of their offerings, you’ll stumble across someone who might just become your next big obsession – and that’s how it should be 🙂