Jonas Örtemark and Leif Holmstrand - Semi-quotes from contemporary online quarrels, recipes, blogs and angry discussion threads have mutated, been processed and joined together with dreamy visions, branching stories, poetry, extremely prosaic outbursts and rhythmic cut-up collages. Everything is dirt, sadness and hunger, everything is beautiful and fun.


Jonas Örtemark and Leif Holmstrand, Svalget, Rojal, 2021

Svalget is a large experimental book that has emerged over ten years from a swallowing, incorporating, uncontrollably voracious attitude. Semi-quotes from contemporary online quarrels, recipes, blogs and angry discussion threads have mutated, been processed and joined together with dreamy visions, branching stories, poetry, extremely prosaic outbursts and rhythmic cut-up collages. Everything is dirt, sadness and hunger, everything is beautiful and fun.


Svalget is an almost 3,000-page experimental book that grew out of a swallowing, incorporating, unrestrainedly voracious attitude that the authors Jonas Örtemark and Leif Holmstrand adopted during more than a decade of work. Half-quotes from contemporary online squabbles, recipes, blogs and angry discussion threads have been mutated, processed and stitched together with dreamy visions, branching narratives, poetry, utterly prosaic ramblings and rhythmic cut-up collages. Everything is dirt, sorrow and ravenous hunger, everything is beautiful and fun. Jonas Örtemark and Leif Holmstrand's previous literary collaboration, Darger Reviderad (Drucksache Förlag), had similar but milder claims, and wrapped these claims carefully around the mythic artist Darger and his imaginary family of girls. The new book, Pharynx, thinks it can eat all of human civilization with its ill-conceived baby mouth.

https://gupea.ub.gu.se/handle/2077/71377 (bx Google Translate)

It was early in June that the culture editor's Ulrika Stahre came to me traveling with Leif Holmstrand's and Jonas Örtemark's Svalget.

In a taxi.

Now the summer is coming to an end and I don't know how many times I've packed the book into the family's rusting Ford, and then pushed it as far into the trunk as possible, next to the jack and other things you don't want to have on your neck during cross braking.
2,800 pages. 8 kilos. A4 format.
I haven't taken it to the beach exactly, but at times, like now, I've kept it on a porch where it's also been given double duty as a breakfast table.
Towards the end of July, it was persistently courted by a small leafcutter bee, and there are probably leaves to cut out.
Sometimes people would come by, but most of them didn't even seem to notice that it was a book. If it became too quiet, it was enough to point to it for the conversation to start:
"Oh! Did you read the whole thing?”
Well, I probably have, but in retrospect it feels like a dream somehow. The opening 500 pages are mostly a blur. There was something about policemen, I want to remember, some kind of testimony about excessive violence, cut to size à la Åke Hodell and sprinkled with rambling headlines: "Do you dare serve refrigerator leftovers?", "Papers are taken from the day one at a time", "Vårdpatrull banned the others' parties”.
An overall typical feature of Svalget, whose overall method appears to have been taken from Marco Ferreri's film The Grand Bouffe from 1973. Holmstrand's and Örtemark's work, which is said to have started around 2010, has figuratively speaking involved swallowing as much text as possible, of all imaginable types, and then throwing it all up again, in a split or twisted form.

The effect may not be immediate, but gradually there is an experience of floating freely in a black hole that has absorbed the upheaval of the realm's digital garbage
Clear as a sausage shovel, one might think. Nevertheless, I remember that the people on the porch often questioned the contents of the book, but that their objections were of the kind that a vane lyricist shakes off like dandruff:
"Here it's sort of blurred and just 'xxx', it looks very strange!"
“Why is it in alphabetical order here but not here?”
"I do not understand anything."
After all, I personally felt or still feel at home in Svalget. Here there is a slightly old-fashioned sniggering playfulness that can be taken back to the domestic concretism of the sixties, but also a grotesqueization of contemporary babble that is quite close to the now ingrained experimental literature that has emerged in the span between the magazine Oei and, say, Åsa Maria Kraft or Pär Thörn .
As a reader, you have to take part in a relatively homogenous but somewhat unbridledly entertaining flow of things like half-chewed or re-chewed fitness forums, porn novels, dating sites, newspaper articles, cookie recipes and flashback threads. Here and there cascades of what could be pure improvisation or automatic writing occur.
Newsmill may also be included in a corner, if anyone now remembers that site, and also in other respects it is noticeable that Svalget has a history of creation that spans more than ten years. After all, similar idioms have stood as sticks in the hill for at least a decade and a half, and it is not without the fact that the book appears in parts as something of a toolbox of tried and tested literary techniques.
The weight is there, so to speak, and that's actually exactly what appeals to me most about Svalget. The format is so flawed that the reader has to make himself the work's personal assistant (payment is not made), and not since Mats Söderlund's monstrously large collection of poems Årorna i Flocktjärn have I come across a literary work that intervened so tangibly in my everyday life.
The scope, equivalent to ten Svenbanan novels, also does something with the reading itself. An overview is hardly possible, nor is it desirable, in my opinion. Rather, it is for the reader to put themselves in some kind of sleep-like present through which the text can pass undisturbed, without the influence of things like super or sub-ego.
The effect may not be immediate, but gradually there is an experience of floating freely in a black hole that has absorbed the upheaval of the kingdom's digital garbage. It's a bit scary but not completely unpleasant, and can perhaps be compared to forest bathing.
So, when Svalget finally reaches its event horizon one quiet evening in early August, that is, ends, it is with mixed feelings that I close the book. I'm proud and a little relieved, but also disappointed with the sound. Just a little joke.
The overall incredible amount of chatter in these almost 3,000 pages would definitely have needed something other than cardboard and fabric for binding. Matte black steel had been superb, and had given fruitful associations to the monolith in the 2001 film.
Then I tell myself that, after all, I'm happy with Olle Essvik's cover with a map image stained by random ink blots. Each cover is unique, and thus makes my copy something of a pension insurance in the same class as Lars Norén's gold-leafed. - Petter Lindgren

https://www.aftonbladet.se/kultur/bokrecensioner/a/lV7MKM/recension-leif-holmstrand-och-jonas-ortemark-svalget (by Google Translate)


Michael Schindhelm - Seventy years ago, the small island nation of Lavapolis was founded. It began as an alternative, a gambling destination to rival Las Vegas, and became a model for a new way of living. With its principle of universal solidarity, the nation counters the pitfalls of contemporary global society. It is an ever-shifting utopia

Michael Schindhelm, Lavapolis, Trans. by David Strauss, Sternberg Press, 2014


“I am not sedentary and I am not itinerant. My home is a heterotopia with a thousand imaginary landscapes. … The island is the buffer zone between the places of the outside world. Those that exclude one another outside meet here. Those that are at war with one another outside negotiate here. Those that steal from one another outside trade here.”—Simone, 38, resident of the island for three years

Seventy years ago, the small island nation of Lavapolis was founded. It began as an alternative, a gambling destination to rival Las Vegas, and became a model for a new way of living. With its principle of universal solidarity, the nation counters the pitfalls of contemporary global society. It is an ever-shifting utopia; a volcano jutting out of the Mediterranean Sea; an extension of the open frontier. The biographies of its inhabitants are integral to the whole. If the world backs down from the challenges of Lavapolis, the island is destined to erupt.

The book LAVAPOLIS by Michael Schindhelm takes a look at an island which does not (yet) exist, and reports on an experimental exchange of ideas related to the question: What is actually possible? Both the internet platform lavapolis.com and the series of performances under the title FRIDAY IN VENICE are based on this story about the fictional island Lavapolis.

Solution 262: Lavapolis is the tenth volume in the Solution series edited by Ingo Niermann. The speculative novel accompanies “Friday in Venice,” a transmedia storytelling project about a possible Europe that took place at the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale, August 1–17, 2014 (www.lavapolis.com).


Peter Marchant - “At the office Miss Finlay was something of a dark horse”... It garnered a few reviews, but its combination of an unconventional heroine and a theme of escape through fantasy was perhaps a little too far ahead of its time. The most frequently-used adjective in its review was “odd”


Peter Marchant, Give Me Your Answer, Do, 2022


First-ever new edition of Peter Marchant's only novel, originally published in London in 1960 Michael Joseph, Ltd.

"A woman secretary, who bicycles every day from Ebury Street to Fenchurch Street and back, has from childhood (unhappy—parents divorced) indulged in conversations with an imaginary pony called Bradshaw. Older and socially superior to the cockney girl typists at the office, she has held herself aloof from them, but feeling out of it when they discuss their boy friends or forthcoming marriages she is goaded into announcing that she herself is engaged—to Bradshaw. She keeps up the deception when she is befriended and later desired by a middle-aged insurance clerk." — The Daily Telegraph, London, April 14, 1960

“At the office Miss Finlay was something of a dark horse.” That opening line hooked me.

A while ago, someone on Twitter posted a picture of Give Me Your Answer Do in answer to a request for books that changed readers lives. I’m always intrigued when I come across a book that’s completely new to me, and this one was a blank slate. The poster provided no further information, but the sheer scarcity of the book (fewer than five copies for sale) was enough for me to take the plunge.

There’s something comfortably nonconformist about Give Me Your Answer Do. This might have been what made the book a life changer for its fan on Twitter.

Miss Finlay, Marchant’s heroine, is both dark horse and ugle duckling. She’s “tall and ungainly, with large feet and hands which made sudden, gawky movements. Her hair was flat, her upper teeth protruded, and she wore spectacles with plain, tortoise-shell rims.” Her fellow typists at Boothby, Gold & Co. think she looks “as if she scrubbed herself very regularly with carbolic soap.”

Miss Finlay engages with the other women at Boothby, Gold as little as possible without seeming rude, offers nothing about her private life. Which is probably wise. To them, her practical diversions when off work — mostly taking long bicycle rides into the countryside beyond London — would merely confirm she is as dull as they think. And her imaginative diversions would have been too wild and grand for their sedate little office.

For Miss Finlay — Margaret, not that anyone seems interested in her first name — has for many years carried on a passionate friendship with a large white horse named Ponikwer Peter Aylestone Bradshaw, or Bradshaw for short. Through dreary years at a bleak girls’ boarding school and further years of workday routine at Boothy, Gold followed by solitary nights in her little coldwater flat, Bradshaw has comforted and amused Margaret.

Margaret’s mother was happy to be rid of the girl. Beautiful and easily bored, she’d only had the child because an abortion was too hard to obtain and she’d only married Margaret’s father to put a wrapper of propriety around her pregnancy. Once Margaret could be put in the care of someone else, her mother could resume amusing herself with handsome and vapid men like her husband’s former commanding officer, Margaret’s real father. And to keep up with Margaret’s school fees and her mother’s expensive tastes in clothes and men, her father dutifully returns to labor at the coalface in India.

Socially awkward, physically inept, and deeply introverted, Margaret finds the experience of boarding school near unbearable. It’s only the odd moments when she can escape to the WC, lock herself into a stall that she has any privacy, and carry on a conversation with Bradshaw that can find any respite. He is the perfect companion: understanding, a good listener, always ready with a hug. She lulls herself to sleep each night imagining herself in the strong, protective arms (legs?) of Bradshaw.

When school comes to an end, Margaret’s mother deems her too ugly to be marriagable material and so packs her off to London to find secretarial work. Margaret soon manages to find herself a room of her own: a coldwater flat with a WC down the hall, perhaps, but a haven nonetheless. Within its four walls, she is free to paint the ceiling yellow, to fix the food she likes, and to carry on long conversations with Bradshaw.

Then, one day, Mr. Bacon, a divorced Yorkshireman as uncomfortable in his own skin as Margaret, invites her on a Saturday outing. One outing leads to another and soon companionship blends into friendship and begins to blend into … well, neither one of them feels quite comfortable putting a name on it. These are two extremely introverted people.

We know, of course, that a collision between Margaret’s fantasy world and her real world is inevitable, but the tension derives from our uncertainty over just how disastrous that crash will be. I’ll just say that Peter Marchant would have had Hollywood rom-com producers knocking on his door if he’d published this book in the 1990s instead of 1960. His ending is suspenseful, sappy, and satisfying in equal measure.

Marchant dedicated the book to Marguerite Young. Yes, the Miss Macintosh, My Darling Marguerite Young. Marchant had followed an unusual path to arrive at Young’s seminar at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the late 1950s. He’d taken an MA in the classics at Cambridge and taught a variety of subjects while serving in the British Army Training Service, then emigrated to Iowa, where he both taught in the School of Education and attended the Writer’s Workshop.

“I’ve heard you have a story about a girl with an imaginary pony,” Young said to Marchant soon after meeting him. Marchant told her it was a flop, having been rejected by magazines and even his agent. “T’d like to read it,” she insisted.

Marchant had few hopes for the story. If it was going to survive and get published, it would have to be cut back severely.

No, Young told him: “You must let it grow. It’s a treatment — it needs expansion.”

When he next brought her a draft, it had grown to over eighty pages. Young’s criticism was harsh but supportive: “With unerring ruthlessness,” she said, “you’ve crossed out the best parts of your writing…. You’ve massacred all your flowers, leaving only the bare branches. She pointed out a passage where Margaret is sitting alone on a hillside. Mr. Bacon, in a fit of passion, has tried to kiss her — an act that she receives like a full-fledged sexual assault.

“She saw the sun glittering on hothouse roofs and wondered why it didn’t crack from the heat,” Young read. “Why did you cut it?” she asked.

“It seemed to me nonsense. Hothouse roofs don’t crack from sunlight.”

“Her fear of sex has nothing to do with her fantasy about glass shattering? Come, now,” Young scolded him.

“Oh,” said Marchant. The lightbulbs were beginning to come on. Over the next weeks, Marchant wrote furiously, soon producing a 300-page manuscript he turned in as his MA thesis for the workshop. He sold the book to the British publisher Michael Joseph, which released the book in 1960. It garnered a few reviews, but its combination of an unconventional heroine and a theme of escape through fantasy was perhaps a little too far ahead of its time. The most frequently-used adjective in its review was “odd” — which probably turned folks off in that conformist day but ought to pique the interest of today’s readers. I think the book would do very well if reissued now.

Marchant put fiction behind him after publishing Give Me Your Answer Do. According to his obituary, he stayed in academia, becoming a specialist in the 19th century British novel and teaching for decades at Penn State and the State University of New York – Brockport. Instead, it was his wife, Mary Elsie Robertson, who focused on fiction, writing a half dozen novels starting with After Freud in 1981. A Quaker, holder of a black belt in judo, and a historian of the Holocaust, Marchant must have been a remarkable man, and Give Me Your Answer Do deserves a high place in any list of his accomplishments. — Brad Bigelow, The Neglected Books Page, November 25, 2021https://neglectedbooks.com/?p=8682

Erga Netz - What really happened to Gulliver in his famous travels? And what did his wife do in the meantime? In this satirical novel, laced with a bit of eroticism, Mary Burton-Gulliver recounts her life as a "widow-of-the-sea" and the events that her husband didn’t dare to publish


Erga Netz, Oh, Gulliver!: Mary Burton-Gulliver's

Diary and Her Memoir of Gulliver's Travels,

Tough Poets Pres, 2023

What really happened to Gulliver in his famous travels? And what did his wife do in the meantime?

In this satirical novel, laced with a bit of eroticism, Mary Burton-Gulliver recounts her life as a "widow-of-the-sea" and the events that her husband didn’t dare to publish in his 1726 Gulliver's Travels.

"As a fan of the Gulliverian world, I must admit that you succeed in capturing its magic and charm even more successfully than T.H. White in his love letter to the Gulliverian world, Mistress Masham's Repose."— An early reader's comment

John Sanford - This is, quite simply, a noble and beautiful book, savage in its interpretation of our heritage, absolute in its integrity, and almost miraculous in its language


John Sanford, A More Goodly Country: A Personal History of America. Tough Poets Press, 2023 [1975]

Beginning in A.D. 1000 with Leif Ericson and ending with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, John Sanford (1904-2003), recipient of the PEN Award and the Los Angeles Times Lifetime Achievement Award, presents in poetic prose a searing personal history of the United States.

"It was, and it is, an unrelenting and accusatory book. No one who values his country can find its charges easy to bear—and yet I value my country, too, and the book was written only to make it better." — John Sanford, in his preface to the 1982 Black Sparrow reissue of A More Goodly Country

"This is, quite simply, a noble and beautiful book, savage in its interpretation of our heritage, absolute in its integrity, and almost miraculous in its language." — The Tennessean (Nashville, TN), May 5, 1975

"It is a work for all time, a work of love, of wry humor, of devastating criticism... It is a work of poetry, a work of greatness, and while it is almost blatantly subjective it is never subservient to any ideology."— Corvallis Gazette-Times (Corvallis, OR), December 27, 1975

"... an oozing, raucous treat of a book... a sprawling chorus on this country, sparing none of the harsh voices, leaving none of our pimples unpicked."— Los Angeles Times, May 7, 1975

"One day it will be a classic."— York Daily Record (York, PA), December 27, 1975

"Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich . . . it would have been all right."-- John Brown, 1859


John Sanford published in nine decades, a remarkable feat for anyone, but particularly remarkable for someone who came to his profession relatively late in life. Sanford's first published piece appeared in the expatriate little magazine Tambour in 1929, when he was 25 years old, and his first book was not released until 1933, when he was 28.

Little Preparation for a Career in Writing

All the more remarkable is how little formal preparation Sanford had for his career as a writer. He was a poor student in school. He did not graduate from Manhattan's DeWitt Clinton High,--where his main extracurricular activity was cutting classes,--when he failed English his last semester. Sanford spent a year at Lafayette College, where he unsuccessfully attempted to write for the student newspaper. This tenure was followed by the shortest of stints at Northwestern and Lehigh, where he lasted just two weeks. Afterward, he needed a fraudulent diploma obtained by bribing a state official to gain admission to Fordham Law School, but he dropped out after less than a month. Finally, the next term, Sanford returned to Fordham, where he completed his law degree. He then joined his father's legal practice. However, it was during his law studies that Sanford chanced to meet a childhood friend on a New Jersey golf course; this 1925 meeting would forever change Sanford's path in life. To Sanford's astonishment, the friend--Nathan Weinstein, who was now going by the name of Nathanael West--announced that he was writing a book. Suddenly, the wayward and goal-less Sanford knew he wanted to write one too.

Sanford renewed his friendship with West, often accompanying him on walks through New York City and listening to West discourse on art and literature. It was West who introduced Sanford to an enduring model: an obscure short story writer named Ernest Hemingway. Sanford helped read proof on West's first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell. And, Sanford shared a hunting cabin with West one summer in the Adirondacks, where West worked on Miss Lonelyhearts and Sanford his first novel, The Water Wheel. Later, West induced Sanford to exchange his given name, Julian Shapiro, for the name of the principle character in The Water Wheel. That decision Sanford would come to rue.

While not as self-consciously lean as Hemingway's or West's writing, Sanford's prose has an unembellished spareness that clearly shows his friend's influence. Early on, James Joyce's influence could be seen in Sanford's eschewing of apostrophes in contractions. Later, Joyce's inspiration endured in Sanford's continuing quest for arresting and unconventional expressions. Sanford rarely used simile; rather, he preferred the directness and power of metaphor. He used nouns as verbs, verbs as nouns. Often his prose has poetic elements, such as multiple interior rhymes. Sanford's work is marked by a constant striving for innovation.

A Second Career at Sixty-three

Sanford's remaining influence was William Carlos Williams, whose book of historical vignettes, In the American Grain, Sanford read in the mid-1920s. The concept of history as literature took root in Sanford early. From the outset of his career, Sanford salted his works of fiction with historical interludes. These episodes were often a source of contention with publishers and cost him contracts. For example, Seventy Times Seven did not appear in England, because Sanford refused to remove historical material.

In all, Sanford published eight novels, which showed increasing strain with the bounds of fiction, as the books became more and more dominated by teachers and preachers, who delivered sermons and lectures to Sanford's readers. Finally, in 1967, with the publication of The $300 Man, Sanford had exhausted the novel form as a medium. At the suggestion of his wife, screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, Sanford embarked on what would become his second career, at the age of 63.

Three years in the writing, A More Goodly Country established Sanford's mature narrative voice, or rather voices. Consisting entirely of vignettes about historical events and figures, this book allowed Sanford to explore history by means of fable, parable and brief dramatic monologue. Sanford brought history to life through magnificent flights of imagination. However, so unconventional was the book that it would take another three years and over 200 rejections before Sanford could find a publisher.

With the issuing of A More Goodly Country in 1975, Sanford's second career, as a nonfiction writer, was underway. There would follow eighteen more volumes of history, memoir and autobiography. It is remarkable that twelve of these books were published after Sanford reached the age of 80. At an age when most writers are retired or dead, Sanford was hitting his literary stride. And he continued to write until just a month before his death, when deteriorating eyesight made writing impossible. He died in March 2003, leaving three unpublished works.

The Finest Unread Author Writing in English

Despite the beauty of Sanford's writing, and the gravity and pertinence of his themes, Sanford remains mostly unknown and almost entirely unread. His books have been issued only in small editions, and only one has gone into a second printing. Early on, Sanford's work was published by the premier houses of the day. But Sanford quarreled with editors and publishers, and he refused to compromise.

As a result of Sanford's intractability, his publishers would each decide in turn that Sanford was more trouble than he was worth: one book was enough. Thus, they had little investment in his work. They did not promote his books, because Sanford would never be a member of their stable. Un-promoted, his books did not sell. And the chore of publishing Sanford would be passed on to another house. If Sanford had intentionally tried to sabotage his career, he could have done no more damage than he did by being rash and intransigent.

It was not until 1977, when Sanford had been writing for over 40 years, that the Capra Press followed Adirondack Stories with View from this Wilderness, thus becoming the first of his publishers to issue a second Sanford volume. And it was not until 1984 that Black Sparrow Press began what would be the longest run of Sanford titles from a single publisher, six in all. However, by the 1980s, Sanford was an old man, whose work was of interest only to small, art-house publishers. His chances of wider success had expired.

In addition to his quarrelsome ways with publishers, Sanford's lack of success must necessarily also be traced to the content of his books. From the start, one can see Sanford's obsession with the darker side of American history. In The Water Wheel, there is an episode musing on Philip Nolan, the Man without a Country. In Seventy Times Seven, there is a historical poetic interlude depicting man's inhumanity since America's earliest days. From that book onward, the harshness of Sanford's examination of the inequities in American history would only become more strident.

Literature as a Weapon

In 1936, Paramount had hired Sanford as a screenwriter. In late 1939, he joined the Hollywood cell of the Communist Party. The works that followed Sanford's political awakening became progressively more leftist. In a period when many American communists were reassessing their party membership, any doubts Sanford may have had only served to increase the fervor of his dedication to the cause. Even the Communists condemned 1943's The People from Heaven as too radical. The following A Man Without Shoes and The Land that Touches Mine are even more deeply political works, which criticized the American social and economic system as fundamentally unfair. This hard-line stance would eventually force Sanford to self-publish A Man Without Shoes.

Even in his later non-fiction historical books, Sanford's devotion to progressive causes remained intense. To read The Winters of that Country, a blistering indictment of America, is to find oneself denounced for having profited from centuries of injustice; the book is an accusation aimed at all Americans. Even Sanford's peerless prose could induce few readers to endure such a withering rebuke of the values in which they were raised to believe. Sanford must have known that these works would find little acceptance with the general reading public, who seek diversion, not chastisement. But he could not dim his ire, or the fire of his dream.

One historical figure to whom Sanford repeatedly returned is John Brown, the abolitionist whose assault on the armory at Harper's Ferry led to his execution. Sanford oft repeated Brown's statement: "Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich. . . it would have been all right." One could also apply that idea to Sanford's work: had he so written in behalf of the rich, he might have sold well and perhaps been a household name. Instead, Sanford chose to risk all in a quixotic attempt to right the wrongs of society. He sacrificed potential success to his cause. He wrote not to entertain the public, but to condemn it. He wrote to goad Americans to abandon complacency and to right society's wrongs.

The Luxury to Write What He Pleased

Soon after arriving in Los Angeles, John Sanford met fellow screenwriter Marguerite Roberts at Paramount Studios. The couple would wed two years later, and Roberts would go on to become one of the most successful and highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood, including twelve straight years under contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. After Sanford's year-long tenure at Paramount was up, he had a brief stint at M-G-M. Following that, he would be gainfully employed only once more, when he co-wrote Clark Gable and Carol Lombard's Honky-Tonk with Roberts. For the rest of his life, Sanford would be supported by his wife's earnings.

Thus, Sanford experienced a rare luxury among professional writers: the luxury to write what he pleased, without consideration of economic consequences. Sanford was not compelled to sell books to put food on the table. He did not have to seek out other writing assignments to pay the bills. Sanford did not do book tours, did not attend signings, did not make public appearances or give lectures. He left the selling of his works to others, as if he believed that to curry the favor of readers would taint his work.

Unlike many writers of his stature, Sanford did not review books, did not write articles for magazines, did not have to interrupt the process of writing books that did not sell, so that he could make a living. In fact, aside from several pieces in literary little magazines at the outset of his career, and during a brief editorship of Black & White/The Clipper in 1940-41, Sanford hardly published in periodicals at all.

On the one hand, this lack of economic necessity freed Sanford to pursue his art wherever the muse took him. Without this freedom, his life's work would not exist in its current form. On the other hand, one wonders what Sanford would have produced, if he had been forced by economics to temper his indignation and recast his reforming vision, so that his books would sell.

If he had needed to write to make money, would Sanford have been capable of writing for the popular audience, and what would have been the result? Would his missteps have been fewer? Would he have muted the excesses of politics that flawed his later fiction? Would he still have achieved the high splendor of his style under these mundane constraints? Certainly, he would have had to write more and differently to earn a living. But, could he have achieved the mass appeal that always eluded him? One wonders whether economic necessity would have improved Sanford's art, or merely blunted his talent.

Nonetheless, despite its excesses and imperfections, John Sanford's writing has achieved a sustained beauty and passion that is rarely seen. Even his less fully realized works have passages of brilliance that commend them. And, in those works where style and content felicitously meet, Sanford is revealed as a master of his craft; his writing sparkles with the clean lines of a gem.

Although nearly unknown to the wider reading public, Sanford's work evokes fervor in critics and academics, as well as an almost fanatical devotion from a small cadre of collectors. It is, in particular, for these people this bibliography is written.


Born Julian Shapiro in 1904 in Harlem, John Sanford was inspired to write by his childhood acquaintance Nathanael West. William Carlos Williams, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce also were important early influences on Sanford's themes and style. But Sanford's work displays a style uniquely his own. Sanford authored 24 books, including novels, creative interpretations of history and several volumes of memoir and autobiography. His monumental five-volume autobiography was titled Scenes from the Life of an American Jew. Both Sanford and screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, his wife for over 50 years, were blacklisted during the McCarthy era in the 1950s. Just before Sanford's death in 2003, the Los Angeles Times called him "an authentic hero of American letters." Sanford's career as a writer was star-crossed. His first ten books were issued by ten different publishers. Sanford quarreled with editors and alienated people throughout the publishing industry. Each of his books represents the culmination of a struggle. Thus, for Sanford, perhaps more so than most writers, there is a story that goes with each book. This bibliography recounts those travails to chart Sanford's development into the unique writer he became. Annotations address style and content of the works described, as well as the often winding road these works took toward publication. There are three appendices, including indices of historical pieces and of his family members and acquaintances. This book will prove to be a valuable and interesting resource for scholars of American literature. Author Jack Mearns is professor of psychology at California State University, Fullerton. He has previously published Deadline News, a novel (iUniverse, 2006).


Belén Gopegui - Two people who love robots meet in a library. A philosophical dialogue ensues. The writing is delicate, strange, and strangely riveting. This is a book about two human beings and also what it means to be a human being in the algorithmic age


Belén Gopegui, Stay This Day and Night With Me, Trans. by Mark Schafer, City Lights Publishers, 2023


This is the story of Olga, a retired mathematician, and Mateo, a college student passionate about robotics, and their plot to influence Google.

"This book has excited me more than any that I have read this year."—Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

"This is a beautifully written, endlessly provocative meditation on humanity's relationship to technology, monopoly, memory and fate."— Dave Eggers, author of The Circle and The Every

After a chance encounter at the public library, two new friends begin to meet up regularly. Together they decide to submit an application for Google sponsorship to an elite technology-training program. Hoping to stand out, they frame their submission as a direct appeal to the "conscience" of the seemingly all-powerful corporation.

Olga, a retired entrepreneur, and Mateo, a college student, find unexpected connection and solace in their conversations. Ideas and arguments open into personal stories as they debate the possibility of free will, the existence of merit, and the role of artificial intelligence. They ask the most basic and important of questions: What does it mean to be human in a reality shaped by data and surveillance? Is there still space for empathy and care? What could we be, what could we build, if we used our resources in different ways.

Spanish writer Gopegui explores the relationship between humans and AI in her thoughtful English-language debut. Mateo, 22, applies to a college program at Google and enlists the help of Olga, an older woman who owns a small tech company. He’d begun an application sometime earlier, he tells her, and receives regular emails from an AI bot who encourages him to finish, prompting Olga to suggest they write an application that will get the attention of an actual person. The rest of the narrative consists of their letter to Google, which often digresses into philosophical questions about existence informed by literary references (“All people who exist are alike, the ones who don’t exist don’t exist each in their own way”). Interspersed with these musings are scenes of Olga and Matteo hashing out their ideas in Olga’s apartment, with moments of tension as Matteo considers a cyber attack on Google, which Olga puts the brakes on. Gopegui leavens the high-mindedness with a cool sense of irony, and shines with her succinct insights on the similarities between humans and AI (“health apps that turn people into toasters”). Readers will be intrigued. - Publishers Weekly

"With the rise of ChatGPT, questions about the human relationship with technology are once again on the minds of many. In this book—which revolves around Olga and Mateo, a retiree and a student who hatch a scheme to earn a Google sponsorship for a technology-training program—Gopegui explores the iterations and nuances. Empathy, corporate capitalism, and Google itself come under the microscope in Olga and Mateo’s conversations."—Alta Magazine

"Unique and fascinating, Stay This Day and Night With Me pushes beyond the political and philosophical debates of its characters to deliver a much needed dose of humanity in the face of emerging corporate, unknowable, and inhuman intelligence."—Tim Maughan, author of Infinite Detail

"Two people who love robots meet in a library. A philosophical dialogue ensues. The writing is delicate, strange, and strangely riveting: Gopegui slides between registers and scales with uncommon grace. This is a book about two human beings and also what it means to be a human being in the algorithmic age. This is a book about Google, capitalism, and the ordinary unhappiness of being alive."—Ben Tarnoff, author of Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future

"A thrillingly unclassifiable book of ideas about the inherent tension between being an individual while also being part of a community—and whether one's individual or communal identity is ever truly primary. Gopegui's novel is a study of empathy and human connection in a time of algorithms and tech giants, extending curiosity not only towards her very human characters, but also towards the corporate machinery that governs their lives, and the lives of her readers." —Adrienne Celt, author of End of the World House

"With the Digital Age as the backdrop, Gopegui creates a novel that is as analog as they come: a conversation between two people, their philosophical debates and tender connection. As a result, she crafts a potent interrogation of the status of our modern life."—Bennard Fajardo, Politics and Prose Bookstore, Washington, D.C.

Praise for The Scale of Maps by Belén Gopegui and translated by Mark Schafer:

"The Scale of Mapsis a rapturous and dazzling achievement, and I, for one, am waiting impatiently for the opportunity to read more of Gopegui."—John Yargo,The Rumpus

"A geographer falls irredeemably in love with a flighty mapmaker in this graceful, peculiar Spanish tale . . . beautifully composed and elegantly translated."—Publishers Weekly

"Map scales are about relationships. So is The Scale of Maps, a poignant, provocative, profound and passionate book by respected Spanish writer Belén Gopegui."—The Kansas City Star

"'Gopegui's first novel,;The Scale of Maps, is a story about a magic trick that Prim never quite masters, an ambitious disappearing act that ends in irredeemable failure. . . . Mark Schafer's agile translation gives Prim the fitting voice of a polished academic who has lost his bearings."—Words without Borders

"It's an ambitious novel, to be sure, made beautiful by Gopegui's liquid prose, and made accessible by her ultimate refusal to answer her own questions." —Janet Potter, Bookslut

"What is astonishing about this novel is the originality of its narrative strategies in harmony with the rhythm of its prose."—Carmen Martin Gaite, author of The Back Room

Stay This Day and Night With Me takes the form of a job application submitted to techno-giant Google (now Alphabet). It is not you usual job application, in several ways, including that it is by two people rather than an individual and it does not include a résumé (or two), or indeed reveal much about the applicant(s') qualifications. It is also some 50,000 words long -- and was submitted in paper form (rather than the now usual and expected digital form). Most significantly, the application is basically presented as a narrative -- a story.

As Olga explains, they're thinking (and acting) outside the box, a small gesture meant to shake things up:

It's possible Google won't listen; it's possible it won't do anything. But everything here won't continue as usual. We're breaking the contract, we're overriding Google's authority to pick the terms of that contract.

Besides the application-text, the novel also includes three brief chapters written by the assessor, Google-employee Inari, who explains why s/he has accepted the application and thinks it is worth considering.

The applicants sign themselves Mateo and Olga. Mateo is a twenty-two-year-old student who previously began the application-process for Google's Singularity University but did not complete it. Olga is sixty-two and a mathematician, "one of the first in her country to launch business dedicated to the construction of models used to forecast future outcomes in a range of scenarios" (though her success with these seems to have been limited, with her having nearly gone bankrupt twice).

Olga first encounters Mateo in a library. She recognizes mutual interests and lends him some books, and they get to talking -- and soon meet regularly. They are both interested in: "mathematical models, and ways to attempt to make predictions" -- and are concerned about what will be possible in the future, wondering, as Olga does:

What will happen the day Google, or any other company, doesn't process just searches and texts but also genomes and memories ? I know there will always be disturbances, shifts in trajectory that complicate predictability. I know there will always be noise, exceptions. We'll never be able to to know where you'll be in five years, but the very idea that the margin of error could be reduced will shift how we think about ourselves.

They discuss both the philosophical implications of Google's incredible reach -- in particular, the question of free will -- as well as the social implications, considering also their different class backgrounds and opportunities. While occasionally addressed directly at Google -- "What could Mateo tell you to get you to admit him ?" --, the bulk of the story revolves around the relationship between Olga and Mateo, as they speak about, rather than to Google (among other, if generally related subjects). A routine of sorts develops between them, each clearly finding in the other a conversation-partner different from the others in their lives. Olga has a far-away son, and Mateo gets a girlfriend and has parents to deal with, but apparently neither has someone with whom to discuss these particular issues.

Young Mateo worries about the futility of this application-approach -- tempted then to send a much more basic but certainly attention-getting message to Google. Olga, meanwhile, sees the time for action winding down, at least for her: "I don't have much time. [...] I'll be leaving very soon".

For Gopegui, Google is a modern version of the anonymous mega-corporation for whom workers are mere cogs. The modern, technology-focused corporation is a more refined version, in some ways -- workers are not seen as identical and robot-like, but rather known and 'understood' by the machine that is the corporation in every last detail, for example and, significantly, the overlap between workers and consumers is almost complete -- but the vision of a too-powerful and controlling technologically- (rather than humanly-) based entity is the same. Olga and Mateo's concerns are those shared by many in a world that has become (and/or made itself) increasingly technology-reliant.

Gopegui addresses this situation in a fairly interesting way -- not least with the human element at Google, in the form of Inari, who certainly pays some attention to the text s/he's dealing with. With recent advances in Artificial Intelligence, Stay This Day and Night With Me nevertheless already feels slightly dated -- in part also because Gopegui only takes Mateo and Olga's concerns about Google and its power and reach so far, when she easily could have taken them much, much further. The fact that it's never clear whether or not Mateo and Olga are 'real', or merely characters the writers of the application invent, or at least re-shape, to make their case is also a double-edged approach that seems to undermine their case against Google as much as it makes it -- not least because they (intentionally) only reveal so much about each, leaving them less than entirely fully-realized characters.

It's an interesting idea, and quite well presented, but does fall short of its potential. - M.A.Orthofer


I have read a few books where Google is mentioned, albeit only in passing, but this is undoubtedly the first where Google is one of the protagonists. If you are a Google employee or one of those that think Google is God, you might want to give this a miss as, perhaps not surprisingly, it is not entirely flattering about Google.

We start with a Google intern outlining a current issue they face. (Their sex is not indicated. I have a copy of the Spanish text but nowhere does the intern use an adjective which might indicate the gender; indeed, where English uses the term recruiter, the Spanish says seleccionador o seleccionadora) They have received an application for a post from Mateo and Olga (no surnames). It poses various problems, including the fact that it is on paper, not submitted digitally as is normal; it is around 50,000 words long; it is signed, unusually, by two people, it does not contain a resumé with a list of qualifications and it addresses the recruiter directly, rather than Google. Our poor intern is somewhat flummoxed, though struggles along. Of course, the whole point is to show how inflexible Google is. It can work very successfully inside certain parameters. Outside these parameters, it can get lost. This will be one of the themes of the book.

Much of the book is the submission of Olga and Mateo, which, essentially, tells their story. - The Modern Novel    read more here

“Don’t think, Google, that the value of human acts can be measured in visits or by keeping track of how much information or money they generate.”

Mateo, a twenty-two-year-old Spanish college student wants to apply for a job with Google. He believes that if he is hired, he can affect change within the organization and alter its course to be more responsive to the needs of its employees and that of society as a whole.

He meets Olga, a sixty-two-year-old retired mathematician at the library and she helps him complete the job application. However, she insists on not submitting a traditional application, but one in essay form, which is the major content of this novel.

Though their backgrounds are totally different and of course, their life experience, their common interest is robots. Their friendship centers around the philosophical discussion of artificial intelligence becoming predominant in this human world.

Stay This Day and Night With Me delves into the world of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human. Issues such as privilege, merit, and freedom are explored in addition to suffering, regret, and desperation. If Google had the capability of fighting injustice, would it even pursue that goal?

We also learn about Mateo and Olga’s stories and become deeply involved in their lives, present and past. This adds to the human component of the story.

Though this novel is original in its approach, it is very timely with recent headlines of the nefarious use of artificial intelligence. It is heavy on the philosophical side but gives readers a lot to think about. - J D Jung



Belén Gopegui, The Scale of Maps, Trans. by

Mark Schafer, City Lights, 2011

First three chapters: download here

Sergio Prim is a staid and solitary middle-aged man who finds himself suddenly in love. A geographer by trade, but with a broken radar when it comes to navigating human relationships, he is thrown into a psychological crisis by the romantic advances of Brezo Varela, a lively young woman who shares his profession. Haunted by a series of hallucinations in which he's relentlessly pursued by a cynical, vampire-like seductress whose promises of pleasure fill him with horror, Prim attempts to seek refuge by immersing himself in an obsessive metaphysical quest: he determines that he must map the way to a place in which love never results in disillusionment. The Scale of Maps is the story of Prim's struggle to choose between living in the external world that his lover inhabits or continuing to hide in the "hollows" of his inner world; an intimate and mercilessly revealing examination of a meager and fearful life challenged by desire.

"A fable of love-laid-waste, an almost scientific story of the anguish of existence, a profoundly and deliberately distorted image of perverse reality, its space and time, a tragedy replete with tenderness and humor."—ABC literario

“Gopegui is one of our most outstanding young names [in Spanish literature].”—El País

Another book that seems to have fallen under the radar, Gopegui’s debut novel is so impressive and unique that the translated literary world should be wringing their hands in impatient anticipation for her next work in English rather than not knowing her name. Any novel whose narrator begins by admitting that he’s lying is sure enough to get my attention, and The Scale of Maps—with its Borgesian/Nabokovian exploration of desire and place; loneliness and connection; and Sergio Prim’s attempt to “map the void” so that he and his lover can withstand it all—never disappoints. Gopegui’s prose moves seamlessly from philosophical diatribes to poetic passages that are infinitely quotable; Schafer’s translation is superb. A book for lovers, dreamers, readers, and those who are more than a little obsessed with maps. - K. Thomas Kahn

A geographer falls irredeemably in love with a flighty mapmaker in this graceful, peculiar Spanish tale. Sergio Prim, at 39 a self-described "small man" set in his bachelor ways, has begun an affair with a woman nine years his junior, Brezo Varela, whose vitality and passion for Sergio astonish him and wreak havoc on his orderly life. Being loved so fiercely by Brezo has disoriented him, and the narrative moves between the third and first person, depending on Sergio's increasingly unstable state. His instinct is to slip away and find his "hollow," a sanctuary safe from intrusion, "unencumbered by worry and marked by an intimate and benign invisibility." He takes off, ostensibly to do research in the mountains of Cuenca, and is haunted by thoughts of Brezo, even seeking the advice of a psychologist, while Brezo, wary of his absence, takes up with a Basque jai alai player. Gopegui's work is beautifully composed and elegantly translated, though Sergio's fundamental elusiveness leaves the reader empty-handed and lovelorn, which, depending on the reader, will be a disappointment or a stroke of brilliance. - Publishers Weekly

Belén Gopegui, in The Scale of Maps, quite elegantly rejects time and space. Consider:
…today you hear that an old friend has returned whom you had long ago decided was lost forever to a distant continent. It’s eight in the evening, you leave your house imagining the meeting, your happiness so irrepressible that you are laughing under your breath as you walk, because in the blink of any eye you have seen your past with that person and your future, the joy of being close. You board a bus, going down the list of places you are thinking of bring your friend, arm raised, hand gripping the dirty metal pole… But in fact it was all a false alarm. The person who had told you your friend was returning had mistaken the date or the name. Where were you while you were planning this meeting? If you answer “on the bus,” aren’t you committing a sin of imprecision, to say the least? What was the emotion you were feeling composed of and where was it located: forty-five minutes of palpable happiness incited by an illusory event?… to whom does that span of time, running counter to reality, belong?
Gopegui’s novel stalks this idea obsessively. The main character, Sergio Prim, calls it a “hollow,” a kind of pocket within the fabric of your surroundings into which you can retreat.
Sergio, is a shy, fidgety man. He is a cartographer by trade, but a cartographer who, while he finds comfort in maps -- “They establish a unique relationship between us and the world, as do books” -- doesn’t think they tell the whole story. His basic discomfort in the world leads him to believe that the world has some other nature that no one else sees, or no one else is looking for. He’s a little crazy, but he might be a genius.
What really throws him into a conniption is that there’s a girl who likes him. Her name is Brezo, and she is Sergio’s opposite. Her unfettered desire to be with Sergio -- to spend time in his company and make room for him in her life -- baffles him. When she proposes they go on a trip together, he protests, “I, who have spent just short of half a decade mastering the five hundred square feet of my apartment… it occurs to Brezo to propose an odyssey of train cars and luggage, unfamiliar beds and unpredictable breakfasts.”
From a purely practical standpoint, Sergio’s reactions are maddening. “You’re a hypochondriac cartographer!” one wants to shout, “date the pretty woman!” But Brezo’s attention puzzles him, and their differences puzzle him, and he spends most of the book puzzling about them. From a loftier standpoint, his befuddlement, which he elevates into an existential dilemma, is the tableau on which Gopegui muses.
Like Swann, Anna Karenina, and Don Quixote (all invoked) before him, Sergio’s relationship is Gopegui’s point of inquiry. But rather than examining social norms and constraints, she uses Sergio’s hand-wringing to question the very fabric of humanity, “to refute the links human beings habitually establish with their surroundings.”
It’s an ambitious novel, to be sure, made beautiful by Gopegui’s liquid prose, and made accessible by her ultimate refusal to answer her own questions. No matter how much Sergio keeps chewing on his theories -- removing himself from Brezo, and then from civilization, to focus on finding “hollows” in the world -- he never quite finds them, although he falls farther in love with the idea. “But isn’t it better, my friend, to go mad over nothing, over the leaf falling slowly through the air, over the pale cold, over the slightest thing?”- Janet Potter

“Trembling” is how protagonist Sergio Prim first appears to the reader.  “His hands fluttered like a bashful magician’s,” the Spaniard Belen Gopegui writes of her fictional creation.  Gopegui’s first novel, The Scale of Maps, is a story about a magic trick that Prim never quite masters, an ambitious disappearing act that ends in irredeemable failure.  After all, as another character, the enchanting mapmaker Brezo Varela, warns Prim, “the problem with escape artists is that they never escape.”
Prim is no Houdini—he’s just a stubborn love-struck geographer battling his passions.  He’s taken with Brezo, and though she returns his attentions, their relationship is less than simple.  In Prim’s eyes, reality is no more than a cheap actress whose charms must be resisted—and for Prim, the prospect of requited love (with its seductive promise of  “the things we already know are lies: eternal adoration, the invisible charm of normal life”) poses a particular threat.  So he sets off in search of a “hollow,” an “unknown dwelling place” that he imagines can offer refuge from the assault of frail, vulgar reality.  What results is a gradual, lyrical descent into eccentricity and isolation.
Nine years his junior, the beautiful Brezo— “a woman with ideas, outlandish and particular, all her own”—is a troublesome object of passion for Prim.  Though she flits in and out of Prim’s life as in a dream, she adores him with a constancy that defies explanation.  Prim is enamored—even obsessed—with her, but he doesn’t know how to let himself go.  For one thing, he suspects a union like theirs is fated for destruction (“How might a woman with ideas of her own be placed in my discreet life in such a way that both of us would come out unscathed?” he asks).  He harbors some more abstract reservations too.  “Passion is chancy,” he says more than once, as if to reassure himself (and the reader) that his struggle against love’s tide is completely rational.   And perhaps for Prim—a man who lives in a fortress of abstruse metaphors, abstract puzzles, savored emotions (‘’Like those old men who wrap leftover bread in napkins to take with them, I must take small steps when I leave the restaurant with my feelings in my pocket”) and solitude—it is.
Prim’s strange private world of thoughts and feelings is not without its peculiar charms.  He keeps a “prayer book of evasion” filled with whimsical sketches representing misplaced eyeglass cases, holes in flat tires, and phrases like “exit right.” He reflects on a story about a man who charts a course through all of the world’s backyard swimming pools.  He daydreams of becoming a simple agriculturalist and producing apples, round, radiant and wholesome.  He tells fanciful stories that make Brezo laugh.  He ponders mathematical myths:
It is said, my friends, that a number located between seven and eight was lost with the writings of Diophantus, the algebraist.  Of course this is a legend, but I do not have to remind you of the theory that there can be no sign without a referent. It is tempting indeed.  Imagine, my friends: another number, an hour every day outside the flow of time, a month unaccounted for every year between July and August.
For Prim, the temptation to remain outside the flow of time is irresistible. “I don’t want to leave my sanctuary and enter life,” he confesses.   So he studies his affair with Brezo from afar, cultivating an inner remove that at times seems to serve only to amplify his emotions.  For example, opening a letter from her he finds at his desk, he pauses:
As if at a concert, silent, trying not to cough, I listened to the music of her correspondence: letters, anachronistic declarations, quotations taken from books, little jokes . . .
The bulwark of his inner world may offer a kind of escape, but with its symphonic acoustics, it’s by no means a tranquil space. “What torture it is to hold on to reason as desire intensifies,” Prim thinks.  But still, he can’t release himself.
Who is this strange man charting a fantastical, solitary course?  Gopegui has been compared to Cervantes and Nabokov, and it’s easy to see Prim as a kind of windmill-battling Pnin.  Prim’s labyrinthine imaginings could easily place him in a work of Borges as well.  Prim is a geography student who doesn’t like to travel; he’s a young old man “sporting his first gray hairs, a short man with a large head, a man alone and full of sorrow.”  After abandoning architecture studies and joining the army, “a general lack of direction” brings Prim to the study of geography.  He gets a job writing reports for a government agency that serves to “thicken the purportedly indispensable annals of bureaucracy.”  He marries and then separates from a dark-haired woman named Lucia.  He keeps to himself.
Initially, Prim hopes his connection with his beguiling old classmate Brezo will assist his quest: “She would provide me with the scientific touchstone or black siliceous rock against which I would rub the gold of my imagination,” he thinks. Only later in the novel does Prim begin to square with himself. The experiments he’s designed in his search for the “hollow” are a farce.  His elusive “hollow,” he admits, only exists as a metaphor.  And yet he still imagines propositioning Brezo with it:
Let’s hide in a metaphor.  When the pain comes, when it presses its sharp blade against us and covers the windows, when offense and misfortune come, we shall hide, warm and curled in a fetal position in a metaphor.
Prim predicts, accurately, that Brezo is far too practical for such proposals, and ultimately for him.  Her adoration—and patience—for him eventually runs dry.  “You will spend your whole life,” she tells him, “untying the knots you are tying yourself, looking for that hollow you have made up. And what use will it be to you?”
Indeed, the knots of Prim’s figurative world aren’t easily untangled.  Many of Prim’s metaphors dangle with a precarious opacity: Mark Schafer’s agile translation gives Prim the fitting voice of a polished academic who has lost his bearings.  “The man who examines his own love is like the merchant who sells perishable foods,” Prim suggests inscrutably.  Is the reader to understand that Prim’s survival depends on his ability to shill the ripened fruits of his passion before they spoil?  And to whom is he selling the harvest of his inspection?  It’s just one of many alluring metaphors that quietly collapse upon inspection, evading scrutiny.
When Prim’s metaphors do hold up, their hopeless extravagance is almost laughable. The miles Prim puts between himself and Brezo are “sweet and bitter miles like orange marmalade, her favorite marmalade, so she had said one afternoon in my apartment.”  It’s as though the more he grasps for purity (“Why in the world do you love me?” he silently asks Brezo, and “What in the world can I give you that can’t be corrupted?”), the more absurd and impotent his love becomes.  So who can blame him if in the end, the perfect “pale and brilliant whirlwind” of Prim’s solitary construction is no match for that floozy, reality.
Gopegui’s ability to trap Prim in his own game is The Scale of Maps’s greatest strength and weakness. The book’s driving force comes from the power of Prim’s idiosyncrasies—and Goepeui deftly crafts her main character into a formidable literary device unto himself. Prim is incorrigibly odd, relentlessly consistent, and never at a loss for elegant words. Gopegui provides Prim with the self-awareness to appraise his own flaws, too.  He realizes, for example, that the feelings he places so much importance on are of limited value:
. . . a man is alone with his feelings.  And they—in the end, just sensations in his mind—are volatile, are diaphanous, fickle creatures, undulations that might possibly be useful for composing music but not for living.
But she stops short of letting him conquer his shortcomings, and here it becomes difficult to distinguish Prim’s excesses from the novel’s. "Trust me, Mr. Prim, one cannot lock oneself within a conviction as one might within a book," Prim's psychologist says, her sympathies for her patient dwindling.  But in the final pages of The Scale of Maps, Prim does just that, retreating into those diaphanous notes of his feelings and thoughts like a solitary artist answering the call of his creativity.  But of course it’s ultimately a failure of imagination that drives Prim into reclusiveness; in the end he can neither picture nor push himself to try to live a life that exists outside the world mapped in his mind. Is it Prim’s fault or the fault of Gopegui’s vision? In The Scale of Maps, it all depends on the reader’s perspective. - Mythili G. Rao

Sergio Prim, protagonist of Belén Gopegui's first novel, The Scale of Maps, is a shy, middle-aged geographer thrown into a hallucinatory quest by the romantic advances of his coworker, the somewhat younger, vibrant Brezo Varela. Fearing heartbreak, he searches for a concrete way to locate a refuge where he and Brezo might be safe from disillusionment. Prim's need to map that refuge raises questions about the nature of space and our understanding of it, as well as about love, reality, and storytelling.
Originally published in Spanish in 1993, The Scale of Maps is the first of Gopegui's seven novels to appear in English. La escala de los mapas won both the Tigre Juan and the Iberoamericano Santiago del Nuevo Extremo prizes. Made up of short chapters of varying length, the novel calls attention to itself as object. Words are consciously selected—not arbitrary—and the reader's attention is drawn to the visible presence of the printed letters, their size, scale, and spacing, much as one might notice the marks or legend on a map.
The novel places the reader, uncomfortably, within the disjointed experience of Sergio Prim. We see through his eyes—the more so, paradoxically, given the continual shifting of perspective between first and third person narration. The novel is full of arresting images and sentences to share aloud, and Mark Schafer's word choices bring the book into a suitably stark and unsettling English. One memorable description: "I had gotten out of bed in the key of Brezo, and all day Monday resembled a mountain pass she had seized." As Prim observes of the shift between nook and look, "one letter can alter a man's entire life." Prim is struggling to delineate his own experience, but that letter-by-letter shift is also at the heart of translation.
Prim calls the space he is looking for a "hollow," which seems to me an apt rendering of the Spanish hueco, which might also be a hole or a cavity; hollow is more forgiving, more spacious in its ambiguity, which is exactly the tone this novel requires. Moreover, as well as being a possible refuge, the hollow begins to describe the ongoing presence of the absent lover, continually present in imagination, in memory, in the physical sensations of longing.
This is a novel to read not for plot but for the movement between moments, the startling observations, the ambivalence of a narrator by turns sympathetic and maddening. Though Prim is not an unheard-of surname in Spanish, it seems particularly well-suited to this character in English. It is often difficult to tell just what is real, what has happened and what has been imagined. Prim himself observes that to imagine is also a way to possess. Seldom explicitly stated, this understanding is an important thematic thread in the novel, as the reader also comes to possess an imagined Sergio Prim. The lonely, unbalanced narrator is at times so wholly persuasive that the reader is caught up in the twisting logic of his loss and his hope:
When alone, I would argue with myself, employing felicitous phrases like 'perpetual help' and 'our lady of the abandoned.' When alone, I could bear the knowledge that no man is a maiden, that maidens are figments of literature. I have no comfort to offer you, my friend. I scour the closets, rummage through my past and in books, imagine promises, but who can replace the things you wish you had done with your father and will not do.
The use of "maiden" in English carries not only the necessary gender information, but a welcome echo of Donne's "no man is an island," a subtle, geographical note that both reinforces and clarifies Sergio Prim's predicament. Sound is important to narrative as well as to poetry, and the attention to sound is a strength of Schafer's translation. The Scale of Maps is a meditative, obsessive novel, rewarding in the clarity of its expression and the provocation of its questions. As the end of the novel makes clear, it is the posing of those questions—the journey—-that is most important. My favorite line, perhaps, is the last: "Lift your hand and watch space stop." - Amalia Gladhart

The most indispensable writer of the 20th century, Jorge Luis Borges, included a short story about a mythic map in A Universal History of Infamy. The story is about one hundred words long and concerns a “Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” The map is impractical and the imperial advisors discard it. In the end, both the discarded map and the incomplete story are cast as Ozymandias-type fragments:
In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
Cartography as quixotic undertaking is also a theme of the indelible first novel of Belén Gopegui, a Madrid-based writer. The Scale of Maps, owing partly to its short, honed chapters, is brisk, taut storytelling. Its protagonist-narrator, Sergio Prim, describes his unusual love affair with another cartographer, his troubles at work, and the metaphysical debates he has with other mapmakers. Throughout the novel he openly questions both his own psychological reliability and ability to handle human relationships. At times, he clearly fabricates conversations and events. This novel of ideas never feels contrived or schematic.
As in Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances or John Lanchester’s great The Debt to Pleasure, the first-person narrator is mad, and his madness defamiliarizes the banal rituals of intimacy. Throughout the novel, Sergio Prim, a quixotic mapmaker in the Borgesian tradition, makes repeated claims for the explanatory power of myth, abstraction, and non-empirical truths. As a geographer and as a madman, he blurs the line between sign and referent.
It leads Sergio to produce off-kilter flourishes like this: “I have always liked examining people’s topographical features, catching them unawares as they rest their hands in a moment of inattention, their sonorous and pensive profile or their black moustache, their dark tragedy.”

The reader comes to realize that the narrator’s intellectualism is a self-defense mechanism. He describes himself this way: “I am Albania. My natural climate is temperate, it is composed of scraps of unsanitary plains, rugged plateaus, and a collection of abrupt mountains. In my republic, we practice the autarchy of retreat: production for the purpose of self-sufficiency and to protect ourselves from foreign influence.”
Sergio is preoccupied by a theory of the “hollow”—a negative space that gives order and meaning to his life. As a geographer, he compares it to the time before maps, before the first world map created by Anaximander, when the world was “exaggerated and self-absorbed.” He is paralyzed by doubt, though no less loquacious for it: “Circumstances always get the better of men. I completely understand those admirals who never manage to engage a single ship in battle, who fight the elements their whole lives long.”
The woman that the protagonist pines for is Brezo Varla, whose smile “is as wide as a gong.” Here, Gopegui, a committed Marxist, is playing some of the same post-modern name games that have come down to us through Pynchon. In Spanish, “Brezo” means “to fall asleep,” and Varla is the name of a 19th-century priest in Cuba whose name has been taken up by an organization calling for political reform there.
Shafer’s translation recreates the humor and intelligence of Gopegui’s novel. The Spaniard’s humor is distinctly literary, always specific, and never condescending. By taking up the evocative language of geography—its “errors in scale,” the “architects of utopias”—Gopegui runs the risk of dull metaphor, but her narrative instincts are sharp enough to avoid that pitfall. Instead, gratefully, Brezo or Dona Elena, Sergio’s supervisor, are wry foils to Sergio’s grand theories.
At one point, Sergio Prim tells Brezo, “Don’t believe anything because, at the least, you will be protecting a sensitive, almost liquid, shifting, and turbulent system that is somewhat mysteriously called your sense of humor.”
The novelists Roberto Bolaño and Francisco Umbral and the critic Idoya Puig are not alone in placing Gopegui among the finest Spanish-language writers working today. After The Scale of Maps made a splash on the Spanish-language literary scene in 1993, she went on to write over ten other novels, including The Conquest of the Air (1998) and The Father of White (2007), though unfortunately only The Scale of Maps is available in English. She shares some of the rueful tone and brazen stylistic improvisations of her contemporaries, Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marias, but her work has taken much longer to find its way into Anglophone bookstores.
In an interview in El Mundo, Gopegui asked which of her books to start with and she answered The Scale of Maps, “if you are interested in the possibility of intervening and changing reality.” Perhaps a translator is churning out pages of her other celebrated novels as I write. The Scale of Maps is a rapturous and dazzling achievement, and I, for one, am waiting impatiently for the opportunity to read more of Gopegui. - John Yargo


Jürgen Becker - This spare, evocative novel speaks, without a direct narrative voice, from the shadows and the corners of a world drawn with sharp, poetic precision. Unnamed characters, recurring motifs and locations and wisdoms build a tale that captures the ordinary business of every day against the long shadows history casts

Jürgen Becker, The Sea in the Radio: Journal Sentences, Trans. by Alexander Booth, 
Seagull Books, 2021

An experimental novel that pushes the constraints of language to bear witness to the history of both Germany and the individual.

Jürgen Becker’s The Sea in the Radio is a collection of “journal sentences” divided into three sections called notebooks. In this great concert of a novel, language has been pared down to a minimum: fragments, phrases, and short sentences combine and make up a life both banal and profound. It is a life in which many of the details remain unstated or, as in miniatures, float just beyond the edges of the frame. Though at first the narrative may seem to move in a relatively harmless manner, soon enough we begin to realize that the story to be told may indeed be more unsettling than we had suspected.

The Sea in the Radio is a novel that bears witness not only to one’s final years but also to one’s place within history in general and Germany’s cataclysmic twentieth-century past in particular.

"Gutsy, innovative, and experimental novel." – Christoph Janacs

Whenever a story began, he never quite understood where it was supposed to go.

After my father died I found, in his office, a journal he kept for the last full year of his life. He recorded each day’s trips, chores and purchases with occasional comments about my mother’s health, the quality of a restaurant meal, or some other personal detail like a book he was reading. He also tracked the weather and key stock market statistics. It demonstrates just how unwilling he was to let a day pass without a set of accomplishments, but captures none of his opinions, worries or hopes. However, it is one of my most precious possessions, a diary I read as a man in his eighty-eighth year trying to hold on to the passage of time.

There is an element of this kind of reporting the mundane ordinariness of the everyday in Jürgen Becker’s The Sea in the Radio: Journal Sentences, a fragmentary novel stripped to its most essential elements. Within the series of isolated sentences, phrases and brief passages that comprise this work, a regular report of the day to day flow of weeks, seasonal tasks, and observations of nature not only contribute to an atmosphere of place but speak to the desire to believe that some things stay the same, hoping that as long as this flow continues, the story will not end and one can defy death a little longer. But this novel does not recreate a diary as such, rather it constructs a picture of a village or community, past and present, as its residents age and face the end of life, as memories and images surface from a dark history that has left its mark on a generation that spent their childhood and youth during the war.

A train station appears in the course of everyone’s life.

Poet, writer and radio dramatist, Becker was born in Cologne but spent the war years in Thuringia. He was a participant in Gruppe 47, a collection of important German writers, from 1960 until their dissolution in 1967 and has long been involved with PEN Centre Germany and the German Academy for Language and Poetry. He is known for an open form of experimental literature set in opposition to narrative conventions. The Sea in the Radio (2009), perhaps the first of his prose works to be translated into English, reflects the importance of landscape seen in his later works as well as the tendency to cast side-long glances at the experience of growing up during the Second World War that drives so much of his prolific literary output.

This spare, evocative novel speaks, without a direct narrative voice, from the shadows and the corners of a world drawn with sharp, poetic precision. Unnamed characters, recurring motifs and locations and wisdoms build a tale that captures the ordinary business of every day against the long shadows history casts. It begins with bucolic imagery—snow in the winter woods, owls that call at night, the glow of the light—but an ominous tone appears early: the trains off behind the woods that one never saw, the off-road vehicle that is always moving from place to place, photographs showing people or houses that are gone, allusions to secrets lurking. Grammatical tense can be misleading. Is this a statement about the present or the past? Outside the odd quoted statement there is no “I,”, the closest one gets is with the indefinite, gender neutral pronoun “one,” otherwise we move between second, third, and first-person plural perspectives. Wordplay and aphoristic observations also appear, contributing to the overall poetic feel of the text. As we move through the three parts—three orchestral movements that each end with the acknowledgement of the relevant conductor—the story that emerges is dramatic and vivid, despite the fact that so much of it lurks in the silences and spaces between the sentences.

Fine, if you know everything already.

When it is hot and dry, you don’t see any snails in the garden.

What should one do? One does what one can. One does what one can’t.

Motorcycles whining through the village. It’s Sunday.

Watching TV for hours. And then what?

After the storm the sun, immediately humid again, the next storm.

A hissing. Gravel sliding of the loading bed.

He says, Night’s shorter when you can sleep.

The pace is not slow, but charged with a kind of quiet restlessness. This is a novel that invites you to listen closely. An acute awareness of the passage of time and circumstances permeates the work, seeding it not with nostalgia but melancholy. Motifs recur and sentences play off one another, often contradicting what has recently been said, small themes build across a page or two then fade into the background, and there is a knowing humour to some of the observations: “In the waiting room there are magazines that one would never read otherwise.” There is, decades after the years that haunt the aging children that people this landscape, no closure, only increasing decline, illness and loss. And a little wisdom.

When you are old yourself, you treat the old people who are already dead in a friendlier fashion.

Translated by Alexander Booth with an ear to maintaining the rhythm and flow of this fragmentary work, The Sea in the Radio is presented with a design of subtle beauty that features detail from Hokusai’s iconic print The Great Wave off Kanagawa and a pattern simulating water that runs across the lower edge of every page.



People sitting together. One of them gets up and goes outside. He’s got a job to do and doesn’t come back.

If everyone conforms to all the signals and rules, nothing can go wrong.

They are the smallest birds, the ones in the thorn bushes. Let her go.

Ever more people stream into the hall. It’s not quite full when the roof collapses.

At the kiosk a light still burns.

Another funeral. You see one another every few months, split back up then say, See you next time.

Someone says, for ten years now I’ve begun each day as if it were the last.

At the kiosk a light is always burning, even when it’s closed.

What does voluntarily mean when they say that the apartments have voluntarily been cleared?

Two fatalities, two survivors. The survivors have to figure out what kind of relationship there was between the deceased.

Neighbours standing together and discussing neighbours.

Someone told the truth and since then they have only known aggravation.

One game after another lost, in the end the trainer said he wanted to teach his players the meaning of politeness, tolerance, brotherly love.

The newspaper’s incessant sneer.

Now it’s dark enough. Straining our ears to hear what is outside.

The music doesn’t stop, and the passages are endless, as they’ve been made to be circular.

The stairs lead up to a ramp, but after the ramp there’s nothing.

He’s scribbling away. Everything crooked and canted.

Glass is democratic, the architect says, stone fascistic. Sea mail. The symbol for sea mail is yellow, like land mail. Airmail’s is blue. Blue like the airmail.

If you’re looking for the off-road vehicle, it’s in front of a stream now.

A moment’s wavering...but not so that later they’ll say one wavered too long.

Jürgen Becker, Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jurgen Becker. Trans. by Okla Elliott. Black Lawrence Press, 2015
excerpt pdf

"Jürgen Becker was born in 1932. His childhood, therefore, was the Second World War—a disease from which he has been recovering ever since the fighting stopped. His poems do not presume to address the horrors directly, but with great courage he casts sidelong glances at things he remembers or the things that prompt such memories. These are important poems, not just about the war but about any unbearable catastrophe the scars of which last forever. Okla Elliott's scrupulous translations are faithful to the poems' nervous hurt: their appearance in English is a major event."—David R. Slavitt


The camera’s broken? It’s cold out,
and there are crows bigger than crows
usually are, scattering smoothly over there across the fields.
Nothing over there. Twilight. Gold gray twilight
spreads out. A tree in Poland
is over there the lost barren tree.
Lighted and empty, the bus drives over the levee.
On the riverbank, two men with their backs
to the dam, which neither begins nor ends.
You don’t hear anything. You hear the slippage
of the floe, the circling floe. You hear
for a long time yet, later, in the dark, the drifting ice.
The camera’s broken, else why are the pictures
blurry now? Two men stood on the riverbank.
They came back. They could tell the story.

The myth of the Tower of Babel describes a humanity that has united in the years after the Great Flood. Joined by language and purpose, humans decide to build a city and a tower whose peak reaches the heavens as a testament to the conviction that people would never again be divided along sectarian lines. Of course, the god of the Old Testament didn’t like this idea. He cast groups of people across the globe and gave each a different language. The writers of the King James Version make the interesting choice of using the word “confound” to describe what the god of the Old Testament did to “the language.” How appropriate that the word can mean “to defeat utterly…bring to ruin,” “to overthrow,” or “to destroy the purity, beauty or usefulness of” depending on one’s perspective.
All literature is an act of translation on some level; what are words but representations of things and concepts that are inherently subjective to every reader? Can it be said that any writer’s work is a perfect representation of their thoughts? And how would we even know for sure? Okla Elliott begins Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker by evoking Umberto Eco’s statement that translation is the “art of failure,” as it is impossible to take a carefully cast sentence, melt it in a crucible and to pour it into the mold of another tongue with perfect fidelity. Does a translator “ruin,” “overthrow” or “destroy the purity” of the original work? Of course not. In his introductory note, Mr. Elliott acknowledges the impossibility of his task while simultaneously proclaiming the beauty and necessity of translated work. Translating is “the best way to read a writer’s work,” makes a writer accessible to those who do not have the original language under their belts, and opens a poet such as Mr. Becker to analysis by scholars in other fields.
Jürgen Becker’s formative years coincided with the highs and lows experienced by Germany before and after World War II. Mr. Becker’s work is imbued with an appropriate weariness and a confirmation of the glory of nature that is sometimes corrupted (or confounded) by war and the people who wage it. The poet uses weather and the flora and fauna affected by it to draw metaphors, to reflect upon humanity and sometimes just to have fun. The tone of the original German lines and their translations is primarily one of knowing calm; Mr. Becker is not an angry firebrand, the kind of thinker who burns him or herself out in a few years of shouting truth to the world. No, the author offers us a slow burn that lends itself to deeper and longer moments of reflection and that result in eventual and powerful change.
True to his word, Mr. Elliott takes very great care to translate the poems without rewriting them. A particular example represents quite nicely the limitations and benefits of this approach to translation. Compare Mr. Becker’s “Vier Zielen” to its English counterpart, “Four Lines:”
Vier Zeilen
Unter Pappeln sitzend, und wieder die Stimme
im Selbstgespräch, das nicht aufhört, bis
alles zermübt ist, der Wind erleichtert nichts,
der einfach durch die Blätter geht.

Four Lines
Sitting under the poplars, and once again the voice—
talking to itself—it won’t stop, until everything
is worn away; the wind doesn’t make things easier;
it just blows through the leaves.

Recite Mr. Becker’s lines aloud, even if you don’t have full command of German. Sounding out the words reveals some graceful alliteration. Those “s” sounds followed by those voiceless palatal fricatives of the “ch” phonemes replicate the sound of the wind through the leaves on an autumn day, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the English language simply does not allow Mr. Elliott to recreate this effect with phonemes, so he must go in another direction. You’ll notice that the translator has employed em dashes and semicolons in place of some of the commas in the original, the effect of which matches the legato and adagio music made by waving tree branches.
Mr. Becker’s poetry is inextricably linked with the feeling of place. How appropriate then, that Mr. Elliott discovered his work while studying abroad in Germany. Blackbirds in September is a kind of travelogue; the poet titles his work after cities, municipalities, significant buildings and areas within cities. “Ostende” seems like a harsh and beautiful place that I would very much like to visit…with half my money hidden in my shoe. The staff of the “Hotel Belgica” likely doesn’t put chocolate on your pillows, but you probably bring home some great stories after you check out.
Mr. Elliott’s translations are conservative and respectful. The only notable diversions from the original poems occur when Mr. Elliott experiments with lineation. Taken as a whole, these infrequent experiments are profitable ones, preserving reasonable interpretations of Mr. Becker’s intent. Blackbirds in September does a great service, allowing English speakers to enjoy the work of the winner of the Georg Büchner Prize, one of the most prestigious in German letters. While it is tempting to classify Mr. Becker’s work according to its position in history, the poems also stand as intimate slices of one man’s life that allow us to meditate on our own. Humans remain separated by geography and language, a condition that has persisted since prehistory, no matter your beliefs. Mr. Becker’s poetry and Mr. Elliott’s representation of the verses remind us that we are nonetheless united by our place in nature and the indifference with which Mother Nature sees us. ~ Kenneth Nichols.