“Know What I Mean, Pierre?”

The Waitress Was New, by Dominique Fabre
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
Archipelago Books, $15.00
ISBN 978-0-9778576-9-2

Reviewed by Brandon Holmquest

When the story you’re writing is very complicated, heavily plotted, allegorical, teeming with characters or just plain dense, you have a little margin for error. You don’t necessarily have to knock every sentence into the bleachers.

Sometimes a writer will simply write sloppy prose but get by on strong ideas. Example: Philip K. Dick. I’m busy trying to get my head around the fact that this character who lives in a dystopian future is himself reading about a dystopian future which bears an uncanny resemblance to the dystopian future in which I happen to live. I don’t have time to wonder if “effervescent” is really the best adjective to describe a sunset.

Sometimes a writer will make a conscious choice to rein in his or her prose in order to allow the reader to more easily follow what’s going on in the book at large. Example: Tolstoy. I spend all my time remembering that Marya, Maria, and Masha are all the same person, daughter of one prince, sister of another prince, in love with a third prince, friends with this princess and enemy of that one. I’m not really all that concerned with whether or not, “The sun came up,” ought to have been, “The sun rose over the battlefield like an adjective noun simile.” It doesn’t matter.

But when the story you’re writing is very simple that margin of error disappears. The choice of the right word becomes extremely important, because those word choices add up to your tone which quickly adds up to your aesthetic, which is itself almost the entire story. When you’ve got one or two characters dealing with one situation, you’ve got to nail it. Every word. Every sentence. Every scene. Example: Grace Paley. Another example: Roberto Bolaño’s novellas.

Dominque Fabre’s The Waitress Was New is another good example. 117 pages. One major character and four or five minor ones. And it works because Fabre makes excellent choices from the top down. Choosing the right character, Pierre, a 56 year-old café bartender. Choosing the right story, Pierre’s boss disappears one day in the grip of an ongoing midlife crisis, leaving his wife and his business to fend for themselves. Choosing first person, a narrative voice that has often been overused or used to poor effect, but which in this case is absolutely the right choice because it allows Fabre to offer the reader an awful lot in an unobtrusive, natural way. Choosing to use these elements to produce a book as apparently modest yet casually profound as its own protagonist. All of these choices, each of them right in this particular case, are then carried through. The result is book that took a few hours to read, which has been echoing in my head ever since.

Pierre does not tend bar in some dive, nor in some fancy restaurant, but in a modest café, basically a bistro, on the edge of Paris. He works the day shift. He has his regulars. They talk at him, not to him. He says very little. His bosses mostly talk at him as well. His co-workers are pleasantly collegial if not friendly. Then he gets off and wanders around, goes home and watches the news and then slowly reads Primo Levi’s holocaust memoir, If This is a Man (Abacus Books). He dreams about work then wakes up and goes to work. Throughout the book, Pierre talks either to himself or to the reader, sometimes it’s hard to tell which, about whatever crosses his mind, most of which relates to his work. And every so often, in the middle of a paragraph about some quotidian banality, he’ll come out with a line like, “I aged a lot, watching over that empty café,” that is just sad, plain sad. Or he’ll make some poignant observation, usually touching on his own futility as a human being. Or some odd, revealing confession, such as the fact that he puts Nivea on his face every night because he worries about looking old. This stuff adds up. I was very quiet while I was reading this book, without really knowing why.

It bears mentioning that Fabre’s depiction of life as an employee in such a place is one of the best I have ever read. I speak from about ten years in the trenches as a line cook, waiter, and barista. The Waitress Was New brought back to me how unutterably tired and depressed I was during that tenth year, pondering the unanswerable questions, such as, “What the hell am I doing here, anyway?” that eventually led me to walk away. It is nice that there is a book which speaks as well as this one does for all my friends who had nowhere to walk away to, who are probably still there, being talked at by people who are neither friends nor strangers.

N.B. Unfortunately my French is grim joke, and anyway I have not seen the French text of this book, so my ability to speak intelligently about the quality of Jordan Stump’s translation is exactly nil. That said, I feel confident enough in the reputation of the book’s publisher, Archipelago, to feel safe in assuming that the translation is of quality. Dominque Fabre seems to like it, since he will be reading from this book while on tour in the United States, beginning this Monday, February 25th, at the Old Can Factory in Brooklyn, with dates in Chicago and points west later in the week.

Editor Battles Stomach-flu to a Draw

By Brandon Holmquest

Part Two: The Bowery

It would be difficult to describe my relief upon hearing from Stephen Kessler that he didn’t want to meet up until deep that afternoon. Any day that I have to get out of bed before 12:30 is by definition not a good day. No matter what. But any day when I can get up later than 12:30 is always good, no matter what happens. So this particular Sunday was shaping up nicely.

I resurrected myself at 2 p.m. My illness, the dubiously named stomach-flu, seemed largely to have abated. I remained wary, having thought once before that it was gone for good, but in general I felt less ill than hollow, unstable. I took the N train to Union Square and walked the few blocks to St. Mark’s, to take what air there may be said to exist in Manhattan.

Stephen found me first and we introduced ourselves, I was then introduced to his wife, Daniela Hurezanu, herself a translator, and the three of us set out in search of a suitable café which we quickly found. It was quite the place. I ordered coffee and when the waiter set it before me he gently whispered, “Americano.” I response to this passive-aggressive terminology mongering I continued ordering coffee. He kept subtly correcting me. It was a sort of truce.

Daniela, Stephen and I settled in and got to talking. I should state right up front that I’m a frightful geek. Seriously. And it wasn’t all that long ago that I was carrying Save Twilight, Stephen’s translations of Julio Cortázar’s poetry, around with me all over Chicago in my coat pocket. So I wanted two things: his signature on that book, which somehow I haven’t lost, and all the Julio stories he could tell me. That done, we all conversed about the usual mixture of the past, the future, the recent present, and the maybe, then the discussion took a deep translation geek turn. It takes a certain kind of person to ramble excitedly about grammar for twenty minutes, and when you get three such people together in one place, well, what can I say?

Daniela and Stephen were due that evening at New York’s venerable Bowery Poetry Club for a reading of Romanian poetry. I tagged along. The event was hosted by Matvei Yankelevich, editor at Ugly Duckling, a fine translator, and officially the Nicest Man in New York. On the bill were Daniela’s old friend from Romania Alta Ifland, prolific translator Adam Sorkin (whose versions of Christian Popescu grace the pages of Calque 3), and Saviana Stanescu, both a poet and an NYU drama professor.

This was Super Bowl Sunday. I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone that the New York Football Giants were partaking in the big game this year. When we walked through the door the barista was setting up a small black and white television, twisting rabbit ears into unnatural configurations in a vain attempt to clarify the signal. The crowd turned out to be small, even smaller if we don’t count those who were drinking at the bar when we arrived, but everybody who was out watching a goddamned football game that evening missed a hell of a reading.

Alta Ifland read first. From Romania, she writes in French and translates her own works into English. Prose poems, for the most part. I’ll be damned if I can tell what any of them were about, other than being poems. I wound up sort of fixated on the word in a way that didn’t require a connection to their meanings. Alta stood tall and read methodically in a clear voice, her Romanian accent giving the language just a little bit of a twist that made familiar words less familiar, which heightened the effect of the poems themselves. She read several of the poems in French as well as English. My French is quite poor, but I did notice that a musicality latent in the English versions, present but in a subtle way, was much more apparent in the French.

Next came Adam Sorkin, who publishes about a hundred books a year, it seems, reading from his volume of Mariana Marin’s poetry, Paper Children. I feel like I’d need to sit down alone, in my kitchen, for about three days with this book to be able to write about it intelligently. So. Damn. Sad. But not entirely depressing. I recall laughing at something in self defense and getting some odd looks from the crowd. Adam, in a flannel shirt, cracking wise with a somber undertone. He is a superb comprehender of poetry, I think because he actually feels it, which is something quite out of fashion these days. Adam, being a little older, doesn’t care about that. He is a strong argument for more translation prizes in this country.

The night’s final reader was Saviana Stanescu, a native of Romania who now writes in English. She read from her latest book, Google Me! You know how a lot of poets read in what I call “The Voice,” that dry, slightly pedantic, ponderously serious, flat nasal blah, as if to say oh, this is poetry and its ssssooooo terribly serious? Well I hate that bullshit. Seriously, I’ll get up and leave. Well there was no such problem with Saviana. She really throws herself into it, in a way that is performative, yes, and also theatrical, but which serves to enhance the poetry, to make it more engaging. I was in enough awful rock bands to know when somebody’s being loud and flashy to cover up a lack of talent. Not Saviana. The poems, which are good on the page, gain from the way she reads them. And everyone present who doesn’t have a stick up their ass has a good time.

The reading over, I allowed Matvei to corral me into going to a Russian restaurant nearby. All the readers, Stephen and I, some guy who just happened to be there, Paul Doru, an editor of the superb online journal Respiro, and some other people I didn’t know trucked down to the Anyway Café. I hadn’t eaten at all that day, nor the day before, and I felt like I could handle some solid food right about then.

What can I say, I’m kind of a schmuck so I ordered borscht. I’d never had it before, and Matvei said it was good there so I went for it. Halfway through the bowl I leaned over to Matvei and said, “You know, this is actually really good stuff. I don’t know what I was expecting but I really like this.” He nodded. “Yeah, it’s okay here, though really I make the best borscht.” As soon as I find two other people who make the same claim, I’m going to assemble them and have a borscht-off, with myself as the judge, just drown in beets and die happy.

Daniela, Stephen and I took our leave and walked north together towards transportation. They left me at Astor Place, where I descended to the N train, Queens-bound. On the ride home someone screamed out, “If the Giants win I’m gonna start a riot!” People seemed less amused by this comment than I might have thought. I got home in time to flip on the TV, see Eli Manning slip away from a sack and fling the ball into a miracle catch. I shut the TV off. A few minutes later a joyous shout came falling from every window in my building, then the bar down the street began vomiting screaming drunkards. There were gunshots in the distance. I went to bed, put a pillow over my head and tried to sleep. I had to go back to work tomorrow.

Editor Battles Stomach-flu to a Draw

By Brandon Holmquest

Part One: The AWP Bookfair

Last week literary New York was all aflutter about the AWP conference. Practically everyone who had ever picked up a pen was in town, clutching fat stacks of business cards and their respective publications. There were readings. There were forums and debates and parties. I was laid up at home with intense nausea and a 101 degree fever.

This malady, which I have dubbed “stomach-flu” for lack of any more appropriate (or accurate) term, descended upon on me on Monday. I spent the day sleeping and aching. Tuesday, feeling a little better, I assumed the worst had passed and went to work. Then came Wednesday. I got up. I felt dreadful. I went to work. On the subway, the disease asserted itself with considerable vigor.

I was convinced that I would wind up on my back, listening to a disembodied voice inform all of New York that, since a passenger required medical attention, the entire city would be late to work. When you’re running late, hustling up a crowded escalator or elbowing young mothers and insurance executives out of your way in the vicious rugby commute, that voice is the last thing you want to hear. And when you do hear it, you hate that person’s very soul. Once, upon hearing that voice announce the indefinite suspension of all 6 train service, I turned to the person next to me and said, “Somebody better be dead up there,” and he answered me: “If they’re not we should go up there and kill KILL KILL!” Fear kept me vertical until I got where I was going. After that it was just a matter of quietly dying in my cubicle all day, staging small strange nature documentaries with my office supplies to keep the mind alive.

But that was all I could do. I don’t recall how I got home that night. The next thing I knew it was 4 a.m. and I was suddenly on the couch, Fitzcarraldo playing on the TV, then I passed out again. Obviously, there was no possibility of working in that condition. I spent all of Thursday and Friday sleeping, with short bouts of fever dementia interspersed among the bad dreams. Every so often the phone would wake me up and someone would ask me why I wasn’t at this or that incredible event they were so enjoying. After a while I shut the ringer off.

Saturday came and I did not feel any better. And yet. Someone had told me that there would be place where books were so plentiful as to boggle the mind, so cheap as to charm a miser. This is the sort of thing that I will rise from my death bed to attend, and so I did.

But what a state I was in. I hadn’t eaten in two days. My fever was now coming in rolling waves. I would be clear-headed one minute and mumbling delirious nonsense the next. So what?

With considerable assistance from my charming companion, I approached the Hilton, where three floors had been handed over to a swarming army of book nerds and bibliophiles. I could see them in the street when we were still blocks away, little grey-haired men in bifocals and tweed jackets covered in dust and cat hair, women walking slowly, dazzled by the sun. Into the lobby, up on the elevator and through the doors. Pandemonium. I had not thought that books had undone so many. There were people everywhere. I thought: Christ, we could found our own cluttered little country and someone behind me asked a friend if that was Charles Bernstein over there.

I wouldn’t call it an anticlimax, but once I was there milling around was about the only option I had. So that’s what I did. The thing about the AWP book fair is that they’ll sell table space to anybody. Cash up front is apparently the only criteria for participation. So all the big publishing houses are there, as are all of the larger small houses, and then the smaller small houses, various university presses, and some magazines and journals. Everybody else is either clueless or out to rip people off.

I saw one booth occupied by an middle-aged couple, the table before them littered with copies of a combination cookbook/poetry collection that looked like it had been made on an obsolete Canon copy/print/fax machine and staple-bound by hand. This was late on the last day and they seemed to have realized that no large contract would be coming their way this year. They were pissed. Another booth assured me that the only reason I’m not rich and famous right now is that I don’t have my own website, designed and hosted by them for a fee. A third booth swore up and down that their workshops not only could but absolutely would teach me how to write that poem/story/novel/memoir or what have you that I’d always wanted to write but didn’t know how. They could also help me get it published. All of this for a couple hundred bucks and they are qualified to provide this service because they have been providing this service for quite some time.

One thing I didn’t expect to see, which was hilarious, was how many graduate-level creative writing programs were there trying to lure prospective students. In my opinion these things are not substantially different from the phony workshops, except for being more self-important, more expensive, and somehow more socially acceptable. The whole enterprise is founded on false pretenses. The school says, “We’ll teach you how to write!” when what they’re actually doing is qualifying some people to be adjunct literature professors and allowing others to avoid that get-a-real-job-and-grow-up scene for a few more years. Which is fine by me, but I don’t see the need for the smokescreen. But hey, I’m a cynic. What can I say?

Fortunately, there was more than enough going on to keep me sincerely interested and sincerely attempting to communicate with people through the hot fog of my sickness. Many very nice people politely tolerated my jabbering. Thomas Keith of New Directions and Jill Schoolman of Archipelago Books were particularly warm, as were the unfortunately anonymous people running the booths for the Dalkey Archive, Ugly Duckling Presse, Northwestern University Press, and many others. On the whole the experience was rather pleasant. I met a lot of nice people and gave away my entire stock of the ridiculous business cards we printed up to amuse ourselves a year ago. I acquired an unholy horde of books for a total of about twenty dollars.

I also came away with at least one significant bit of news, that being that New York Review Books will eventually be publishing the rest of Vladimir Sorokin’s trilogy. The first volume, Ice, came out last year. Ever since then I’ve been gnawing my fingers off wanting to know if the rest of it would be properly translated, or if I’d have to pay some Russian teenager a dollar a page to do it. Now I know, and can therefore turn my dollars over to their rightful owner: the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

By the time shrill announcements started screaming overhead that the place was closing I was thoroughly exhausted. A small cadre of reliable friends and associates assembled. After a final scramble through the place attempting to shake people down for free books which they would otherwise have to pack and carry away, I limped with them to the Astro Diner just down the street.

I consumed enough coffee to get me home. The plan was to take a long nap and get up in time to go to a reading at midnight. I didn’t make it. Slept straight through the night and was woken up around 10 the next morning by a phone call from Stephen Kessler, general friend of this publication. He and I had never met, and had been planning to do so while he was in town for the conference. My illness had monkeywrenched the hell out of those plans. Sunday was our last shot, could I be at St. Mark’s Bookshop at 4 o’clock?

To be continued…