What the Swedes Read

A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate

by Daniel Handler
  • LAUREATE: Jaroslav Seifert (1984, Czechoslovakia)
  • BOOK READ: The Casting of Bells, translated by Paul Jagasich and Tom O’Grady

The Casting of Bells is probably the slimmest book in my mountainous Nobel pile, and it was a great relief to me that I found this little item. Far too many Nobel-winning poets’ works are compiled in hefty Collecteds or even Completes, and it can be difficult to get through those immense overviews. One ends up marching through the poems like middle schoolers through a museum, missing the beauty on the way to the finish line. I don’t like to read a book like I’m punching a clock. I just kept The Casting of Bells on my desk, reading two or three poems whenever it struck me, and in a couple of weeks I was done.

I was grateful for this pace, and for the slim edition that encouraged it. Although my copy of The Casting of Bells has a little mention of the prize on the cover, the book doesn’t arouse the suspicion I had of some other Nobel volumes, that they were thrown together at the last minute, to cash in on a writer suddenly called to prominence in the English-speaking world. Nor does it conjure up, as the enormous volumes do, the image of building a monument, the sort everyone sees but nobody thinks about. The Casting ofBells feels like a labor of love. In the brief introduction, the translators say, “His range of mind and whimsy overwhelmed us” and that “what is offered here is a rendering into English of a rich sensibility, not an exact and finished poetry… We encourage others to continue with his work, to better shape it, to hone it, someday, into that real, precise voice living in another world.”

I found this charmingly modest—and you don’t see a lot of modest charm in introductions to works by Nobel Prize–winners, believe you me—but also a little melancholy. To hear straight out from the translators, one an American poet and the other a Hungarian academic, that they were too overwhelmed to communicate a singular voice felt like a statement of the difficulties of translation but also like a sad little math problem. If two writers could not illuminate one writer, then we need more than twice as many artists working on the translation of every other artist, and most people in the world seem like they already have a lot to do. The tiny gesture of an English The Casting of Bells, however enthusiastic its intention, has its own futility built right into it. I looked at some of the articles in the Hungarian academic’s bio—titles like “Why Romanian Should Be Considered a Major Romance Tongue”—and wanted to buy him a drink, just so he could talk to someone who was interested, and I was not very surprised when I searched for the publisher on the Web and found that the Spirit That Moves Us Press had gone out of business, and was no longer offering such books as The Actualist Anthology and Nuke-Rebuke: Writers and Artists Against Nuclear Energy and Weapons.

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Daniel Handler writes books under his own name and as Lemony Snicket.

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