THOMAS EVANS | DATE 7/7/2010
Launched in 2009, Wakefield Press is an independent American publisher devoted to the translation of overlooked gems and literary oddities in small, affordable and elegant paperback editions. Its publications include the Wakefield Handbooks series--which the press defines as "the guidebook as imagined through literature"--and the Imagining Science series ("science as imagined through literature"), as well as forays into classic experimental fiction. Here, Marc Lowenthal, the press' founder, talks to ARTBOOK about translation, publishing and the livelier shores of French and German literature.
ARTBOOK: Before we talk about Wakefield Press, can you tell us about your earliest translation work, and how you came to work for Exact Change? I assume both must have occurred during or shortly after your studies at Buffalo? Marc Lowenthal: I had toyed a bit with translating in college (I had started tinkering with Robert Desnos’s La Liberté ou l’amour before discovering that Atlas Press already had a translation in the works). My first official translation was with Exact Change, when I had the audacity to suggest that I expand their reissue of Geoffrey Wagner’s translation of Nerval’s Aurelia with some of his other important, untranslated writings. I don’t know what enabled me to have the gall to try rendering one of the authors I love most into English, and I don’t know if it was Damon’s confidence in me or his general generosity of spirit that led him to give me the green light, but that was what set me on the path. After that, I started doing small translation projects of my own, making pamphlets and whatnot, some of which evolved into bigger projects, like the Queneau book I did with the University of Nebraska Press.
I liked the intense reading that translating demanded, the research and focus I got to put into a project, the sense of literary service I felt in doing it, so in that sense, the translation path is nice, but--despite whatever theory or argument I bring into it--it also always comes with a sense of failure for me, so the whole process is sort of a weird thing for me to have gotten involved in, given the sort of mindset I tend to fall into too often. The idea of rendering an author I love or respect into English has become one of those things I can’t think about too much or I get paralyzed.
I actually started working for Exact Change shortly after I finished college: I went to do some grad work at SUNY Buffalo a little later, in the midst of my involvement with them. I started as an intern, working for them on my two days off, which every week was like the most glorious weekend I could have ever have hoped for; when the bookstore I was working at suddenly went under, they took me on in a more sustained fashion.
Working for Exact Change constitutes some of the happiest moments of my life. I’m sure everyone at D.A.P. already knows what great folks they are, but working for Damon and Naomi was just an enormous turning-point in my life. It was the first time I had people to talk to about everything I loved (our tastes really overlapped), who weren't just admirers but participants in this magical world of book creation, and they introduced me to the whole process that goes into creating a book: being their only employee enabled me to work on a book from beginning to end, which is the kind of involvement you obviously can’t find with a typical publisher. They are also just enormously creative people, both able to get an idea and then go about realizing it in such a way that it seems like an adventure every time, and for a generally pessimist thinker and frequently self-paralyzing guy like myself to have been exposed to their example for as long as I had been is just one of those things for which I continue to be grateful.
Just to toot another person’s horn, I should also mention how much I got out of a seminar on translation that I took in Buffalo with Charles Bernstein (another generous spirit), who was heading the Poetics program at SUNY when I was there. The seminar was ultimately more about the ‘untranslatable’ than translation (or thinking about how to translate the untranslatable), the idea of the translator as author, and overturning the notion of the invisibility’ of the translator. It was around then that I started translating Georges Perec’s homophonic translations and other such ‘untranslatable’ material such as Jean-Pierre Brisset--projects that made the line between translation and writing very blurry, and that emphatically reverse Robert Frost's quip into "poetry is what is gained in translation." ARTBOOK: You mention issuing some translations as pamphlets; can you tell us a bit more about that? The pleasures of working at Exact Change are easy to imagine--we'd love to hear more about that--and both the choice and the design of each new title conveys, I think, that sense of adventure you describe. The Nerval Aurelia is an especially great collection, and your inclusion of the "Walks and Memories" section helps to show how far ahead Nerval was reaching, as Andre Breton realized. The book's introduction qualifies Nerval's popularity among Surrealists by noting that it was primarily those writers and artists on the fringes of Surrealism who found him most useful--Artaud, Daumal, and of course Joseph Cornell. For Exact Change and perhaps for the imprint you've just launched, Wakefield Press, Surrealism offers a compass for navigating its peripheries--its antecedents and its marginalized characters... ML: When I was in Buffalo, I started turning the various translations I was making into editions of little booklets and send them out to friends and colleagues. I ended up making about 25 of them. In some cases it was a way of introducing myself to some people, but it was also a way of developing larger projects to pitch to publishers. One of those was a book of Perec’s homophonic seasonal greetings: little booklets of wordplay that he’d send out to his friends at the end of the year. I made my own versions, and that became the first project of mine to be accepted by someone; said someone then sat on it for about five years before I retracted it, deciding I’d rather nothing happen with it than continue to be strung along. That sort of thing isn’t very enjoyable; whereas making little publications for private circulation really was: my academic ambitions were starting to subside and I was beginning to miss working on texts that would be read by people, as opposed to writing academic papers that were being read by no-one. So I started pretending I was a publisher and took on the name The Club of Odd Volumes, after the venerable Boston Brahman bibliophile society (a ‘gentlemen’s club’), copping it from a title page from one of their little books that I found in a Dover book of some sort--little realizing that after more than a century they were still in existence and apparently still active. (I wish I could say this was the last time I engaged in such an oversight.) So I started pretending that I was a rebellious splinter faction of the club, waging subversion on their ‘promotion of literary and artistic taste’ from my Buffalo headquarters. At some point I discovered that some of the pamphlets I had made were starting to circulate beyond my sphere when I started coming across laser-scanned bootlegs of the booklet I made out of Breton’s staged Barrès Trial in bookstores in New York and Boston. After I came back to Boston (and I really have to say how much I still miss Buffalo after all this time), I wanted to make a more serious go at publishing. So I made an initial go at it (and failed).
I can’t speak for Exact Change, but they’re pretty open about Surrealism being a big compass for them: it was certainly one of the areas that our interests overlapped. At this point, Surrealism is such an immense, invaginating, international constellation and lineage that it sort of becomes a compass for looking at a pretty broad swath of literature: dissident figures like Artaud or Bataille who were once marginal to the movement are today the focus, and someone like Philippe Soupault, one of Surrealism’s original ‘three musketeers,’ has become much more marginal. So its peripheries keep redefining themselves, which I think is one of the things that keep it a useful compass; one that Twisted Spoon, for instance, has used to bring some Czech aspects of the movement into English (in very nice editions; they’re a great publisher). For me, reading the Surrealists for the first time was just one of those experiences that coalesced everything for me: it was a very personal compass for me for years. I’ve always liked Queneau’s ambiguous description of his involvement with the Surrealists: he said it had given him the impression of having a youth; that is sort of how I still feel about my first encounter with books like Breton and Soupault’s Magnetic Fields or Aragon’s Paris Peasant. If you read Queneau’s autobiographical novel Odile recounting his time with Surrealism, it’s clear that “youth” also includes adolescence in all its backstabbing, pretentious vigor. Which tempered the compass for me at some point, of course; but Surrealism made a point of seeking and establishing a new (its own) lineage of antecedents and marginalized authors (I love Aragon in his Treatise on Style when he says “I am extraordinarily sensitive to those poor, marvelous words left in our dark night by a few men I never knew."). So that Surrealism itself, after all these decades, can still be offering up its own margins to explore is quite a tribute to its endurance, and to that impulse it encouraged. ARTBOOK: Could you cite a few highlight titles from your Club of Odd Volumes? And do you plan to reprint any of the Club of Odd Volumes titles?
ML: These were all modest productions, so I don’t know how much scrutiny they can bear. There was a series of texts by Raymond Queneau, which grew into the Stories and Remarks collection I did for University of Nebraska Press, so some of them have in a sense already been revised and reprinted. I guess one highlight was the booklet I did for the 30th anniversary of May 68 entitled The Walls Have the Floor, a translation of the “Mural Journal” of all the graffiti Julien Besançon collected from the events of May 68 in Paris, Nanterre, etc. (Éditions Tchou brought the French edition back into print for the 40th anniversary.) The shortest booklet wasn’t a translation, but an Oulipian cylinder: a string of letters looped back onto itself that can read as a sentence whatever letter you start from. Not exactly a genial text, but it took me three months to compose, so it felt like an accomplishment at the time.
ARTBOOK: Let’s hear about the inception of Wakefield Press. You mentioned taking the name from Hawthorne’s story of the same name. How did you go about gathering manuscripts, and how did you decide on your debut titles, Balzac’s Treatise on Elegant Living and Pierre Louys’ Young Girl's Handbook? ML: The inception was actually about eight or more years ago, and some mishaps, along with trying to do too much myself, led to a sad and frustrated initial failure and some wasted money. There are happily four of us now, which makes all the difference: two excellent designers (Emily Gutheinz and Margarita Encomienda), and Judy Feldmann, who constitutes our editorial department. Honestly, the genesis of our inaugural titles is a bit vague at this point: I’m in the midst of trying to cement a project with a translator that he and I first discussed about a decade ago, just as an example of how a number of our titles these first few seasons have a bit of an accrued and blurry history to them. But the Balzac text has been crying out for translation for years now. I remember the subject of dandyism getting renewed attention at one point last decade, but the focus had become more through a gender-studies lens, it seemed, and on the role of sexuality (and all its ambiguities), and other such matters that draws more from the late, third-stage dandyism of the Oscar Wilde years: the point at which the figures of the Dandy and the Decadent had gotten very overlapped (most overtly in Wilde’s figure of Dorian Gray). I like this earlier Balzac text because it formulates the hinge between the first and second stages of Dandyism, where the figures of the Dandy and the Artist began to converge in France. I also like the blurring between humor and seriousness in Balzac’s physiognomic essays in general (we’re aiming to bring some more of them into English): the attitude that profundities dwell within the superficial. Or rather, not profundities so much (I’ve never liked the sound of people or ideas being ‘deep’), but the creation of wrinkles to explore--in an often wry, deadpan manner--within otherwise overlooked surfaces of the banal.
The Louÿs text is more my responsibility than my fellow Wakefielders, and bringing it out is a bit of a tribute to my uncle who first introduced me to the text (along with a great many other French authors and artists in my younger days). The ‘inception’ there was his description of it to me many years ago as the filthiest book imaginable, which naturally piqued my curiosity for years until I was able to find a copy (this was before I had access to the internet); he was an incredible book collector as a student in Brussels back in the 1950s, and had at some point managed to acquire a first edition of the Manuel with a manuscript of one of Louÿs’ infinite number of erotic sonnets bound into the pages, which I’ve yet to see. But Louÿs is a fascinating author: the astounding output of erotica one finds when peeling away the layer of literature he was known for during his lifetime actually covers yet another posthumous layer of writings still largely unpublished and unread, even in French: a range of scholarly research on obscure, odd, and bizarre authors and books (the guy was an insatiable out-of-control bibliophile). One of his research projects was devoted to his theory that Corneille was the secret author of Molière’s most famous comedies, but he refrained from publishing his findings because of anticipated controversy (a statement that probably applies to 9/10 of his output). Apparently (I haven’t read his writings on the subject), his argument has a lot more going for it than the better-known theory that Francis Bacon authored Shakespeare’s plays. Jean-Paul Goujon has been bringing to light a lot of the fascinating facets to Louÿs and his writings over the years.
Of course, we’re quite a young Press and we’ve a ways to go yet in ‘proving’ ourselves: just two little books out right now, with a third one at the printer’s. But one nice upside to being a small, indie publisher is that it is possible to develop a personality quickly and easily, which I hope will happen with us over the coming seasons. I’m not sure to what degree an actual decision process will direct that.
ARTBOOK: Your third publication is Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris; will you outline the book for us?
ML: It is one of Perec’s shorter books: a modest text with immodest ambitions. The attempt in question was his effort to record everything to catch his attention in Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris over the course of a weekend. The catch to his attention is that he focused on not events, but micro-events, those things that otherwise never receive attention: buses making their routes, pigeons circling about the square to return to where they started from, meter maids walking by: the invisible substrata of life, which starts growing strange the more he notes it all down. It is also an interesting translation of time into writing, which ends up turning what could have been a very dry exercise into something moving and melancholic. From his café window he watches the outer agitations of a wedding at the square’s church one day, and the agitations of a funeral the next; and the darkness descends, and all he can see are car headlights reflecting against the window, you realize a day has ended.
Like Joe Brainard’s I Remember (a book Perec himself adapted to his own ends), the basic conceit of the text is simple enough to encourage imitation. I came across someone online recently who had taken up Perec’s observation post and created his own equivalent text through his twitter account.ARTBOOK: We should ask you about the Wakefield look, which partly evokes the 1960s Cape Editions under Nathaniel Tarn’s editorship (and there’s perhaps some content overlap and sympathies too, with Cape’s publishing of Jarry, Ponge, Barthes and Leiris?). Were there particular design precedents you looked to, for the series? Also, I’m realizing we’ve somehow slipped by your glorious 2007 anthology of Francis Picabia’s writings, I Am a Beautiful Monster, and would love to hear about the toiling among early periodicals that project must have entailed.
ML: The Picabia actually started as an Exact Change project over a decade ago, but the work of toiling among periodicals had already been done years ago by Olivier Revault d’Allonnes and Dominique Bouissou for the two French volumes of his writings published in the 1970s by Éditions Pierre Belfond. (Belfond reissued all the writings a few years ago with his new press, Mémoire du livre, but whereas the original two volumes had been organized chronologically, the two new ones are--unfortunately so, to my mind--divided along a poetry/prose axis that I don’t think illuminates Picabia’s output.) My own toiling ended up being among Nietzsche’s writings when the echoes in certain periods of Picabia’s writing started getting insistent. It turned out I didn’t actually have to reread as much Nietzsche as I did, as Picabia restricted his borrowings almost exclusively from The Gay Science (happily my favorite of Nietzsche’s books). I think there are still some keys and source material to Picabia’s earlier poetry waiting to be discovered, though, and my guess is that the ultimate estimation of his poetry will be that he was more of a ‘paste-up poet’ predecessor than an exemplar of Dada automatic writing. Which isn’t to say that the two labels are mutually exclusive; even Surrealist automatic writing employed appropriation. I’ve been spending time with some of Benjamin Péret’s early surrealist (and pre/proto-surrealist) prose, and was amazed to realize that he was appropriating chunks of text within some of the most emblematic instances of his automatic prose writing. (And amazed that I had to realize it, as the instances of it are pretty evident. I’d gotten so geared to reading what has forever been labeled automatic writing as being purely automatic writing...) The currents (or countercurrents) of collage and appropriation underlying the history of automatism have been more evident in the visual output of that generation, but it feels like there is still some unpacking to do on the literary end.
On the look of our first few Wakefield books, that is more of a question for our design duo, but the Cape comparison is apt and flattering; I’d be very happy if people start collecting our books the way I’ve been collecting those little Cape books over the years. My own point of reference is generally to the French publishers I enjoy, like Éditions Allia, or some of the wonderful small-scale entities that have been emerging over the last few years (Éditions Finitude, Éditions de L’Arbre vengeur, Cynthia 3000, Éditions Cartouche). There has always been a little-book tradition in France (an allowance for shorter texts to stand on their own as books), and paperback originals with uncoated cover stock and flaps are sort of the elegant norm there. With all the digital printing going on these days, and the often unpleasant tacky lamination that always coats those print-on-demand covers, I’ve also grown more appreciative for the old-fashioned feel of unlaminated paper stock, though that sort of thing is a designer decision on our books, not mine.ARTBOOK: There is certainly a Pataphysical inflection to the two series you’re inaugurating under Wakefield--the Imagining Science series (“Outsider science, extreme empiricism, aberrant experiments, and imaginary speculations”) and the Wakefield Handbooks (“on a variety of satirical, parodic, and quixotic subjects”)--although none of the authors you’ve published or announced to date fall explicitly within the Pataphysical canon. Do you imagine venturing in that direction--say, translations of some of those little-translated nineteenth-century predecessors to Pataphysics, like Alphonse Allais, Villiers de l’Isle Adam, etc, or perhaps texts published by the College itself? ML: “Imagining science” is indeed in the spirit of Jarry and the Collège (although the moniker is also a nod to one of the most amazing anthologies ever assembled, Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffery’s Imagining Language): Jarry’s essay “How to Build a Time Machine” is the archetype of the sort of ‘fictional science’ flipside to science fiction that I’ve always found intriguing. Translations of official College publications seem to be pretty much the domain of Atlas Press and their London College of Pataphysics branch of activities, so I don’t think we’ll risk stepping on toes by attempting to delve into any of those, but we do have an overtly Pataphysical book in the works, and another one that is something of a nineteenth-century study in the science of bureaucracy (one of the College’s more overt disciplines, one could argue)--and our little forthcoming Paul Scheerbart volume is very much in that lineage. He’s better known for his writings and musings on utopian architecture (glass and otherwise), but he had also invested a considerable amount of time in that classical futile quest for perpetual motion. (It was actually the Pataphysician André Blavier who introduced the text into French by devoting an issue of Bizarre to it back in 1958.) It’s an amusing little speculative diary of sorts, but for me, there’s often a moving aspect to the literature; it’s easy to laugh at the range of would-be scientists throughout the ages--the squarers of the circle, the autodidactic linguistics--but what also emerges from those exercises in failure and futility is a thirst for discovery and some inadvertent triumphs of the imagination that refuse to be swayed by the demands of increasing specialization. So it’s also a reminder that the basics of the scientific method are available to everyone, applicable to most any field (certainly literature), and that there are undoubtedly lots of discoveries still to be made that don’t require the sanctification of an academy or a Hadron Collider. I was recently informed that the discovery of REM sleep came about through the simple observation of a sleeping cat, for instance, which immediately made me want to try to open my eyes to the world more than I do.
It’s important to distinguish all of this from the pseudoscience that seems to continue to gain more sway in this country, of course: ‘creation science,’ ‘flood geology’--the conservative religious-based stuff that would probably make for interesting reading if there weren’t so many people actually believing in it and trying to push it into school curriculums. I love solitary, eccentric heteroclites such as Jean-Pierre Brisset and his linguistic ‘discoveries’ that led him to conclude that mankind descends from the frog; but at the same time we’re seeing fringe beliefs move increasingly into the center in this country, with belief in evolution actually on the decline, and thinking about heteroclite authors gets unstable when words like ‘conservative’ and ‘maverick’ somehow overcome etymology and become synonymous. So acknowledging the humor in the breakdown of the scientific method while appreciating the desire for discovery is important as well.
Which is the other aspect to Pataphysics I’ve always been interested in: the idea of Pataphysical humor, which I think is a close neighbor to what André Breton named ‘black humor,’ the spirit of imperturbability, in some ways a sort of a scientific method applied to humor. In that vein, I am actually sitting on an Alphonse Allais project that stalled a while back, which I’m hoping to resuscitate. Unfortunately, it all comes down to finances, which are keeping us to doing no more than a title or two a season at this point, so barring a magical subsidy of some sort, we have to restrain ourselves right now. ARTBOOK: It’s great to hear about the Scheerbart book--I love The Gray Cloth, and his writings on glass architecture. Charles Fourier is also a glorious writer and thinker in ways too numerous to mention here, and you’ve announced a forthcoming title by him; can you tell us what that is?ML: Fourier is indeed glorious, a radical optimist who makes for a good match for Scheerbart: his writings really offer something for everyone, from surreal cosmological poetry to a very caustic, cantankerous humor, to some very contemporary expositions on sexual politics and financial crises. Our little book offers Fourier’s take on cuckoldry and commerce and gathers together two “hierarchies” from his voluminous posthumous manuscripts: a hierarchy of cuckoldry and a hierarchy of bankruptcy (“fraudulent bankruptcy,” to be specific). They are humorous taxonomies, little guidebooks to the 72 varieties of the cuckold, and the 36 varieties of financial manipulators: the cheaters and the cheated-on in the domestic household and the economic sphere. Financial bankruptcy (Fourier saw monogamous marriage as a different sort of bankruptcy) is something happening to a wide range of honest people these days, but what Fourier was essentially talking about and describing in his description of fraudulent bankruptcies is more in line with what we refer today as institutions “too big to fail”: financial hostage situations. The difference in today’s era of globalization from what Fourier was discussing in the early nineteenth century is that the hostages are no longer just individuals and cities, but entire nations. ARTBOOK: Is this Fourier material previously untranslated? ML: The Hierarchy of Cuckoldry has not been translated, and the original intention had been to do it on its own; the Hierarchy of Bankruptcy has been translated, as it was one of the texts Engels used to present Fourier to his audience, so it has long been known to the Marxist community. This is the first time the two hierarchies are being brought together, though, to my knowledge, although Fourier had thought of them as constituting the same symphony, in a major key and a minor.ARTBOOK: What sort of publication schedule do you envision for Wakefield—about four titles a year? ML: Four titles a year (two a season) is indeed what we are envisioning for now; at least as we start out.ARTBOOK: Well, thank you, Marc, for giving so much attention to our conversation. What you're doing with the press is refreshingly uncompromising and exciting, and we really look forward to seeing it all unfold.ML: Thank you, ARTBOOK, for your interest and support. We are very pleased to be on the D.A.P. roster, and to be among such good company.