Private Novelist

Nell Zink

October 5, 2016 
The following is from Nell Zink’s novel, Private Novelist. Sailing Towards the Sunset by Avner Shats is Zink’s faux-translation of Shats’s 1998 novel Lashut El Hashkia ("Sailing Towards the Sunset"). Zink grew up in rural Virginia. She has worked in a variety of trades, including masonry and technical writing. In the early 1990s, she edited an indie rock fanzine. Her writing has also appeared in n+1. Her most recent novel, Nicotine, is out now. She lives near Berlin, Germany.


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*One chapter per day in December 1998. New spell-checked edition, including all the egregious weaknesses of the original and its many errors of taste, prepared in 2011.


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It having become apparent that I should write a novel, my next concern became which novel I should write.

An obvious choice was Avner Shats’ recent debut, Sailing Toward the Sunset. A plot summary presented on the occasion of Shats’ receipt of an empty envelope purporting to contain an unidentified sum of money, in a room hidden deep in the recesses of the Hebrew University and lined with waxy lemonwood paneling, a sum I know to have been $5,000, already spent by Shats at the time of his smiling acceptance of the empty envelope—the occasion was a ceremony commemorating his receipt, several months before, of the Peter Schweipert prize for literary genius—but I shouldn’t give away the plot for several pages yet.

“Again and again,” the novel begins, “my tea draws a [?] on the internal bay leaves of my mind.” The choice of the bay leaf as a symbol for the unconscious is an interesting one. Bay or laurel, daphne in Greek, as was explained to me by a linguist of the Bar-Ilan University, is understood to be the name of a daughter in Hebrew, in English, and even (most important for her in-laws) in Dutch. The passage continues: “[?] of the smoke . . . moving . . . excited [well]—I sit on a wooden chair made of red plastic jelly, waiting for the light, by a table whose [?] are heightened, but will not succeed in dividing the tools from the curling smoke.”

I was reminded of Shats’ novel the same night when, after the ceremony, the Baleno having delivered us to the Justy, the Charade being held too small for the task (I am told it is the mission of the writer to love words for their own sake), Zohar and I (Zohar meaning “splendor” or “glory”) drove westward several hundred yards across Mount Scopus to the British military cemetery. The turf is deep and dry. Leaving the cemetery, we proceeded to the home of a distinguished Hungarian lady. Toward midnight her sixteen-year-old son told me about the Hungarian language, which resembles only Finnish. “I suppose if I hadn’t been born Hungarian I would never have troubled to learn it,” he said, more or less, “but I am glad to know it, as Hungarian poetry is the most beautiful imaginable.”

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Having mastered Hebrew in a year, the boy was learning Farsi. Open on the table was an English translation of the poetry of Hafez. I have always been a little suspicious of exotic poetry, much of which, the translators admit at some point or another, they fabricate. I feel sorry for all those who write in languages now dead. Who will defend them? The book contained two sets of translations: one into weak rhymes, the other word-for-word into clinical English. Since I can’t remember an example, I’ll make one up.


I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.


To envision thought, impossible—
Words in sequence exquisite, the tree, too, exquisite.

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I use the example of Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” because it contains a reference to breast-feeding (in the second stanza, “A tree whose hungry mouth is prest / Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast”), of which I am reminded by the unfortunate subject of the ridicule I directed against translators of Rilke not long before we left the Hungarians’ apartment, deep in the night and stuffed with tea and cake. Rilke made use of many arguably tasteless metaphors, all of which his translators routinely ignore in favor of grand metaphysical images, even in bilingual editions where the original and translation stand side-by-side as though German were already dead.

Rilke, to those who can read him, was what they call a “breast man,” as, apparently, is Shats, to whose novel I will now return. The Hebrew language, dead to me—well, not quite dead, as you can see from the ancient wisdom I was able to cull from the first paragraph of Sailing Toward the Sunset—is certainly impenetrable to my mother’s Internet browser, located in Oswego, New York, which is where I first saw its text. The character set was what my friend Alberto Bades Fernandez Arago habitually calls “Martian.” But to one side, regularly replacing each other in the sprightly pictorial GIF animation which has supplanted mathematics as the universal language, were a tiny black pirate flag and a pair of human breasts. (I think a third element completed the sequence, but I’ve forgotten what it was.) Every time the flag appeared, followed by the breasts, my mind ceased functioning and I could only think, This looks like the cover art for Pussy, King of the Pirates, Kathy Acker’s collaboration with the Mekons, an English rock band.

I think it was she who first began publishing other people’s novels as her own. Other people had thought of writing short stories about people who did so, but, before today, only Kathy had the balls to do it herself.

Possible implications of the Shatsian GIF are as follows:

Implication #1: Shats did not write Sailing Toward the

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Where did he acquire it? The possibilities are many, but I will concentrate on the obvious and most likely one: He translated it from a language dead only to himself. Were the language dead to other people, the fraud would quickly be discovered. Not all readers are as credulous as those of Rilke.

Implication #2: His original may or may not have
consisted of fifteen thousand rhymed couplets.

Implication #2 would be a lot to ask, yet the translator of Hafez admits that, in his original, every single line rhymed— twice as many rhymes, on average, as in the couplets relied on by Shats, Goethe, Alexander Pope, and others. Or, if you figure it another way, with Hafez’s poems generally running to twenty lines or so, ten times as many.

Question: Now what are the odds, exactly, that these rhymes were graceful, effortless, and natural?

Answer: We can identify a practically infinite number of potential poets, whom I will designate by the variable p.

Rem p is number of poets good at rhyming
Let p = 0
Do while (r = “lousy”) AND (p < = 10000000000)
p = p + 1 ’cycles through all of human history
r = “lousy”
Print.Txtbox.txt “No one has ever consistently”
Print.Txtbox.txt “produced graceful rhymes, except” P
rint.Txtbox.txt “maybe Heinrich Heine.”

This program, which represents an extremely sophisticated advance in artificial intelligence since it exactly duplicates the thought processes going on in my head right now, will produce a conclusion baffling to anyone who has read Heine in translation, yet perfectly acceptable to those who have only heard rumors of his exceptional mastery. This trade in rumors of greatness is the most conspicuous feature of today’s upmarket trade-paperback scene, which I fervently hope to penetrate with this, my second novel, Sailing Toward the Sunset.

(Titles cannot be copyrighted, nor can ideas, but only their expression.)

On a bookshelf in my parents’ house, near the door where books often gather as driftwood on their way to the library book fair, I found a copy of Possession by A. S. Byatt. The cover of Possession showed a woman who would have been pre-Raphaelite had she not been soft and round. She appeared to have acquired her pre-Raphaelite tint through the application of auburn filters to something more pink and Viennese. The plot involved beautiful British academics in a detective story. Did or did they not (“they” being certain dead poets) have sex? All characterization is achieved through descriptions of clothing. She wore a short, dark green raw silk kimono over black pants and a jade pendant on a satin cord, a characterization reads in full, more or less. It is to be inferred that she is fat and forty-five, at which point the reader’s attention wanders quickly back to the young, slender protagonists. I.e., the book was trash. As I skimmed it my face was contorted by sneers, and after skipping to the end to make sure the heroine really was the direct descendant of the vigorously adulterous dead poets and heiress to their fortunes, I resolved to write a novel myself. The result now lies before you, based not on a rumor of fifteen thousand perfect couplets in a dead language, but instead on the plot summary generously provided by an unknown interlocutor at an inscrutable ceremony high on Mount Scopus:


Other details were presented at a dizzying speed that precluded my knowing what they are.

The great reader Ms. Jumbo Loopy Chenille admitted to me that she had been saving a copy of Possession to read as a special treat, taken in by the cover and by a prize the book had received (the Booker). I begged her not to read Possession, but instead to borrow my copy of The Waterfall by Margaret Drabble, now out of print. In return I was lent her copy of Dictionary of the Khazars.

I intend to consider taking Dictionary of the Khazars as another model in my effort to re-create, from ideograms half heard and half remembered, Sailing Toward the Sunset. The Khazars, I have been warned by Shats himself, really existed. The Dictionary of the Khazars consists of an introduction and three alphabetized sections, one for each major Western religion to which the Khazars may or may not have converted. In it all the exotic and magical qualities of the Near East are remembered and preserved, somewhat as in the cabalistic magic scenes of Fanny and Alexander where Ingmar Bergman, who never ceased regretting his participation in the Hitlerjugend, demonstrates that a well-trained, ultra-Orthodox man can cause a bedridden elderly woman to burst into flames at a distance of several miles. When I read the book, I assumed that the Khazars had never existed, and was a little disconcerted to learn that they had.

The Hungarians, as I am reminded, quietly possess the most beautiful poetry in the world. To me they are at least as mysterious as the Khazars: Somewhere in Central Europe, or Eastern Europe—their empire borders Austria and is not far from Vienna (maybe it is Central Europe after all)—I can say with confidence only that it is a land rich in Siamese cats. I once spent ten days in Vienna with a medical student (he was not learning Farsi, but his girlfriend was from Iran and, to facilitate sex, he had formally asked her father and brother for her; he had no intention of marrying her, and I’ve always wondered how it turned out), and he told me that in Hungary Siamese, which go for hundreds of dollars in Austria, are cheap as dirt. Why would he lie about something like that?

His Hungarian Siamese was in heat. After failing on several occasions to satisfy it sexually with a cotton swab, he had taken to feeding it half a birth control pill once a week. The very week I visited, he had forgotten, and it crawled around a millimeter from the floor howling in a human voice. “How come nobody synthesizes this hormone and sells it?” he would say thoughtfully, pushing the cat out to the balcony and closing the door. “Pimps could use it to break women’s spirits.”

The other “most beautiful” poets I can call to mind are Leopardi and Pushkin. Were I rewriting Possession instead of Sailing Toward the Sunset, I might begin with a reference to Leopardi or Pushkin. The function of books like Possession is to remind the reader of certain challenging material encountered early in the course of a liberal arts degree. Under other circumstances, with another audience in mind, I might begin with a Trident missile striking a glass-bottomed boat in the Gulf of Aqaba, geese fluffing their feathers against the bitter chill of the rocky interior of Bhutan, a circle of goldenrod bordering a pool of sticky liquid that happens to be leaking slowly into the Rhine near the falls of Schaffhausen, and the diplomatic crisis occasioned when these three things turn up together in the first six pages of a sensational bestselling new novel tentatively titled Sailing Toward the Sunset.

The missile didn’t actually hit the boat—just nipped it, denting one gunwale by about an inch, but that was enough to crack the glass. “Meep!” cried Sissy the friendly dolphin, watching in horror as Red Sea water, oozing with phosphorescence, stained all our sneakers and began to creep up our socks. The rest of the passengers were spellbound, following the missile’s slow ascent and descent as it arced upward, eclipsing the morning sun, on a course that I calculated would take it approximately to my apartment on Basel Street in Tel Aviv, give or take fifty feet. The skipper turned the boat around and made slowly for Eilat while I handed out life jackets. Clad in the typical plastic sandals and bikini of the native Israeli, he was not nearly as uncomfortable as the rest of us, and thought to entertain us, as Israelis often will, by turning up the radio really, really loud.

“Traffic on Ibn Gabirol has been diverted to the Namir Road due to a suspicious object,” the announcer eventually said. I resolved to return to Tel Aviv as quickly as possible, and when we reached shore I took my pay from the cash register and ran down the street to catch the bus. Only ten hours later, I was home. The sight that greeted me there was not for the faint of heart. Where my coffee table had been, only splinters remained, and Zohar’s latest manuscript, which had taken hours to print on the cheap new color printer I blamed him for buying, lay smoldering on the floor. The missile was gone—no doubt Shin Bet had seen to that. What would the claims adjuster say?

I called Zohar in Bhutan. A faint rustling sound, as of geese’s wings, accompanied the signal as our conversation raced around and around Earth from satellite to satellite. As is well known, Israelis boast one of Earth’s higher rates of penetration for cellular and satellite phone service, second only to Finns, and Zohar was no exception. Seeking a little peace and quiet to perfect his academic discipline, he had hit on the idea of spending the summer in a frigid mountaineering hut on an isolated pass not far from the dangerous border with Sikkim. The dead trees, some dead already for hundreds of years, were festooned with prayer flags, which looked to the untrained eye a bit like the banners around a used-car lot, only paler. The cold, dry air instantly embalmed anything Zohar tried to discard, and he could not dig the frozen, rocky ground, so he relied on the sparse vegetation, which resembled a sort of razor-wire heather whose tiny flowers were the ivory gray of moths’ wings, to cover the little piles of garbage that had sprung up around his hut. He seemed relieved to be summoned home.




From PRIVATE NOVELIST. Used with permission of Ecco. Copyright © 2016 by Nell Zink.

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