Sometimes, a story told from the right perspective can be dizzying. Two such stories can be found within Richard Weiner’s The Game for Real, which contains two novellas originally written in Czech in the 1930s that have been newly translated into English by Benjamin Paloff. In a review for Electric Literature, Alex McElroy noted, “The Game for Real is filled with doppelgangers and strangers, with false accusations and staged conversations, and with characters who ceaselessly and vainly chase reality.” After hearing Paloff take part in an event at Community Bookstore, I was curious to know more about his process of translating Weiner’s work, and about Weiner’s place in Czech literature in general. And thus: this interview.
This is the first work by Richard Weiner to be translated into English. Other Czech writers who have cited him as an influence–Bohumil Hrabal especially comes to mind–have had several works translated in recent years. Why do you think Weiner’s work has been more obscure for Anglophone readers?
There is a popular misconception that the most important work in any given language is the first to circulate more broadly in translation, and this is simply not true. Nor is there any reason for it to be true: just because a given readership finds a certain value in a text doesn’t mean that a different readership, let alone one situated in different linguistic, historical, or cultural circumstances, will have the same use for that text. In Czech, Weiner is unquestionably a writer’s writer, one from whom authors like Hrabal have long drawn inspiration and to whom scholars and philosophers have turned for his subtle representation of human consciousness. But he has never been a writer of mass appeal. And in this sense it is entirely reasonable that we would need to have assimilated authors like Hrabal before approaching someone like Weiner. Weiner is more potent stuff.
What was the process like for you to translate this book?
Of all the translation projects I have undertaken, this was the most “philological.” Weiner’s language is densely lyrical, his lexicon shifts quickly between archaicisms and neologisms, and his cultural references range from Czech folklore to the French avant-garde. I spent a lot of time slogging through historical dictionaries, old journals and newspapers, and the works of his contemporaries, often working phrase-by-phrase and looking at contemporaneous English and American texts for good matches. I also read the French and German translations of the novel carefully and in their entirety, comparing the choices their translators had made to Weiner’s original and to my own versions. Needless to say, it was a slow and often painstaking process, but the return on investment was huge.
How would you describe Weiner’s work relative to his contemporaries?
English-language readers are more likely to be familiar with Karel Čapek or Jaroslav Hašek, two giants of Central European Modernism whose work has been widely available in English since before World War II. Čapek wrote in a clean, classically literary Czech, Hašek in a satirical, ironic vain, both of them insisting on writing for broad publics. Weiner is the opposite. He belongs to another strain of literary prose that includes Jakub Deml and Ladislav Klíma, writers who, like other Modernists of their time, deliberately eschewed convention and systematically probed the expressive potential of literary prose.
What would you say has been Weiner’s influence on Czech literature? Are there certain writers where you detect his influence in particular?
Weiner’s influence has been most pronounced in contemporary Czech literature. Indeed, he will strike many readers as “postmodern,” though I would use that designation with some caution. The late Věra Linhartová, a poet and art theorist who spent much of her career writing in French, was a great admirer of Weiner. His influence is also legible in the novels of Daniela Hodrová and Michal Ajvaz, both of whom have been translated into English. Hodrová, who is also an outstanding theorist of literature and culture, is in fact very useful for reading Weiner, and Ajvaz wrote his doctoral dissertation on him.
How would you say that the two novellas in the book are connected?
I generally refer to the two parts as “thematically connected,” though one could go so far as to argue that the protagonists of both novellas are fictionalizations of Weiner himself. The thematic connection, however, is the main thing, and in a certain respect the hero of both novellas is an idea, namely, the notion that human existence is an unwinnable game. Unwinnable, because either we are all social constructs, constituted by our interactions with everyone around us, without whom we would simply cease to exists as such, or else we are utterly and irremediably alone, since our interiority will never be accessible to anyone but ourselves. The two parts bombard us with scenarios illustrating both polarities, neither of which is particularly pleasant, though they are both often quite funny. It’s a casino: you can’t win, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time.
In “The Game of Quartering,” was there a historical analogue for the scene in which the narrator is enmeshed?
More than anything else, “The Game of Quartering” dramatizes, albeit metaphorically, Weiner’s break with the Parisian avant-garde group that called itself Le Grand Jeu. His association with this group was relatively short-lived, spanning less than two years at the end of the 1920s, but his association with these younger French upstarts had a profound influence on everyone involved. It seems to have provided a brief respite from Weiner’s sense of personal isolation, and his falling out with the group only reified his lifelong sense of being on the outside.
There’s a racial component to the narrator’s insecurity in “The Game of Quartering”–would you say that that stems more from the narrator’s issues, or from Weiner’s?
There is little distinction in Weiner, for whom writing is always a personal testament, irrespective of genre. He was fascinated with all forms of social and existential otherness, whether racial, ethnic, economic, or sexual, especially when that otherness is held up as a spectacle. Among the few items of material value in his estate when he died in 1937 was a stylized “African mask,” which encapsulates two of his fascinations: the Other-as-spectacle, on the one hand, and the mask on the other–since the Self is always a spectacle, and every spectacle is a mask.
Do you think that it’s likely that we’ll see more of Weiner’s work translated into English in the coming years?
I certainly hope so. He’s a writer whose significance to me expands with every reading.