Selected Shorts XV

There are some more books coming down my pike, but meanwhile, here’s a few quickies that might interest you readers and writers:
The Red Room
First, there’s the Red Room. What with the big bookstores or newspapers all but folding their tents with respect to informing the public about books by the best authors, or presenting new authors to said public, the Red Room is a godsend.
Red Room presents the above info. As well, it provides a networking site for anyone interested in writing or in books. Authors have the opportunity to set up their own mini-website here, to present pieces of their writing, or promote their books. And writers on the site include the gamut of biggie writers to wannabes. One of the more useful aspects of the mini-sites for writers is a hit counter, so you can tell how much attention your self-promotion efforts are attracting.
I haven’t been receiving many litmags lately – probably because of the summer hiatus, so I’m presenting my current one-and-only here in Selected Shorts. The Spring 2008 issue of Crazyhorse reached me this week.
Crazyhorse has slowly been gaining my attention – it includes darn good fiction by the famous and, well, the rest of us. In this issue, you’ll find six fiction pieces, and numerous poems, including some by Billy Collins and James McCorkle. One adventurous aspect of Crazyhorse is their translations. Some are included here by Korean poets, translated by one Brother Anthony of Taizé, and by Young-moo Kim, and Gary Gach. To me, the feel of these translations fall somewhat flat in a lyrical sense, but then Brother Anthony et al may not have the best poetic sensibilities. Rather than call these efforts a failure, though, I’ll simply say: that’s what litmags are for – to showcase literary efforts as they emerge and begin to shine.
Tommy Hays
Tommy Hays (that's his photo at the top of this post), one of North Carolina’s emerging literary figures, is someone you readers out there should know about. Actually, he lays claim beyond state lines, to both low and high-country Carolinas. He’s a prominent figure in Asheville, where I live, and his prominence reaches beyond mere writing. He teaches creative writing and literature at UNC-Asheville, in its Masters of Liberal Arts program,and he mentors writers in a number of different ways and places locally.
His latest book, The Pleasure Was Mine, has slowly been gaining popularity in both states.
And what’s he teaching at UNC-A? Rather than cotton to the more widely known and publicized literary names in the U.S., he’ll be teaching a lit course this fall that will include several other emerging writers in the area. Kind of brave, don’t you think? He has a sharp eye for good writing, so if you’re curious about his course, drop him a line at his website. I’m sure he’d love to tell you all about it.


Selected Shorts XIV

Publishing –
As if it weren’t hard enough to make a splash with a book – literary or monetary – Hitch News reports that Harper Collins has launched a new imprint that affects the struggling or mid-list writer:
• The imprint will give no advances on books.
• No returns will be accepted from bookstores.
For starters, advances are a payday for writers who have invested from two to ten years, from conception to writing to marketing to publishing in the writing project. The usual advances have dropped precipitously over the last decade, from under $20,000 to a current norm of around $5,000. At ten hours per week for, say, five years, that comes to $1.92 per hour – under minimum wage in 1970. And that doesn’t count postage, printer cartridges, paper, etc.
But now, writers regularly have to plow advances back into marketing their books, particularly if they haven’t built a substantial audience for their work. And…
With bookstores unable to remainder books, the writer will be less able to park copies in the major chain stores. This leaves the dwindling number of mom ‘n’ pop bookstores in your neighborhood (and you may have to stroke mom or pop more, at that to get them to place orders), book fairs, and local book signings the writer might be able to schedule on his/her own.
You’ve heard it here before, but this is just one more obstacle in the way of publishing success.
Translations –
I’m reading a new unabridged translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, this one by Richard Pevear and LarissaVolokhonsky, who have translated many by Dostoevsky, Chekov, and Tolstoy. I’ll post on this version of Tolstoy’s story later, but my purpose here is to talk about the effect of translations on the reader. I’ve read two earlier version of W&P – in my earlier years – and in these the translator seemed bent to the task of translating into English phrasing and idioms common to the earliest years of the nineteenth century, possibly a stilted version of early twentieth century.
The best translators take liberties. They never translate literally into, say, English from Russian – instead they couch their sentences in idiomatic ways that best communicate the same thing in English. In this one, the translators clearly tried to communicate in an English best understood by early twenty-first century speakers.
For instance: much of W&P is in French, as Tolstoy must’ve written it, and in translating “Vous parlez du Buonaparte?” the translators use “Do you mean Bonaparte?” Not “You’re speaking of Bonaparte?” for instance, which would be clearly understood and nearer a literal translation, but not a contemporary idiom.
But how does this affect the reader? In a scene in Volume II Part One, XII, Natasha is asked to dance the mazurka with Denisov. As the scene is established, then progresses, the translators clearly give the reader a sense of the noble Russian setting for the ball, for the mazurka dance itself, and for these two characters. But the sensibility of the prose, as translated, could very well be appropriate for a modern debutante ball, if not for a contemporary urban dance club. This helps establish the timelessness of the characters, regardless of the century or place.
And this is the genius of translations. As such, they’re as linguistically creative as the original writing itself.
Pilgrim’s Progress –
The WWIIl story I’ve spent so much time belaboring here is moving along. All writers, it seems, are concerned with their productivity – word or page count – along with the usual creative concerns. Mine is moving at something like a chapter a week. This means about 3,000 words per week (say, twelve pages) with at least three chapter edits included. This is my cruising speed. There’s a rhythm to writing and editing and, barring massive interruptions to my rhythm, I should have the 37 planned chapters done by New Year 2009.
If this sounds bean counter-ish, and not very creative, my defense is that this is a first stab at historical fiction, which takes the German-Soviet conflict of WWII from A to Z. Too, there’s much creativity to be had in filling in historical gaps, in character development, etc. but history dictates as much as it permits, with makes for a finiteness that’s not often there to shackle the writer in pure fiction.
I can talk more about the experience from this writer’s perspective – – if coaxed.

Kursk – The Air Battle: July 1943 by Christer Bergstrom

In this, the latest by Bergstrom about the air war on WWII’s Eastern Front, the author approaches his depiction differently than that at Stalingrad. First, he begins with events immediately preceding the month-long battle. Hitler surely realized the Wehrmacht was spread too thin – Rommel in a battle to the death with Montgomery’s and Patton's forces in North Africa, a suspected and imminent Allied invasion of the Continent in the Mediterranean, another in the Atlantic, and the Soviets fighting more capably than ever. So he determined to make a stand along a north/south line from Leningrad to the Sea of Azov. This line came to be called the Ostwall, or Eastern Wall. At about the middle of this line sat the “Kursk Bulge,” a projection of the Soviet forces – some 200 miles wide and as deep. To the north sat the town of Orel, and to the south of the bulge lay Belgorod and the industrial city of Kharkov.
Fortunately for the Soviets, Hitler kept postponing the Kursk campaign—called “Citadel”—preferring that his military lick their wounds and re-arm with the latest generation of Panzers. Meanwhile, the Soviets managed to set defenses unimaginably deep to the east – some 150 miles of fortifications: trenches, tank traps, and bunkers.
As with previous German initiatives, the Luftwaffe was to lead their advance by attacking Soviet airfields, softening artillery sites, and destroying as many tanks, fortifications, and soldiers as possible. And for the first week, the Luftwaffe did just that. As the battle took shape, both sides filled the air with some 1,000 sorties per day – the largest, most complex air battle to this day. This meant up to 400 planes in the air at a time, often firing at tanks, fortifications, and troops from as low as 6 meters above the plain. Given artillery broadsides and some 1,500 tanks in the field every day, the battle began to constitute hell on earth.
Without getting into the complications of this grandiose , month-long battle, we can follow Bergstrom’s narrative to the Orel sector, where the Luftwaffe units assigned to the south were shifted. (including Fliegerkorps VIII, The Immelmann Wing, and Hans Ulrich Rudel’s tank-killing Stukas). Now, the air war became less a bombing battle than constant dogfights between Soviet and Luftwaffe fighter planes.
The bottom line? German forces, failing to take the Kursk Bulge, retreated to the west, and this began the death wail for Germany in the East. From this point until war's end in 1945, the Germans could only manage to fortify and provide for an orderly retreat to the homeland.
Throughout, Bergstrom—as in his book on Stalingrad—interspersed Soviet and German air activities in his narrative with the more commonly known ground movements of the battle. And once again his sources provided rare photos of the persons involved, the planes both sides used. Strangely, the photos of Wehrmacht soldiers showed broad smiles, confident posture, and a generally lighthearted air. I can only gather that the German soldiers and airmen, perhaps sensing what was at stake, rose—as all warrior types will at crucial moments—to their highest sense of spirit, capability, and endurance. But perhaps von Manstein's retaking Kharkov in a brilliantly conceived and executed battle plan.
Bergstrom gives equal time to both sides in this even-handed analysis. In the end he sees the Luftwaffe fighting with an effectiveness not seen since 1941. But the Soviets had the advantage of a singular focus – to drive the Germans from their land. Thus the Soviets bled Germany dry, Germany fighting on too many fronts with too few resources to sustain a war that was already three years in the making, and with another two years to go.

Stalingrad – The Air Battle: 1942 Through January 1943, by Christer Bergstrom

This book, and the one I’ll blog on next week about Kursk, are rather unique in the context of military history. Bergstrom gives the airmen’s perspective in great detail, and he works that aspect of the text into what’s already been written about Stalingrad’s chronology. Besides the historical chronology, he’s written insets about the planes, the individual pilots, both German and Russian. I’d thought I’d seen all the significant photos of planes and pilots, but he provide dozens more, obviously provided by the pilots in question as he researched this complex battle.
To call Stalingrad a battle is to do its history an injustice. A more proper term would probably be: campaign. Bergstrom begins here at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the German move to conquer the Soviet Union. He describes the beginnings of WWII’s German air warfare first – surely his reason being that aviation had never before been a significant factor in warfare – at least not on the scale of Barbarossa. He describes how the Soviets had to more or less invent their air force as they went, as well as its use, in response to the wholesale damage the Luftwaffe caused the USSR early in the war.
Stalingrad became significant because it was where the Soviets finally marshaled their forces sufficiently to push back the German eastward advance – this over a year into the war. And Stalingrad became significant from the air perspective because previously Germany had exercised air supremacy in the East. The Wehrmacht’s surprising potency was led by Luftwaffe bombing, the Luftwaffe later using their bombers and fighters in a tactical sense to support the ground troops. (In fact, the famous Stuka dive-bombers were considered by Wehrmacht leaders to be little more than supremely accurate airborne artillery). Following this campaign, the German airmen were increasingly harassed by their Soviet counterparts, and the Luftwaffe eventually lost its effectiveness altogether.
Perhaps the pivotal moment for the Luftwaffe at Stalingrad came after General Wolfgang Paulus and his Sixth Army were enveloped by Soviet forces, simultaneously from the north and south. After this, and during the winter of 1942-1943, Hermann Goering, the Luftwaffe’s supreme commander, ordered Paulus’ troops supported by airlift. Their efforts were commendable, but this is where the Soviet air forces began to shine. Russian air defense, coupled with a brutal Russian winter, all but starved Paulus’ men. This led to Germany’s first loss, and the war's turning point.
Here, Bergstrom’s photos are telling. The Soviet airmen seem always to smile, despite a smothering of snow, the German airmen much more tense and harried.
Bergstrom ends his chronology with Appendices of the order of the battle(s), the organizational structure of both air forces, and tabulated losses that speak volumes about the increasing brutality of this war.
This book should be indispensable for those who seek to plumb the Eastern Front’s history. We have Christer Bergstrom to thank for yeoman's work in assembling this material.