David Leavitt Responds to Mark Sarvas in Our Book Club

By The Editors

Renowned novelist David Leavitt (The Indian Clerk, The Body of Jonah Boyd) doubles as the editor of Subtropics, the literary journal of the University of Florida. In Issue 3, Leavitt included the opening chapter of The Rebels, and I invited him to talk here a little about why he chose it.

1) How did you come to publish an excerpt from The Rebels in Subtropics?

I am a Marai admirer of longstanding, ever since Knopf published its translation of Embers. Each season Thomas Dobrowolski, the rights manager at Knopf, sends me its rights catalogue. As soon as I saw that Knopf was publishing another Marai novel, I asked to see a manuscript. I admired The Rebels as much if not more than I did Embers. And the first chapter seemed to me to stand well by itself.

2) Have you read all of The Rebels, or any other Marai?

I've read Embers and Casanova in Bolzano and admired them both--Embers in particular--but The Rebels may be my favorite of his novels. That several adolescent boys should come together to form a game is commonplace. That such an event should take place the summer before they are likely to be shipped off to war makes the gathering together extraordinary. What I especially admire is the skill with which Marai choreographs the off-kilter relationships among the boys and between the boys and the mysterious actor who befriends them. The book rises to lyrical heights of strangeness—cross-dressing, acts of surrealist vandalism, muted eroticism—yet the ending feels inevitable. .

3) We've begun by talking a bit about fathers and sons, which the first chapter focuses on. How, if at all, do you think Marai's depiction of this essential relationship speaks to us across the generations and cultural barriers?

There is both tenderness and reserve in this depiction of the relationship between fathers and sons. Intimacy among men is a subject that most male writers evade. (Graham Swift's Last Orders is an exception.) Marai handles the matter brilliantly, and does an especially good job of exposing the vulnerability that often lurks beneath the surface of masculine bombast or reserve.

4) The Rebels is set during the same period as your new novel The Indian Clerk. How does your view of the era compare with Marai's?

Marai is writing about the First World War from the vantage point of the Hungarians--the opposite side from England, where my novel is set. What's curious is that the war really seems to look the same, no matter which side one finds oneself on. Its quotidian realities obliterate motive and patriotism. Perhaps one of the most remarkable scenes in the book is the one in which the river, which has been frozen, breaks up in the spring. In Eastern Europe the breaking up of the winter ice has great symbolic resonance and is usually an occasion for joy and celebration. But this time the river carries a gruesome cargo of soldiers' bodies.

5) Since WWB concerns itself with literature in translation, who are some of your favorite authors who you've read only in translation? What has the experience of seeing your own work translated into other languages been like?

There are a number of writers whose work I admire even though I've read it only in translation: Marcel Proust (I love the much-criticized and much-revised Scott-Moncrieff version), Tolstoy, Mario Soldati, Elsa Morante, Alberto Moravia, Olga Slavnikova, Gogol, the young German novelist Daniel Kehlmann, the Swiss novelist Peter Stamm, the Dutch writer Willem Elsschott. Incidentally I have published both Elsschott and Slavnikova in Subtropics, the magazine I edit.

So far as being translated goes, unless you understand the language yourself, you have to take the translation on trust. I've had a hand in the French and Italian translations of my books because I read both languages well enough to read them, but these are the only ones. Every now and then a translator will write to me with a question about a phrase or expression that doesn't make sense to a non-English speaker. I enjoy trying to answer such questions.


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