Kantan, a story in English from a Noh drama, by Paul Griffiths

Kantan was a little place to pass through, perhaps to spend the night, at the inn a pleasant woman ran by herself. She had just the one guest room, with an alcove where the visitor could lie down, head resting on a pillow left by someone calling himself a magician.

Whoever sleeps on this pillow, he had told her, will see, as in a dream, the whole of the past and the entirety of what is to come. Farewell.

That was some time ago. Right now she could see there was someone coming up the path; a student by the look of him.

She opened the door: Come in, she said.

I am travelling in search of the truth, he said, to find how I should conduct my life. I go from one thing to another. All useless, so far. But I have heard there is a person of great wisdom some way to the north of here, and now I need a night’s lodging before I continue to what may be the end of my quest. One night, if you have a room.

I have, she said. You may sleep here …

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Paul Griffiths is a critic of new and recent music.  His Modern Music and After is an essential work on music since 1945. He has also written the libretto of Elliot Carter’s only opera, What Next?, and a novel, let me tell you. This story appears in his collection of eleven stories rendered in English from Japanese Noh dramas, the 22nd of the Cahiers Series from the American University in Paris.

We are very happy to be featuring work from the beautiful Cahiers series, published by the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University in Paris, in collaboration with Sylph Editions. The Cahiers are elegantly designed pamphlets that come out every few months on the theme, roughly, of writing, translation, and the intersection of the two. A list of the whole dazzling series can be found here; they can be ordered in the US from the University of Chicago Press here.

I admit to having been puzzled, when I first saw them, as to what they were. Is this new work or old? Writing in English published in Paris? Book or magazine? Now, to me, this evasion of our decreasingly relevant publishing categories is among the Cahiers’ charms. They land in that lovely territory between books and ephemera that is being reclaimed in such interesting ways in our not-so-virtual-as-all-that era. Another fascinating feature of the Cahiers is that they are the work of a growing culture of young international critics and writers who are reviving the legacy of international modernism for English. As our commercial literary culture shelters in literary safety, this crowd is ferreting out exciting, genre-defying work beyond our borders, mostly in Latin America and on the European peripheries, but also in the middle and far east, Africa, and beyond. The same names pop up in the Cahiers and its associated projects at the American University as we see, for example, in The Quarterly Conversation, The White Review, Music & Literature, Dalkey Archive, Open Letter, Two Lines Press, San Francisco’s Center for the Art of Translation, Frisch & Co., and New Vessel Press. Freed by the unraveled economies of electronic publishing, these critic-writer-editors are creating a dynamic new border-crossing literary world.

The Cahier authors are testimony to this. How often do we think of Lydia Davis and Paul Muldoon as cohorts in translation, and what that means about their place in literature in English? Elfriede Jelinek writes a play about Walser, indeed librettist Paul Griffiths transcribes, as it were, Noh drama as stories in English. What I love about the Cahiers way of thinking is that it’s not eat-your-vegetables advocacy for literature in translation but a bold, invigorating vision for literature in all languages, a hungry aesthetic engine for our time.







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