Elodie Rose Barnes talks to Lolli Editions founder Denise Rose Hansen about work in translation, reading across borders, the novel as art, & publishing during lockdown.
I first came across Lolli Editions in the summer of 2020, when the sun was shining and lockdowns were easing, and the online journal Lunate asked me to write a review for one of their upcoming titles. The book was Tine Høeg’s New Passengers, in a masterful translation from Danish by Misha Hoekstra, and the impact it had on me was enormous. This was a novel that did something completely different. Written in free verse style, it twisted form and language into a wonderful take on the affair-with-a-married-man story, and has since become one of the most re-read books on my shelves.
I also became intrigued by this new-to-me publisher. Lolli was founded in 2018, and named after itinerant 18th century composer Antonio Lolli. Living and working between Scandinavia, England, Russia and Italy, composer Lolli rejected traditional ‘schools’ of practice, believing that artistic thought alone should be the basis for the creative process. Publisher Lolli takes this philosophy into the world of translated books. They publish no more than four books a year and so their catalogue is small; each book is carefully chosen for its innovation, the way it compels and excites, and its rejection of traditional constraints in both form and content. Johanne Bille’s Elastic, for example, translated by Sherilyn Hellberg, is a fragmentary love story that explores sex, intimacy and gender, and the concept of open relationships. Amalie Smith’s Marble weaves together contemporary and historical art history and sculpture in a hybrid work that is largely narrated by a marble statue, while Olga Ravn’s The Employees delivers a scathing critique of late capitalism and the culture of work from the confines of a spaceship. Lolli is very definitely a publisher of modern culture.
Having read my way through the entire back catalogue, I spoke to founder and publisher Denise Rose Hansen. Denise is a translator herself, working mainly from English into Danish, and is also a PhD candidate at UCL researching the late-modern art novel in Britain.
I love the origins of Lolli’s name – the backdrop of an itinerant artist really appeals to me, especially in these strange times where travel is so difficult! But before the name, how did the idea for Lolli come about?
It started as an idea for the 2018 Manifesta, the European Biennal for Contemporary Art, which that year was hosted in Palermo. My partner is German but grew up in Italy and, being an architect and designer, was very interested in Sicilian architecture and history. We found that the books available about the city were either specialist architectural books or commercial travel guides. So we decided, for the Biennal, to publish a walking guide to the city that gave a literary, architectural, and historical introduction without any of the commercial elements. It was just a fun project. It wasn’t until afterwards that I realised we now had a publishing infrastructure in place. Walking Through Palermo is in that way Lolli’s origin story I suppose, and Palermo is a place we keep returning to, always staying in an architect friend’s flat – across from the Stazione Lolli!
To me, all of Lolli’s books feel like artworks themselves, so it’s lovely to hear that it had those artistic and architectural beginnings.
That element is really important to us, and if I had to sum up what we look for in books that would be a big part of it – writing that somehow sits at the intersection between art and literature. Of course we are open to publishing books that aren’t specifically about or inspired by art, but we do look for authors who do something new, something unusual, something artistic with the traditional novel form.
We’re also very concerned with the look and design of the book, not because fiction should necessarily be ‘designy’, but because we want to treat every book like the distinctive work of art that it is, inside and out.
The books seem to inhabit a hybrid, in-between space. I’m thinking specifically of Marble, where the text really hovers between so many different categorisations, but the same could be said of all Lolli’s books. It’s very refreshing to read things that aren’t afraid to be in that space.
Marble is such a good example. We’re also really excited to be publishing Amalie’s new book Thread Ripper in 2022, and I noticed that the Danish publisher has been very specific in calling it a ‘hybrid’ rather than a novel. I love seeing how writers approach the novel form – I think it should be constantly experimented with and renewed. And I’m glad to see how much this is happening in Scandinavian literature at the moment.
That does seem to be a trend in translated work – not in all, obviously, but writing from languages other than English seems to have more of a willingness to experiment, to push boundaries and stretch the language.
Both in trade publishing and in academia, there seems to be an unwieldy need to categorise. Work always needs to be given a label, and in fiction that often comes down to novel, short story, poetry, experimental…. I don’t see why literature can’t be allowed to be several or even all those things at once. Maybe this is just me watching from a distance, and maybe it has to do with the size of the country and the publishing output, but it seems that in Denmark there’s less of a need to conform to that. I also find that it’s mostly women who are experimenting and tearing up those labels.
Perhaps it’s partly because women have never been the building blocks of the conventional novel format in the same way that men have, so they have nothing to lose by doing something different.
That’s very true. I think a lot about these things – the majority of work in translation is by men. Perhaps that also says something about the kind of work that is being translated, formally speaking.
How does Lolli choose which books to publish?
It depends. I work closely with agents, who have quite a good feel for what Lolli is looking for. We’re fortunate to work with brilliant and incredibly talented translators, and recommendations sometimes come through them. It speeds things up being able to read books in the original Danish, Swedish, French etc., since it can cut out the need for a long translation sample, which we need when acquiring work from the Portuguese, for instance.
Speaking of speeding things up, the last of Lolli’s books that I read was Tools for Extinction [in which eighteen international writers responded to the beginning of the Covid pandemic with all the associated lockdowns, distancing, closures, and illness]. You compiled this at the beginning of lockdowns in Europe and it was published in May 2020. That’s a very quick turnaround! And the book is phenomenal.
I think it was maybe six weeks from start to finish. When I commissioned the pieces, I didn’t really know how many authors – and translators – would be able to contribute, and so I didn’t know how many pieces would be in the finished book. We set out the brief quite close to the beginning of the UK lockdown and gave authors an initial few weeks. It was a very fluid thing and an incredible experience of discovery – a few authors were recommended by agents. I was amazed that the agents, the 18 authors and 7 translators were able and willing to work at such speed, especially in the time of an international crisis. I mean, it was a crazy thing to ask of anyone. But I’m glad we did it like that, because the work felt so fresh and raw, and that’s what the time seemed to call for. Everything was up in the air, you couldn’t control anything. Everything was dictated by that moment, and there was something very freeing about that.
Apart from Tools for Extinction, which includes writers from around the world, so far you’ve published books from Denmark only. I know you have plans to expand next year – more on that in a moment! – but first, what do you think it is about Danish literature that appeals to readers here?
Walter Benjamin once wrote that there are two kinds of storytellers: one who comes from afar to tell stories, and one who has stayed at home the whole time and is more concerned with local tales and traditions. I think there are two kinds of readers too, and that people more and more, in this time of Brexit, imperial delusions, and anti-cultural policies are really craving translated literature. It’s a way of countering these devastating political and cultural developments and engaging with others across national borders. Reading parochially would simply be too much to bear.
It’s a real struggle for most small languages to make it into English. One would think that because the English-speaking market is so vast, there would be plenty of room. This makes it quite enticing, then, when that door is suddenly swung open and there are some Danish titles on the shelf in the bookshop that not only aren’t crime but even are exceedingly avant-garde in their 21st century ways. Danish literature is not all Søren Kirerkegaard and H.C. Andersen.
Danish fiction is mostly translated into its neighbouring countries – Sweden, Norway, Germany – while it seems to have been a bit ignored by that other neighbour across North Sea. Lolli tries to mitigate this. We seek to publish in real time so to speak – it may be a bit Euro-romantic, but I like to think we can to some degree live in a common public sphere. Brexit poses a real stumbling block to this project. Of course some of the greatest literary revelations are when an author is rediscovered and finally rises to the stars and gets the recognition they deserved in their own time, like we’re currently seeing on an international scale with the work of Clarice Lispector, Ingeborg Bachmann and Tove Ditlevsen – but we want to read Olga Ravn in English now.
I’d love to hear a little bit about your own research and translation work. You’re researching art novels, which sounds remarkably close to Lolli’s aesthetic – do you find that one influences the other?
My PhD focuses on 1960s art novels – books by novelists who engaged with the visual arts in some way or another (Dennis Williams, for example, who was a painter before he came to the UK from Guyana and moved into writing, and Ann Quin who worked at the Royal College of Art as secretary to the Professor of Painting when Pop art was incubating there and was close with the likes of Frank Bowling, Pauline Boty, and John Carter). I do tend to compartmentalise research and publishing, but I also think that some of the Lolli titles have helped me to think about the presence of visual art in mid-century writing and vice versa, especially where it might not be obvious. I don’t mean to argue for it being in a place where it’s not, but it can be present without the book necessarily being about art, in terms of aesthetics, narrative modes, affective registers. The Employees, for example, was inspired by Lea Gulditte Hestelund’s sculpture, which isn’t that obvious at all. It’s that hybrid space again.
You’ve mentioned a couple of titles forthcoming from Lolli – what are your other plans for this coming year?
We’re publishing Adorable by Ida Marie Hede, tr. Sherilyn Hellberg in May, Sevastopol by Emilio Fraia, tr. Zoë Perry in June in collaboration with New Directions in New York, After the Sun by Jonas Eika in August, also translated by Hellberg and in collaboration with Riverhead, and The Dolls by Ursula Scavenius, translated by Jennifer Russell in October.