Last week I headed back to my workplace for the first time in 18 months and mentioned that, despite the discomfort of commuting and fear of Covid, one of the absolute perks of my job is working an iconic building such as Senate House. I have always been an Art Deco fan, and the architect, Charles Holden, was clearly also influenced by the Bauhaus style when he proposed a grandiose scheme in the early 1930s. Lack of funding and the start of the war meant those plans were abandoned and only a small fraction was actually built. Nevertheless, it is an impressive building both inside and out, and has starred in many a film or TV series. You can find a full list of films, TV productions and advertisements in which the Grand Old Lady has played a part here, but I’d just like to highlight a few personal favourites.
Twenty-five years ago I went to Germany for fieldwork during my Ph.D. I was based in a small university town Marburg, and very soon I discovered there were two other Romanian girls studying there. One of them became a very good friend: we were both passionate about literature (both German and English) and were both in very new, very long-distance relationships that we weren’t entirely sure about. I had concerns about my boyfriend’s character, while she was more concerned about the age difference (she was three years older than him). We both ended up marrying our sweethearts: my fears were well founded, hers not at all.
Csaba was Romanian of Hungarian origin. He ended up embarking on business studies in Marburg himself, so as to be with my friend, although he spoke hardly any German at the time. He had been an elite athlete previously and we would go running in the woods together, and he also introduced me to Tai Chi. He was full of energy and humour, utterly devoted to my friend, sending her tapes with his voice whispering sweet nothings in her ear whenever they were apart.
They returned to Romania after their studies, had children about the same time as I did. I could think of no better people to ask to be godparents to my second son, even though I knew we were going to be hundreds of miles away.
Whenever we went to Romania, we visited them and our boys became good friends, despite the mix of five languages and cultures that they were experiencing between them.
Their older son graduated from secondary school this year, just like mine did, and planned to study medicine. They were justifiably proud of him, and trying to decide if he should study in Romania or Germany.
Early this morning, my friend sent me a message that Csaba died of Covid. It is hard to believe that a man like this, the heart and soul of every party, but also the most thoughtful and loving husband, father, godfather and friend, could just be snuffed out like that. All the adventures and visits and joint ventures we had planned… All the advice and serenity that his sons will never get a chance to experience… All the love and support that my friend is now left without…
I have no words. Other than: make the most of your life and your friendships.
Farewell to thee! but not farewell
To all my fondest thoughts of thee:
Within my heart they still shall dwell;
And they shall cheer and comfort me.Anne Brontë
I am lucky enough to have a room of my own, a study, in my house. Yet I never stop dreaming of a little dream cabin or writing shed hidden somewhere in a (beautifully tended) garden, out of earshot of the house.
Yesterday I ventured back to work in central London for the first time since the 16th of March, 2020. Obviously, the student-facing or facilities management staff have been going in fairly regularly already, but from September this year, all of us in professional services as well are required to spend at least 40% of our working hours in the office. I will not quibble about the wisdom of that, other than to say that most of the courses I support and deliver are still online, which I can support better from home, while the other half of my work is content creation, which again benefits from quiet focus. However, I have missed the leafy, academic atmosphere of Bloomsbury and the iconic building where I work. With sunshine and relatively quiet streets before the students return (and ignoring the building works), it was very pleasant indeed to be back.
Senate House Library kindly waived my enormous fine for overdue books. They are celebrating 150 years since the foundation of the library this year, and will have a virtual exhibition of 150 of its most interesting books and artefacts. These include one of the first printed edition of Copernicus’ work, a manuscript of Don Juan by Lord Byron, a first edition of one of the first slave autobiographies, the Nazi Black Book for the British Isles and much more.
Although it was quiet, cool and very safe inside the building, and it was nice to wander around the streets nearby and discover my favourite Greek deli The Life Goddess was still making excellent traditional Greek desserts, the commute was as bad as I had remembered: busy, maskless, insufficient number of coaches on the train, long waits on the Underground. Add to that a very long day (so that I could avoid rush hour). the ‘novely’ of wearing respectable shoes and carrying a heavy backpack with a laptop while going up and down stairs, and you will understand why I collapsed for 45 minutes on my bed when I got back home.
In time, it will no doubt become more manageable. In the meantime, I have one very contented customer who is delighted that I am working from home still on most days.
Time for my favourite meme: the chain of six books, linked in some way from a given starting point, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. The starting point this month is Rachel Cusk’s Second Place, which is loosely based on DH Lawrence stay as a houseguest in Mexico (Mabel Doge Luhan being the unfortunate host; she wrote about it in Lorenzo in Taos). A woman invites a famous artist to use her guesthouse in the remote coastal landscape where she lives with her family, hoping that his artistic vision will somehow infuse and clarify her own life. I have not read it yet, but am curious to do so.
It would be far too easy to move onto DH Lawrence after this, but instead I will move to other authors whom I originally liked a lot, but whom I’ve stopped following quite so closely over recent years. Yes, I read all of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, but was less engaged with it than I was with her earlier work. Stand up, Mr Karl Ove Knausgård! I was intrigued and captivated by the first two volumes of his six-volume My Struggle (A Death in the Family and A Man in Love), partly because it felt like a novelty for a man to be writing about such intimate domestic details. But I was more lukewarm about volumes 3 and 5 and didn’t bother with the rest.
One series of six novels which I keep meaning to read but never quite get muster the courage is The Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope. I’ve read a couple of his freestanding works a long, long time ago, and was never quite as enamoured of him as I was of Wilkie Collins or Dickens. The map below of the fictional county of Barsetshire does tempt me though – I can never resist a map.
Trollope famously worked for most of his life in the Post Office (in fairly senior positions, I should add), and this ‘keeping of the day job’ is what he has in common with the next writer. Anton Chekhov remained a doctor throughout his life, alongside his writing. I will refer to his play Uncle Vanya, because it is one in which he features the overworked, pessimistic and resigned doctor Astrov.
Time for a woman after so many men featured in this chain – and of course the word ‘Uncle’ in the title reminds me at once of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Conceived as an anti-slavery novel in 1852 and believed to have contributed to some degree to the American Civil War, it has been criticised more recently for perpetuating stereotypes about black people. However, it was one of the huge bestsellers of the 19th century and was adapted many times as a play, musical or film.
Yet it wasn’t the most translated book from the United States in this recent BookRiot ‘most translated book from each country’ infographic, which has both amused and incensed me. I felt that it was somewhat unfair that Romania’s prime export was a perfectly competent but average book published 4-5 years ago and written in English, set in the US, designed to very cynically exploit the foreign markets. But that is nothing compared to the fact that the US prime export is Ron Hubbard’s The Way to Happiness (although there is a good reason for that – it was paid-for translation and distribution, so a big push on the supply side, rather than huge demand).
I could pick another book from the above infographic (and am pleased to see that The Little Prince, Tintin, Pinocchio, Treasure Island and Pippi Longstocking are there – good old children’s classics, what would we do without them?), but that would be too easy, so instead I’ll pick a book by another religious person, one much more palatable to me. Ron Hubbard was the founder of Scientology, but this final writer is a woman, Mariana Alcoforado, a Portuguese nun who wrote the famous, wildly passionate Letters from the Portuguese (beautifully translated by Rilke into German, for example). Her authorship has since been contested but the tale of betrayed love is timeless and universal.
A bit of a strange journey this time, not always with authors I appreciate: from Norway to a provincial town in England, on to a Russian estate in the 1890s to the American South in the 1850s, a self-help book that claims to be truly international and a love affair that transcends Catholic convents or Portuguese borders. Do share where your Six Degree journey might take you this month!
It’s the end of the summer (for some of us) and so I leave the beautiful gardens and landscapes, and take you indoors. Please make yourselves comfortable on these sofas – although some of them look more comfortable than others. I love modern design, but I almost fear sitting down on some of these sofas for fear of messing up! (Incidentally, I am getting a new sofa soon, which may be why I am so receptive to these images, although it’s safe to say mine will be nothing like as grand as any of those below.)
I was delighted and honoured to have one piece of flash fiction accepted by The Bangor Literary Journal. Issue 15 is being launched today and available for free download.
You can read my piece alongside many high-quality poems and flashes, as well as admire the art work right here. In the meantime (although I cannot bear to watch myself on playback), you can watch me struggling to look the camera in the eye as I read ‘Hypersensitive’, an almost true story.
I did really well with my August reading – perhaps a combination of less busy period at work and the boys spending the second half of August in Greece. So I did no cooking and the bare minimum of cleaning or gardening, and instead just read a lot and watched films.
So this month I read no less than 14 books, of which the majority (eight) were for #WITMonth, and seven of them also fell into the original #20BooksofSummer plan. Eleven of the books were by women writers, four were crime or crime-adjacent genres and three were non-fiction (this last is probably a record for me, as I tend to read very little non-fiction).
In case you missed any of the #WITMonth review posts, here they are again:
- Greenland: Crimson
- Japan: Heaven
- Germany: Love in Five Acts
- France: Fresh Water for Flowers
- Portugal: Violeta Among the Stars
- Cross-Cultural: An I-Novel and Translation as Transhumance
- Italy: The Garden of Monsters by Lorenza Pieri – a family history about wealth and poverty in Tuscany, with quite a few references to Nike de Sainte Phalle and her Tarot Garden. I am not going to review this one, because it felt rather predictable and the secondary characters were stereotypical, but I did enjoy the art references.
In addition to the #WITMonth reading, I also read and reviewed Stamboul Train by Graham Greene and a memoir of Eton College.
However, it was very disappointing to realise that although I did get to read all of my 20 Books of Summer (with a couple of last-minute swaps), all of them on Kindle (which I still see as very much a second-rate kind of reading experience) in an effort to bring down my formidable TBR amount on Netgalley… my feedback ratio has only gone up two percentage points – from 53% to 55%. So I would say it was definitely not worth it! I also made it more difficult on myself by sticking to a different theme each month: the latest releases for June, the oldest on my Netgalley pile for July, and Women in Translation for August.
This strictly regimented approach over the past three months had me very nearly losing my pleasure of reading. There were two books I abandoned, which is still a rare occurrence for me. Throughout this predominantly Kindly experience (22 out of the total of 34 books read since the start of June), I had to alternate with some physical books, either from my own bookshelves, or more frequently random ones picked up from the library, to ease my restlessness and mounting rebellion.
Therefore, September will be a month of rest and relaxation, reading whatever I please, at whim. If the library books I fancied when seeing them on the shelves there fail to grip my imagination once I get home, I will return them unread, without a guilty conscience. My beautiful new edition of the Cazalet Chronicles is winking at me from the bookshelf in the hallway, so I might plunge into that. But am I ready for six books in a row? There are a couple of books I want to read (in the original languages) for Corylus purposes, but other than that, I’ll be free to roam…
Well, I say that, but I will be reading Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees for the London Reads the World Book Club (@LdnReadstheWorld on Twitter) and Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River for the Virtual Crime Book Club run by @RebeccaJBradley, plus I want to read a lighter book set in Durham, as if in preparation for my older son going there to university… etc etc. Or, as the French would call it, et patati et patata!
Also #20BooksofSummer No. 18 and 19 (with a bit of cheating – I did not have the Gansel originally on my list, as it is not an e-book, but after attending the BCLT Summer School, I had to get it)
Now that I’ve written at length about all the soul searching these two books provoked in me, it’s time to actually engage with them as a reviewer. I am a bit sorry that they don’t get a review each, but I have left it too late to get all the reviews done for #WITMonth.
Minae Mizumura: An I-Novel, transl. Juliet Winters Carpenter (in collaboration with the author), Columbia University Press.
It helps that Juliet Winters Carpenter is one of my favourite translators from Japanese currently working; it also helps that I had already fallen in love with Mizumura via her longer, later work A True Novel. Add to that the very relatable subject matter, and this has the potential to become a classic on my shelves. The author is a linguist and academic, and shares much of the biographical detail with the protagonist (also called Minae Mizumura) in this novel. Of course, ‘I-novels’, where it is difficult to disentangle what is fiction and what is memoir, have a long tradition in Japan, and this was published in Japanese in 1995, long before the current crop of popular ‘autofiction’ titles in English.
The story takes place over the course of a day, mostly through telephone conversations between two Japanese sisters, Nanae and Minae, sparked by the realisation that it’s the twentieth anniversary since they first arrived in the United States with their parents as 14 and 10 year olds respectively. The older sister Nanae did her best to become Americanised and blend in, while Minae mythologised the country she left behind, reading only Japanese literature, never quite mastering the English language, longing to return for more than a holiday at some point.
The format of the book was revolutionary at the time: it was printed in the style of the Latin alphabet (horizontally and from left to right), as well as being liberally sprinkled with English words and expressions, to the point where it was even considered a ‘bilingual novel’. In the English translation, these English originals are highlighted in the text by using a different typeface.
As the sisters talk, they discover new things about each other, beyond the assumptions they had about how they felt between two cultures and their relationship with their parents. Aside from the personal search for cultural identity, however, the book is also full of sharp and very candid obervations of cultural differences and racism. The Japanese tend to think of themselves as culturally and materially superior to the other East Asian nations, so it is a huge shock to the girls to discover that they are simply mistaken for other Asians.
I was forced to realize something that had never before entered my mind: I was Asian. In this country, a Japanese girl of privilege was above all Asian. To remain a Japanese girl of privilege, I would have had to stay at home on the Japanese archipelago, insulated from the rest of the world. In the wider world, only white people could be truly privileged – people who, if they were thoughtful, might bear a sense of guilt over their unearned privilege or at least feel it to be a burden.
The gradual discovery that I was Asian wasn’t shocking in and of itself. The shock I felt came from being lumped together with people whom Westerners regarded as Others – as did I… To be lumped together with those whom in some hidden corner of my mind I had always blithely congratulated myself on being distinct from was worse than shocking. It was humiliating.
There are likewise some thought-provoking scenes about what the West expects from other cultures (i.e. stereotpes, most frequently). For example, in one of her English classes with a very supportive teacher, Minae writes an essay about her favourite autumn moments, in which she relies heavily not so much on her personal experience of Japan (which she can barely remember, and which was more urban than rural), but on what she has gleaned from reading Japanese literature:
That compostion Mr Keith praised so highly might well have been a mere string of Japanese platitudes. Could commonplace emotions and unoriginal expressions… transform into something more remarkable when rendered in a different language?
Is this what is appreciated in the Western world because this is what we expect and want to see of Japan, rather than messiness, a variety of styles, Western influences and so on?
At some point, Minae starts wondering about her own almost perverse stubbornness in wanting to write in Japanese, a much less significant language than English on a global scale. You cannot help but think the author herself is expressing her own surprise at her choice, but also reiterating her commitment to her mothertongue.
The book was written at the time of Japanese economic boom, when many young Japanese were studying or living abroad. As the sisters discuss Minae’s ‘need’ to return to a Japan which may be nothing like what she remembers or desires, it felt at times like the author was laying out the pros and cons of moving back to the country for all of those young people. She points out the irony that the Japanese word for ‘hometown’ (furusato) evokes old temples and picturesque rural landscapes, but that in fact the rice paddies have been paved over and converted into cheap housing in rapid urbanisation.
Before my eyes there emerged a vision of ugly cities all alike and small towns dismal in their sameness. A nation that as it rose to become a major economic power had become more and more stunted in spirit; a nation without a soul; a nation of little people… or was my negativity toward Japan only defensive, a hedge against the predictable anticlimax of my return?
Mireille Gansel: Translation as Transhumance, transl. Ros Schwartz, Les Fugitives.
Gansel grew up in France, in a family of Jewish refugees who spoke many languages and had experienced many shifts in borders over their lifetime: German, Yiddish, Hungarian, Czech, Hebrew and of course French. The German she instinctively gravitated towards was a global sort of German of the 19th and early 20th centuries, rather like the global English of today. The German of a world that is no more – word of warning perhaps to those who think that English will be the world language forever.
This is the German that has been punctuated by exiles and passed down through the generations, from country to country, like a violin whose vibratos have retained the accents and intonations, the words and the expressions, of adopted countries and wasy of speaking. This is the German that has no land or borders. An interior language. If I were to hold on to just one word, it would be innig – profound, intense, fervent.
In the 1960s and 70s, Gansel translated poets from East Germany and Vietnam, to help the world to understand what was going behind walls or behind reports of war. She spent two years learning Vietnamese and went to Vietnam to immerse herself in the culture, as well as working with a Vietnamese poet to fully absorb the subtexts. I was just so impressed by her humility as a translator, by her willingness to always learn more, her ability to admit to making mistakes in the effort to be as truthful and loyal to the original as possible.
At that moment, I understood translation both as risk-taking and continual re-examination, of even a single word – a delicate seismograph at the heart of time.
Translation came to mean learning to listen to the silences between the lines, to the underground springs of a people’s hinterland.
The third experience she writes about in this far too brief work is her attempt to retrace the steps of Eugenie Goldstern, an Austrian-Jewish anthropologist who conducted research into Alpine cultures, centred mainly on Switzerland, but in fact transcending borders and cross-pollinating, being open to all sorts of different interpretations and complementary knowledge. This is where she has her most profound insight into what it means to be a translator:
… it suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand, from the other. That was perhaps my most essential lesson in translation.
I wonder if both Mizumura and Gansel demonstrate (through their biographies and their works) that the best kind of translator or cultural bridge-builder is someone who never quite fits into any of the cultural skins that they might put on. There is always a slight gap, a slight feeling of otherness and strangeness. Is it possible that, when you cease to be uncomfortable, when the skin fits too snugly, you become somewhat insensitive to nuance, blinded, and unable to convey that inner core where both similarity and difference reside?
When the summer holidays are over and people gather back for school and work once more, I miss all of my friends who live in other countries. Since I am still cautious about travelling, I can’t go and see them, but I am imagining we are sitting and having endless discussions over dinner and wine in places like these.