There are no words left in me today.
Of the 101 books I’ve read so far in 2016, 23 have been translated books. I’m not counting the books I read in the original language, because I’m curious just how much gets translated and how far I stray beyond my obvious comfort zones of French/German/Romanian literature. Here are my favourites so far:
The Young, the Aimless, the Self-Absorbed (by turns funny and poignant):
- Knausgard: Some Rain Must Fall
- Mircea Eliade: Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent
- Olja Savicevic: Adios, Cowboy – to be reviewed on Necessary Fiction
- Tatiana Salem Levy: The House in Smyrna
Those Who Qualified for Next Round of the Euro:
- Pascal Garnier: Too Close to the Edge (France)
- Javier Marias: Your Face Tomorrow (Part 1) (Spain) – infuriatingly, still not up to date with a review for this one. I might as well read the whole trilogy and review it afterwards.
- Peter Gardos: Fever at Dawn (Hungary)
Non-Fiction Which Really Made Me Think:
- Asne Seierstad: One of Us – about Norway’s most notorious mass shooting
- Elif Shafak: Black Milk – about motherhood and creativity
Do you notice one big omission on this list? Elena Ferrante. Yes, because although I devoured her Neapolitan tetralogy and enjoyed it, it did not capture my heart and mind as much as some of her other work.
Huge thanks to Hande Zapsu, Alison Entrekin, Don Bartlett, Sarah Death, Emily Boyce, Elizabeth Szász, Margaret Jull Costa, Christopher Moncrieff, Celia Hawkesworth and all the other translators who labour in the shadows (still), so we can have access to a wider world out there.
Yes, I am being a bit lazy here. Too much corporate work, worries about administrative matters and physical exhaustion to write anything new. Instead, I am offering you a ‘reject’: something I prepared earlier, but which didn’t quite make the grade.
You know the expression: kill your darlings (when it comes to writing). Here are some bits and pieces which have been trimmed away from the WIP. Melinda is the main protagonist; Graham is her husband. Below are pictures of how I imagine them in my head.
Graham got home at around nine every evening. He didn’t want any supper; he was careful to keep his figure trim, aware of his beer belly getting ready to pounce. So she would eat the remains of the children’s meal herself, while he set up his laptop on the dining table. Still some work to catch up on, a few emails to send, a call or two to make. It was all she could to do get a ‘Hmmm, really, I see…’ out of him when she told him about her day.
Sometimes they wouldn’t talk for days. She’d droop off well before ten and go to bed. She was fast asleep when he slipped in beside her. She always fell asleep before she could read 2-3 pages, no matter how exciting the novel might be. Meanwhile, he needed time to decompress, he said, so he watched some satellite TV. In English of course, so everything was an hour behind.
When she woke up at 4 a.m., as she often did, and started worrying about the forms, the To Do lists, her own inadequacies, he was always lying on his back, his arms up beside him with fists clenched, like a baby. A clear conscience, obviously. Sometimes a little snore or occupying more than his half of the bed. She would sigh and creep to the very edge. Or get up and go to the children’s rooms, listen to their soft, sweet breathing and tell herself it was all worth it for them.
In the morning, she struggled to come out of that brief tangle of sleep to which she had finally succumbed. The early start was always far too early, getting the children ready for school, while Graham slept on. And so, with no fuss or awkward rejection on either side, their sex life had dwindled to nothing. Melinda suspected it wasn’t just her who was secretly relieved.
Other things too began to slip. The lazy Sundays in bed, with the children piling in with them. Graham was too tired now, needed to sleep longer, so she would be forever shushing them when they got too excited in their games of make-believe or else take them downstairs and plonk them in front of the TV. Their weekly ritual of ‘lunch at Daddy’s office’ also disappeared, because Daddy had more and more meetings on a Wednesday, the only day when they didn’t have school and had sufficient time to go to the centre of Geneva. After a while, it was no longer much of a day out for them anyway, the food was always bland and they had seen all of the museums that were suitable for children.
Even the family days out that had been the highlight of their week tailed off to nothing. Graham said he was too exhausted from his constant travels. He just wanted to stay at home and relax at the weekend, and she could understand that, she really could.
In the end, Melinda reflected, very little communication is required to keep a household running smoothly. Appointments were made and kept, bills paid with few delays, children picked up and dropped off with the right equipment in the right place at the right time. Food was prepared and ingurgitated, or not. The house was cleaned with the help of a Brazilian woman who came for two hours every week, spoke neither English nor French, and ignored Melinda’s sign language instructions, cleaning whatever she most felt like, rather than what needed doing. Melinda had to pick her up from the bus stop at the Val Thoiry shopping centre, but at least she didn’t demand the exorbitant rates of more professional, car-driving, trilingual cleaners who paid their taxes.
So it went on. Melinda clung to each thread of a routine, grateful that it gave her a reason to get up in the morning. Often, after dropping the children off, she would return to the house with a sinking heart, knowing that Graham would still be around. With shower and breakfast to negotiate, and perhaps an email or two to check, he was never very chatty in the morning.
When he finally left the house, after issuing her with a pile of instructions on what he needed done that day or later that week, she could breathe a huge sigh of relief and make herself a cup of coffee. But it was downhill from there.
No matter how sunny the day, no matter how magnificent the view of Mont Blanc and its Alpine sisters, Melinda felt a dull despondency settling on her. She might crawl back into bed, sobbing for no reason, and find herself at school pick-up time with not much to show at all for her day. At other times she would be lickety-split quick about cooking, wiping kitchen surfaces, doing the laundry in the morning, only to collapse in the afternoon and find herself staring into nothingness, repeating: ‘I can’t take it anymore! I can’t take it anymore!’
Not much time to prepare or schedule a blog post today, as I have been in training rooms pretty much non-stop this week. But with the torrential rains we’ve been experiencing, and the bad news which seems to keep on bombarding us, I thought we could all do with some spontaneous choices of images from my treasure trove to cheer us up.
You may not have seen any reviews up yet, but I started diligently on my list of #20booksofsummer on the 2nd of June. Here are the reviews of my first two reads in this category.
First up was Michel Bussi’s Black Water Lilies, but my tablet decided to throw a hissy fit and run down its batteries every 20 minutes or so, then take days to recharge. Then I got sidetracked by writing on my writing retreat (after all, that was the purpose, otherwise it would have been called a ‘reading retreat’). OK, and I admit, some other books on the endless shelves of the beautiful Verger sous les Vignes (Orchard under the Vineyards, which says it all about the location) also caught my attention. I spent a little time with Jean-Claude Izzo’s short stories (mostly set in Marseille, and of a despairing darkness which fits very well with the current news and atmosphere). I enjoyed the linguistic dexterity of Claire Messud and her depiction of New York life in all its pretentiousness but also poverty in The Emperor’s Children. Besides, I was still reading The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman, which requires a deep commitment and power of concentration.
So does that mean that it somehow failed to grab me? Bussi’s novel has, at first sight, all the ingredients that would appeal to me: a picturesque French village setting in Giverny, links with the art world – Monet’s home for the last few decades of his life, a puzzle about a missing painting, a child and a murder, and speculation about artistic heritage. Alas, sadly it does not live up to its premise! I read it to the end in the hope that the last half, third or quarter would redeem it, but that was not the case.
The story takes place over 13 days and starts with the apparently accidental death of Jerome Morval, a successful doctor, whose obsession for art matched his passion for women. It’s also the story of three female figures in the village: the old croon, the beautiful but bored wife, and the young painting prodigy. The team of investigators don’t quite know what to believe and end up duplicating or even triplicating each other in their search for the culprit or to prevent another murder from happening. There is so much foreshadowing it makes your head spin, but it’s not quite justified by the denouement. It’s good enough for a lazy beach read, and more enjoyable (to my mind) than After the Crash, but it doesn’t have me raring to read more by this author.
Another disappointment, which I struggled to finish. Finish it I did, in the hope of some redeeming insight or grand conclusion, but there was none. Or not enough of one!
This is the author’s memoir of her late teens, aged 16-19, back in the late 1980s, when she drops out of high school in the US and goes travelling around Asia and Europe. Ariel is of a similar age to me, so I was curious to see if this was the story of my generation.
The answer is: no. Perhaps it is the story of that generation on the Pacific West Coast, but I think Europeans will struggle to identify with what she says. Her travels take her to Hong Kong, Beijing, Tibet, Nepal, Amsterdam, London and Tuscany, but in all these places she is adrift, far too preoccupied with herself, far too busy doing drugs, drinks and illegal smuggling, entering into loveless relationships, and never actually seeing or truly understanding other people and other cultures. She expresses concern about a Chinese mentee who was questioned by the police, but it still feels cold and distant. This is Privilege-meets-the-rest-of-the-world and thinks a little bit about it, amusingly and from a ‘look at me’ perspective.
As a personal journey it may have some merit, although I found the narrator (which I acknowledge may not be quite the same as the author) infuriating, but as a travelogue it just seems to be one description of a terrible squat after another. The author has been praised for her candour and brave introspection, but this one seems a little too ‘brave’ and too honest for my liking. The prose is choppy, I remain unsure as to what the ultimate message is (if any), and I would hate to burden my child with this level of detail about how her parents met each other and how she was born.
Of course, we have to remember it is the diary of a teenager (and the author has gone on to write wiser and better things), but I think I prefer the Anne Franks or even the self-absorbed but observant Marie Bashkirtseffs of this world.
Villeferry is the name of the tiny village where we had our writing retreat last week. L’Atelier Writers is the brainchild of writers Michelle Bailat-Jones, Laura McCune-Poplin and Sara Johnson Allen, who did their MFA together in the US ten years ago. Now all of them are busy working mothers as well as writers, so they know just how difficult it is to find the right physical and mental space to dedicate yourself to writing, especially long forms of writing such as novels. They found a quiet place in the Bourgogne, a grouping of restored village houses set on a slope, and offer the perfect mix of quirkiness, tranquility, emotional support and bookish discussion.
We had mornings and afternoons dedicated to the lonely pursuit of word count and polishing of drafts, lively lunchtime discussions of craft and goal-setting, plus readings and literary parlour games in the evening. I rediscovered the joy of writing and of community. It was just what I needed at this difficult period of transition in my life and has made me more determined than ever.
I am tempted to keep it all a secret, so that it maintains its cosy, intimate feel in years to come. Here are some pictures to show you what ‘appalling’ conditions I had to work in…
Can we even call it a debate? The level of discussion in the media of the EU Referendum has been more of the ‘boo!…hah!’ playground fighting variety, or else number-crunching speculative economic prediction. In other words, appealing either to the gut or the mind. But perhaps there is a third area in the human body we need to target: the heart. Cruelty in humans is caused by lack of heart and imagination, the inability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
This is why I have finally decided to join in this debate, despite my initial reluctance to voice my opinions. I’d been pained to see a few of my most cosmopolitan friends join the Brexit side. I was not wowed by the half-hearted arguments of the Remain campaign. I hadn’t even registered for the postal vote, which goes against my principle of ‘vote rather than grumble’. As a British citizen for only eleven years (five of which I have spent abroad), I felt it would be presumptuous for me to tell British people how they should feel about the EU. At the same time, I am going back to Britain soon and I shall have to live with the consequences of the vote, whether I like it or not. I hardly have the name recognition and persuasive power of the Nobel Prize winners such Herta Muller, Elfriede Jelinek, Thomas Sudhof, Gerard’t Hooft, Mario Vargas Llosa and so many others, who recently signed a love letter to the British people or the writers who wrote individual letters, but I can share with you my personal experience of living in a Europe with ideological frictions and borders.
N.B. and Warning: Long read to follow.
I was born an undesirable. I am Romanian and for a long time that caused some confusion abroad, as people mistook me for a gypsy (Roma) or Gastarbeiter (literal translation: guest workers, but usually viewed as second-class citizens in Germany and Austria). As a child, I was not aware of the disadvantages and dangers of being born on the outskirts of Europe. I was fortunate enough to spend part of my childhood in a city that believes itself to be very much at the centre of Europe. At my English school in Vienna, I was treated as an individual, regardless of my looks, my native language or my country of origin. I had friends from all over the world and developed a rather magnificent ‘failing’: I could never again stereotype people again based on their nationality, faith or skin colour. Nigerian Niyi was our most trustworthy and mature classmate, who became the class representative. Farzana was the gentlest Muslim girl from Pakistan, Eyal was the most thoughtful and peace-loving Israeli. Samya was half-Egyptian, half-Austrian, 100% my best friend and deskmate.
Then I went back to Romania during the final (and worst) years of Communist dictatorship and discovered just how brutal and painful a world with ‘no free movement’ is. Our passports were the property of the state, so they were taken away from us and kept under lock and key. You had to apply months in advance to get them temporarily returned to you if you wanted to go abroad for holidays or work. Permission was very often not granted, not even for a conference or to visit friends. Especially not to visit friends. Having friends abroad could lead to dangerous, seditious ideas… So I had to stop corresponding with all of my classmates from Vienna. I lost touch with them for over a decade, found some of them again thanks to Facebook, but others were lost forever.
We were not even allowed the freedom of ideas: movies were censored, books were banned, foreign magazines (or music tapes) were forbidden for import. Ordinary citizens, who had not resided abroad and were therefore not treated with quite as much suspicion as we were, could join the British Council library at the British Embassy and borrow books from there (or the American Embassy or French Embassy or German). However, when I tried to sign up, my mother was stopped by an acquaintance in the street, who told her I should exercise caution.
I wilted like a flower in the desert. I learnt not to ask ‘uncomfortable’ questions (which usually meant, simple ‘why’ questions) at school, so that my relatives would not be taken in by the police for questioning. I learnt to dream small, to not dare to hope for any future for myself that might require studying or living or working abroad. Could we, should we have foreseen the end of Communism? Perhaps! But it had lasted for the whole of my parents’ lives; what guarantee did I have that it wouldn’t collapse until I was nearing the end of mine? Too late for me.
Luckily, that was not the case. Revolution swept across the Eastern Bloc in 1989 and I was part of the fortunate 1989 generation, the ones who had scholarships showered upon us, so that we could go abroad and learn about democracy and free markets. Perhaps the Western world felt sorry for us – or perhaps they just needed to make sure there would be stability and a hunger for consumption in our region. Anyway, in the early 1990s,we were still the exception rather than the rule, so we were welcomed abroad.
In a manner of speaking. I looked and sounded English thanks to my primary school education, but I soon discovered I was still somewhat undesirable in the UK. I had problems opening a bank account (Americans experience that too). I had some landlords turning me down when they heard my name. I had to renew my student visa every year at the notoriously long queues at Lunar House in Croydon. I was not allowed to work to supplement my meagre scholarship. Not even the university was entirely sure of the legislation regarding student work: they had me invigilating a couple of exams and marking some student essays, before they realised it was illegal to employ a non-EU citizen even for 6 hours or less per week, so I never got paid.
Worst of all, since my student visa only covered Britain, and the UK was not part of the Schengen agreement, I had trouble going to the rest of the EU. I missed friends’ weddings in Italy and Germany. I even had trouble spending holidays with my parents (who were working at the time in Sweden).
Nevertheless, I fell in love with Britain. I was predisposed to, of course, having gone to an English primary school. I knew all of the kings and queens from Henry IV onwards (I confess it all gets a little muddy for me prior to that). I knew all the nursery rhymes, the children’s literature, even long quotes from Shakespeare. My favourite writers were predominantly English-speaking and I was often asked to edit and proofread essays written by native speakers.
There were other things in England to love, quite apart from my biased upbringing. I liked the calm speech patterns, self-deprecating humour and humility of the English, which I found reflected in its green and pleasant landscape. No extremes of weather or temperament, no sudden storms and disasters, no jagged mountain dangers lurking here. It was civilised, fair, always willing to listen to both sides of a problem – the society which had made an art form of debating, after all!
I met my Greek husband-to-be in England but, as graduation day approached, we knew things would get complicated. We wanted to stay together, but he was not willing to return with me to Romania, nor was there any future for us (both academics in highly specialized fields) in Greece. I was offered academic positions in Brazil, Hong Kong, perhaps even the US, but I wanted to stay in Europe, close to my family and my boyfriend. When I say to my Brexit friends that they would never have known me if it weren’t for the EU, I am not joking. I may have felt more at home in the UK than in Romania (where I was always viewed as ‘the outsider with a bit of an English accent’), but I was not allowed to stay there unless I married. So we decided to get married sooner than we might have planned: it was the only way we could stay together without having to fight with visas and bureaucracy every time we wanted to visit each other.
This is the point at which I start to laugh when people say what a ‘soft spot’ the UK is for immigrants. For us, it proved anything but soft. Not only did we not gain any advantages from the state, but my husband lost all of his rights as an EU citizen (legally resident in the UK). We had to fill out endless forms, leave our passports for months at Lunar House, be subjected to all sorts of random spot-checks to see if our marriage was fake, plus my husband had to prove that he could support me as well as himself and neither of us would be allowed to access any state benefits for the next 5 years or so. We didn’t want benefits, we just wanted to be able to apply for jobs once we graduated.
He put up with the madness of bureaucracy at the time, but it put our relationship on an uneven keel from the outset. This set some things in motion which cost me dearly (I ended up being the apologetic underdog, forever trying to make up for things), but I can imagine far worse situations in other families: reproaches of ‘I rescued you’, assaults, sense of entitlement and cover-ups.
Years passed. I worked hard, paid taxes, consumed, volunteered, gave birth to British citizens and generally was the most law-abiding and happy freshly-baked citizen you could imagine. Romania joined the ranks of the EU, although I could still feel the reluctance of others to let us ‘into the club’. I had to follow my husband when he was transferred abroad to the Geneva area for work. Of course, here I am an ‘expat’ rather than an ‘immigrant’, so it was much easier to find joy and build a temporary nest, all the while knowing that I would return to the country that most closely resembles ‘home’ to me.
What is it like to live without borders? I still can’t describe to you the thrill I get from being able to travel where I want whenever I want, attending significant events in my friends’ lives, being able to visit sick parents or go on business trips and conferences without being questioned about the people I met and where exactly I stayed. I run every day along the Franco-Swiss border, with one foot in France and the other in Switzerland, and it still brings tears to my eyes that it’s possible to do that without being shot or imprisoned.
I’m old enough to remember daily life in the dark, dread shadow of the Cold War, icing your blood and making you suspicious of your neighbours, friends, family and even your own motives. I’ve been fed nationalistic ideology to the point where I’m deeply suspicious of all forms of jingoism, from tub-thumping atavistic cries at sporting events, to brainwashing schoolchildren with ‘national values’, as if they are clearly set in stone and the same for everyone. I’m old enough to know that an ‘us vs. them’ mentality is easy in the short term but never works in the long term. I know the EU has not lived up to all of its idealistic goals, that many countries and leaders have been selfishly and aggressively pursuing their own agendas instead of thinking and finding solutions collectively.
But I cannot bear the alternative.
When I wake up on the morning after the Referendum (which falls, incidentally, on my birthday), I fear stepping into a world where fragmentation and ever narrower interest groups are the norm. Idealism suffers when the practicalities of implementation take over, but surely we can do better than declare EU idealism a cadaver and run away.