Displacement and Alienation: Reading between Cultures

Moving between cultures and trying to understand or adapt to a new environment have always been subjects dear to my heart, in my personal, professional and reading life. So it’s no surprise that four of the books I’ve recently finished feature people caught between cultures, either outsiders looking in or insiders trying to see out into the wider world beyond. In reading them, I moved between France, Morocco, Belgium, East and West Germany, American Samoa and San Francisco, Russia, Serbia and London.

pantalonFouad Laroui: L’Etrange Affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine

#TBR14

A fine collection of short stories by this French writer of Moroccan origin. I had previously enjoyed his (fictional) account of being educated at a French school in Morocco, and, despite the uneven quality of the stories, they are often funny and always thought-provoking, a deserved winner of the Goncourt Prize for short fiction in 2013.

There are two very distinct types of short stories in this book. The Moroccan tales told by groups of friends around a table in a cafe are full of humour, interruptions, interjections, digressions and tender absurdity. The title story tells of a Moroccan bureaucrat who’s been sent to Brussels to try to negotiate a good price to buy wheat from the EU… but loses his trousers before the all-important meeting. Faced with a new demand from the Ministry of Education to introduce swimming in the national curriculum, schools in a small Moroccan town not possessed of a single pool prove inventive and introduce ‘dry swimming’.

There are also the more global tales of displacement, of identity, of wondering about origins and the possibility of cross-cultural understanding. The story of a couple unable to quite put an end to their relationship as they meet one final time in Brussels and the short sketch featuring a philosophy teacher being chastised by her student for introducing him to a world of pain and questioning are particularly effective.

fliehganzleisFriederike Schmöe: Fliehganzleis

#TBR15

Larissa Countess Rothenstayn grew up in the GDR but managed to escape to the West and reclaim her ancestral seat in 1975. She has asked Kea Laverde to write her memoirs and Kea is enjoying her company and the peaceful palace gardens. But then the Countess is attacked and left for dead by an intruder. While the police are investigating the incident, Kea starts her own research into the family archive, trying to understand just how the Countess managed to escape to the West (her first attempt was unsuccessful) and also why she is so obsessed with the case of a young girl who drowned in 1968.

This is the second in the series featuring likeable and feisty travel writer turned ghostwriter Kea and her boyfriend, the policeman Nero Keller. This is a book I could particularly relate to, as it is a case that involves the Stasi and escape routes out of the GDR, and how we are never quite rid of the past. Perhaps a slightly more leisurely pace than Anglo-Saxon readers might be used to in their crime fiction (there is quite a bit of historical detail), but a good read and engaging characters. And I love Kea’s two geese Waterloo and Austerlitz (or Loo and Litz). What struck me was how difficult even those belonging to the same German nation find it to understand each other, given that they’ve had a different historical path and living conditions for a number of decades. The title can be roughly translated as ‘escape as quietly as possible’.

I’ve previously done a Q and A with Friederike on what got her hooked on crime fiction.

John Enright: Blood Jungle BalletBloodJungle

#TBR13

I’ve reviewed the first one in the series and always thought that I would end up reading another one, as I enjoyed the description of Samoan culture (from the point of view of a policeman who has grown up in San Francisco). This is the fourth in the series and it has an end-of-series feel to it, as by the end of the story Apelu is burnt out and prepares for retirement on his plantation.

A disquieting string of murders terrorizes the remote, lush island of American Samoa. Det. Sgt. Apelu Soifua has seen a lot in his time with the police force, but even he is unsettled by the bodies that have started piling up. At first, the murders don’t seem connected: a local transvestite found castrated and brutalized, a visiting politician who drops dead on the dance floor, a prison guard and an inmate who kill each other, a priest specialising in exorcism seems to commit suicide. As Apelu works with the hospital’s new medical examiner imported from the US, they establish a disturbing pattern pointing to a serial killer.  Although the idea of a serial killer on such a small island is a bit preposterous, what I really enjoyed about this book is that it runs on Samoan time – the whole investigation takes place over 2 years, which is far more realistic for a serial killer pattern to emerge.

The characters and the interactions are very well written, although the plot did feel a tad predictable and relies on some coincidences to come to a conclusion. There was a LOT of foreshadowing, to the point where I did at times feel like shouting: ‘Get on with the actual thing already!’. And it feels much more serious, elegiac almost, as external events (the war in Iraq, Christian missionaries) affect island life. A mourning for lost paradise – while still acknowledging that paradise has always been illusory.

GorskyVesna Goldsworthy: Gorsky

#TBR16

Gorsky is a Russian oligarch determined to regain the love of his youthful sweetheart, although she is now married to an Englishman. He builds a magnificent abode on the Thames in London, right opposite her own mansion, and hires a Serbian bookseller to put together the most amazing library for him. It is Nikola the bookseller who is telling the story and if you’ve spotted the similarities to The Great Gatsby, that is indeed the case and very deliberate.

I’m not sure what to make of this fan fiction. It is amusing enough to see Gatsby transposed into present-day Chelski and the London of its super-rich (and usually foreign) new residents, and I enjoyed the description of some of the treasured books Nikola digs up, but I don’t quite see the point of this. It doesn’t seem to add much to the original story, except for that foreign point of view, of someone trying to fit in with a culture that is not his own, and that he can never be part of. And, to be honest, I don’t find the lives of the super-rich very interesting at all…

 

Friday Fun: Out on the Patio

Who wants to spend time inside, when there are such pools, patios and views beckoning? In this hot weather, however, don’t forget your sunscreen, floppy hats and books to cover your faces (tablets are just not the same thing…).

Zinc House, from Decoist.com
Zinc House, from Decoist.com
Spanish villa, from Architectural Digest.
Spanish villa, from Architectural Digest.
Greek villa, photographer credit Prue Roscoe.
Greek villa, photographer credit Prue Roscoe.
Oriental theme, from jetsetter.com
Oriental theme, from jetsetter.com
Roof garden, from Domaine Home.
Roof garden, from Domaine Home.
Armani's house, Architectural Digest.
Armani’s house, Architectural Digest.

Things to Look Forward To: Livre Sur les Quais 2015

lelivresurlesquais2014Last year I waxed lyrical about the great atmosphere of this book festival for readers and authors in Morges, on the banks of the bonny Lac Léman. This year it’s taking place between the 5th and 7th of September and I’ll be heading there again for what promises to be a great line-up and a chance to enjoy the last days of summer in congenial surroundings. There is a giant book tent where you get a chance to buy books and get them signed by your favourite authors, as well as a number of panel discussions or Q&A sessions with authors.

From actualitte.com
From actualitte.com

This year too, you’ll find the usual suspects of Swiss and French-speaking writers, including old favourites of mine (or those I look forward to reading), such as: Metin Arditi, Joseph Incardona, Yasmina Khadra, Martin Suter, Alex Capus, Emilie de Turckheim, Tatiana de Rosnay, Alain Mabanckou, Timothée de Fombelle.

From website of the festival.
From website of the festival.

They will be joined by a diverse bunch of writers who also speak English (not all of them write in English): Esther Freud, Jonathan Coe, Louis de Bernières, Helen Dunmore, Amanda Hodginskon, Jenny Colgan, Tessa Hadley, Elif Shafak from Turkey, Petina Gappah from Zimbabwe, Gabriel Gbadamosi from Nigeria, Frank Westerman from the Netherlands, Paul Lynch (the Irish writer rather than the Canadian filmmaker). Also present: several members of the Geneva Writers’ Group who’ve had new books out recently, writers I’m proud to also call my friends, such as Michelle Bailat-Jones, Susan Tiberghien, Patti Marxsen. The Geneva Writers’ Group will also be hosting a breakfast on the boat from Geneva to Nyon to Morges, a wonderful opportunity for readings and Q&A sessions with some of our authors.

Boat rides on Lake Geneva, www.genferseegebiet.ch
Boat rides on Lake Geneva, http://www.genferseegebiet.ch

 

This year’s guest of honour is poor, battered Greece, a reminder that art and creativity can nevertheless survive like wildflowers peeking through cracks in austere cement. Here are a few of the writers I look forward to discovering there:

  • crime writer and masterly painter of the Greek crisis, Petros Markaris
  • Christos Tsiolkas – Australian of Greek origin, who needs no further introduction
  • Ersi Sotiropoulos: an experimental, avant-garde writer, whose novel about four young Athenians musing about their future, Zig-Zag through the Bitter Orange Trees, has been translated into English. She is currently working on ‘Plato in New York’, described as a hybrid of a novel that uses fictional narrative, dialogue, and visual poetry.
  • Yannis Kiourtsakis – suspended between France and Greece, novels exploring the heart of displacement and emigration
  • Poet Thanassis Hatzopoulous, whose wonderful words (translated by David Connolly) I leave you with:

DAEMON
The clacking of prayers persists
And the rattles of the temple where
The beauteous officiates

And yet no one
Can bear this beauty, the touch
Everything glows and fades incomprehensibly
By itself carrying so much desolation
And charm peculiar to verbs

The seasons rotate under the veil of rhythm
And the people who bear them
Return more vigorous full of freshness and breeze
Conveyed in their steps
Dripping their tracks

And whatever life gives them they return
So equally the soul’s universe is shared
Rendering in radiance whatever
In at times its own way avaricious
Nature intends

Yet beauty has no justice
All turmoil, prey to chance is meted
And finds peace.

He Says She Says They Say

From nownovel.com
From nownovel.com

I don’t know how, I don’t know why
but one day
on the sly
and on the fly
my poems turned into surly teenagers.
No more tender night cuddles
no tear-smirched cheeks to smooth
seldom around for longer than it takes
to grunt and disapprove
of my repetitive attempts
to ask them
how
they feel.
***
Sometimes she constrains our flow
in dismally low fixed forms, barriers and the like…
Oh, pu-leee-ze, lady, make up your mind!
She twirls us endlessly,
frets, crosses out
the best among us.
Then, too late,
she introduces us to new words
still stiff from their dictionary plaid.
So why should we be easy, pleasant and obedient?
Stop trying to make us fit in!

And that’s about all you’re going to hear from me for the rest of the week, which will be dedicated, alas, not to writing, but to amusing and feeding the children, and going through an immense To Do list.

Reading in June

Longest days, shortest nights of the year, so plenty of time for reading in June –  not much time for anything else in fact! It’s the kind of month where I can’t hear myself think, let alone write, we were all so busy with end-of-year stuff. So reading it is, to feed that relentlessly hungry gawp in myself.

#TBR20 Challenge is going well:

#TBR3 Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji (also re-reading challenge)

#TBR4 Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch

#TBR5 Wendy Cope (ed.): The Funny Side

#TBR6 Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night

#TBR7 Liad Shoham: Tel Aviv Suspects

#TBR8 Ever Yours: Essential Van Gogh Letters

#TBR9: Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs

#TBR10: Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills

#TBR11: Jeremie Guez: Paris La Nuit

#TBR12: Muriel Spark: Loitering with Intent (also a rereading challenge)

#TBR13: Friederike Schmoe: Fliehganzleis

#TBR14: Fouad Laroui: L’étrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine

These last two will be reviewed shortly, or as soon as holidays and children allow.

Review copies:

Cath Staincliffe: Half the World Away

Hakan Nesser: The Summer of Kim Novak

Ruth Ware: In a Dark, Dark Wood

Maggie Mitchell: Pretty Is

Pascal Garnier: Boxes

The One That Got Away:

Etienne Davodeau: Les Ignorants

Some other facts and figures:

18 books read in total, of which 7 can be legitimately classified as crime fiction/psychological thriller. My Crime Fiction Pick of the month (a meme initiated by Mysteries in Paradise) is Witness the Night, although I was also very impressed with Tel Aviv Suspects and Paris la Nuit.

3 books in German, 4 in French, 7 translations (from French, Swedish, Russian, Dutch, Hebrew and Japanese). I haven’t done so well in my Global Reading Challenge, with only Kishwar Desai bringing me to a new country, India. I still have to read books set in Africa, Oceania and South America, and find something for the 7th continent. 9 by women authors, 9 by men. And I am only 3 reviews behind!

1 poetry, 1 graphic non-fiction book, 2 rereading challenges, 1 auto-biography/letters.

Doing the #TBR20 challenge is having a very calming effect on me. Although I’ve still been doing a fair share of reviewing, it has felt much more within my control. I’ve felt much more freedom in the selection of my next book, plus there is such satisfaction to be had when you make a dent in your messy book pile!

Having said that, though, I must admit that I’ve cheated slightly and borrowed some books from the library. I haven’t actually started reading them yet, as they are for the duration of the summer holidays. So I will start them once I’ve completed my #TBR20 – that’s still within the rules, right?

Coming up for the #TBR20? A female French writer, for a change – Sylvie Granotier’s latest. One of my favourite German crime writers, Jakob Arjouni, and The Neck of the Giraffe by Judith Schalansky. Blood Jungle Ballet, set in American Samoa. I may have a change of heart for the remaining two books of the challenge, so I’ll allow myself (and you) to be surprised.

And those library books? The latest Vargas Temps Glaciares, a fictionalised biography of Isadora Duncan (one of my childhood heroines) by Caroline Deyns and Carrère’s L’Adversaire (couldn’t resist, after hearing the neighbours’ story of the real-life event which it’s based upon).

The Tale of Genji Readalong (2)

Apocryphal drawing of Murasaki Shikibu, dating from the 18th century, from Wikipedia.
Apocryphal drawing of Murasaki Shikibu, dating from the 18th century, from Wikipedia.

It’s taken me three months, but I’ve finally vanquished the monster that is The Tale of Genji in the Royall Tyler translation. I started it back in April together with Akylina from The Literary Sisters, but we both realised it would take far longer than a month to do it justice. Tony Malone has also been reading it and will have a post about it shortly on his blog, but I loved his comment that Genji’s modern-day equivalent would be a spoilt rock star, concessions being made because of his elevated god-like status.

I broke off my reading in the previous blog post at Chapter 10, where Genji gets his first taste of hardship, as he is sent into exile following an ill-advised love affair with the daughter of one of his political enemies. He has to leave Murasaki behind and he suffers from loneliness and some strange dreams, as well as humiliations and a raging storm. However, life is not all bad and he becomes entangled with his neighbour’s daughter, who will bear him a daughter. In time, she will become Empress, but even before that Genji returns from exile and is elevated by the new Emperor (his secret son) to the highest possible status.

This is when the snobbery of the age becomes apparent – or should that be Genji’s own sense of self-importance? Because he now becomes all too acutely aware that Murasaki, for all her qualities and the love that he bears her, does not have the rank and influence to become the wife of such an elevated person as himself. It’s almost unbearable to read about Murasaki’s pangs of jealousy when he spends night after night with Lady Asagao, or develops decidedly unpaternal feelings towards a young girl he has been entrusted with (to raise her as his own daughter). Finally, he marries the Third Princess, daughter of the retired Emperor (under some pressure from the latte), and soon lives to regret it, when she takes a lover and has an illegitimate son. In the midst of all this furore, Murasaki falls desperately ill and is possessed by an evil spirit. When Murasaki dies, Genji becomes an empty shell of a man, dreaming only of retiring to a temple.

Genji with his family, from artelino.com
Genji with his family, from artelino.com

In between all these soap-opera dramas, there are plenty of charming scenes of domestic and courtly life: descriptions of archery contests, processions, poetry competitions, moon-gazing evenings, coming-of-age ceremonies, kite-flying and football amusements, concerts. These scenes must have seemed aspirational to readers and perhaps created a centuries-long ideal of sophistication and culture which never truly existed at the Heian court.

The first time I read Genji, I too fell under the spell of all these courtly events and the carefully planned poems the protagonists all send to each other. This time, however, I was more interested in the cosy scenes of intimacy: Genji and Murasaki chatting together in bed, the children squabbling, Genji playing with the youngsters, the gossipy ladies of the entourage.

The philosophy of the age is summed up by Genji’s son Yugiri, who initially seemed a dependable, serious and loyal man, but later makes two women very unhappy. This induces some self-reflection in Genji and awareness of the less than stellar way he has treated Murasaki in the past. Here is how Yugiri justifies polygamy or having a mistress (or several):

What must be unique is a husband who seeks no diversion elsewhere, even after he reaches a certain level of prominence, but remains as tremulously faithful to his one and only wife as a hawk to his mate. People must be laughing their heads off at me. It is hardly to your credit, either, that you command such loyalty from anyone so dull. What really sets off a woman is to stand out among a range of others…

I’ll be completely honest and admit that I still love the last chapters of Genji (45-54, the so-called Uji chapters) more than the rest. Genji has died, all of a sudden, and after his life and loves had been described in such minutiae over hundreds of pages, his death is dispatched with incredible alacrity. We have one blank chapter, entitled ‘Vanished into the Clouds’ (which evokes the void he leaves behind) and then we hear just this:

‘His light was gone, and none among his many descendants could compare to what he had been.’

Lady Murasaki writing, from Wikipedia.
Lady Murasaki writing, from Wikipedia.

The story now turns to his descendants, the more sober and thoughtful Kaoru and the impulsive, stubborn Niou (both of these names refer to the distinguished and unique fragrance that seems to surround them). They both fall in love with two sisters who have been brought up by their pious and world-weary father in Uji, at that time a good few hours’ away from Kyoto. With a much smaller cast of characters and deeper psychological insights, I feel these chapters show a much more mature author at work. There is an overarching sadness, the result of the conflicting desires: for human connection and love, and for Buddhist renunciation and not being too tied to the material world. There are some who contest the authorship of Murasaki Shikibu, but on the whole it is accepted that she probably wrote the whole epic (and possibly more, which has since been lost).

Calligraphy of the Heian period (12th century), from the Indiana University Library.
Calligraphy of the Heian period (12th century), from the Indiana University Library.

So, does this mammoth novel deserve its place in the pantheon of world literature? Of course it does! Find the translation that best suits you, read a little at a time, enjoy the language and the poetry, do some calligraphy or origami or write a haiku inspired by them.  And don’t get too het up about the plight of women. The past is a foreign country; the Japanese past doubly so…

But then why have I struggled so much with this rereading of Genji? Not just because life is much busier now than in my student days, nor that I’ve been much less captivated by the stories of court life and Genji’s wild pursuit of women. I believe it’s also because of the translation. Royall Tyler’s translation may be the most accurate and encyclopedic to date, but it also makes for very hard work. I simply did not get on with: the endless titles, instead of sensibly picking just one nickname (like Kaoru or Niou) and sticking with it throughout; the hesitations and many circumlocutions (which may be closer to the original style, but feel very old-fashioned and heavy weather); the lack of poetry in both the prose and the tankas liberally scattered in the text. The whole meaning of certain passages changes, and the Seidensticker translation feels more modern and feminist. Let’s compare:

He is inclined to think little of anyone he gather might give herself too easily. The yielding woman, quiet and unassuming, who sensibly winks at one thing and another and resigns herself if she feels a little hurt, is the one who actually inspires truly lasting devotion. Once a couple’s mutual loyalty begins to crumble, mud soils the clear waters of her Tatsuta River, and all that she shares with him is lost. (Royall Tyler)

It is said that he prefers not to spend his time with women who come at his beck and call. Then there are women who take things as they are. What the world does is what the world does, they say, and they do not care a great deal whether they find husbands or not. If someone comes along who is neither entirely pleasing nor entirely repulsive, well, such is life. They make good wives, rather better than you might think. And then the bank begins to give way, and what is left is a muddy Tatsuta. You must have heard of such cases – the last of the old love gone down the stream… (Seidensticker)

Or here is the same tanka in the two versions:

No brush but your own has marked the steep mountain trails buried deep in snow wtih footprints, while back and forth letters go across the hills. (Tyler)

Along the cliffs of these mountains, locked in snow,
Are the tracks of only one. That one is you. (Seidensticker)

 

 

 

 

Approved but Still Too Greedy

Frequently Auto-Approved

Professional Reader

What, you may ask, is this little stamp of approval that I am supposed to add to the sidebar of my blog? It is a new badge from Netgalley designed for members who are auto-approved by four or more publishers. (The one below is what every reviewer registered on Netgalley receives.)

So what does this mean? Does it mean that my gorgeous writing style and incisive reviews have wooed the great and mighty of the publishing world? That they crave my approval and are falling over themselves to put my words of wisdom on their book covers?

Nope, it means I am far too greedy for my own good still. And that, despite my efforts to clear a little of my TBR list, I still have 30 (thirty!) unread books on my Netgalley shelf. That website will be my undoing…