It took some deep digging these past two exhausting weeks, but I finally found five things to rejoice about.
On a Poetry Roll
I’ve been working hard at editing and in some cases rewriting my poems. Maybe I’m regaining my groove!
Unexpected Fleabag Treat
A friend of mine couldn’t make it to the NTLive screening of Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag theatre performance, so I was the lucky recipient of her ticket. I loved the TV series, but I thought the stage show demonstrated the range of her acting talent, as well as her writing talent. She is far more moving, able to switch (you as an audience) from laughter to tears in a few seconds.
A Painting I Thought About for a Year
I visited local artist (and friend of a friend) Inge du Plessis last year at the local art trail and open house. I bought a small portrait of one of my heroines Sophie Scholl, but I couldn’t forget another picture that grabbed my attention that time. It was entitled The Suburbs and reminded me of the books of Richard Yates – the everyday blandness but also darkness and loneliness of life there. This year, I visited again and there were plenty of new paintings, but no sign of The Suburbs. So I asked about it – and it turns out it hadn’t been sold and Inge was thinking of painting over it! Luckily, I rescued it from its ignoble fate and am now the proud owner of it. Taking pictures of painting is very tricky – but I hope you can catch a glimpse of why I fell in love with it.
Discovering Norwich and UEA
I was utterly charmed by the town and the university, despite the grey concrete of the latter. I’m trying not to influence my son, but wouldn’t mind if he went there to study. And, if I do stay in the UK after they leave home, I’m seriously considering moving there!
Going to the Gym with My Son
My older son and I have signed up with the local gym and are egging each other on. A much-needed break from hunching over books and computers!
This month I’ve been meaning to read mainly Chinese writers – as it happens, all women in translation, so my #WITMonth continues.
Eileen Chang: Lust, Caution and Other Stories (transl. Julia Lovell, Karen Kingsbury, Janet Ng, Simon Patton and Eva Hung)
Eileen Chang had a brief moment of fame in Japan-occupied Shanghai during the Second World War, which she was never quite able to replicate later, when she moved to Hong Kong and then to the United States. She became a recluse; sadly, her body was found in her apartment in LA several days after she died in 1995.
However, her posthumous success in China has been phenomenal. Her essays and stories were rediscovered in the 1970/80s and she became one of the most influential writers for younger authors in Taiwan, Hong Kong and finally mainland China, but she is not that well known in the West, even after director Ang Lee adapted her story Lust, Caution into a film in 2007. Although she is not an overtly political writer and has occasionally been criticised for focusing almost exclusively on the lives of women, there is no one to match her sharp observational skills. She not only manages to give us a slice of life of a certain period in Shanghai’s history, but also captures issues of class, exploitation and gender expectations in a way that feels perenially relevant. The stories are often very funny, for example In the Waiting Room, with quirky and diverse characters such as you would expect to find in a doctor’s waiting room, but far more willing to open up about their personal lives and worries than anything you might encounter in England.
Above all, I like the way she describes the simmering resentments and misunderstandings between East and West in cosmopolitan Shanghai. My favourite story in this slim volume is Steamed Osmanthus Flower, in which a Chinese housekeeper navigates the tricky relationship with her English master, while simultaneously trying to keep her husband and child content.
The title story Lust, Caution is about an affair but also a tale of war-time espionage and an assassination attempt. Apparently, it took nearly twenty years to write, and it shows: each word is so precise, so perfectly placed, the dialogue is so sparkling and full of innuendo. This is perhaps the most openly ‘political’ of her stories, but it shows how ordinary people’s everyday lives are being shaped (and sometimes destroyed) by politics rather than arguing for or against a particular political thesis.
Zhou Wei Hui: Shanghai Baby, transl. Bruce Humes
By way of contrast, Zhou Wei Hui’s novel set in late 1990s Shanghai has little of Chang’s subtlety or awareness of the complexity of East/West relations. It is the story of Coco, a young woman who aspires to be a writer, and who is torn between two men: her romance with a Chinese boyfriend who is impotent and her sexual entanglements with a married German. The Shanghai she describes certainly doesn’t correspond to any images of China you might still have lingering in your head: people in Mao suits riding bicycles or struggling to make ends meet. This is the Shanghai of the well-off, a consumer’s paradise, a city full of nightclubs and drugs, a ‘feminine’ city as the narrator describes it, in comparison to the macho cities of northern China. Coco and her friends think nothing of hopping onto a plane at short notice to attend a concert by a band in Beijing.
Ironically, the hedonistic lifestyle she describes was regarded with suspicion by the Chinese authorities and the book was banned shortly after publication for its immoral nature and irreverent style. There is nothing there that is very shocking to a Western reader: a lot of sex, a lot of drug-taking, but the details are not prurient or voyeuristic. It is clear that the author admires Western culture – there are several quotes from Henry Miller, Sylvia Plath, Milan Kundera but also from various musicians, but overall the style is pedestrian, while trying achingly hard to be hipsterish (if the term was in existence back in 2000 when this was first published). It is a young person’s book, so perhaps I am being a little harsh: it reminded me of the so-called millenial writers like Otessa Moshfegh or Sally Rooney (neither of whom I’ve read exhaustively because… they bore me. I am not the target age group, I think.) But, needless to say, there are plenty of people who love those English-speaking writers, so you might love this book. It certainly helps to dismantle some stereotypes and shows a Chinese society in flux.
Literature is the only thing lighting up our lives at the moment (and music and art etc.), so of course I am here, even though a little bit late, for that fun monthly meme of Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, which I haven’t read but which sounds very interesting, about a Russian count placed under house arrest for seditious beliefs.
Another book about someone under arrest is I Will Never See the World Again by Ahmet Altan, one of the many Turkish writers imprisoned by Erdogan’s oppressive regime. I gather the book was smuggled out of his prison cell, as were his notes to the translators of his historical family saga novel series, of which I’ve read the first Like a Sword Wound.
One book with the word sword in the title that we all read at school in my childhood was The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier, about a family separated by war and involving a dramatic escape across Europe from Poland into Switzerland.
Switzerland is the common thread linking to the next book by someone I met while I lived in Geneva (but whose book I’d been using long before I met him for intercultural training) Diccon Bewes: Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Honey. Revealing, and often very funny.
The same principle applies to Watching the English by Kate Fox, except that Kate is an anthropologist rather than a journalist, so she tries to analyse certain patterns via surveys and fieldwork rather than just through analysis of media, history and personal observation.
My last link is to another author named Kate, namely Kate Atkinson. My favourite book by her (not that I’ve read them all) is her first: Behind the Scenes at the Museum.
So we had a super-fast tour of Moscow, Turkey, Poland, Switzerland, England and Yorkshire (which sometimes feels like a different country). Where will your links take you this month?
It’s still pleasant enough to sit outside on a balcony and read, or watch the world go by, or become acquainted with trees and wildlife. Or, ideally, all three! Some of them are more open than others, but they all make wonderful retreats from the world’s madness.
I saw a blog post this week on Portuguese reader Susana’s blog A Bag Full of Stories, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to tag myself and take part. As you know, I am very opinionated when it comes to translations!
A translated novel you would recommend to everyone
Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver (trans. Thomas Teal) is such a deceptively simple story of village life in winter and the friendship between two women, but it is full of undercurrents, ambiguity, darkness. Of course, if you haven’t read Tove Jansson at all, then I suggest you start with the Moomins, which are just as wonderful for grown-ups as they are for children.
A recently read “old” translated novel you enjoyed
The Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic, which was the inspiration for Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, was even better than I expected.
A translated book you could not get into
Everybody knows that my Achilles heel is The Brothers Karamazov, which is ironic, given that I love everything else that Dostoevsky wrote (and generally prefer him to Tolstoy). I have bought myself a new copy of it and will attempt it again (for the 5th time?).
Your most anticipated translated novel release
This is a little under the radar, but it sounds fascinating: Istros Books (one of my favourite publishers, for its brave championing of a part of Europe that is still woefully under-translated) is bringing out The Trap by Ludovic Bruckstein, a Romanian Jewish writer virtually unknown to me (because he emigrated in 1970 and was declared persona non grata in Romania). The book is made up of two novellas, offering, as the publisher blurb goes, ‘a fascinating depiction of rural life in the Carpathians around the time of the Second World War, tracing the chilling descent into disorder and fear of two cosmopolitan communities that had hitherto appeared to be havens of religious and racial acceptance’. The official launch will take place on 26th of September in London and you bet that I’ll be there!
A “foreign-language” author you would love to read more of
I only discovered Argentinean author Cesar Aira in 2018, and he is so vastly prolific (and reasonably frequently translated) that I have quite a task ahead of me to catch up. His novels are exhilarating, slightly mad and, most importantly, quite short.
A translated novel which you consider to be better that the film
Not many people will agree with me, but I prefer the very short novella Gigi by Colette to the famous musical version of it, starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier. The book’s ending is much more open to interpretation and makes you doubt the long-term happiness of young Gigi. It can be read as a satire and critique of the shallow world of Parisian society and the limited choices women had within it at the time.
A translated “philosophical” fiction book you recommend
Not sure I’ve read many of those! Reading biographies of philosophers or their actual work is more fun. The only example I can think of, and which I enjoyed at the time but haven’t reread in years, is Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, transl. Paulette Moller.
A translated fiction book that has been on your TBR for far too long
Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall (trans. Shaun Whiteside) is a post-apocalyptic novel with a difference. I’ve been meaning to read this much praised novel forever, but in the original, so I finally bought it in Berlin last year… and still haven’t got around to reading it.
A popular translated fiction book you have not read yet
Korean fiction seems to be having a moment in the sun right now (thanks to a great influx of funding for translation and publication), especially the author Han Kang. I haven’t read the ever-popular The Vegetarian but her more recently translated one Human Acts (trans. Deborah Smith) sounds more on my wavelength, with its examination of policital dissent and its repercussions.
A translated fiction book you have heard a lot about and would like to find more about or read
The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischwili, translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin is perhaps far too intimidatingly long (1000 pages) for me to read, but it sounds epic: six generations of a Georgian family living through the turbulent Soviet 20th century.
I tend to mix up some of the middle-aged white male Anglo-Saxon writers. Philip Roth with Saul Bellow, Updike with DeLillo, Martin Amis with Will Self, David Foster Wallace with Brett Easton Ellis. I have read some of their books, mostly in my youth, but I would not make great efforts now to seek them out (Saul Bellow is perhaps the one I remember most fondly out of the lot). One writer I do not confuse with any of the above is Julian Barnes. I haven’t loved all of his books, but he is more often a hit than a miss for me, even though he too can go on a bit about midlife crisis and middle class problems. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that – quite a few readers are in that category, including me, so can relate to all that! – it’s just bad when those are the only kind of books to get published or to win prizes, when they become (forgive the pun) The Only Story. But hopefully all that is changing now!
I admired it but was ever so slightly disappointed by Barnes’ previous novel, the reimagining of three key moments in Shostakovich’s life, but here he goes back to familiar territory, an older man musing on the loves and choices of his youth. 19 year old Paul falls in love with an older married woman – they settle down to live happily ever after, but things don’t work out like that. That’s the story in a nutshell, but it doesn’t do justice to that beatiful sense of yearning, of missed opportunities, of gaining wisdom but losing passion.
Barnes has such insight into human beings, into those stories we tell ourselves, the justifications we use, but is bitingly honest about what lies underneath. At times, it can feel like an extended meditation about regrets and growing older, but it’s full of quotable passages and tangential rants (which nevertheless suit young Paul well).
What did I dislike and distrust about adulthood? Well, to put it briefly: the sense of entitlement, the sense of superiority, the assumption of knowing better if not best, the vast banality of adult opinions, the way women took out compacts and powdered their noses, the way men sat in armchairs with their legs apart and their privates heavily outlined against their trousers, the way they talked about gardens and gardening…… their docile obedience to social norms, their snarky disapproval of anything satirical or questioning, their assumption that their children’s success would be measured by how well they imitated their parents, the suffocaitng noise they made when agreeing with one another…
It seemed to me, back then… that love had nothing to do with practicality; indeed, was its polar opposite. And the fact that it showed contempt for such banal considerations was part of its glory. Love was by its very nature disruptive, cataclysmic; and it if was not, then it was not love.
I didn’t realize that there was panic inside her. How could I have guessed? I thought it was just inside me. Now, I realize, rather late in the day, that it is in everyone. It’s a condition of our mortality. We have codes of manners to allay and minimise it, jokes and routines, and so many forms of diversion and distraction. But there is panic and pandemonium waiting to break out inside all of us…
… by that time he had made the most terrifying discovery of his life… the realization that love, even the most ardent and the most sincere, can, given the correct assault, curdle into a mixture of pity and anger. His love had gone, had been drive out, month by month, year by year. But what shocked him was that the emotions which replaced it were just as violent as the love which had previously stood in his heart.
I’m fully aware that I’ve had wonderfully supportive men in my professional and personal life as well, but at this particular point in my life, I am thirsting for that generous nurturing that can come from the women you aspire to become some day.
I have been fortunate to have great female role models encourage and inspire me at just the right inflection points in my life. The meetings were brief and I doubt that any of them will remember me, but for me they were life-changing. Naomi Shihab Nye encouraged me to start writing poetry (again). Laura Kasischke and Kathleen Jamie engaged with my poetry and made me feel I had something to say after all. Sarah Savitt (then at Faber, now at Virago) loved the beginning of my novel and encouraged me to finish it prestissimo – sorry, Sarah, life intervened, but I WILL finish! Michele Roberts gave me feminist support and solidarity when my marriage was breaking down. Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books is just the most caring and passionate individual I’ve ever met in publishing, she envelopes you like a warm hug and is an absolute tonic when you are down. My triad of charmed and charming women writers who organise the most wholesome, funny and productive writing retreat in the world, L’Atelier Writers (namely, Michelle Bailat Jones, Laura McCune-Poplin and Sara Johnson Allen)… and the participants I met there, who have become my creative sisters.
The three most recent examples are Nicola Barker and Ali Smith, as well as my poetry mentor Rebecca Goss. Here are some of their thoughts that particularly stuck with me.
I admire Nicola Barker’s commitment to remaining ‘ferociously innocent’ (instead of jaded or cynical) and her ability to find joy and playfulness in writing. She is aware that her writing has been described as difficult, and that not a lot of people read her, but she believes that experimental writers are ‘bottom feeders, virtually unseen in the depths of the ocean, but somehow something percolates up towards the top.
Meanwhile, Ali Smith is aware that her ‘Brexit novel series’ will be out of date in just a couple of years, but she feels compelled to witness the times in something other than journalism, and hopes it will give us a snapshot of what it felt like to be at this particular point in history. She described writing these books as ‘being in the middle of a powerful storm, trying to capture the roar’.
Last but not least, it is such a privilege to work with a mentor for poetry. Someone who reads your work very closely, who asks you about your intention and really listens, doesn’t impose her point of view but tries to work with you to make your poem as good as it can possibly be. I came home last night after a busy and difficult day at work, tired from the commute, doubled up in pain from yet another over-abundant period, mentally exhausted with all the back to school prep. Rebecca was generous with her time, praise and thoughts and I left the session with little wings attached Hermes-like to my swollen ankles…