The French-American artist Louise Bourgeois is widely known for her gigantic spider sculptures, like the one at the Tate Modern in London, but she is so much more than that. I had never seen much of her art in person before, and since the exhibition of her late work The Woven Child at the Hayward Gallery will be closing on the 15th May, I made it a point to go there last week to see it.
I am not necessarily a huge fan of installation art, but there is something so visceral and moving about Bourgeois’ work that you feel you want to immerse yourself in it. Certainly step into her cages or cells, touch those floating bits of gauze, lace and other silk, which feel so vulnerable.
It is impossible not to be struck by the symbolism of the work. Some of it was too disturbing, too powerful for me to want to take a picture to share with others: couples embracing where the woman had a maimed limb, bodies hanging in various stages of distress… I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rising. But others were more benign and profoundly moving.
Then there were the fabric heads with gaping mouths and flattened features – like a zombie army. So many ways to interpret this!
There were ‘prettier’, less visceral works on display too, full of literary allusions or nostalgia for long-gone places.
LATE ADDITION: I’ve just been made aware that there is a video of someone much more eloquent than me who can talk you through this wonderful exhibition, namely Deborah Levy.
With all of the bad news coming out of Ukraine (with whom Romania shares a considerable land border), plus the usual workplace stresses and household breakages, I have been in a bit of an anxious state this month, so I am simply plodding along, taking it one day at a time. As usual, books have provided me with much-needed distraction, beauty, connection and escapism.
It’s more than just reading, it’s also attending various literary events or writing or film watching – all the things that make my life worthwhile (it has all been virtual this month – and, to be honest, if all Covid protections are completely removed, I’m not sure I’ll venture out much in the future, except for unavoidable things like work and my much-postponed but hopefully still viable trip to Romania).
I read eleven books, including two chunksters (Frank Moorhouse and Christina Stead). Two were re-reads (Mihail Sebastian for my London Reads the World Book Club on 7th of March, and Maus because of all the uproar about it being banned in certain US schools). Seven were by women authors, one non-binary and only three male authors. One non-fiction (Josie George), one collection of short stories or vignettes (Wilder Winds), one graphic novel, two crime novels (just about) and the rest novels.
I declared this an Oz Feb month, to make up for my embarrassing ignorance regarding Australian literature, but relied on books that I already had on my bookshelves. I managed to read and review five of these. Naturally, this means that my proportion of works in other languages or in translation was lower: only three books.
In retrospect, there were perhaps some better choices I could have made for the Australian authors (I also had Elizabeth Harrower and Gerald Murnane on my shelves), but if I could draw any conclusions based on the diverse writers I did read, it’s that Australian authors seem to be much more frank and direct than their English cousins, they don’t shy away from difficult subjects, their opinions can be quite unvarnished, and there is far less squeamishness about physicality: sex or the body and its biological functions.
Shirley Hazzard: The Evening of the Holiday – elegant and understated, she is the most similar to an English author, but with a far more international outlook
Frank Moorhouse:Grand Days– great combination of the personal and historical
Romy Ash:Floundering – a less unique but quite visceral account of deprived childhood and bad parenting, and also my only full contribution to #ReadIndies
Although I love Louise Penny and her Armand Gamache series, this particular one was not one of her best. It was almost too topical (and slightly optimistic about the end of the pandemic), especially in regards to the ‘who should die’ debate. I also felt somewhat manipulated by the author, trying to stretch out the drip-feeding of the information very, very slowly to increase the tension.
Bel Olid’s Wilder Winds from the fantastic Fum D’Estampa Press is one of my contributions to #ReadIndies (although I don’t have time for a full review). This translation from the Catalan proves that a slim volume of very brief, almost lightning flash stories can be more powerful than many a lengthy tome. Every word, every image is packed with meaning, and there are a great variety of voices: a young girl in a refugee camp, women of all ages, coming of age, migrants, revolutionaries, workers, mothers, voyeurs, women being catcalled on the street and more. I particularly enjoyed hearing the author and translator Laura McGloughlin talk about their collaboration at the Borderless Book Club, saying these are dark tales but with a tiny glimmer of hope. Extremely poetic and thought-provoking.
Another very brief review for my final #ReadIndie contender: The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-Mo, transl. Chi-Young Kim, published by Edinburgh-based Canongate. Ostensibly the story of Hornclaw, an ageing female assassin (or ‘disease control specialist’, as she calls herself) stalked by a colleague who is out for revenge, it is in fact an unexpectedly moving story of loneliness, tenderness and regrets about past life choices. With a descent into a bloodbath at one point that I am beginning to expect after watching Korean films and TV series, the story is nevertheless more subtle than it might appear at first, and the characterisation of the contrary, stubborn, occasionally baffled Hornclaw, who can fool everyone, including herself, is spot on.
Aside from the Borderless Book Club event, I also attended a panel discussion organised by the German House in New York around the anthology Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum / Your Homeland Is Our Nightmare, with authors representing various ‘minorities’ and marginalised groups in present-day Germany, as a response to the creation of a Ministry of ‘Heimat’. Let’s face it, vast swathes of Germany are very traditionalist, and one quote that really made me laugh was: ‘But how can we Germans be homophobic? We’ve got Berlin!’ The translators of the anthology explain things far better than me:
Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum [Your Homeland is our Nightmare] is the title of our collective work: essays by fourteen German-language authors, framed at the beginning of 2019 as a sort of answer to these developments. Because as one can imagine, this concept of homeland is a nightmare for marginalized groups in our society. But not just for them. That’s the reason why two words on the original cover of the book (Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum) are colored the same shade of purple as the book cover itself. Because it is not the editors and authors of this book who decide where “we” ends and “you” begins. Every reader decides this for themselves: Do I want to live in a society oriented around völkisch, racist, antisemitic, sexist, heteronormative, and trans-antagonistic structures? Or would I rather be a part of a society in which every individual—whether black and/or Jewish and/or Muslim and/or woman and/or queer and/or non-binary and/or poor and/or differently abled—is treated equally?
I also attended a couple of translation events organised by the Society of Authors, including the 2021 Translation Prizes and social, all of which finally gave me the push to join the society. Having translated 271, 340 words over the past two years, more than half of which have been published, it would be nice to think that at some point I might actually get paid for translating, even if not for the writing!
I also watched the NT Live showing of Leopoldstadtby Tom Stoppard at the local arts centre, not only because one of the performers was the son of a friend, but also because it shows both the charm and rot of Vienna and its persistent anti-semitism over the first half of the 20th century through the story of one extended family. Brilliantly acted throughout, it manages to be both tragic and humorous, surprising despite its predictable, all too well-known story, and posing uncomfortable questions for present-day audiences.
I tend to watch more films either when Younger Son is with his father (he prefers to watch either The Apprentice or anime with me) or when Older Son the film fanatic is around. Well, this month both of these conditions were met: YS stayed for longer than expected with his father, who tested positive for Covid while he was there for the weekend (it was a mild form and YS did not catch it), while OS came back home from university for just over a week, while his lecturers were on strike. So I had a very good month of films, not a lemon among all of these. The one thing I would NOT recommend is the TV series Kitz on Netflix, which I idly watched for two episodes in the hope that it would feature mountains, snow and skiing for some restful escapism after long working days. It was all about partying, drug-taking, sexual exploits and spoilt rich kids, with clunky dialogue, exaggerated and implausible scenario, I just couldn’t bear it.
It was funny how the films seemed to come in contrasting pairs. Olivier Assayas was the director for both the light-hearted satire of Non-Fiction and the pain of grief and inability to let go of the past in Personal Shopper. The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson was at the ornate, highly stylised end of the cinematography and storytelling spectrum, while Petite Maman by Celine Sciamma was simple, almost simplistic, pared down to the bone. Both A Cat in Paris and The House were unconventional and beautiful examples of animation art, as far removed from Disney as one might imagine, but the former was an adventure story with a heart-warming ending, while the latter was a descent into the horror of house building, maintenance and ownership in Britain. The third animated film was The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s final film for Ghibli (allegedly), and I felt more ambiguous about that: although the artwork is beautiful as always, there is perhaps a bit too much whitewashing of the life of aviation engineer Horikoshi Jiro, creator of the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighter planes used by the Kamikaze pilots in the final part of WW2. He must have known what his military planes were going to be used for, yet he seems to have suffered no remorse after the war and retired as a highly-awarded professor at Tokyo University, justifying himself by saying: ‘All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful’. The final two films were both melancholy depictions of migration, loss and identity: the Quebecois Monsieur Lazhar directed by Philippe Falardeau is about an Algerian refugee teaching a class of ten-year-olds whose teacher committed suicide; while Preparations to be Together… directed by Lili Horvát is about an eminent female neurosurgeon returning to her native Hungary for the love of another doctor she met briefly at a congress in the States. A haunting story of self-delusion and hope, becoming a victim of your own dreams vs. the power of yearnings.
Writing and Translating
I have nearly finished the first draft of translation of a very long Romanian crime novel, and continued pitching another novel (by Lavinia Braniște) to publishers. You can catch me reading a small fragment from it on the Translators Aloud YouTube channel. I also entered an extract of my translation of the play The Holiday Game by Mihail Sebastian for a competition, so fingers crossed. And I have submitted my own writing as well several times this month.
I am also working hard behind the scenes of Corylus Books: launching a monthly newsletter, editing current translations in progress and considering possible future acquisitions, applying for funding, trying to find someone who can teach us how to use Amazon Ads wisely (apparently they are becoming more and more cut-throat, leading to bidding wars). I am probably neglecting my own son and health, and certainly my house, in the process – and occasionally that springs up to bite me! I sometimes wonder whether there is any point in continuing to write, translate, publish, when the world seems intent on destroying itself.
Still, I can’t help but remind myself how lucky I am, every morning when I wake up to a cold but safe house, when I switch the heating on (even if I can’t afford to heat it as much or as often as I’d like), when I sit down free to explore the internet at leisure, have access to any source of information. As the Romanian expression goes: ‘Let’s not anger God by taking this for granted!’
I’d like to conclude with a quote from Ukrainian author Andrei Kurkov. The whole lecture that he gave in 2018 in Hong Kong is worth reading (and available for free now), but this particularly stuck with me.
Even if you were born in a civilised European or other state to take your rights for granted is dangerous. We do not pay attention to the air that we breath until it becomes unsuitable for breathing due to pollution. We do not pay attention to our body while it is healthy, but we are frightened as soon as we face the first serious problems with our heart or lungs. Our rights are not violated only if we understand them and make sure that they are not violated. Forget about them, and the consequences can be most deplorable.
You can see that December included holidays, a mood of hibernation and about 10 days without the children, because I read an inordinate amount of books and saw many films as well. I also managed to do some translating (about 28000 words, which brings me to just over a third of the way through the novel I’m working on). It was all rather cosy, but I hope to get more physically active in the New Year, as well as work on my own writing (no submissions at all this month).
18 books (although one was a DNF), of which:
8 were for the Russians in the Snow theme of the month. I particularly enjoyed a return to the classics, such as Gogol and Turgenev, but I also enjoyed discovering new authors such as Victor Pelevin and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. I’ve failed to review the Bulgakov short stories or the memoirs about Marina Tsvetaeva by her daughter. And who would have thought I’d also find a retro-detective crime series set in St Petersburg and written by a Russian?
Two books were for the Virtual Crime Fiction Book Club: Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, which I found rather harsh on the emotions, and John Banville’s Snow, which was not as cosy as I expected and just a tad overwritten.
There were several other books with a rather grim subject matter: In the Dream House(about an abusive lesbian relationship), Godspeed (about losing your youthful dreams and wasting your life chasing the impossible), mothers and sons and coping with lockdown in The Fell, and A Man (trying to disappear from your old life and forge a new identity). With the exception of the last of these, which felt rather stiff and pedestrian in its prose (not sure if that is the author himself or the translation), they were all very well written, which made the dark subject matter worth reading about
I tried to counterbalance this with lighter, escapist reading, such as Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee, The Diabolical Bones by Bella Ellis, The Pact by Sharon Bolton and The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden.
Overall, I read 170 books this year, which is perhaps understandable since I had nowhere much to go and a couple of weeks without the children. However, it’s not even in the Top 3 of my years of reading (since I started keeping track of the books on Goodreads in 2013). Top place goes to 2014 (189 books), followed by 2015 (179) and 2016 (175). Unsurprising, perhaps, since those were the three years of marriage breakdown and lots of anxiety about the future, so I was looking for escape in books. This year also had its fair share of escapist reading, but felt much more grounded in good literature, in books that I truly enjoyed or authors I wanted to explore.
Nevertheless, I managed an astounding 180 blog posts this year, writing nearly 150,000 words in the process. As a friend of mine says: ‘Why do you waste so much time crafting blog posts instead of working on your novel?’ I suppose it’s the instant gratification of receiving likes and comments. That is partly the reason why I submitted various shorter pieces (poetry and flash fiction) – you win a few, you lose a lot, but at least you get feedback a bit more quickly than when you work on a novel in isolation for years and years. In February 2022 I will be coming up to ten years of blogging and maybe it’s time I thought more carefully about what I want to achieve with it and if it’s worth continuing (at this pace).
I submitted about 40-45 times this year, got 24 rejections and 8 acceptances, but I got very discouraged when my novel didn’t get long or shortlisted at any of the various competitions I entered, so stopped working on it for several months. I hope to come back to it in 2022 – and make it a crunch year. Either I complete the novel to my satisfaction and start submitting it to agents, or else I ditch it and get started on something else.
I’m also working on another translation from Romanian and find that it helps my own writing, because I keep trying to figure out sentence structures and how to make them sound more natural in English. Plus I keep wanting to edit other people’s work, as if I could do any better! 😉
I can’t even begin to review all the films I watched this month – no less than 19 (and there might be 1-2 more before New Year). Some of them were rewatches, typical of the Christmas holidays, like My Fair Lady, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, L’Avventura and Desperately Seeking Susan. Others were family films to watch with the boys – a very few Christmassy themed, like Tokyo Godfathers or Klaus, but mostly just films that have become classics, such as Fargo or The Usual Suspects. I also had fun watching Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse or Vivo or Inside Out or Tick Tick… Boom! (I was not a huge fan of the music of Rent, but I liked what Rent set out to show, and the film itself about the constantly thwarted creative artist or whether art serves any purpose nowadays rang a lot of bells, of course!)
The two that surprised me most were:
1) West Side Story, the new version, which I had initially dismissed as an unnecessary remake and probably doomed to failure. However, I really liked the way it stuck to some of the most loved aspects of the original yet also brought in some new elements quite successfully.
2) Winter Nomads – a documentary about shepherds who practice transhumance over the winter months, when the fields lie fallow, in the Valais and Vaud region of Switzerland.
I will continue my eclectic mix of approximate planning, yet leaving plenty of room for serendipity. I also plan to focus a lot more on what I currently have on my bookshelves, as I prepare to move abroad (and have a thorough clearout of my books) in a couple of years.
January will be dedicated largely to Japanese literature, as usual. I have already started reading in preparation for that (A Man by Keiichiro Hirano) and it will be a mix of old and new, perhaps a reread or two: Tanizaki Junichiro, Endo Shusaku, Nakagami Kenji, Yosano Akiko, Miura Shion, Murakami Haruki and Natsume Soseki.
February I am thinking of going to the southern hemisphere and reading mostly Australian literature (or NZ or Indonesia if I have anything from there). The list of authors is still to be determined, but at first glance I see I have one unread Shirley Hazzard there, plus Elizabeth Harrower, Romy Ash, Miles Franklin and Frank Moorhouse. It’s a part of the world about which I know very little, so it’s bound to be a surprise.
In March I will explore Italian literature – although I am learning Italian and love the country, language and culture very much indeed, I haven’t read all that much Italian literature. I have built up a small collection of modern classics and contemporary literature that I can’t wait to try: Massimo Cuomo, Claudia Durastanti, Andrea Bajani and Alberto Prunetti, as well as better-known ones such as Italo Svevo, Natalia Ginzburg, Cesare Pavese and Curzio Malaparte.
Finally, I want to read more poetry and weave it throughout everything else I do. Random opening of volumes of poetry, using favourite poets to ‘fortune-tell’ what my day or week might be like, close reading of an unfamiliar poem and discovering new poets: I want it all.
I should in theory wait until tomorrow or the 1st of December to write my monthly summary, but I have other plans for this week, so will wrap up a little earlier. It has felt like a very long month, with the exception of my 4-5 days in Yorkshire, which simply flew by. With the exception of those few days of real holiday, my first in two years, I have been mostly ill (in fact, I had a headache for two of my days in Yorkshire too). I don’t know if my tussle with Covid in October left my body drained and my immune system struggling, but I seem to have caught every single one of the bugs from school and university, with at most a day or two of feeling fine in-between.
So, for anyone wondering where I got all my energy from – wonder no more, for my batteries have well and truly gone this month! I have just about managed to keep the day job going, spent most of my weekends in bed, and have resigned myself that I will be missing out on various projects I wanted to be involved in that have a 30th November deadline.
The only event I was able to attend (on one of the few days when I felt fine) was the Corylus event at the Romanian Cultural Institute in London on the 16th of November, where I got to speak together with the two Bogdans that I’ve been translating: Bogdan Teodorescu and Bogdan Hrib in a debate about BalkanNoir: Is Romania the Wild Wild East of Crime Fiction. The discussion was recorded and I hope we can share the link with you very soon.
Enforced bed rest and a wet mush of a brain might not be conducive to writing or translating, but it worked fine for reading, although admittedly some books were chosed for ease of reading – rather like porridge with honey to soothe a sore throat. I read no less than 18 books, helped by the fact that many of them were novellas. I have even reviewed quite a few of them.
My German Literature Month reads were all novellas, with one exception, so I managed to participate in #NovNov as well.
Alan Johnson: The Late Train to Gipsy Hill – imagine a fun spy novel, more goofy than seriously chilling, despite the rather serious subject matter
Christine Mangan: Palace of the Drowned – which did not live up to the blurb and premise – Venice in winter, an author suffering from writers’ block and waning popularity, a creepy old palazzo, an over-eager young fan. Let’s just say that it was verbose rather than truly atmospheric, neither Death in Venice nor The Talented Mr Ripley.
Margaret Kennedy: The Feast – review to come, hopefully
Surprisingly, only a third of the books I read this month were foreign language books – all of them German. Ten of the eighteen were by women writers and five were in the crime genre (a very low percentage by my standards).
Reading plans for December will be all about snow and frozen climes: Russians and Scandinavians will have pride of place, so that I can snuggle indoors under many blankets while the blizzard rages outside.
This is the month where my abstract anger at the lack of any Covid mitigations in schools in England actually had something concrete to rant against: my son caught Covid from a classmate, I caught it from him, and both of us found out about it from Track’n’Trace long after we had tested positive. Yet, according to the ‘legal requirements’, I could have gone to work in London on the day my son tested positive (because I tested negative) and infected all of my colleagues at work that day, plus an old friend I was supposed to meet at LRB Bookshop/Cafe (plus people working or shopping there), plus the people around me attending the theatre performance I had tickets for that night. Luckily, I ignored government guidelines and self-isolated from the start.
Although for a few days I thought I might never be able to concentrate enough to read properly ever again, I did in fact finish an extraordinarily large number of books this month. Probably because I struggled to do anything else. 15 books, of which: only 4 by women writers (my lowest ever proportion, I believe!), 9 in translation or foreign language (of which five in Romanian, which was my country focus this month), 7 labelled as crime fiction, one biography, two books for Book Clubs – Constance by Matthew Fitzsimmons and Roxanne Bouchard’s We Were the Salt of the Sea (trans. David Warriner). I also had a record number of historical fiction books this month – or else books written at a time that may almost be labelled historical (8).
Once again, I haven’t quite reviewed all that I’ve read (with the excellent excuse of not feeling quite well enough to do so), but I have written about:
David Peace’s Tokyo Redux and compared it to a Golden Age crime novel
And I could not stop myself writing about a childhood favourite of mine, the Romanian classic La Medeleni by Ionel Teodoreanu: Part 1 and Part 2
I was intrigued by the premise of Radu Pavel Gheo’s Good Night, Children, which was a blend of childhood reminiscing, the challenges of emigration and then the shock of returning to your home country after a long time away, plus a knowing nod towards satire and supernatural elements like Bulgakov. However, the book just couldn’t make up its mind if it was comic or tragic, tried to fit too much in, and ended up not going being enough in any of its categories.
The other book that disappointed me was Magpie by Elizabeth Day: the publishers probably did the book a disservice by labelling it as a psychological thriller with an unforeseeable twist, because I did foresee the twist quite early on, and even the final denouement (although my expectation was that it would be even darker). Some of the characters were quite flat or clicheed, and the most interesting aspect of the book, the lengths people are prepared to go to have a child of their own, rather got buried under all of the attempts to make the book palatable to a wider audience.
One book that I found very intriguing and that I do want to review was Admiring Silence by the newly-crowned Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah, about a man who comes to England as a refugee, builds a life here without every quite feeling he belongs but upon returning to visit his family back home in Tanzania (Zanzibar to be precise), discovers that he no longer fits there either.
Speaking of the refugee experience, I saw the very powerful and yet somehow sweet and wholesome film about asylum-seekers waiting for their status to be clarified, Limbo by British director Ben Sharrock. There is a lot of humour and close observation of infuriating but also poignant absurdities that alleviate the frankly quite hopeless and tragic situation. I was comparing it on Twitter to the other film about economic migrants that I saw recently Oleg, which was much bleaker, a much more violent, dog eats dog world, while here there is a certain solidarity and friendship between the characters which makes it ultimately ever so slightly hopeful. And the music! Music really occupies a prime spot here, in many different versions.
That was one of the few films I watched this month (other than anime, Squid Game and a rewatch of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with my younger son). I have been too listless to engage with anything more challenging than Strictly Come Dancing or the Great British Bake Off, both of which I completely ignored last year.
I have switched to a new (16 month) diary and so had a chance to tally all of my submissions to literary journals or competitions and see what I’ve done with my writing thus far this year: I have submitted 37 times, had 21 rejections, seven acceptances. So by the end of 2021, I will clearly have beaten my previous record in each of the categories. It may not feel like a huge number compared to others, but I am trying to keep it manageable and protect myself from too much disappointment.
I’ve also had the pleasure of attending one of the best short masterclasses I’ve ever heard, run by Lucy Caldwell for Arvon. I listened to the recording again after the class was over and have learnt so much about voice and the use of tenses – fundamental elements, which you think you already know by now, and yet… there was so much still to discover. I was pleased to hear just a week or two after this class that Lucy Caldwell won the BBC National Short Story Award this year.
I also attended another Arvon class (in collaboration with ClassFestival) on Poetry and the Body with Joelle Taylor, which sparked some new ways of looking at my body and how to use it in my poetry (or even prose), and also made me eager to explore spoken word poetry more (as I was planning to do before Covid struck).
Plans for November
My holiday plans for October were thwarted, but here’s hoping that my third attempt at a proper holiday this year will finally come to fruition in November! I have managed to change the dates for my stay at the Westwood Centre, so I hope I will be fit enough to drive all the way there and, once there, go on plenty of walks to admire the landscape, read lots and write something. (I had an ambitious writing plan before, but I will be happy with whatever I can get this time.)
In terms of reading, I’ll be tackling some German novellas, although I use both terms rather loosely. I have a selection to choose from, let’s see how much of it I manage to go through: Arthur Schnitzler’s Casanova’s Journey Home, Marlen Haushofer’s We Kill Stella, Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations, Friedrich Glauser’s The Spoke, Jonas Lüscher’s Barbarian Spring and Katharina Volckmer’s The Appointment.
September used to be a rather lovely month in my calendar, as I always enjoyed the still warm but not excessively hot days and the return to school fervour. But for the past two years, it has not been a happy occasion. School in Covid times has proved an anxious and challenging enterprise, while both last year and this year, September brought rather devastating personal losses: the death of Barney (our gentleman cat) in 2020 and of my dear friend Csaba in 2021.
So I have been once again mostly in search of easy, comforting reading, and the two books I was reading for two different book clubs were not quite hitting the spot. Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, which I read for the Virtual Crime Book Club, is rather gruelling in its subject matter, a car crash you can foresee but not quite stop. Meanwhile, Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees, which I read for London Reads the World Book Club (although unfortunately, I had to pull out of the meeting at short notice) is about life in the ‘grey zone’ between two warring factions in the Donbass region of the Ukraine. Although there is nothing too graphic or horrible in the novel, there is an unsettling, ever-present underlying rumble of threat of death, torture, fighting.
So it was with a real sense of relief that I turned to a rather uncharacteristic read for me: Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, which I understand was originally intended to be a four-book series, but then had a fifth volume added to it much later. This went down so well (as you’ll have seen from my recent review) that I have now embarked upon the Romanian equivalent of the nostalgic family saga: the Medeleni trilogy (often published as four volumes, because the last book is very long). This one takes place just before and after the First World War, rather than the Second, and was written much closer in time to the events described in the book (he wrote the entire series in record time 1925-27). Yet it too describes a vanished world in minute and loving detail. I am tempted to continue rereading all the volumes and to write a thorough review and comparison.
I’ve been in the mood for less dark and gruesome films as well, so there have been quite a few with deadpan humour and slightly surreal experiences, such as the Icelandic film about an escalation of neighbourly conflict Under the Tree, or the challenges of young love on holiday in All Hands on Deck (filmed in my beloved Rhone-Alpes), the irresistible Lea Seydoux and Tahar Rahim doing their best to seem utterly unglamorous in the tale of life of nuclear plant workers in Grand Central, the impressive Japanese animation Akira, which looks as fresh as if it had been created yesterday, not back in 1988, and my first acquaintance with a Hal Hartley film, with its fantastic and slightly ridiculous dialogue, Amateur. I also had a tender moment with Ghibli Studios’ Whisper of the Heart but failed to impress the boys with Tarkovsky’s Solaris.
Although I have missed theatres and live music performances so, so much, I am less and less comfortable about going out, because it appears that all social distancing or other safety measures have been dropped, and people are closely packed together in public transport or at cultural venues. I ventured to the Royal Albert Hall to see the Classic FM Live concert with my older son (who is now nearly as keen on classical music as I am), as our last ‘treat’ before he went off to university. I assumed it would be a good experience, as they sent several emails beforehand about the Covid-secure measures they were taking, that they recommended wearing masks and that we would have to bring either a proof of vaccination or negative test to be allowed into the venue. Imagine my surprise and discontent when I discovered that nobody checked us at all at the entrance, that no one worse a facemask in the auditorium, and that there were huge queues of people jostling into each other at very close quarters both for the toilets and the bar. It felt like hypochondria, but I felt quite unwell for several days after this, and actually had to do a PCR test to make sure I hadn’t fallen ill.
Translationand Other Literary Pursuits
Since I wasn’t quite ready to go out, I brought the events to me – fortunately, there are still lots of literary and other events being livestreamed. I attended a workshop on writing for the theatre run by the Young People’s London Poet Laureate Cecilia Knapp, based around her play Losing the Night, which was going to be performed and toured starting in March 2020. I also attended several of the Noirwich events: David Peace talking about the final volume in his Tokyo trilogy, Megan Abbott speaking about the current enthusiasm for true crime shows, as well as Maryla Szymiczkowa – the pen name of charismatic Polish crime writing duo, Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczynski and their translator Antonia Lloyd Jones, about their semi-cosy feminist historical crime fiction set in late 19th century Krakow. I have recently resubscribed to the Asymptote Book Club and attended a Q&A with the author and translator of the August book club title, Jonas Eika’s After the Sun, transl. Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg.
I also had the novel experience of being interviewed together with Romanian author Bogdan Hrib about the recently published novel Resilience by Dr Noir (aka Jacky Collins). I don’t think I am cut out for being filmed on Zoom, as I move around too much, nod and smile inappropriately and constantly, but it was great fun having to think carefully about the work of translation and to justify some of the choices I made.
I’m also very excited about another translation-related work I will be involved in this year. The Stephen Spender Trust is a champion of multilingual poetry and storytelling, and they run an annual programme for creative translations in schools. I will be working together with a primary school to encourage children to have a go at translating seasonal and other poems from Romanian. I briefly worked as a language teacher in primary school and also helped out regularly at my sons’ schools when they were small, so it will be lovely to go back into that environment and feed children’s curiosity about other cultures before they grow too old or jaded to care.
Last but not least, as part of the events surrounding International Translation Day (30th of September, the Feast of St Jerome, patron saint of translators, because he translated the Bible into Latin, although this particular event took place on the 28th), I had the pleasure of seeing one of my fellow ‘classmates’ from the BCLT Summer School, Sebastián Gutiérrez, among the three translators talking about the power of theatre and translation for exploring identity and equality.
After a particularly fraught and busy period at work, I had been looking forward to this week of annual leave. I was going to do so much (Cardiff, writing, day trips to London, editing translations, reviewing, major cleaning blitzes around the house) – but I should have realised that all my poor battered body and brain wanted to do was relax.
My older son vetoed Cardiff last weekend, because he wanted to watch the Euros Final in England rather than Wales. I’d been having second thoughts about travelling anyway, with the rising cases of Covid and the possibility of being pinged about going into self-isolation (which happened to a friend of mine when she went away for a mini-writing retreat in Eastbourne the week before). So we cancelled the hotel and instead wandered a little closer to home. Savill Gardens in Windsor Great Park no longer had the glorious rhododendrons, but there was still plenty to admire there.
On Wednesday we braved a trip to London – the first time I’ve been into town since 16th March 2020. It felt like a good time to go, before the breakdown of any and all restrictions on 19th July. Needless to say, GWR lived up to my bad impression of it: there was no accurate or up-todate information about how busy the trains were, nor about changing trains and platforms. I booked tickets and was told I had to reserve seats for part of the journey, which I initially thought was reassuring. If you reserve seats, you at least know that it’s not going to be crowded, right? Wrong! Turns out that every single seat had been sold – so there was no social distancing. Although on some of the trains there were big signs saying not to sit facing other passengers, we had to sit facing other passengers, including those who did not wear masks.
We went to visit the newly-opened Japan House on Kensington High Street, so we could walk there from Paddington via Kensington Gardens. In the morning, the park was quite quiet, partly because of the cloud cover. In the afternoon, however, when the sun came out, it was a typical London summer day: dog walkers, sports activities, children playing. The streets and shops were busy too (perhaps not like Oxford Street in the pre-Christmas frenzy, but busy enough). I struggled to see what people were complaining about in terms of restrictions or having their personal liberties curtailed.
The Japan House itself was slightly disappointing – or perhaps our expectations for it had been too high. According to the website, it is one of only three such centres around the world, set over three floors, housing exhibitions, a library, a restaurant and all sorts of other things. You had to book in advance for the library, but we ended up having the whole place to ourselves, which was just as well, since it was just one small room: interesting books, but simply not enough of them (and not enough variety – mostly design or visual arts). The ground floor exhibition/shop was beautiful, but a bit too heavily curated, upmarket and expensive. The afternoon tea we had at the restaurant was delicious, but expensive and not very filling (especially with two teenage boys – they had to buy sandwiches to eat immediately before and after).
Of course, for a Japanophile such as myself, it was still very interesting and I discovered some fascinating historical Japanese photos. But do not plan to spend the whole day there, as we thought we would. There simply isn’t enough to do and the chairs in the library are not that comfortable. Still, it was not a wasted afternoon, because we managed to do some clothes shopping, which is nearly impossible to do in our town, which has only a smallish M&S and a SportsDirect. We did not go into any bookshops, although I later found out there is a Waterstone’s a little further away on High Street Kensington.
The very next day, I ventured into London again, this time in a friend’s car to the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, to see Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. I don’t think I was too popular with my friend for choosing such a pared-down, depressing play which feels very apposite for the loneliness of lockdown. But I rather enjoyed its bleakness, and the multitude of ways in which it could be interpreted: the humiliation of old age and impotence or amnesia, the burden of caring responsibilities, the grinding down of personality in a long and not very happy marriage, the need to be seen and appreciated.
Most of the rest of my holiday was relatively humdrum. I slept nearly eight hours most days (a record for me), read a lot of undemanding books (which is not to say badly-written – just not heavy topics), only logged onto my work email once to check if I still needed to help out a colleague with a Zoom call. I had quite a bit of school and car-related admin to do, ordered a new sofa, gave the porch a thorough clean and even went to the gym and for a run. I also tried not to get angry about news and politics and news, about not losing a gramme of weight in spite of my best efforts to eat healthily and follow an intermittent fasting programme. I have watched just two films this week, mostly because my son’s laptop (which we connect to the TV to watch things) is on its dying legs: The Battle of Algiers, a powerful documentary-style Italian film about French colonialism and the war in Algeria, and Midsommar, about which I might write a whole blog post re: the misappropriation and misinterpretation of religious cults and folklore.
Instead of feeling guilty about ‘vegetating’, I call this a ‘fallow field’ period, which, as all farmers know, is so necessary to improve the yield of future crops. As part of my ‘three field rotation’ programme, next week I start the BCLT translation summer school, after which I probably will require another week of annual leave to recover. There is no doubt that I would rather be doing that than the day job (aka ‘main crop’), though!
June is typically a joyous month in my household: two birthdays and a nameday, as well as Midsummer Day to celebrate; summer plans to be hatched; end of school and exams beckoning. This year has been slightly different. The boys have been on holiday but the older one has started a summer job, while the younger one has had induction days for Sixth Form College (partly online) and homework assignments, while I have been busier than ever at work. The weather has been rather changeable, making me almost want to switch the heating back on. Nevertheless, we had a once-in-a-lifetime birthday treat of high tea at Oakley Court Hotel, where the Rocky Horror Picture Show was filmed.
I have read six of my 20 Books of Summer, and a total of 10 books this month. June has been the month of the most recent acquisitions on my Kindle, so the 20 Books of Summer choices are recent releases and include a Japanese thriller and a satire about social media, two books with tenuous links to Romania and two books that capture the millenial experience in Britain in the past few years. I also read a few bonus books linked to these: Mamie Luger by Benoit Philippon, which is certainly unlike anything else I have read before, a chilling story about a child murderer and rehabilitation by Fiona Cummins: When I was Ten, and Lucy Caldwell’s second collection of short stories. For the Virtual Crime Book Club, I had a good time reading Tom Bradby’s Secret Service, which had the interesting (and not all that implausible nowadays) premise that the future PM of the United Kingdom might be a Russian agent.
Films and TV:
Although most of the month has been given over to football watching with my older son – I remember bonding with my father over sports and enjoy doing so with him, even if I am not normally a huge football fan – I have also managed to watch some films and TV series.
The Outsiders was the kind of film I would have loved to watch in my teens and it was fun to see all of the child actors who then went on to become household names, but it was a little too sentimental for my taste (said the person who cries every time she watches West Side Story).
Sound of Metal was a tour de force of acting by Riz Ahmed and the first half was particularly interesting in his denial and fight against identifying with the deaf community, but the film then lost its way a little in the second half.
Billy Liar was every bit as funny, irreverant and poignant as I remembered it, with Tom Courtenay doing an excellent job of appearing at once infuriating and vulnerable.
It was the first time I watched Nightcrawler and I was chilled not just by the subject matter but by the charmingly psychopathic way in which Jake Gyllenhaal spouts inspirational slogans from self-help books – he is capitalism personified, the shameless go-getter we’ve been told the world (or is that just America?) needs.
Days of the Bagnold Summer was rather sweet and very relatable: a single mother having to spend the summer with her grumpy teenager, who had wanted to go and visit his remarried father in Florida. There was nothing grandiose or startling about the film, just a tender and very realistic observation of the mother/son relationship, which I am naturally rather partial to.
If you like sinister, not fully explainable TV series, then I can really recommend the Icelandic quasi-supernatural thriller Katla on Netflix. It has echoes of the French series The Returned, mixed with small-town Icelandic village feel of a Ragnar Jonasson novel The Katla volcano near the South Iceland settlement of Vik has been spewing ash for over a year and most of the inhabitants have been evacuated, but there are some foolhardy people who are staying on there. Then suddenly some strange clones or dead people reappear from underneath the glacier and turns their lives upside down. I found this far better paced and not as far-fetched or graphic as Fortitude. The characters are a lot more relatable and well acted throughout, although they might not have the big names of Fortitude. And the landscapes are just beautifully photographed throughout. You should also know that one of the writers on the show is none other than Icelandic writer Lilja Sigurðardóttir. I’m not a box set binging kind of person, but I watched all eight episodes in just 2-3 days (alongside the football matches).
Restrictions might be easing here in the UK, but my confidence in this government is so ‘high’ that I prefer to watch and wait, rather than rush out to enjoy museums and theatres, although I have missed them very much indeed. So the summary this month continues to be of books, films and TV series, with a handful of online literary events too.
May’s reading was going to be dedicated to Arabic literature, and in particular books from Egypt and Lebanon. Alas, only four of the ten books I read fulfilled that criteria, but I really enjoyed all of them. There was a historical view of Cairo and a very contemporary one. The Civil War in Lebanon and its aftermath were treated in equally poignant fashion but very different styles by Elias Khoury and Hoda Barakat.
The other book I had on my May reading plan because I’d been asked to review it was The Wife Who Wasn’t, a rollicking saga of East Meets West.
However, all the other books were examples of me giving in to temptation once the libraries reopened for browsing. I always enjoy Nicola Upson‘s crime series featuring the author Josephine Tey and this latest one is set on St Michael’s Mount at Christmas (I still have to visit both the English and the French version of this location). I read Flynn Berry‘s first book and liked it well enough to have a look at her second one A Double Life, which is one of those ‘what if’ stories about the Lord Lucan case and how his daughter might feel about the whole situation. Steph Cha‘s Follow Her Home is a very deliberate Chandleresque recreation of LA, albeit set in the present-day and with a mighty Korean-American female main protagonist.
I usually avoid books with all the buzz, and certainly Luster by Raven Leilani has been receiving a lot of that, having been shortlisted for both the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Dylan Thomas Prize in the UK and has won several awards in the author’s home country the United States. Also, I wasn’t sure I could bear yet another so-called millenial novel about damaged, self-destructive young women and their unsatisfactory relationships with men (or men and women). But there it was beckoning to me on top of a book display at the library. After a fireworks of a start, which made me gasp and admire nearly every sentence, I thought it lost its way a little in the middle. It’s about a vulnerable young woman who might have a sharp wit when she talks directly to the reader, but nevertheless never quite loses her desire to be seen, touched and loved. Nevertheless, I found it less cold and manipulative than Sally Rooney’s Conversation with Friends (no, I haven’t read Normal People), funnier than Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times and more consistent and fierce than The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris. So, if you liked any of those, you are almost certain to like this one, which I feel is better than all three. There are parallels with Fleabag, but this is a Fleabag with the burden of race and no safety net of a rich family to fall back on. Perhaps Michaela Coel’s I Will Destroy You comes closest to capturing that flawed, but very striking and unique narrative voice.
Here is a description of publisher’s tickbox exercise of providing diverse reading, which made me roar with laughter:
… a slave narrative about a mixed-race house girl fighting for a piece of her father’s estate; a slave narrative about a runaway’s friendship with the white schoolteacher who selflessly teaches her how to read; a slave narrative about a tragic mulatto who raises the dead with her magic chitlin pies; a domestic drama about a black maid who, like Schrödinger’s cat, is both alive and dead, an unseen, nurturing presence who exists only within the bounds of her employer’s four walls; an ‘urban’ romance wherever everybody dies by gang violence; and a book about a Cantonese restaurant, which may or may not have been written by a white woman from Utah, whose descriptions of her characters rely primarily on rice-based foods.
The most memorable book I read this month was probably The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (which I nicked off my younger son’s shelf), but I also finally got to review one of my favourites from last month, namely Polly Barton‘s Fifty Sounds, about which I could have written a super-long essay. And I also reread and reviewed To the Lighthouse, which was just wondrous. As a way to forget what a chore daily cooking has become since the first lockdown, I also wrote a post about my favourite cookery books.
I’ll be embarking on the 20 Books of Summer for the next three months, and I have to admit I’m already tempted to make some drastic changes to my original plan. For example, would it not be more helpful to publishers posting their books on Netgalley if I actually read and reviewed the most recent ones, rather than the oldest ones? So I might dedicate June to the most recent, then July to my oldest and leave August for Women in Translation (admittedly, four-five of my Women in Translation choices are very recent ones anyway). The most recent list includes Mieko Kawakami (also featured in the August list), so I might swap her out for someone else in June, but a choice of ten to choose 6-7 from might look like this:
Films and TV
I seem to have found my film-watching mojo again. I’ve watched nine films and one TV mini-series this month, a mix of film classics and sheer escapism.
Andrei Rublev: yes, it can take a while to get to the point, but it’s still a visually stunning and inventive commentary on the role of the artist
Hunger: a visceral experience of a slice of recent history that I knew all too little about, although I had heard, of course, of Bobby Sands
When Harry Met Sally: loved it when I was young, have become a curmudgeon who no longer trusts the love story, even if it has its witty moments
Animal Farm: not just about the Soviet system – remains as relevant as the day it was made (and Boxer’s fate will forever make me cry)
Sweet Bean: charming but also thoughtful film about how we treat outsiders – perhaps veers a little into the sentimental
Touchez pas au Grisbi: now I see where Jean-Pierre Melville and Scorsese got their inspiration from – a worldweary performative tour de force from Jean Gabin, aging gangsters treating women badly, but with a hostage/loot exchange scene which almost made me forget to breathe
The Chess Players: The country’s burning and these two men are playing chess – a powerful indictment of both local lords and kings, as well as the British rule in India
The Chalet (French TV series): filmed in Rhone-Alpes, around Chamonix and Annecy, so obviously a winner in my heart, this was essentially a slasher-movie over 6 episodes, full of good-looking young people and grumpy older or depressed older people.
Rocco and His Brothers: Who can resist a young Alain Delon in this story of migration, urbanisation and brotherly rivalry?
The Boys from Fengkuei: Taiwanese film about a bunch of rather roguish young men moving to the city, very similar in content and form to Rocco and His Brothers (they actually watch this very film in the cinema at one point)
After a rather quiet start to the year, May has been a very busy (and expensive) month, full of events and courses (and appliances and dentists). Here is what I did in chronological order:
International Booker Prize: The Shortlisted Translators in Conversation – so fascinating to hear translators talk about the challenges of translating their very different books – especially enjoyed Sasha Dugdale talking about how nervous she felt about translating prose, because she usually translates poetry (I think most people feel it’s harder the other way round)
Produce an irresistible plot in a weekend with Shelley Weiner, Guardian Masterclasses – such an encouraging tutor, and lots of exciting ideas to stimulate the creative juices
Poet’s Cafe – took part in the open mic session, as well as heard Oliver Comins read from his poems old and new
Marlen Haushofer in Context, Institute of Modern Languages Research, SAS – only managed to attend one session, comparing The Wall with Seethaler’s A Whole Life, but I caught up with some of the recorded sessions afterwards
Reading in Translation Conference, University College Cork – again, only managed to listen to one session, the book bloggers, but will catch up with recordings
Olivier Norek and Joseph Knox in conversation with Ayo Onatade about noir fiction, at the French Institute in London, with bilingual readings from their novels
Raven Leilani – Hay Festival – such a thoughtful, articulate and gentle young woman, very impressive and very different from Edie in the novel. I thought it was itneresting that she said she was almost envious of Edie’s freedom, her giving herself entirely over to her impulses (her Id), even though it’s an extremely costly way of going about things. Leilani’s style is so clever, precise and rich, at the level of each sentence and paragraph, that I was curious how many drafts she writes to get that depth. It turns out she cannot move on until she has untangled every sentence, rewriting it at least three or four times, so she is a slow writer (and wishes she could be different).
Deborah Levy – Hay Festival – I’ve loved the previous two books in her ‘living autobiography’ trilogy and her third one Real Estate sounds just my cup of tea, especially when she talked about all the ‘unreal estate’ that live in our heads, all the houses we imagine we could be happy in, the future state that we can never achieve. She also talked about how she learnt to live with ambiguity and contradictory thoughts, and that the whole idea behind the trilogy was about figuring out why an ordinary life is worth examining and writing about.
Caleb Azumah Nelson – Hay Festival – I’ve got his debut novel Open Water on my TBR list (possibly for my June Netgalley binge) and am even more eager to read it after hearing him talk so modestly and passionately about writing from his emotions and being willing to make himself vulnerable (and how south-east London is where his world begins and ends).
Writing and translation
It has been quite an expensive month in terms of submissions to literary magazines and competitions. Not just poems and flash fiction, but I also finally got my act together and sent off the opening chapters and a synopsis of my Romania novel (as opposed to my Switzerland novel). I was also delighted to be accepted onto the BCLT Summer School and can only afford it because it’s virtual this year. I’ll be attending the Multilingual Drama section and am planning to go with Mihail Sebastian’s play The Holiday Game, which I mentioned last month.
I discovered Creation Theatre’s innovative shows a couple of years ago and have always hugely enjoyed them. In fact, their performance of The Time Machine at the London Library was the last live theatre I attended in February 2020.
I wasn’t sure how their brand of immersive theatre would work in the virtual environment – and the truth is, it is a very different beast. It’s not the kind of online show where the audience is expected to interact, to type something in or read something out loud, like the very experimental show I saw back in April/May 2020 courtesy of New Diorama Theatre. Instead, it was recommended that we dim the lights, light a candle and sit back to watch and listen (preferably without any young children).
Although this was an adaptation of the Grimm brothers’ stories, it was much closer in spirit to the original, often quite horrific folk tales rather than the sanitised fairy tale versions we habitually offer to children. Each of the five stories was chosen because of its links and resonance with the current lockdown situation. Death, mental and physical cruelty, a sense of being imprisoned, all make their appearance. Two of the stories are very well-known: ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ (although in a modern, cynical retelling), and ‘Hansel and Gretel’. But ‘Malinka or the Juniper Tree’, ‘The Moon’ and ‘The Physician and Godfather Death’ will be far less familiar to most readers.
Each story is told by a different narrator/actor, all extravagantly costumed and made up, yet with nowhere to go. Literally hiding in a box or a dark room. The extreme close-up on their faces at times, the missing or rotten teeth, the shadows falling on their excessive make-up added to the sense of creepiness. The stories are left unfinished and then we move onto the next, in a pattern that I initially thought was like Chinese boxes, but which was actually more like a braid. Themes disappear and reappear, sometimes just a few sentences spoken by each actor, woven into something that is bigger than the mere individual strands. Some of the sound effects were a bit overpowering at times, which made one or two of the actors harder to understand.
Yet the show managed to capture the immediacy and excitement of sitting by the camp fire, scaring each other silly with ghost stories, taking us back to our ancestral love of storytelling. Perhaps a bit gimmicky, yet it all seems to come together at the end in a rather moving candlelit finale and the message of ‘You are not alone in the wild woods.’