I read reviews of this quite some time ago on Book Around the Corner, Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, Biblioklept and, more recently, Lizzy’s Literary Life, and I never had the slightest doubt that this would be my kind of book. It is indeed an unforgettable book. Čapek is best-known as a science-fiction writer, but he was also a prolific journalist, essayist, satirist, anti-fascist, anti-militarist writer. He was not only the George Orwell of Czechoslovakia but also contributed so much to making the Czech language a suitable, respectable vehicle for literature.
The story appears, alongside the narrative, in the format of a motley collection of documents, conference papers, drawings, reports, eyewitness accounts etc. As an anthropologist, I really enjoyed the opportunity for the author to have additional swipes at academic papers, journalese, corporate meeting minutes and so on, but I can see why some readers might find it interrupts the plot flow.
Here is a brief summary of the story: A Czech sea captain with a misleadingly Dutch name (one of the recurring jokes that a landlocked nation has seafaring ambitions) comes across a species of large newts who can walk on two feet and seem intelligent enough to be taught to use tools and weapons. He manages to persuade his fellow countryman, millionaire industrialist Bondy, that these newts are ripe for exploitation, but even he could not have imagined just how much this idea expands. Soon they are being bred for the sake of global capitalism. They are keen to learn, multiply easily, can be traded in their tens of thousands and will do work that no one else wants to do. They can also be used to build additional land mass in the oceans and countries start using them to increase their imperial reach. But it turns out humans have not quite thought through the consequences of their actions, and soon they find themselves outnumbered and overpowered by the newts.
I love the way the story can be interpreted in several different ways: some critics see the newts as a symbol of the rise of Fascism, while others see them more as refugees or victims of ruthless capitalism or the imperialism of powerful nations. The truth is, Čapek spares no one, not even Hollywood blockbusters – and is remarkably astute both about the way the world was heading in 1936 but also about the ambitions of different nations of the world.
The author is excellent at picking out the flaws and foibles of each country. Britain, for instance, as a nation of animal lovers, quickly sets up a Salamander Protection Society, under the patronage of the Duchess of Huddersfield, which encourages women to provide the newts with proper clothes, to satisfy prudish sensibilities, admonishes schoolchildren not to throw stones at newts, but also ensures that newt working camps are surrounded by high fences to ‘protect’ the newts and separate them from the human world. Meanwhile, in the United States, newts are accused of raping young girls, so they are hunted down, lynched and burnt at the stake. Of course, they find ways to legitimise and organise this:
In vain the scientists protested against these actions by the mob, pointing out that because of their anatomical structure a crime like that on the part of the Salamanders was physically impossible; many of the girls swore on oath that they had been molested by the Newts, and therefore for every decent American the matter was perfectly clear. Later on public burning of the Newts was restricted… only allowed on Saturdays and under supervision of the fire brigade.
A German professor meanwhile carries out scientific experiments on the newts and writes down all the results in a very disciplined, neutral fashion. In India, the newts rescue humans trapped on a sinking vessel, only to be accused of forbiddenly touching drowning people of a higher caste. The French and the British meanwhile have a massive spat over territorial waters. Of course, private corporations start complaining that they’ve been pampering their newts too much, that there is no need to feed them so expensively, they should cut down on their expenses in newt maintenance and thereby increase their profits.
The row over which language to teach the newts was particularly illuminating. The original newts from the Pacific islands parrotted whatever language the sailors spoke around them, some pidgin English, some Malay. The ones bred for specific markets are taught a kind of Basic English, while the French insist on them learning the language of Corneille ‘not of course on racial grounds, but because it is part of higher education’. Others insist on Esperanto or some other form of Universal Language, but ‘of course there were disputes as to which of these Universal Languages was the most useful, consistent and universal’. Needless to say, it all descends into a battle of egos and chaos, much like the League of Nations at the time.
I was by turns amused and disturbed by this book. The satire, to my mind, is fierce – so accurate, so funny, even though it tries to attack too many targets at once. At the same time, the book left me quite despondent, because it still sounds remarkably current. We humans have not resolved any of this issues, we still behave like that, and we still don’t seem able to take a good long critical look at ourselves.
Just managed to sneak in another review in this week of the #1936Club, but I have been spending most of the month of April dwelling in that year in literature, and have several more reviews forthcoming, even if they are a bit late for this purpose. I leave you with another cover for the War with the Newts which makes me feel like the designer hadn’t quite read the brief… but I suspect Čapek would have loved it and been very much amused.
Max Blecher published the short novel Întâmplări în irealitatea imediată in 1936 and in this post I will be referring to the Romanian language version of it via the Open Access library, as well as three English language translations: Adventures in Immediate Irreality by Michael Henry Heim, published by New Directions in 2015; Occurence in the Immediate Unreality by Alistair Ian Blyth, published University of Plymouth Press, 2009; Adventures in Immediate Unreality by Jeanie Han, dating from 2007, which is freely available online.
I discovered Romanian author Max Blecher a few years back with his best-known work Scarred Hearts, a shorter, funnier but also much more visceral version of The Magic Mountain. Unfortunately, because of his early death at the age of 28 from spinal tuberculosis, and being bedridden for the last ten years of his life, he only produced a small but memorable body of work over a very short period of time between 1930 and 1938. He was not at all well-known in Romania when I was growing up. He certainly was not as well known as his contemporaries Camil Petrescu, Mircea Eliade, Eugen Ionescu or Mihail Sebastian, and was largely ignored even when his novels were reissued in 1970 during a brief cultural thaw in Communist Romania.
He is only now starting to be recognised for his unique modernist style in his home country, and perhaps this is only thanks to the reaction of readers in the West (he has been translated into French, German and English, among others), where he has been compared to Kafka, Robert Walser or Bruno Schulz. It still didn’t prevent his house in the town of Roman from being torn down in 2013, although there had been campaigns to preserve it as a museum.
This novel reads like a memoir, but it is an indefinable work, hovering somewhere between a prose poem, a memoir and a novel. In terms of subject matter, it reminds me a little of Barbellion‘s Diary, but it is less about day to day life, with less ego involved. This last may seem like a strange statement, since we have a first person narrator who gives us a detailed account of his childhood in a small provincial town, his encounters with women, his bodily sensations, his reaction to the small objects he picks up and the people he observes. And yet this is not the author worrying about his legacy, or how his contemporaries may perceive him. Instead, we have a devastatingly honest and detailed account of living with the spectre of death in front of you all the time. His reactions are very physical, immediate, powerful, occasionally excessive – it’s as though the narrator is trying to plunge himself into life, determined to squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of it. Or perhaps he is trying to determine which of the worlds he feels he inhabits is more real. The narrator has always hovered on the threshold between two worlds. As he tells us, he has suffered from early childhood from something he calls ‘crises’, which tend to occur in certain particular spaces in his home town, spaces he calls ‘cursed’. During these crises, which sound a bit like a fugue state, he feels his identity dissolve, he is no longer sure of what is real or not, and when he recovers from them, he has a profound sense of futility and disappointment with the world. At those times, he seems to suffer from an overabundance of clear sight and awareness, and it’s telling him that he is in the wrong place, that his real self and life are somewhere else. This is the rather poignant ending of the book (in the translation of Michael Henry Heim).
Now I am struggling with reality. I scream, I beg to be awoken, to awaken into another life, my true life… I know I am alive, but there is something missing, as there was in my nightmare.
I struggle. I scream. I flail. Who will awaken me?
That precise reality around me is dragging me down, trying to sink me. Who will awaken me?
It has always been like this. Always. Always.
It is very difficult to describe the book in any more detail, other than to say that, although it bears some resemblance to the stream of consciousness techniques developed by James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, it is not just introverted musing. Instead, it is also a description of a town, a way of life, a family and a certain time period. It is full of anecdotes, full of scenes which take place against unusual backdrops: a waxwork museum, a cinema that goes up in flames, the props room at the local theatre, the August funfair, junk-filled attics, a sewing machine shop, all filtered through the consciousness of an over-sensitive child and then young man. I had the feeling I was watching a Jean Cocteau film (more specifically, Testament of Orpheus) while reading this, although it would be unfair to call the book surrealist, given how firmly it is anchored in the body.
However, I have to admit that I struggled with the book at first. This is because I had bought a copy of it in translation from the University of Plymouth Press, a bulk buy of beautifully illustrated translations of modern or contemporary Romanian literature (which has ceased, because of lack of funding). I could not resist the high production values, and the British translator is a prolific translator from Romanian, of philosophers like Constantin Noica and Catalin Avramescu, as well as novelists like Filip Florian and Stelian Tanase. So when I resolved to read the book for the #1936Club, this is where I started. But I soon hit a wall: I found the style pompous, pretentious, needlessly complicated, which was not at all how I remembered Blecher from Scarred Hearts.
So I turned to the Romanian original. And indeed, in spite of the modernist style, the language is simple and everyday, perfectly comprehensible to the average Romanian, not at all high falutin. I’d noticed this discrepancy before when reading English translations of Romanian works – but, in the case of Cartarescu at least, I thought maybe that was a fair reflection of his own style. However, in the case of Mihail Sebastian or others, it felt like these translations (which are mostly by men, by the way, and I honestly don’t know if that makes a difference) are pointlessly over-egging the language and giving people the wrong impression about Romanian literature. One possible explanation could be that words of Latin origin are perfectly common in Romanian but sound more sophisticated and erudite in English. Still, there are plenty of perfectly acceptable non-Latin choices in English that could convey the meaning in a way closer to the Romanian intention and spirit.
I have said before that, when there is only a small amount being translated from a certain language, publishers and readers are prone to put labels on the literature of that country. For Romania this might be ‘abstract, difficult, philosophical, traumatic’, and anything that doesn’t fit into that stereotype won’t be considered. But that was in terms of content; I didn’t expect it to be the case also in terms of language. It’s not often, of course, that you have multiple translations of the same text from Romanian, but I have seen Max Easterman puzzling over two very different translations of Mihail Sebastian’s Women. In this case, I found three translations of Blecher’s text. I don’t know anything about the earliest translator, Jeanie Han, other than that she received funding to visit Romania and was mentored by Romanian professors there while translating this work. I do know, however, that Michael Henry Heim’s translation appeared posthumously. This award-winning multilingual translator (specialist in Slavic languages in particular) was terminally ill himself when he translated Blecher’s work. However, he felt such a strong affinity for this project that he learnt Romanian especially for it. However, I didn’t allow myself to be influenced by the back story when I decided that I preferred his version, which reads far less like a treatise in philosophy. Jeanie Han also comes closer to the more colloquial language of the original, while Alistair Ian Blyth sounds the most academic.
Even in the following passage, which is more objectively difficult even in the original Romanian, you can see that Heim’s version is the one that sounds most natural in English, although he has subtly altered the meaning in the first sentence. In the original, there is no hint that the narrator was waiting for the light to change before leaving the cinema. However, in the second version the translator has suddenly made it sound like the narrator was going to the cinema with a larger group, which seems highly unlikely in that context.
In the summer I would go to the matinee early and come out when it began to get dark. The light outside was changed; the day, nearly over, was waning. I observed that in my absence an immense and essential event had taken place in the world like a kind of sad obligation to carry on the ceaseless work – night falling, for instance – regular, diaphanous and spectacular. Thus, I would once again enter into the middle of a certainty, which through its daily rigor seemed to me of an endless melancholy. In such a world, subject to the most theatric effects and obliged every evening to produce a correct sunset, the people around me seemed like poor pitiful beings with their seriousness and their naive belief in what they did and what they felt.
In summer, we would go into the matinee early and leave in the evening, as night was falling. The light outside was altered; the remnants of the day had been extinguished. It was thus I ascertained that in my absence there had occurred in the world an event immense and essential, its sad obligation of always having to continue – by means of nightfall, for example – its repetitive, diaphanous and spectacular labour. In this way we would enter once more into the midst of a certitude that in its daily rigorousness seemed to me of an endless melancholy. In such a world, subject to the most theatrical effects and obligated every evening to perform a proper sunset, the people around me appeared like poor creatures to be commiserated for the seriousness with which they always busied themselves, the seriousness with which they believed so naively in whatever they did or felt.
In summer I would go to the matinee and emerge only at nightfall: I was waiting for the light outside to change, for the day to end. I would thus ascertain that in my absence an important thing, an essential thing had taken place: the world had assumed the sad responsibility of carrying on – by growing dark, for example – its regular, intricate, theatrical obligations. Again I had to accept a certainty whose rigorous daily return made me infinitely melancholy. In a world subject to the most theatrical of effects, a world obliged every evening to produce an acceptable sunset, the poor creatures around me seemed pitiful in their determination to keep themselves busy and maintain their naive belief in what they did and felt.
The literal translation of the Romanian title, by the way, is Happenings in the Immediate Non-Reality
There are many more such examples, but I will spare myself the delights of typing them all up in the WordPress blocks (and spare you the delights of ploughing through very similar texts). In my comparison of the translations of Genji, I was probably the only one who preferred Seidensticker’s translation for making things smoother and easier for the English reader. However, in that case, we had a style of language that was no longer in use in present-day Japan, so I can understand why other readers preferred the translations that were closer to the spirit of the original. In this case, however, Max Blecher’s Romanian is still instantly recognisable, only very occasionally using slightly outdated verb forms etc. We all still speak like that and write like that, and, even though we share with the other Romance languages a predilection for three or four syllable words, that does not make us any more thoughtful or highly literary than others!
Aside from my quibbles about the various translations, I would agree with Herta Müller, who described this novel as a masterpiece of sheer literary intensity. Blecher was ahead of his time in many ways, and will probably always be an acquired taste. This book will never become a bestseller, but it is remarkable for its unflinching look at the increasingly slippery borders between the real world and the interior (or, nowadays, the virtual) world. How the real world holds us back, imprisons us, never quite lives up to our imagination, how we forever sense there is something beyond its ‘petty passion for precision’. How the imaginary world can seduce us with its infinite promise, but is ultimately empty. ‘Exasperating as it was, I was forced to admit that I lived in the world I saw around me; there was nothing else.’
Ödön von Horváth: Don Juan Comes Back from the War (transl. Christopher Hampton) and Figaro Gets Divorced (transl. Ian Huish), Oberon Books.
Who better to provide the bridge between my Plays in March reading project and my dedication to the year 1936 in April than one of my old loves, a true representative of the diversity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Ödön von Horváth? Born in Croatia, descended from a Hungarian family, educated in Slovakia and Vienna, adopting German as his preferred language for writing, Horváth was also one of the first writers to warn about the rising tide of Fascism. Needless to say, by 1936 he was banned in Germany and was pretty much a refugee himself, so both of these plays (Don Juan Come Back from the War was written in 1936, Figaro Gets Divorced in the following year) depict realities well-known to him, as well as notorious fictional heroes.
What I didn’t know was that the playwright was himself a bit of a ladies’ man and that he was in equal parts fascinated and repelled by the figure of Don Juan, and thought of writing something about him for more than a decade. Given the unforgiving way in which he portrays men who trample on women’s feelings generally (I’m thinking also of Tales of the Vienna Woods), he was not proud of his conquests.
In this play, Don Juan the inveterate womaniser and anti-hero returns from something very much resembling the First World War in a gloomy, despairing frame of mind. He has realised the banality and futility of his existence and is hell-bent on finding the one he believes to be the only true love of his life (even though he cannot remember what she looks like). However, she died during the war, and he is not as much of a changed man as he would like to think he is. He becomes once more embroiled in all sorts of intrigues with women, he is practically the victim of female intrigue and of his own desire to find perfection. There is just one man – Don Juan himself – and 35 women in the play (although the 35 are played by a much smaller number of actresses, because they all represent variations on the same type), of all ages and backgrounds. Set against a background of German and Austrian defeat in the First World War, this is very much a play about loss of innocence and hope, of a man (and a country) hurtling towards the inevitable.
I thought this play was slight, too superficial, compared to some of his other ones, and this may be because Don Juan just never comes across as a truly thoughtful or reformed character. By contrast, Figaro Gets Divorced was far more interesting. The Count and Countess Almaviva are on the run from a revolution with their servants Figaro and Susanna (Horváth is clear that this is not specifically the 1789 French Revolution, but any revolution); they have crossed the border, they are now exiles fighting bureaucracy, struggling to survive financially. Suddenly, none of the old rules apply anymore. The Count has to sell his jewellery for far less than its value (the market is flooded with ‘refugee diamonds’). He can no longer stomach Figaro’s forthright advice:
A person who wants to be considered part of my retinue should not always be telling me his opinion, even if it is the right one, he should rather lie to me, unconditionally agreeing with everything I say…
So Figaro and Susanne leave their masters and open up a hairdressing salon in the small village of Grosshadersdorf. However, they are still viewed with suspicion as ‘refugees’ and soon become the victims of vicious gossip: ‘I’ve been saying for ages that these foreigners should never have been allowed in, they’re corrupting our whole moral climate!’
The couple splits up and Figaro heads back to his homeland, where he joins the revolutionaries, who display all the extreme behaviour, brainwashing and rewriting of the past that we might expect after seeing the Soviets and so many other revolutionaries bring in new social rules. Figaro is at first viewed with suspicion for following his master into exile, but he soon wins the crowd over with his customary quick-wittedness and persuasive skills, as we are used in seeing from Beaumarchais, Rossini and Mozart. Yet beneath the black humour, there is a profound disillusionment with the world, a mere survival instinct coming to the fore.
No man is more hated nor more despised in this world than an honest man with a brain. There’s only one way out. You have to make a decision: honesty or intelligence. If you choose honesty, you have to make sacrifices. If you choose intelligence then others make the sacrifices.
Who was our good Count anyway? A man of substance who imagined he had a brain of substance!… Birth, wealth, class and rank made him proud. And what had he done, our good Count, to earn so many advantages? He took the bother to be born and that was the only work he ever did in his life, the rest of it he frittered, fopped and fiddled away.
And yet, when the Count too returns to his former domain and is promptly arrested and sentenced to death, Figaro is the one who stops the over-zealous young boys from attacking him. When they cry out that he is a criminal and should be shot at once, Figaro reminds them:
…if you should meet Count Almaviva then you greet him respectfully… because he is an old man and you are snotty little kids, and if he has committed any crime then he certainly won’t be waiting for you to pass sentence… Be careful, perhaps when you get old, they’ll be saying every orphan’s a criminal and there will only be counts left and the counts’ll lock up all orphans and shoot them…
What could account for the change of heart? Figaro, very much like Horváth himself, comes to distrust all revolutions, or any ideology that sets itself up above common decency and humanity. In the brief preface to the play, he says the following:
Humanity is not accompanied by any storms, it is only a weak light in the darkness. Let us hope all the same that no storm, however great, is able to extinguish it.
If I ever get asked about ideal dinner party guests, I would certainly include Ödön von Horváth and Mihail Sebastian. As far as I am aware, they did not know each other, although they lived at roughly the same time and were both playwrights (and both died in freak accidents) – but I like to imagine they’d have got on splendidly.
Time for another random bookish chain, where we all start with the same book but end up on very different journeys, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with the Booker Prize winning Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, which I have considered reading but fear I might find too depressing. Books about bad parenting get me all flustered.
I mean, the book Back to Delphi by Ioanna Karystiani (transl. Konstantine Matsoukas) was disquieting enough, and the mother in that is not necessarily a bad one, just a tad self-absorbed and trying to hide her suffering from her son… which of course gets misinterpreted. The two of them end up incapable of communicating with each other – and the son goes on to become a rapist and a murderer. He is granted a brief furlough from prison and she takes him to Delphi in an attempt to reconnect with him, and to try and find out where she went wrong.
The next book in the chain is another Ioana, a Romanian one this time: Ioana Parvulescu’s Life Begins on Friday, a time-travelling mystery and love letter to the city of Bucharest, winner of the European Union Prize for Literature in 2013. It has been translated into English by Alastair Ian Blyth for Istros Books, and deserves to be better known.
I used to be more of a fan of time-travelling novels in my youth, not so much now. The last memorable one I read was Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls, about a time-travelling serial killer. It is not an easy book to describe, perfectly bonkers, but as always with Lauren Beukes, utterly compelling.
However, I preferred another of her novels, Moxyland, set in an alternative future Cape Town, where people are increasingly controlled by their mobile phones and apps, leading to a sort of corporate apartheid dictatorship.
I haven’t yet read Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (transl. Stephen Snyder) but it seems to have a similar premise, except here the authoritarian regime seems bent on destroying people’s memories. This was written more than twenty years ago. Perhaps if it had been written more recently the internet and mobile phones might have played a bigger part, as they do in Moxyland.
Of course, the concept of erasing memories or of accepting only one official version of history is something that all dictatorships have in common, and one of the best examples of this is the description of the ‘retouched’ photograph, a frequent occurence in an attempt to get rid of someone who became politically undesirable, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera.
Scotland, Greece, Romania, Chicago, South Africa, Japan and Czechoslovakia – a well-travelled series of links this month. Where will your spontaneous bookishness take you?
It is absurdly early to be writing an end of month review but a) I’ve got some online theatre to watch and review over the last few days of February; b) with some translation edits coming in and another planned full day of working on my novel, I don’t think I’ll have time to read and review any more books.
I was quite good at sticking to my February in Canada plan and, although I’d have liked more Quebecois authors in the mix, I remained faithful to my plan to read only what was already available on my bookshelves. I was fairly happy with all of the six Canadian books I read. While the subject matter of the Inger Ash Wolfe crime novel did feel like far too well-trodden territory to me, I was intrigued and inspired by Anne Carson (as ever) and surprised and delighted by Carol Shields and Marian Engel. In fact, I enjoyed Bear so much that I instantly decided to read another Marian Engel book, Lunatic Villas, which was very different to Bear, although the portrayal of harassed motherhood is very similar to Celia Fremlin‘s The Hours Before Dawn, but on the humorous rather than the sinister side of things.
In addition to Celia Fremlin, I also read several more crime novels:
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman for our Virtual Crime Book Club, which was fun although not quite as good as the hype makes it out to be. I do generally struggle with books written by celebrities, as I feel: a) are they just cashing in on their fame and writing books because everyone thinks it’s an easy thing to do?; b) do they really need any more money, when they have n other sources of very good income? However, to be fair to Osman, it is a witty book, mostly because of the characters and the age group depicted (showing what a variety of types of people you can find in a retirement community, not all old people are boring and cautious etc.). The plot does have some rather too convenient coincidences and a bit of an odd coming-out-of-nowhere conclusion, but I liked it enough to want to read more about these characters on a very occasional basis.
Untraceable by Sergei Lebedev: This is a book of many parts and many tonalities, which might put some readers off, but which really appealed to me. It is a thoughtful analysis of why a scientist would choose to collaborate with an evil regime, how science can be subverted, and how ideals go out the window. It is also a historical picture of the mess and lack of certainties after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is of course also a spy thriller, with a sinister opening and a mounting sense of dread. Yet, in certain parts, when the would-be assassins are embarking on a road-trip to find the rogue scientist, it becomes quite comical, even farcical. All in all, a really enjoyable read.
The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse: February always puts me in the mood for skiing and therefore a mountain setting, so this book set in a Swiss mountaintop hotel seemed irresistible. The claustrophobic setting is indeed the star in this novel, the author clearly knows her Swiss winters, but the plot seemed rather far-fetched and I wasn’t that keen on the characters’ rather histrionic reactions to everything.
Finally, with a lingering glance back towards my January in Japan love, I read a graphic novel adaptation of No Longer Human, which was far more explicit and creepy than the novel, but also diverged from the story in interesting ways. I also read the first volume of Bungo Stray Dogs manga, in which Dazai is a detective with some supernatural powers – I’m not sure how appropriate it is to make fun of Dazai’s suicidal tendencies, although, given he made fun of them himself at times in his work, it’s probably OK. Plus, it features all sorts of other writers, Kunikida Doppo with a very bureaucratic mentality, Edogawa Ranpo who is firmly convinced he has supernatural abilities but in fact is simply very good at questioning and detecting, Akutagawa, who is a skilled adversary and so on. For someone obsessed with Japanese literature and familiar with most of the authors featured here, this is an absolute riot!
So 12 books, of which 2 graphic novels, 6 fitting the Canadian theme, and 4 crime novels. Only three books in translation (or other languages) this month, a low proportion by my standards, and an even gender distribution.
But have I contributed at all to #readindies? Well, hard to tell. Most of the books were bought second-hand and at the time of publication the publishers may have been independent, but have since been bought up (McCleeland and Steward are Penguin Random House now, Fourth Estate is Harper Collins, Pandora Women Crime Writers is Routledge). But I have found a few. My Quebecois writer is published by Editions Druide, a small independent funded by the Canadian and Quebecois governments and the Canadian Arts Council. Bear was published by Nonpareil Books, an imprint of Godine, an independent publisher located in Boston, Massachusetts. And Untraceable is published by New York-based New Vessel Press, which specialises in translated fiction.
I’ve watched mainly TV series this month (Lupin, The Sopranos, My Brilliant Friend), but the few films I watched were very good:
a rewatch of Do the Right Thing, which was a classic film of my teenage years and still stands up so well today (sadly, not much has changed);
High and Low, a Kurosawa with a good deal of social commentary and personal dilemma, about the kidnapping of a child;
Uppercase Print, the latest film by Radu Jude, the case of a young student who was investigated by the security forces during the Ceausescu years – an unusual mix of actors reciting from the security files, interwoven with extracts from TV documentaries of the 1970s and 80s. This was hard for me to watch, because I was so familiar with it all from my childhood, but it’s an interesting piece of history that should be preserved for the next generation (or for those who are not familiar with what it’s like to live in a dictatorship).
With one son not caring very much about films and the other having very fixed ideas about what he wants to watch and generally poo-poohing Mubi, saying they only have films that about five people in the world want to see (despite all the evidence to the contrary), our chances of watching films together are decreasing. Meanwhile, I’m getting a little tired of doing things that don’t interest me simply to fit in with someone else’s taste (I’ve had years of practice with their father – and look how well that turned out!). Maybe the pressures of being together all the time is starting to get to us all…
Time once more for my favourite set of bookish links, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with Redhead by the Side of the Road, the latest Anne Tyler book. I have read Anne Tyler previously and, although I generally admire her understated style, close observation and ability to show us the depths in even the most average-seeming of people, she has not stuck in my mind or become one of my favourite writers.
The link to the first book in my chain today is ‘redhead’ and one of the most famous literary redheads of them all Edna O’Brien. Thanks to my customised monthly book subscription at a very nearly local bookshop, my good Twitter and blogging friend Jacqui has sent me this author’s Selected Stories. It’s been a long time since I read the Country Girls trilogy, but I remember loving that Irish firebrand.
It would be too easy to use Ireland as the link to my next book, so instead I will use the word ‘Country’ in the title. And, since my recent trip to Japan via reading was so enjoyable, I will stick to a famous Japanese novel by their first Nobel Prize winner, Yukiguni – Snow Country by Kawabata. While it is wistful and yearning and poetic, I did find the (at least latent) misogyny and class distinctions a bit hard to stomach, and it is not my favourite novel by him.
Another novel that is considered the most famous by a certain author but which is not my favourite of theirs is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. It is, of course, iconic and I’ve always enjoyed it a lot, but there was something slightly too Gothic about it and the more day-time, claustrophobic setting of Villette always appealed to me more.
Both Villette and Jane Eyre are at least partially set in a school, so that is the link to my next choice. After the death of John le Carré, I felt compelled to read some of his novels that I hadn’t come across before and his second one A Murder of Quality is set in a snobbish public boys’ boarding-school probably modelled on Eton and the author’s own much-hated school Sherborne.
Famously, John le Carré was a pseudonym, so the next link is to another author who uses a pseudonym, although she manages to keep her anonymity rather more successfully hidden. I am referring of course to Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan Novels have been such a resounding success worldwide. I enjoyed them well enough (although perhaps not as deeply impressed as some others have been), and am also keen to catch up with the second part the TV series, which thus far has been excellent in both acting and period detail.
My final link is to another book (or series of books) which has had a recent TV adaptation that I quite enjoyed (although I think I like the books more than the adaptation): Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I remember at the time when all of my colleagues at work were talking about Harry Potter, I was far more entranced by this trilogy.
So my literary travels this month have included Ireland, Japan, Yorkshire and Dorset, Naples and Oxford (plus a few parallel worlds). Where will your six links take you?
This is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month she chooses a book as a starting point and you have to link it to six other books to form a chain. It doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, merely to the one next to it, although some participants choose a theme for all of the links. This month we start with Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, which was one of my top reads of the year 2020.
So the first link is a very obvious one, namely another favourite read of the year, a book published in 2020, and whose author I got to see in an online literary event: Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami.
The second link is the only other book I can think of with ‘eggs’ in the title, namely Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss. I not only loved it as a child, but I read it so many times to my own children (during their fussy eating phases) that I know it by heart. As a former fussy eater myself, I could really empathise with the candid cry: ‘I do not like them in a house./ I do not like them with a mouse./ I do not like them here or there./ I do not like them anywhere.’
The more spurious link to my next choice is the name Sam – a marginally less obnoxious character than that insistent, nagging Sam-I-Am is Sam Spade from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The charismatic, brooding, cynical private eye was not the first hardboiled detective but truly defined the genre for all who followed.
Another book with the name of a bird of prey in the title is Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, set in Roman Britain and exploring the supposed annihilation of the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army. I was fascinated by this book when I was a child, but my children never quite got into it.
By way of contrast, one of the series that my older son really got into and which I never quite loved was Harry Potter by JK Rowling. I thought they were quite poorly written and derivative, and much preferred Diana Wynne Jones. But of course I was an adult already by the time they came out, so who knows how I’d have felt about them as a child.
My final link is to the wonderful Tales of Beatrix Potter, which was much loved by all three of us. As a child I was probably most like Tom Kitten getting his clothes terribly mussed up, but nowadays I most identify with poor Mrs Tittlemouse desperately trying to keep her house tidy against a deluge of visitors. (Well, not this year, but you know what I mean…)
This has been a nostalgic little trip down memory lane – and I wonder if that is because subconsciously the theme has been one of motherhood (with the exception of Sam Spade, who perhaps needs a mother to soften him a little). Or maybe my subconscious is troubled by the endless debates about schools reopening safely (or not). Anyway, here is our beautiful edition of the Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, a treasured birthday present for my older son’s second birthday.
This post was going to be named Contemporary Fiction, but I actually had a very good year of reading poetry and non-fiction, so I wanted to include those, and didn’t know if I (or you) would have the patience for separate blog posts for every single category. So these are books published recently (not just this year, but in the past few years), some of them have been reissued or have only just been translated. There are 59 books that would fit in this category out of my total of 127, so roughly half of the books I read. A higher proportion than I expected, driven partly by my desire to help small independent publishers and bookshops in this difficult year.
Here are the ones that stayed with me:
Aoko Matsuda: Where the Wild Ladies Are – a clever, ferocious, fun subversion of Japanese ghost stories and folk tales, made all the more interesting by getting a chance to hear the translator Polly Barton talk about it at the Borderless Book Club organised by Peirene after lockdown in March
Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women – another short story collection with a wry look at the gender gap (I seemed to find short stories more accessible and suitable for my attention span, particularly during the first lockdown). Although these stories were written during the 1950s and 60s, they have been collected and reissued recently… and still have a lot to say about today’s world.
Ludovic Bruckstein: The Trap – two novellas about life as a Jew in the increasingly intolerant Romanian society of the 1930s (and the Second World War) – fascinating initially because of its subject matter, the writing turned out to be truly evocative of its time and place, with a dry, dark sense of humour
Nino Haratischwili (or Haratishvili): The Eighth Life– a mammoth of a family saga, which captivated even me, a reluctant convert to the family saga genre, always balancing between the personal and the historical, the well-trodden and the barely known.
Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet – this book was a case of right time, right subject matter for me, not just as a Shakespeare fan, but also because I read it at a time when I was so worried about the health of my own children; perhaps slightly over-written, but with moments of real beauty, lyricism and psychological depth.
Olga Tokarczuk: Drive Your Plow… – so clever, such a beguiling voice, a great insight into a person, a way of life and a rural society, both tragic and comic all at once
Sarah Waters: Fingersmith– finally understood what all the fuss was about, just could NOT stop reading this thrilling example of master storytelling; sadly, was not quite as enamoured of the other books by the author that I then borrowed post-haste from the library
Mieko Kawakami: Breasts and Eggs – a strange novel, composed of two parts that don’t really have much to do with each other, and yet I loved the way it explored women, bodies, sisterhood, families and the meaning of parenthood in contemporary Japan
Fernanda Melchor: Hurricane Season – one of the most breathlessly enthralling and difficult stories I’ve read this year or perhaps in any other year, with voices that will leave you shattered – one of those life-changing books
Alison Anderson: The Summer Guest – by way of contrast, a gentle, subtle, utterly charming book about an exceptional man and author, Chekhov – a fictional account of his summers in the Ukraine
I read a lot of poetry this year, but as usual haven’t reviewed much. The two that I have reviewed, however, both shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award – and one the winner of this award – were truly unforgettable: Jay Bernard’s Surge and Sean Hewitt: Tongues of Fire. But this year I also discovered Jericho Brown, Safiya Sinclair, Caroline Bird, Dahlia Ravikovitch, Nina Boutsikaris and a new translation of Cavafy by Evan Jones, so it’s been an excellent year.
Deborah Orr: Motherwell– not just a family history – and the gap between generations – but also the history of a community, which helped me to understand a lot more about the UK and its working class history
Francesca Wade: Square Haunting – reminded me of just how much I loved certain women authors and introduced me to a couple of new women to admire – a thoughtful recreation of a period and women’s aspiration to be independent of thought (and financially too, if possible). Perhaps forced together into the Mecklenburgh Square concept, but it worked for me and I really regret not writing a proper review of it
Beth Ann Fennelly: Heating and Cooling – micro-memoirs, witty, charming, sharp-tongued, experimental – a delight that I discovered thanks to the recommendation of Anne-Marie Fyfe, whose poetry workshop was one of the last things I was able to attend live in 2020
Kate Briggs: This Little Art– an absolute must for literary translators, but for all readers, this is both an insight into the science and art of translation, and throws up all sorts of knotty problems for debate – another of those ‘life-changing’ books, especially since I just started being a literary translator this year.
This year I felt the need to find comfort in the classics, some of them new, some of them rereads, and some classics I had previously attempted and abandoned. My definition of classics is quite broad, so you will find both 19th and 20th century books in here, and from all countries. 28 of my 127 books were classics of some description (29 if you count The Karamazov Brothers, which I’m currently reading and hope to finish by the start of January), and 17 of those will be mentioned below – which just goes to show that the ‘success rate’ is much higher with the classics.
Ueda Akinari: Ugetsu Monogatari – it’s been a pleasure reacquainting myself with these very Japanese ghost stories, even though some of them made me furious at the classist and sexist assumptions of the time.
Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost – utterly heartbreaking and very thoughtful story of parenthood but also a moving portrait of post-war France, one of my favourite Persephones so far
Thomas Bernhard: Woodcutters – I sometimes find Bernhard a bit much to take in, too grumpy, but this book is so good at poking holes in the Viennese literary and artistic pretentiousness, that I laughed nearly all the way through
Henry James: The American – one of the few James that I’d never read, an earlier one, and much lighter, frothier and funnier than I remembered him
Machado de Assis: Dom Casmurro – another grumpy old man reminiscing about his life, like Bernhard, and another tragicomic masterpiece
Shirley Hazzard: The Bay of Noon – another portrait of a post-war European city, and a strange little love story, full of subtle, skilled observations
Elizabeth von Arnim: The Caravaners – if ever there was a book to distract you from lockdown, this is the one. Hilarious, sarcastic, and reminding you that a bad holiday is worse than no holiday at all!
Dorothy Canfield Fisher: The Home-Maker– an ingenious role reversal story from Persephone, thought-provoking and surprisingly modern
Barbellion: Journal of a Disappointed Man – courtesy of Backlisted Podcast, I reacquainted myself with this diary of a complex character, struggling to be courageous, often self-pitying, and usually ferociously funny
Marlen Haushofer: The Wall – simply blew me away – again, perfect novel about and for solitary confinement
Teffi: Subtly Worded– ranging from the sublime to the absurd, from angry to sarcastic to lyrical, tackling all subjects and different cultures, a great collection of journalistic and fictional pieces
Defoe: Journal of the Plague Year – such frightening parallels to the present-day – a great work of what one might call creative non-fiction
Romain Gary: Les Racines du ciel – not just for those passionate about elephants or conservationism, this is the story of delusions and idealism, colonialism and crushed dreams, appropriation of stories and people for your own purposes
Penelope Fitzgerald: The Gate of Angels – both very funny and yet with an underlying sense of seriousness, of wonder – and of course set in my beloved Cambridge
Liviu Rebreanu: The Forest of the Hanged – Dostoevsky meets Remarque meets Wilfred Owen, a book which never fails to send shivers down my spine
Anton Chekhov: Sakhalin Island – possibly the greatest revelation of the year, alongside Defoe. Stunning, engaged writing, and so much compassion.
What strikes me looking at all of the above is how many of these books that I naturally gravitated towards this year are all about showing compassion and helping others, about the bond with the natural world, about not allowing yourself to despair at the horrors that human beings bring upon themselves. I’ve been thinking about that mysterious gate in the wall of the college, and how it opened at just the right time – and that’s what all these books have allowed me to do. They’ve provided me with the perfect escape and encouragement whenever I needed them most. If you’ve missed my crime fiction round-up, it is here. I will also do a contemporary fiction round-up after Boxing Day.
I wish all of you who celebrate Christmas as happy a time as possible under the circumstances. I’ll be back before the start of the New Year with some further reading and film summaries, but until then, stay safe and healthy, all my love from me to you!
I was too busy to take part in this favourite bookish thread last month but am delighted to be back now. Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best nudges us into position every month with a ‘starter book for ten’ and we link it one by one to another six books. Everyone’s chain is very different, and I think it’s fascinating to see how our minds work!
This month’s starter is Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, an author whose books we would surreptitiously pass from one girl to another under the desks in class, while we were supposed to be reading A Tale of Two Cities or something equally respectable. We were a British international school, as opposed to the American International school that was our main rival in town. But we did have quite a few American pupils and they introduced us to Judy Blume.
Another book that I distinctly remember discovering at that school, although this time it was officially part of the curriculum in our German class, was a short story collection by Swiss writer Peter Bichsel. The poignant, surreal storyA Table Is a Table impressed me so much that I have never forgotten it. It’s all about loneliness, being misunderstood, not finding a common language to communicate, or dementia, or all sorts of things that children may not really understand at a conscious level, but instinctively grasp with their heart. You can read it here in Lydia Davis’ translation.
I have to admit to my shame that for the longest time I mixed up Lydia Davis with Lindsey Davis, whose novels of crime and mayhem set in Imperial Rome and featuring informer Marcus Didius Falco I discovered and loved so much in my early twenties. I chanced upon them in my library, soThe Iron Hand of Marswas the first one I read, although it is the fourth or fifth in the series chronologically.
Mars is the link to the next book, namely Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Again, a book I devoured in my youth – with the Cold War at its demented peak, it all seemed more than a little plausible at the time.
Of course, the most obvious author describing the Cold War period is John Le Carré and I’m particularly fond of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, which captures perfectly the constant paranoia, distrust and sheer danger of East Germany and the world of espionage during the period just after the Berlin Wall went up.
A book set in Berlin (but at a very different point in time – party town Berlin in 2008) sits patiently waiting on my shelves to be read: French writer Oscar Coop-Phane’s Tomorrow Berlin, transl. George Miller.
Of course, if I were to make the last link in the chain any one of the hundreds of unread books in my library, that would be far too open a field. So instead I will focus on another book that I have in English rather than in the original language, although I can read the original language. It is Nostalgia by Mircea Cartarescu, transl. Julian Semilian, which will be published by Penguin Classics in 2021 (and who kindly sent me an ARC).
So quite a variety of genres and locations this month: YA set in the US, Swiss short stories, historical crime fiction in Ancient Rome, science fiction on Mars, spy thriller in Berlin and London, youth drug and club culture in Berlin and Paris, and experimental literary fiction set in Romania.
Where will your literary connections take you this month?