Rediscovering Montaigne

I say rediscovering, but I doubt that I ever discovered him properly the first time round. I vaguely read his essays in my omnivorous teens, jotted down a few quotes, but probably confused him quite a bit with Montesquieu (well, they both start with M and are roughly categorised as philosophers) and de Tocqueville (I know, no excuses there!).

In 2015 we holidayed in Aquitaine and I kept stumbling across Montaigne in Bordeaux (he was mayor of the city from 1580 to 1585). I borrowed his essays from the library when we returned to our then-home in Prevessin, but once again failed to read them in great depth. I had simply too many other books to review.

Then I recently came across this sort-of-biography of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. Entitled How to Live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, it is nothing less than a declaration of love for Montaigne the man and the writer, for his tolerant spirit and for not being judgemental (rare during those times of religious wars in France), his openness to new things, his love of the good life but also desire for solitude. Montaigne feels very modern, very akin to us, even to the point where he claims to despise in-depth scholarship.

I leaf through now one book, now another, without order and without plan, by disconnected fragments… If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety.

He also endeared himself to me by preferring his books and travels to family life. Had he been free to choose, he would not have been the marrying kind at all, yet he reached a kind of contentment within it:

Of my own choice, I would have voided marrying Wisdom herself, if she had wanted me. But say what we will, the custom and practice of ordinary life bears us along.

Yet he was by no means a hermit. He enjoyed company and cultivated friendships, highly praised kind-spirited and friendly conversations – about anything, no subject was taboo in his household. He was also one of the first to establish a rapport with animals and think of them as sentient beings.

He is also ahead of his time regarding women: he was very conscious of the double standard used to judge male and female behaviour, and believed that by nature males and females are cast in the same mould.

Women are not wrong at all when they reject the rules of life that have been introduced into the world, inasmuch as it is the men who have made these without them.

Above all, I can relate to his glorious laziness. Looking after his estate was an onerous task, and he was useless around the house because he had other interests. He hated doing the things that bored him – a dereliction of duty which was shocking for his time, but which we can empathise with nowadays.

I stand up well under hard work; but I do so only if I go to it of my own will, and as much as my desire leads me to it… Extremely idle, extremely independent, both by nature and by art.

As Sarah Bakewell notes, he ‘knew there was a price to be paid’ for this unwillingness to be a micro-manager, that people would take advantage of his ignorance. ‘Yet it seemed to him better to lose money occasionally that to waste time tracking every penny and watching his servants’ tiniest movements.’ Of course, this comes from a position of privilege, where he could afford not to track the pennies.

Finally, perhaps his most endearing quality is his acceptance of everything that happens and everything you have done and been. His was not the Christian doctrine of repentance, but nor did he try to airbrush his past. He knew that some of the things he’d done a long time ago no longer made sense to him now, but he is forgiving to himself and to others for their mistakes. We are all made up of what we’ve done throughout our lives and what we’ve learnt from that.

We are all patchwork; and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game… our being is cemented with sickly qualities… Whoever should remove the seeds of these qualities from man would destroy the fundamental conditions of our life.

Yet the author also points out, that for all his individualistic modernity, Montaigne also has much to teach people in the 21st century about moderation, being courteous, that no utopia or fantasist vision of the future can ever justify hurting others in the present or outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world.

Coincidentally, a French writer friend Lou Sarabadzic has just been busy curating an exhibition about Montaigne at the library Abbé-Grégoire in Blois, as part of her travelling and writing residency there. And I can now understand her passion for this author and wish I’d discussed him with her sooner! If you want to see the author Sarah Bakewell talk about Montaigne, here is the link to a video from the LRB Bookshop.

I will certainly add him to my list of favourite classic French writers : Voltaire and Molière.

#6Degrees of Separation, September 2019

Literature is the only thing lighting up our lives at the moment (and music and art etc.), so of course I am here, even though a little bit late, for that fun monthly meme of Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, which I haven’t read but which sounds very interesting, about a Russian count placed under house arrest for seditious beliefs.

Another book about someone under arrest is I Will Never See the World Again by Ahmet Altan, one of the many Turkish writers imprisoned by Erdogan’s oppressive regime. I gather the book was smuggled out of his prison cell, as were his notes to the translators of his historical family saga novel series, of which I’ve read the first Like a Sword Wound.

One book with the word sword in the title that we all read at school in my childhood was The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier, about a family separated by war and involving a dramatic escape across Europe from Poland into Switzerland.

Switzerland is the common thread linking to the next book by someone I met while I lived in Geneva (but whose book I’d been using long before I met him for intercultural training) Diccon Bewes: Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Honey. Revealing, and often very funny.

The same principle applies to Watching the English by Kate Fox, except that Kate is an anthropologist rather than a journalist, so she tries to analyse certain patterns via surveys and fieldwork rather than just through analysis of media, history and personal observation.

My last link is to another author named Kate, namely Kate Atkinson. My favourite book by her (not that I’ve read them all) is her first: Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

So we had a super-fast tour of Moscow, Turkey, Poland, Switzerland, England and Yorkshire (which sometimes feels like a different country). Where will your links take you this month?

The Translated Literature Book Tag

I saw a blog post this week on Portuguese reader Susana’s blog A Bag Full of Stories, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to tag myself and take part. As you know, I am very opinionated when it comes to translations!

A translated novel you would recommend to everyone

Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver (trans. Thomas Teal) is such a deceptively simple story of village life in winter and the friendship between two women, but it is full of undercurrents, ambiguity, darkness. Of course, if you haven’t read Tove Jansson at all, then I suggest you start with the Moomins, which are just as wonderful for grown-ups as they are for children.

A recently read “old” translated novel you enjoyed

The Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic, which was the inspiration for Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, was even better than I expected.

A translated book you could not get into

Everybody knows that my Achilles heel is The Brothers Karamazov, which is ironic, given that I love everything else that Dostoevsky wrote (and generally prefer him to Tolstoy). I have bought myself a new copy of it and will attempt it again (for the 5th time?).

Your most anticipated translated novel release

This is a little under the radar, but it sounds fascinating: Istros Books (one of my favourite publishers, for its brave championing of a part of Europe that is still woefully under-translated) is bringing out The Trap by Ludovic Bruckstein, a Romanian Jewish writer virtually unknown to me (because he emigrated in 1970 and was declared persona non grata in Romania). The book is made up of two novellas, offering, as the publisher blurb goes, ‘a fascinating depiction of rural life in the Carpathians around the time of the Second World War, tracing the chilling descent into disorder and fear of two cosmopolitan communities that had hitherto appeared to be havens of religious and racial acceptance’. The official launch will take place on 26th of September in London and you bet that I’ll be there!

A “foreign-language” author you would love to read more of

I only discovered Argentinean author Cesar Aira in 2018, and he is so vastly prolific (and reasonably frequently translated) that I have quite a task ahead of me to catch up. His novels are exhilarating, slightly mad and, most importantly, quite short.

A translated novel which you consider to be better that the film

Movie still from Gigi.

Not many people will agree with me, but I prefer the very short novella Gigi by Colette to the famous musical version of it, starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier. The book’s ending is much more open to interpretation and makes you doubt the long-term happiness of young Gigi. It can be read as a satire and critique of the shallow world of Parisian society and the limited choices women had within it at the time.

A translated “philosophical” fiction book you recommend

Not sure I’ve read many of those! Reading biographies of philosophers or their actual work is more fun. The only example I can think of, and which I enjoyed at the time but haven’t reread in years, is Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, transl. Paulette Moller.

A translated fiction book that has been on your TBR for far too long

Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall (trans. Shaun Whiteside) is a post-apocalyptic novel with a difference. I’ve been meaning to read this much praised novel forever, but in the original, so I finally bought it in Berlin last year… and still haven’t got around to reading it.

A popular translated fiction book you have not read yet

Korean fiction seems to be having a moment in the sun right now (thanks to a great influx of funding for translation and publication), especially the author Han Kang. I haven’t read the ever-popular The Vegetarian but her more recently translated one Human Acts (trans. Deborah Smith) sounds more on my wavelength, with its examination of policital dissent and its repercussions.

A translated fiction book you have heard a lot about and would like to find more about or read

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischwili, translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin is perhaps far too intimidatingly long (1000 pages) for me to read, but it sounds epic: six generations of a Georgian family living through the turbulent Soviet 20th century.

The Nurturing Power of Inspiring Women

I’m fully aware that I’ve had wonderfully supportive men in my professional and personal life as well, but at this particular point in my life, I am thirsting for that generous nurturing that can come from the women you aspire to become some day.

With thanks to L’Atelier Writers for the image.

I have been fortunate to have great female role models encourage and inspire me at just the right inflection points in my life. The meetings were brief and I doubt that any of them will remember me, but for me they were life-changing. Naomi Shihab Nye encouraged me to start writing poetry (again). Laura Kasischke and Kathleen Jamie engaged with my poetry and made me feel I had something to say after all. Sarah Savitt (then at Faber, now at Virago) loved the beginning of my novel and encouraged me to finish it prestissimo – sorry, Sarah, life intervened, but I WILL finish! Michele Roberts gave me feminist support and solidarity when my marriage was breaking down. Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books is just the most caring and passionate individual I’ve ever met in publishing, she envelopes you like a warm hug and is an absolute tonic when you are down. My triad of charmed and charming women writers who organise the most wholesome, funny and productive writing retreat in the world, L’Atelier Writers (namely, Michelle Bailat Jones, Laura McCune-Poplin and Sara Johnson Allen)… and the participants I met there, who have become my creative sisters.

The three most recent examples are Nicola Barker and Ali Smith, as well as my poetry mentor Rebecca Goss. Here are some of their thoughts that particularly stuck with me.

I admire Nicola Barker’s commitment to remaining ‘ferociously innocent’ (instead of jaded or cynical) and her ability to find joy and playfulness in writing. She is aware that her writing has been described as difficult, and that not a lot of people read her, but she believes that experimental writers are ‘bottom feeders, virtually unseen in the depths of the ocean, but somehow something percolates up towards the top.

Meanwhile, Ali Smith is aware that her ‘Brexit novel series’ will be out of date in just a couple of years, but she feels compelled to witness the times in something other than journalism, and hopes it will give us a snapshot of what it felt like to be at this particular point in history. She described writing these books as ‘being in the middle of a powerful storm, trying to capture the roar’.

Last but not least, it is such a privilege to work with a mentor for poetry. Someone who reads your work very closely, who asks you about your intention and really listens, doesn’t impose her point of view but tries to work with you to make your poem as good as it can possibly be. I came home last night after a busy and difficult day at work, tired from the commute, doubled up in pain from yet another over-abundant period, mentally exhausted with all the back to school prep. Rebecca was generous with her time, praise and thoughts and I left the session with little wings attached Hermes-like to my swollen ankles…

Six Degrees of Separation: August Wild Card

I only take part intermittently in the Six Degrees of Separation meme, but it’s one of my favourite monthly reading challenges. This month the starting point for the logical chain of six books is the last book you posted in the July chain. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to take part in the July chain, although I loved, loved, loved reading Where the Wild Things Are to my children (complete with singing, howling and dancing for the wild rumpus). So I will start instead with the last one in June, which was I, Claudius by Robert Graves.

Robert Graves was great friends (and possibly more) with Siegfried Sassoon, when they were both officers in the same regiment during the First World War. So for my first link I picked Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, which I read and hugely enjoyed in my youth, when I was craving to come to England to study and dreamt that I would be riding all day (thanks, pony books) and sailing (thanks, Swallow and Amazons), while visiting friends in amazing country piles (yep, Brideshead Revisited). Of course, the real England was nothing like that when I did move over here, but I can completely see the nostalgia element and appeal in Sassoon’s work (a bit like Le Grand Meaulnes).

The fantastic Quentin Blake illustrating Roald Dahl

Of course, fox-hunting is horrible, so my next pick is a fox that gets its revenge on humans: Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl. Dahl himself was a difficult man, but I loved his books when I was a child, he certainly got my own children reading and we all loved visiting his house at Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire.

Another Buckinghamshire literary light was John Milton, who lived in Chalfont St Giles for a short while (trying to escape the plague in London) and completed Paradise Lost there. I’ve tried and tried to read Milton, but have never been able to struggle through the whole of his paradises.

Another book I’ve never been able to read all the way through, although I hugely enjoyed parts of it, is Don Quixote by Cervantes. Yes, I know, it’s a damning confession to make. I do like the ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa, though, if that counts.

Petipa also, more famously, choreographed (or helped Lev Ivanov to do so) The Nutcracker, which is based on a short story by ETA Hoffmann. Although the ballet is regularly performed as a feel-good Christmas special, in Hoffmann’s hands it was much darker (like all of his ambiguous stories).

Finally, as we all know, Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is a sad tale of a woman being betrayed by a man and yet sacrificing herself for him. Far removed indeed from the Disney version – and I have the feeling the upcoming live action remake is not going to touch these darker aspects either.

So this month we’ve undertaken a journey from Ancient Rome to Buckinghamshire, from paradise to Spain, Russia (or thereabouts) to Denmark. A great pleasure, as always, to take part in this. Where will your 6 connections take you?

Nominations for #WIT Top 100

Women in Translation Month is coming up very soon, and for this year, the founder and host of #WITMonth Meytal at Biblibio has decided to curate a list of the top 100 women in translation. You are all invited to take part, if you follow some basic rules:

I’ve selected ten books that instantly came to mind, without me having to go through my bookshelves in detail. I could have chosen so many more, but these are ones that have really changed my world, shaken my foundations, taught me what it means to be a woman and an artist and other such fundamental things. And, instead of telling you what the book is ‘about’, I will just give you a 3 word (or thereabouts) summary and a quote from each.

Looking at the list, I guess none of them are really cheerful, happy books, are they?

Simone de Beauvoir: Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter) – bourgeois turns bohemian

 I had wanted myself to be boundless, and I had become as shapeless as the infinite. The paradox was that I became aware of this deficiency at the very moment when I discovered my individuality; my universal aspiration had seemed to me until then to exist in its own right; but now it had become a character trait: ‘Simone is interested in everything.’ I found myself limited by my refusal to be limited.

Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, Ging, Gegangen (Go, Went, Gone) – meeting, connecting, empathy

Have the people living here under untroubled circumstances and at so great a distance from the wars of others been afflicted with a poverty of experience, a sort of emotional anemia? Must living in peace – so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world – inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?

Veronique Olmi: Bord de mer (Beside the Sea) – depressed mother, heartbreak

You force yourself to live as best you can, but everything keeps fading away. You wake up in the morning but that morning no longer exists, just like the evening preceding it, forgotten by everyone. You inch forward on a cliff edge, I’ve known that for a while. One step forward. One step in the abyss. Then you start over again. To go where? No one knows. No one cares.

Ingeborg Bachmann: Malina – victim of imagination or men?

Some people live and some people contemplate others living. I am amongst those who contemplate. And you?

Murasaki Shikibu: Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) – shining prince ages

You that in far-off countries of the sky can dwell secure, look back upon me here; for I am weary of this frail world’s decay.

Yosano Akiko: Midaregami (Tangled Hair) – poetry of female desire

A star who once

Within night’s velvet whispered

All the words of love

Is now a mortal in the world below —

Look on this untamed hair!

Clarice Lispector: Complete Short Stories – capricious, scintillating, sad

Mama, before she got married… was a firecracker, a tempestuous redhead, with thoughts of her own about liberty and equality for women. But then along came Papa, very serious and tall, with thoughts of his own too, about… liberty and equality for women. The trouble was in the coinciding subject matter.

Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu: Drumul acuns (The Hidden Way) – social critique of inter-war Romania

The snobbery of Papadat-Bengescu’s protagonists is a defining trait of the Romanian bourgeoisie, of humble and precarious origin, without any aristocratic ancestry, and therefore keen to integrate into top-tier society at any price, either by falsifying their family history or by making unjustifiable moral compromises.

Critique from Autorii.com

Gabriela Adamesteanu: Dimineata pierduta (Lost Morning) – political family saga

How little of what lies within us we are able to convey through words! And how few of those words are received by others. And yet we keep on talking, firm in the belief that the sun of rationality will light up our souls… Otherwise, what would our lives be like if we view conversations as being as complicated as blood transfusions? It’s only when we’re at our lowest ebb that we are haunted by this suspicion, but we cast this suspicion aside as soon as we possibly can.

Marina Tsvetaeva: In the Inmost Hour of the Soul (or any other of her poetry) – quirky, passionate, ruthless

I have no need of holes

for ears, nor prophetic eyes:

to your mad world there is

one answer: to refuse!

Mood-Boosting Books in the Library

A couple of years ago I discovered that there is a trend now to promote ‘mood-boosting books’ in our local libraries (and perhaps nationally). Perhaps this is to counteract the trauma caused by the daily, weekly, monthly news cycle, or perhaps it’s a bread and circuses distraction so that the population stays calm and carries on. Whatever the reason behind it, it was something I welcomed, even as an inveterate and unrepentant reader of noir literature.

However, the selection is somewhat controversial, to say the least. No disrespect to the librarians who made the selection from what were probably limited resources, but I cannot resist suggesting some alternatives to the more blatant discrepancies between stated purpose and actual effect on the reader.

Completely gratuitous image of Aidan Turner as Poldark – and no, not the torso…

The choice of the Poldark series may have more to do with the phwoar appeal of Aidan Turner’s torso than with the actual storyline, which is often full of cruelty, grim poverty and sadness. If you were aiming for a family saga in which you can sink in, forgetting about your own worries for a minute, then I would recommend Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance or the Jalna series by Mazo de la Roche.

I recently borrowed The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, which was also on that mood-boosting shelf, expecting a book about a cat adopting a youngish couple to be charming and tender. Well, yes it was, but also rather wistful and sad, connected to the end of an era (Showa) and perhaps an end of a certain way of life in Japan. For a cheerier account of cats as saviours, try A Streetcat Named Bob or The Good, the Bad and the Furry. And if you want a satire of a changing Japan, then Natsume Soseki’s I Am a Cat is a classic.

Portrait of Natsume Soseki with his cat, by Okamoto Ippei.

I’ve laughed before how Alice Munro was mysteriously shelved under Happiness with her stark and unflinching short stories. I could say the same about The Miniaturist, or Chekhov’s short stories, or Louis Sachar’s Holes or A Month in the Country or even The Camomile Lawn. I suppose the idea is to read something about triumph in the face of adversity, but some of the titles seem to wilfully misinterpret what could make people happy. Maybe reading about other people’s suffering makes us more content with our own life?

There are, of course, some excellent choices that I cannot help but agree with: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, the irrepressible Adrian Mole, The Enchanted April, Matt Haig’s The Humans and even Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (aka These Foolish Things, although I have problems at times with the ‘white tourists going to exotic locations and poking gentle fun at them’.

What other books would you recommend to people who need escapism or cheering up? Top of my list would be Pippi Longstocking, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt, Paul Berna’s A Hundred Million Francs. What would be top of your list?