#WIT Month: Clarice Lispector

Lispector at the time of the publication of her first novel.
Lispector at the time of the publication of her first novel.

I don’t usually post something on a Saturday, but I’m so far behind in my Women in Translation Month reviewing, that I feel I have to.

As a student in my early 20s I went through a period of infatuation with Clarice Lispector. I had always admired Virginia Woolf and here was a Brazilian writer equally at ease with the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique, but upping the ante when it came to passion and candour. Being very Latin in fact, compared to Woolf’s cooler Anglo-Saxon attitudes.

I have not reread her since, but WIT Month seemed like a good time to revisit her. Near to the Wild Heart is her debut novel (translated by Alison Entrekin) but this time round it left me not quite fully satisfied.

It’s the story of Joana, an eccentric little soul growing up with a kindly but absent-minded father after the death of her mother.

The child was running wild, so thin and precocious… He sighed quickly, shaking his head. A little egg, that was it, a little live egg. What would become of Joana?

When her father dies, she goes to live with her aunt and uncle, which proves unbearable for all concerned.

‘She’s a cold viper, there’s no love or gratitude in her. There’s no point liking her, no point doing the right thing by her. I think she’s capable of killing someone…’

She is sent to boarding school, grows up, is regarded as somewhat of an enigma by those around her, marries the conceited and shifty Otavio, who continues his affair with his old lover. Joana has misgivings about marriage itself, about tying herself to any man (thoughts which would have been revolutionary in Brazil at the time the book was published in 1943)

Otavio made her into something that wasn’t her but himself… how could she tie herself to a man without allowing him to imprison her? How could she prevent him from developing his four walls over her body and sould? And was there a way to have things without those things possessing her?

Finally, Joana finds the courage and determination to strike off on her own after a period of loneliness and abjection. At first she turns to God.

My God I wait for thee… come to me… I am less than dust and I wait for you every day and every night, help me, I only have one life and this life slips through my fingers and travels to death serenely and I can do nothing and all I do is watch my depletion with each passing minute…

But then she realises that the power comes from within and the book ends on a hopeful note.

What was rising in her was not courage, she was substance alone, less than human… Throngs of warm thoughts sprouted and spread through her frightened body and what mattered about them was that they concealed a vital impulse, what mattered about them was that at the very instant of their brith there was the blind, true substance creating itself, rising up, straining at the water’s surface like an air bubble, almost breaking it…

Of course, I have simplified and tried to give the narrative shape and linearity where there is none. Rather, it’s all about ‘illuminations’, moments of consciousness in Joana’s life (and occasionally other characters). There is much of the animal nature of Jinny, the flanks breathing in and out from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a tremendous physicality.

nearwildheartYet Joana also ponders on the nature of words such as ‘never’ and ‘everything’, she is in a state of constant questioning, a swirling intensity of raw emotions, half-formulated thoughts, openness to experience but also (over)analysis of each new experience. There are some similarities to Anais Nin and Elena Ferrante, but the work this most reminded me of was the Diary of Marie Bashkirtseff. Joana has the same breathtaking belief in her own genius, shows the same inscrutable character to outsiders, is in equal measure puzzled by the slipperiness of the concept of (her own) identity and yet wields it like a blunt instrument to manipulate others.

Reading a chapter at a time, there are nuggets to treasure but it was all too much for me when reading it in one go. (Although the impressionistic technique in The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway still works well for me now.) This is something of a young person’s book. I’m glad I read it at the appropriate age but it did not resonate with me as well a couple of decades later. I guess I’ll have to go back to her other works, especially her short stories, and see whether they can rework their magic on me once more.

#20BooksofSummer Books 10-13

I may have been offline for a while, but I was still busy reading towards the end of July (although things have slowed down since). I managed to finish another 4 of my 20 books of summer. I am doubtful, however, that I will manage to finish all 20 of them in the week or so that I have left for this challenge. Besides, I’m also trying to add at least one book for Women in Translation Month and then embark on my Jean Rhys reread. I also have to prepare some Classics in September for Crime Fiction Lover, so all in all, a good reading time ahead, if I can clear my clutter and get my act together.

It’s been such a long time since I finished these books (and I did not take notes at the time, which is VERY BAD practice, I’m sure you’ll agree), that all I can offer here are my unfiltered reactions to them, rather than a proper in-depth book review.

ThinAir10 – Michelle Paver: Thin Air

By strange coincidence, I read a lighter-hearted version of a climb of Kanchenjunga in Arthur Ransome’s Swallowdale just a few days later, but this third highest peak in the Himalayas has had its fair share of mountaineering accidents. Above all, it is renowned for a demon or deity resident at the very top, which has meant in practice that all mountaineers have stopped just short of the actual summit, allowing the mountain to remain inviolate.

It’s on this tradition that Michelle Paver plays in this old-fashioned ghost story with plenty of claustrophobia, genuine fear and a sense of adventure. I loved the historical and exotic background, days of the Empire feel to the narrative, the slightly outdated attitude towards the ‘coolies’, the set-up of a story within a story. In short, this was fantastic scene-setting, reminding me of Jules Verne or The Woman in Black or MR James. Finally, when the climb proper starts, you never quite know if it’s altitude sickness or ghosts or fear itself… A great yarn with such a remarkable sense of place and atmosphere that I felt chilled even in this heatwave!

11 – Eleanor Wasserberg: Foxlowe

There was me – my name is Green – and my little sister, Blue. There was October, who we called Toby, and Ellensia, Dylan, Liberty, Pet and Egg. There was Richard, of course, who was one of the Founders. And there was Freya.

We were the Family, but we weren’t just an ordinary family. We were a new, better kind of family.

We didn’t need to go to school, because we had a new, better kind of education. We shared everything.

FoxloweThis book does a very good job of describing the confusion and love/hate relationship that many who grow up in a cult/commune can have with the outside world, but ultimately also with the cult itself. The inward looking language and the child’s way of reasoning and justifying even bad stuff are in equal measure compelling and sinister. What makes this particularly hard to read is because it is all about the death of ideals – how a community which started off with high principles can subvert them and turn sour – a powerful metaphor about many types of human societies and cultures.

12 – Stav Sherez: The Devil’s Playground

DevilsPlaygroundThis is the debut novel by Stav Sherez, written over 10 years ago. The scene is Amsterdam, which is becoming increasingly gentrified in its tourist centre (‘Disneyland’, as a Dutch writer told me recently), but still has a sleazy underbelly and shadowy demons of an undigested past underneath its veneer of tolerance and friendliness.

A body turns up dead in a park in Amsterdam; he has a book belonging to Londoner Jon Reed in his pocket along with his telephone number. Detective Van Hijn asks Jon to identify the body, who is presumed to be the latest in a series of murders rocking the city. All that Jon knows about the dead man, however, is that he was a homeless person whom he had temporarily taken in, and who seems to have been reconnecting with his Jewish heritage, something Jon has yet to do. The detective and Jon are helped by Suze, an American student in Amsterdam, fascinated by the art of Charlotte Salomon, a Jewish painter who died in a concentration camp aged 26. They uncover that the motive for the murder appears to be the finding of a hidden trove of 49 reels of film from Auschwitz that are up for auction and the hunt is on to find them.

The concentration camp theme is still shocking, although it is well trodden ground by now, but it’s the passages about self-harming and body piercing (or body mutilation) which I found most disturbing. A call for more pain in order to escape the existential pain – it’s just something that doesn’t sit well with me, no matter how much empathy I usually have for people who are very different from myself. If you can stomach this, however, it’s an atmospheric, interesting book, although perhaps it attempts to tackle too many themes at once. The scenes describing Charlotte’s life and art were of particular interest, and have since been reimagined in David Foenkinos’ book Charlotte.

Haas13 – Wolf Haas: Komm, suesser Tod (Brenner #3)

Brenner is an ex-cop who’s become an ambulance driver and his world-weary gaze and washed-up lifestyle (so typical of a middle-aged Viennese man) informs this unusual crime novel. An unusual two-in-one murder witnessed by the ambulance crew arouses his suspicion and what emerges is a scurrilously funny and sarcastic story of rivalry between ambulance services. You probably have to be Viennese to fully appreciate the black humour and dialect, while the intrusive narrator who seems to comment on every single action or decision is an acquired taste. But, if you’re in the mood for it, it’s a wickedly funny read and probably devilishly hard to translate. [Although it has apparently been translated as Come, Sweet Death and published by Melville International Crime.]

 

 

 

July Reading: A Moveable Feast

Not my most productive reading month, tempting though it might have been to bury myself in a book instead of dealing with removal minutiae.

#20booksofsummer

Isabel Costello: Paris Mon Amour

Colin Niel: Ce qui reste en foret

GrażynaPlebanek: Illegal Liaisons (transl. by Danusia Stok) – also for WIT month, see below.

Valerie Gilliard: Le Canal – likewise, a candidate for WIT month

This is going more slowly than I expected, mostly because all sorts of other books get in the way.

Review copies:

Fred Vargas: A Climate of Fear

Ragnar Jonasson: Blackout

Anne Korkeakivi: Shining Sea

Michael Stanley: A Death in the Family

Crime fiction:

K.A. Richardson: I’ve Been Watching You – serial killer, tortured women, evil twins – not my cup of tea

Intruders:

Jaume Cabre: Confessions

Akira Mizubayashi: Une langue venue d’ailleurs

I have a feeling the August reading will be a bit of a mish-mash too, but I’ve deliberately set some books aside for reading during packing and before unpacking at the other end. Tony Malone also kindly reminded me that August is Women in Translation month, so here are some books I have planned for that, even at the risk of it interfering with my #20booksofsummer goals.

The one I look forward to most is the one I’ve been saving up for the summer:

  • Clarice Lispector: Near to the Wild Heart (her debut novel – a reread, but it’s been so long ago, that it will feel like a fresh read)

As always, I seem to have a sizeable chunk of French (or Swiss) books:

  • Valerie Gilliard: Le Canal
  • Madame du Chatelet: Discours sur le bonheur (How to Be Happy)
  • Muriel Barbery: The Life of Elves
  • Marie Darrieussecq: Men

Two tense, thriller-like books from Eastern Europe:

  • Rodica Ojog-Brasoveanu: Cutia cu nasturi (The Box with Buttons)
  • Grażyna Plebanek: Illegal Liaisons – no, it wasn’t a thriller, I was wrong about that

And that’s probably ambitious enough already! Once things calm down in September, and the children go to school, I am planning to contribute some articles for Crime Fiction Lover’s Classics in September feature. Early days yet, but I was thinking of something along the lines ‘Classic novels with more than a hint of crime’ and possibly also a re-read of The Moonstone (the novel which supposedly started all this crime fiction madness).

 

#20booksofsummer: Books 8 and 9 (Poland and Switzerland)

My timing is all messed up, but luckily I can kill two birds with one stone here. These two books within my #20booksofsummer also fit in with the Women in Translation Month. So, just imagine this is August already, as I will be out of action for most of that month.

illegalliaisonsGrażyna Plebanek: Illegal Liaisons (transl. Danusia Stok)

This is perfect grist to the mill of anti-EU sentiment: so this is what EU bureaucrats get up to with our money! Affairs, serial affairs and gossiping, jobs with meaningless titles where nobody knows what it is they do exactly… Add to that the fact that the main character is Polish (as his wife, while his mistress is Swedish of Czech origin), and you can add a ‘those darn corrupt foreigners’ to this impression.

Of course, that is not at all what the Polish author intended in this, her fourth novel (and her first to be translated into English). It was first published in 2010 and translated in 2012, but it appears to have caused very few ripples so far, despite its potentially explosive subject matter.

Jonathan decides to become a stay-at-home Dad and pursue his writing ambitions when his wife Megi gets a well-paid position as a lawyer at the European Commission. However, although he enjoys the advantages of expat life, he mocks the self-important and meaningless eurocrats. Bored and perhaps feeling slightly disenfranchised, he embarks upon a torrid affair with the voluptuous journalist Andrea, wife of his wife’s boss.

The sex scenes are frank, as is the description of a man’s growing obsession with the ‘wrong kind of woman’, and the author is frighteningly good at putting herself into a man’s shoes. Of course, the whole concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ kind of woman is debatable. Although his wife Megi seems to be exceedingly reasonable and charming, and although he is periodically wracked by guilt, Jonathan just cannot stay away from Andrea.

I enjoyed some of the cross-cultural observations, but overall the book seemed repetitive and confused to me. Perhaps that was the intention: giving us a bit of insight into the male psyche. Compared with the affair described in Isabel Costello’s book Paris Mon Amour (in many ways the mirror image of this, but described from a woman’s point of view), this felt much messier and pointless.

GILLIARD_1E_COUVValerie Gilliard: Le Canal (The Canal) – sadly, not yet translated

This slim volume proves the point that sometimes the simplest of stories can be extremely effective, if well told.

It’s a Friday in October in the small Swiss spa town of Yverdon. The weather is nice once more after a bout of rain, and people are out and about by the side of the canals which feed into the Lake of Neuchatel. An idyllic, peaceful moment, so easy to imagine. Then a little girl starts running after a dog by the side of the canal. Her mother is momentarily distracted by a phone call and the girl falls in. These facts are described quite dryly in the Prologue, and then we see the event (as well as what led up to it and what happened afterwards) from the point of view of several of the witnesses: the mother, Almina; the old fisherman who jumps in to rescue the girl; Steve, a young graduate with right-wing tendencies; Berivan, a Kurdish woman holding a baby; and an old lady who saw everything from her window and called the ambulance.

Yes, it has been done before, most famously in the ‘Rashomon’ film based on the Akutagawa story. But what I liked here is what the different points of view reveal about Swiss society today. Both Almina and Berivan are ‘foreigners’, refugees who fled to this country as children. Although they grew up in that very town, they are still regarded with suspicion. The press is quick to condemn the mother’s carelessness and doubts are soon cast upon her parenting abilities. In the end, it’s the older generation, the fisherman and the old woman with her own tragic past, who are able to reach out a helping hand. And the ending is just beautiful, without being cloyingly sentimental.

yverdon-jpg-crop_display
One of the canals in Yverdon, from mapio.net

 

Sneak Preview: The Illegalists

I found out about this project from the Crime Fiction Lover website. Writers Stefan Vogel and Laura Pierce teamed up with bestselling artist Attile Futaki to create a good-looking and fascinating graphic novel called The Illegalists. Set in 1910 Paris, it focuses on the true story of the anarchist group the Bonnot Gang, led by the poor mechanic turned revolutionary, Jules Bonnot.

I helped to fund the project via Kickstarter and received a copy of it just in time for me to admire it (before putting it away in a box). So let me share a little with you [apologies for the picture quality: I just snapped them quickly in the sunshine on my garden chair].

The front cover.
The front cover.
Frontispiece.
Frontispiece.
Sample page.
Sample page.
Information about the page process.
Information about the page process.

 

 

 

Blockbuster of the Summer: Jaume Cabre’s Confessions

cabreJaume Cabré is a Catalan philologist, possibly a philosopher, as well as a writer, and it shows in this massive doorstopper of a book, which takes you through most of the European history of the 20th century, plus quite a few centuries of Spanish history (notably the Inquisition). The translator Maya Faye Lethem must have the patience of a saint, because the plays on words, the fragments from other languages, the philological inventiveness and sudden changes in time frames must have been extremely challenging to interpret and translate.

So yes, I’m not going to lie to you: it is not the easiest thing to sink your teeth into. It is long, complex, toying with your mind, suddenly veering into another story, another character’s point of view, another point in time. Even in the middle of a paragraph. Nevertheless, it’s all done with great verve, charm and wit and remains coherent (just about) and fun. Even though the subject matter is anything but fun, and it can be quite emotionally draining at times. You do have to succumb to it and allow yourself time to read quite large chunks daily, otherwise the magic might dissipate.

It’s the story of Adrià Ardèvol, who comes to realise he was born in the wrong family, that he has always been very much alone. He writes a long letter to his beloved, a sort of examination of his life, before he sinks into the enforced silence of dementia. He talks about his loveless childhood; his father’s distasteful business practices and the blood-spattered background to the family heirloom, a priceless Storioni violin; about never quite living up to expectations; his love for the beautiful Sara and trying to meet her Jewish family. Interwoven with the personal, we find moving accounts and moments of sharp insight about the Spanish Civil War, about the suppression of the Catalan language, about medical experimentation and gas chambers in the German concentration camps, religious and ideological battles throughout Spanish history and so much more.

Some of the repetitions are funny, others moving, while yet others are occasionally annoying. The sudden stops mid-sentence and switching of topic can be off-putting. I think it’s supposed to reflect Adrià’s growing mental confusion. There is perhaps too much ‘bagginess’ in the novel’s structure, but the book rewards those who persevere and reveals its secrets gradually (and with an element of surprise which appears more often in mystery novels). Above all, it appears to be a meditation on the nature of evil: it is unbearably bleak at times, showing that evil has always existed and is inescapable.

This was not a #20booksofsummer effort (I wish it had been!), but it had been sitting on my shelf for far too long. I was intimidated by its length and reputation of being ‘difficult’, but the imminent move made me decide to tackle it (so that I can decide whether to keep it or donate it).

This has ‘cult book’ written all over it. As a teenage fan of Foucault’s Pendulum and One Hundred Years of Solitude, I think it’s a keeper.

 

Perfect Summer Read: Shining Sea by Anne Korkeakivi

Korkeakivi.ShiningSea (1)Michael Gannon is a doctor and a war hero, happily married and father of four (another on the way). One sunny day in 1962, just before Easter, while repainting the house, he has a heart attack and dies. This book is the story of his family after his death, but it’s also a condensed version of American history, covering a significant chunk of time (1962 to 2015), births and deaths, marriages and divorces, wars and grief. We travel with the protagonists from Southern California to Arizona, to Woodstock, to Massachusetts and New York, as well as London and Scotland.

We hear mostly from Michael’s widow, Barbara, and from the sensitive youngest son, Francis, who is just nine when his father dies, but it feels like we get to know and understand other family members as well: older daughter Patty Ann, who marries early, and whose oldest son Kenny becomes his grandmother’s pet; Mike Jr. who becomes a doctor like his father; Luke and Sissy, who leave home far too soon and never come back.

It’s an ambitious project, with many voices, so it has the potential to get very messy. Anne Korkeakivi, however, navigates this with elegance and impeccable prose. I really admire writers who can telescope several years’ worth of events but then also linger on a revealing detail. The chapters are not very long, and usually skip a few years, as well as switching between Barbara’s and Francis’ POV. There is a more lengthy part in the middle of the book, set in 1984 in the Inner Hebrides, where Francis meets and joins a group of friends preparing to sail across the Irish Sea on a mission of conciliation between Catholics and Protestants – with some tragic consequences.

AnneKorkeovikiThis is a character-driven family story (and none of the characters are intimidatingly perfect, they all feel very realistic), composed of a series of vignettes of key moments in their lives. The sea runs through it as a theme, sometimes beautiful, sometimes agitated, now friend, now foe. Barbara deliberately banishes the sea from her life when she remarries and moves to the desert of Arizona. The tragic moments are sometimes on-screen, sometimes off, but we always see the long-term effects of grief and how family relationships can be impacted. We the readers gain a little extra understanding of events and people as the years pass, as do some of the characters. Yet the author also demonstrates that sometimes even the most well-meaning and loving family members can misunderstand and challenge each other, hold different political beliefs and personal values, which often drives them apart and only sometimes brings them back together.

I loved it above all for the precise, lyrical language; the dusting of poetry contained in the writing. Here, for example, is the passage describing Michael’s death:

A cool breeze. Then calm. He is not sure where he is. He is no longer walking along a body-strewn road in the Philippines He is no longer passing through winter, autumn, one season after another. He lays his whole body down flat; the breezer rushes over him. The ground beneath him feels soft and mossy. Rain begins to fall, and it is tender, warm, it is the sound of his sister’s voice… It is Barbara. Her bright eyes… her way of clasping her hands together when laughing.

He is home. He is home.

You’ve heard me say this many times: family sagas are not my ‘thing’. And yet I would recommend this: a striking portrait of an American half-century and a family which manages to be both average and remarkable at the same time. I also have Anne’s first book An Unexpected Guest, whose main character has been compared with Mrs. Dalloway, so I look forward to picking that up and losing myself in her subtle brand of writing again quite soon.