WWWednesday 21 March 2018

First proper day of Spring, apparently, so I thought I would take part once more in what is in fact a weekly (but to me more like monthly) meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.


It’s nice to have friends who write crime fiction, as you have a never-ending supply of books that you want to read. I always make a point of reading the blog posts of Margot Kinberg and Rebecca Bradley, who are keen crime readers as well as writers, so it is an absolute pleasure to delve into their recent releases.

Rebecca Bradley: Fighting Monsters

This is the third book (plus a novella) in the crime series set in Nottingham and featuring DI Hannah Robbins and it’s fair to say that, as the book opens, Hannah has been through the mill. A colleague was killed in action (something she still blames herself for), she herself was wounded, her relationship with an attractive journalist has ended… and now it appears she may have a leak in her own team. How else would gang leader and cop killer Simon Talbot walk away freely and triumphantly after his trial, and in possession of the name of the witness who spoke out against him?

Margot Kinberg: Downfall

This is the fourth novel featuring ex-cop turned professor of criminal justice Joel Williams. In this book Joel is conducting some research with two friends of his into alternatives to prison for young offenders and come across the organisation Second Chance. In one of their schools a young boy died after sneaking out and climbing up a building on a construction site. But if it was merely an unfortunate accident, why is everyone trying so hard to cover it up?

Just read:

Two rather emotional but very different reads, one slim and concise, taking place over the course of one night, one long and rangey, taking place over several decades and countries.

Hanne Ørstavik: Love, transl. Martin Aitken

The story of a single mother and her young son, both of them dreamers, both of them slightly naive and wanting to believe the best of people, both of them doomed to be forever disappointed. Over the course of one cold night, they roam around town, and your sense of foreboding gets worse and worse. A book that broke my heart a little.

Victor Del Arbol: A Million Drops, transl. Lisa Dillman

It’s being marketed as a crime novel, but it is more of a historical saga of betrayal and revenge, Fascism and Communism, in both Spain and the Soviet Union, as seen through the eyes of individuals who lived through those troubled times. The atrocious conditions of Nazino Island in Siberia were so vividly described that I thought it must be fiction, only to discover that this place really did exist.


I’ll be going to two countries I like very much (despite their -very different – problems) with my next two books: South Africa and Germany.

Karin Brynard: Weeping Waters, transl. Maya Fowler and Isabel Dixon

A young artist and her adopted daughter are brutally murdered on a farm near the Kalahari. But was this just a typical farm attack, or was it something more personal? Townie Inspector Beeslaar has his hands full trying to get his head around this landscape with its tensions, secrets and hostilities.

Ödön von Horváth: Jugend ohne Gott

I so enjoyed rediscovering Horváth in the German section of the library, that I already have my eye on reading another book by him, this time a novel about a teacher who watches, horrified, as his students become enamoured with racist and Fascist ideology.

Oh, dear, all the subjects seem rather grim as I write them up here. Clearly I’m not much of a believer in uplifting, feel-good literature, right?


Two Contrasting Satirical Works: Spike Milligan and Dan Lungu

One way of dealing with traumatic historical events is by using satire or black humour. The Romanians have an expression for it ‘faci haz de necaz’ – making fun of misery/trouble. Coincidentally, two of the books I read recently for two very different projects #EU27Project and #DavidBowieBookClub, both deal with painful subjects in recent history, but they have very different approaches.

Dan Lungu: Sint o baba comunista! (I’m an Old Communist Biddy)

The collapse of the Berlin wall and the so-called Second World (that uncomfortable compromise between developed First and undeveloped Third World) was accompanied by a near total erasure of Eastern Europe with all that it stood for. It was not just a political system that collapsed but a whole way of life, culture, set of values, and they were replaced virtually overnight by something that wasn’t necessarily always better. Furthermore, things that were flawed but nevertheless precious to this generation were now openly derided, everything they ever built or contributed was sometimes brutally torn apart. So many of them felt that their whole lives had been wasted – a painful realisation.

I have heard this complaint from many of my elderly relatives, and this is described very realistically by Dan Lungu in this book. Ten years after the fall of Communism in Romania, Emilia is an old-age pensioner, who now has to deal with the fact that the world she has known all her life and learnt to live in (with all its imperfections) has gone forever. Her daughter Alice is now settled in Canada, married to a Canadian, and phones to ask her how she is planning to vote. This simple telephone conversation (repeated many, many times over in all of Romania in the late 1990s, early 2000s) represents the perennial struggle between generations – the nostalgia for a past that never quite existed in the way we fondly remember it now vs. the more forward-looking, able to cope with uncertainty and complexity attitude of the younger generation. It triggers some soul-searching in Emilia, as she remembers fragments of her past. Her life had been relatively sheltered: she was working in metallurgy, producing special orders for export, so had access to money and goods, compared to others. For her the fall of Communism has spelled nothing but disillusion and disaster.

Scene from the film adaptation.

‘Don’t you remember the massive queues, going all the way round the corner?’

‘OK, there were queues, but now when you go into a shop, you admire the cutlets, swallow hard and head back out, ‘cos you can’t afford them…I see families starving on TV, with children sleeping on the streets… You wouldn’t see that kind of stuff under Communism.

‘That will change. It takes time – we’re in transition right now, but I’m optimistic.’

‘Of course you’re optimistic when you’re living in Canada or France or America… You just come and live here for a while. You’ll get optimism then with spots on!’

‘What about freedom, Mum? That’s got to be worth something. We were frightened of our own shadows back then. Now you can say whatever you please, write what you want, travel where you like, shout “Down with the government!”‘

‘Travel? Sure, it’s the newly rich who do that, stealing from the things we built. And shouting, of course we can shout till we’re hoarse, no one’s listening anyway.’

There are many funny moments and culture clashes in this story (receiving the Canadian son-in-law in their house is one such classic moment), but it is the kind of ‘sad-funny’ situation that has no resolution. The ending feels a bit rushed – Emilia is questioning her memories of happy life under Communism, or at least understanding that not everyone was equally happy, but there is no real growth or change or resolution. However, it’s a touching portrayal of the dilemma many people were facing at the time (and subsequent corrupt governments have not necessarily made things better.) I’m both happy and sad that it has been translated into English, as I think I would have been the ideal candidate to translate this – I would certainly have loved to do it!

Spike Milligan: Puckoon

As you might expect with Spike Milligan, this is more of a farce than a sad/funny type of satire. It has a very cinematic quality – the detailed descriptions of each character and situation would lend themselves to a madcap TV series, although perhaps some of the (often quite pointless but hilarious) back stories would get lost.

Puckoon is a village in Ireland north east of Sligo. At the time of the partition of Ireland it is accidentally cut in two by the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This leads to ridiculous situations such as having a funeral procession pass through customs to cross the border which lies between the church and the graveyard.

‘What have you got in the coffin?’

‘You must be joking,’ said the priest, his face going purple with anger…

‘I’m not joking, sir, I am merely doing my duty.’

‘Very well. Inside the coffin is the body of 98-year-old Dan Doonan. Now let us pass!’

‘Not quite finished yet, sir. You intend to bury an Irish citizen in what is now British territory?… I presume the deceased will be staying this side permanently?… Then he will require the following: an Irish passport stamped with a visa, to be renewed annually with a visa for the rest of his – ‘ Barrington almost said ‘life’ – ‘stay,’ he concluded.

While the absurdity of government bureaucracy is really well presented in the excerpt quoted, in other instances the satire is less successful. My objection is perhaps influenced by the fact that the eccentric villagers are so ridiculous and larger than life, that it reinforces stereotypes about the Irish: permanently drunk, garrulous, easy to anger, doing things the wrong way round.

The other thing which made me uncomfortable was that, although the book was published in 1963, so before the Troubles proper started in Ireland, the farcical way in which it handles the rather traumatic subject of national identity and sense of belonging would have made it almost unbearable to read during the period that followed, when violence became so common-place both in Northern Ireland and in England. At heart I suppose I agree with Milligan that nationalism and religious fanaticism is ripe for satire, but I missed the undercurrent of sadness that would turn this into a moral lesson.

The book was adapted for a feature film in 2002, so after the Good Friday agreement, when people could laugh once more about the border. I wonder if it will become once more an unbearable topic in future…

The Darling Buds of March – Reading Plans

I can’t wait for the tender shoots of March to nudge their way out of the snow – my reading buds are certainly coming along nicely and getting me very excited this month!

I have somehow found myself with a number of reading challenges – or opportunities (because I find them a great deal of fun), plus quite a few books to review. More than enough to keep me busy this month. In fact, I am somewhat envious of Bookish Beck’s formidable shelf organising skills and am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that I may need a better TBR filing system than an overflowing armchair or night-table.

Asymptote Book Club:

Hanne Ørstavik: Love, transl. Martin Aitken

I read her first book to be translated into English The Blue Room published by Pereine, Love is the story of a single mother, Vibeke, and her son Jon, who have just moved to a remote small town in the north of Norway. It’s the day before Jon’s birthday, but with concerns of her own, Vibeke has forgotten this. With a man on her mind, she ventures to the local library while Jon goes out to sell lottery tickets for his sports club. As a newly single mother (albeit uninterested in new men), this one may hit me hard, but I’m prepared…

David Bowie Book Club

Spike Milligan: Puckoon

Very topical indeed – a comic novel about set in 1924, it details the troubles brought to the fictional Irish village of Puckoon by the Partition of Ireland. Because of government indecision and incompetence (wow, is that possible?) the new border passes directly through the middle of the village. I’ve managed to find a copy of this in the reserve fiction section (i.e. buried in the  basement) of my local library and I hear there’s a film as well.

Muriel Spark #readingMuriel2018

I still have to review Symposium for Ali’s Reading Muriel initiative , but also planning to read The Comforters – her first novel but already showing a very unusual mind at work. The heroine, Caroline Rose, is plagued by a Typing Ghost and realises she is a character in a novel.


Enough shilly-shallying with this one, I need to get cracking and have also got some non-fiction and poetry planned for a change.

Dubravka Ugresic: Europe in Sepia

Tangerine Sky: Poems from Malta

Film poster for the book

Dan Lungu: Sînt o babă comunistă! (I’m an Old Communist Biddy) – a Romanian satirical book, which has also been adapted for a play and a film, in which the author tackles all that inertia and nostalgia for everyday Communism which some of the older generation inexplicably have (or perhaps not that inexplicable after all)

For Review:

Stuart Turton: The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (71/2 in the US)  – Golden crime meets the film Memento, in a complicated, brain-melting story about trying to prevent a murder and living with guilt.

Death Notice by Zhou Haohui – Chinese crime fiction written, unusually, by a contemporary thriller writer residing in China. Set in Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province, this promises to be a gritty series, which has also been turned into a very popular TV crime drama.

Victor del Arbol: A Million Drops – an ambitious political thriller dissecting the heritage of Communism and Fascism in Spain, and how the past still impacts the present

Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji, transl. Dennis Washburn – having a quick read through to compare and contrast different translations of one of my favourite books for an essay to appear in Asymptote

Still reading from February:

The Welsh book The Caves of Alienation by Stuart Evans

Tom Hanks: Uncommon Type – a short story collection, and although Hanks is actually quite good with words, the stories themselves are slight slices of life, tolerably amusing, but leaving me with a yawnish ‘so what?’ Probably will not finish or try again later.




Reading Summary February 2018

Although February is such a short month, I thought I’d been doing a reasonably good job with my reading, but it’s not quite what I expected. I did read 11 books, but two of those were novellas and four of them were for reviewing purposes. 4 of them are translations, 7 of them are by women writers (one was co-written by a man and a woman) and I have only reviewed two of them on my blog. I think I might have to introduce the pithy weekly reading diary that Elle Thinks has started, otherwise too much is left undigested and unmarked, despite my best intentions.

Crime Fiction

6 of the books I read this month fell into this category and 4 of them have been reviewed or will be reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover.

  1. Michelle McNamara: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark – compassionate rather than voyeuristic true crime; compassion for the victims, I mean, and an excellent recreation of time and place – 1970s/80s California. My favourite of the crimey reads this month, even though I am not usually a true crime fan.
  2. Hari Nykänen: Holy Ceremony, transl. Kristian London. Part of a series about the wonderfully named Finnish-Jewish detective Ariel Kafka.
  3.  Noel Balen & Vanessa Barrot: Minced, Marinated and Murdered, transl. Anne Trager. Enjoyable culinary cosy crime set in one of my favourite cities, Lyon. The mystery is somewhat secondary to the atmosphere and characters.
  4. Johana Gustawsson: Keeper, transl. Maxim Jakubowski. A rather gory and grim follow-up to the hardcore first book in the Anglo-French pair Roy & Castells series. I’ve met Johana in real life and don’t know how such an absolutely lovely lady can invent such terrifying details.
  5. Tammy Cohen: Clean Break – a novella about a couple on the brink of divorce, which takes a stalkerish and sinister turn.
  6. Louise Candlish: Our House – by strange coincidence, I got sent this book just as I was reading Tammy Cohen’s book. It is also about a couple on the brink of divorce and fighting over their house (or at least I thought this was what it was going to be about, but that would have been too boring and common-place – the truth is much more complicated). I read it at once, but it offered me no tips on how to handle negotiations (or even how to murder a spouse).

Reading Recommendations and Challenges

For the David Bowie Book Club: James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time

For the Asymptote Book Club: Aranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay

For the Muriel Spark Centenary: Symposium – a book almost entirely in dialogue form

Modern Classic recommended by many of my favourite book bloggers: J.L. Carr – A Month in the Country – and how right they were!

In fact, all four of these were very worthwhile reads, so perhaps I should stick more to personal recommendations in future.

Following the Herd

Chloe Caldwell: Women – I’d read about this ill-fated lesbian love story and requested it on Netgalley, but I found it rather disappointing. A sort of memoir about a moment of curiosity and madness, or a coming of age story without real maturity at the end. It felt like yet another MFA project designed to be mildly shocking or titillating. Will I never learn not to fall for blurbs or buzz?





David Bowie Book Club #2: James Baldwin

Baldwin and his nephew.

The February read for the David Bowie Book Club was James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, an essay about America’s racial divide which is sadly still all too relevant today. I’d read Giovanni’s Room and Go Tell It on the Mountain, but only fragments of his great body of essays, both personal and political, which are incontrovertibly fused in his work:

One writes out of one thing only – one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from his experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.

The Fire Next Time is a slim volume comprising an essay Down at the Cross and a letter to Baldwin’s nephew on the 100th anniversary of emancipation from slavery which is only a few pages long and acts as a sort of prelude to the other essay.

It’s an amazing and unforgettable polemical read. I was instantly captivated by the blazing passion and fury of the language and the argument. It is heart-breakingly honest and would inspire anyone with ‘fire in the belly’ at the injustice of race relations. In the letter to the nephew, things are spelled out directly and still feel applicable to so many discriminated and vulnerable people within present-day society (the often unconscious white middle class privilege we hear in the media):

You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence; you were expected to make peace with mediocrity… I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying, ‘You exaggerate.’

The essay proper is a memoir of the summer when Baldwin turned fourteen and experienced a kind of religious fervour. Why religion? Baldwin is remarkably clear-eyed about using religion as a tool  (or as he calls it ‘a gimmick’) to help him move beyond his background:

I was icily determined … never to make my peace with the ghetto but to die and go to Hell before I would let any white man spit on me… I did not intend to allow the white people of this country to tell me who I was and limit me that way… Every Negro boy… realizes that he … must find, with speed, a “thing”, a gimmick to lift him out, to start him on his way… And it was my career in the church that turned out, precisely, to be my gimmick.

However, it is not all plain sailing. The young boy is clearly caught up in the excitement of church, the music and drama of it, but at the same time he is puzzled at the apparent indifference of a white God to the plight of black people. He sees examples of anything but Faith, Hope and Charity, the principles he believed the Christian world was based on. He finds it absurd that people claim to love God only because they are afraid of going to Hell. He sees the paradox of church ministers becoming rich while their parishioners continue to scrub floors and put their hard-earned dimes into the collection plate. He decides there is no genuine love in the Christian church.

The boy grows up and encounters the Nation of Islam movement and Malcolm X, with their doctrine of a black God. Although he feels the anger of the black movement is justified, he finds himself equally alienated by their hatred of all things white. ‘I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than colour?’ This leads to a very powerful examination of what equality really means.

People are not terribly anxious to be equal… but they love the idea of being superior…. I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now – in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life – expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist. It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power – and no one holds power forever.

Baldwin sets out the arguments so eloquently that it feels wrong to try and paraphrase them. It is such a brief and powerful piece that I would urge you to read it yourselves. It was previously not that easy to find, though, except in volumes of collected essays by Baldwin, but in 2017 a beautiful new edition was launched and won an award (see cover above). I will just close with a beautiful call to something one might call reconciliation:

In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve out identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.

Baldwin’s house in St Paul de Vence, France. For more information about the state of the house now and attempts to save it, see this article.

1963 – we are now in 2018, 55 years later. Why is it still so difficult to accept that allowing someone to develop to their full capacity does not take away from any of your own potential? Why do we still have the hunter/gatherers’ mentality of scarce food resources, that if we give away some of our food we will starve? Even when what is often asked of us is not as basic as sharing food, but something like sharing the limelight? Call me naive, but I still think we should unite to save the planet and its weakest souls (animals, children, whatever) rather than fight amongst ourselves.


No. 2 #AsymptoteBookClub : Aranyak

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay: Aranyak (transl. Rimli Bhattacharya)

This is why I am grateful to have other sage people choose books for me on occasion: because they unearth things that I would never have come across on my own. Aranyak is one such gem of Bengali literature. Written in the 1930s, translated here for the first time in English, it talks of a lost world, the rapid sale of land for farming and consequent deforestation of large swathes of the Bihar forests in the north-east of India, neighbouring Nepal. The narrator contributes to what we would now consider an ecological devastation, but which at the time was considered completely appropriate.

The story is loosely autobiographical, a series of vignettes about the life of an earnest young man from Calcutta who works for a few years as an estate manager in Bihar. In a way, he is as much a victim of the greedy landowners as the poor farmers are: unable to find a job in the city, he takes this poorly compensated job in a remote location, suffers homesickness initially, is transformed by the people and the landscape, but then has to bear the guilt that he took part in its downfall. This is why the whole book is designed to be the confession of an old man looking back on his youth.

But those memories do not give me pleasure; they are filled with sorrow. By my hands was destroyed an unfettered playground of nature. I know too, that for this act the forest gods will never forgive me. I have heard that to confess a crime in one’s own words lightens somewhat the burden of the crime. Therefore, this story.

There is no real plot to the novel, merely a chronological description of events and characters. The narrator tries to give voice to the many people he meets, many of whom are so poor that he cannot believe what they are willing to do to survive. This is why the book feels more like the field notes of an anthropologist. And, just like an anthropologist of the first half of the 20th century, he cannot resist adding himself to the narration, interpreting, casting judgement, expressing love and concern for the people he meets, but still considering them ‘subjects of enquiry’, with a paternalistic attitude. Malinowski’s ethnography of the Trobriand Islanders (1922) and Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Azande (1937) fall firmly within this category. Yet the impotent sadness at the social injustice paves the way to the more self-conscious anthropological memoir of Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1955).

It is a fascinating book, full of vivid character studies and life stories, some of them desperately sad, some of them a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit. The author warns us how important it is to understand the context within which these stories arise, to leave our own world behind:

These stories of Ganu that sounded so mysterious and so delicious in the environs of the lonely forest would certainly, I know, sound absurd and false if one were to listen to them in Calcutta. One may not listen to stories anywhere and everywhere. Nor are stories to be recounted carelessly. A story lover will know how much the pleasure of a story depends on the immediate environment of its telling and the receptivity of its listeners.

I also love the lyrical descriptions of nature (even though they are probably soaked in a nostalgic haze). The narrator gradually succumbs to the magical beauty of the landscape. In anthropological terms, he ‘goes native’ and may find it hard to ever return to his home town.

It is better for those who have to live within the strictures of domesticity never to catch sight of this beauty. In this bewitching guise, nature makes men abandon their homes, fills them with wanderlust… He who has heard the call of the wild and has once glimpsed the unveiled face of nature will find it impossible to settle down to to playing the householder.

I have to admit that I found the narrator’s open admiration for the humble, sweet women he meets in the forests a trifle creepy. It sounds like he was taking advantage of his halo as the powerful outsider, although he exalts their beauty and gentleness. The ‘angel in the house’ mentality of Victorian Britain shines through, even more potent because of the infantilisation of women and of this ethnic group, this less deserving ‘caste’ (although the narrator also mentions instances when he ignores the caste system):

I have noted that like the open and generous countryside – the forests, the clouds, the range of hills, free and untrammelled – Bhanmati was unencumbered, innocent and free in how she conducted herself. So were Manchi and the poet’s wife… The forests and hills had liberated their minds, expanded their vision with generosity; in like maner, their love was deep, generous and liberating. They could love greatly because of the greatness of their hearts… The dictates of refinement and the pressures of the civilized world had erased in her sisters the eternal woman that resided in Bhanmati.

Whether creepy admiration or not, you cannot doubt the narrator’s sincere love for life in the jungle, despite his initial reservations. In fact, one of the amusing passages in the book occurs when he stumbles across a group of Bengali tourists having a picnic in the jungle, woefully unprepared and blind to all the beauty around them.

By a stroke of rare fortune, they had landed in this extraordinary kingdom of nature, but they lacked vision to appreciate what they saw. In fact, they had come with the sole purpose of hunting, as though birds, rabbits and deer were all awaiting them by the roadside, waiting patiently to be shot.

The book ends rather abruptly with the narrator sitting under a tree fifteen years later and musing about what might have befallen the people he knew there in the meantime. I would have liked to hear about his difficulties in fitting back into the society he had left behind, the reverse culture shock, that sense of never quite belonging there anymore, because his eyes have been opened. But that is probably another story.

I think this is a book that we certainly have to read bearing in mind the attitudes, perspectives, policies and politics of the time. There are elements in it which will feel uncomfortable to a modern reader, but in many ways Bandyopadhyay was ahead of his time. It also raises many interesting questions about ‘fashions’ in nature writing and anthropology, about our espoused values vs. our behaviours in the present day. Yes, we are more ecologically aware, but vast areas of jungles are still lost every day in the name of economic progress. Yes, we claim to be less paternalistic about other cultures, but we still systematically represent them as ‘token exotic exceptions’ in popular culture. It must also have been fiendishly difficult to translate, to decide how much of the original names and expressions to leave in, one different culture talking about yet another different culture. You can find an interview with the translator on the Asymptote blog and you can read another review of the book on Ali’s blog.

Comparing Translation and Original for Marie Darrieussecq

I thought it might be fun to compare originals and translations occasionally. Not in an attempt to undermine the work of translators, but on the contrary: to appreciate the hard work that goes into every nuance and detail. I will examine some particular choices but fear not, it will not be a linguistic dissertation, but an unscientific examination of my own reactions to the two versions.

Marie Darrieussecq: Naissance des fantômes (1998)

Translated as: My Phantom Husband by Helen Stevenson (2000)

The story is deceptively simple: one evening the female narrator’s husband comes home from work, goes out to buy bread and is never seen again. You have a summary of the book in the very first paragraph:

Mon mari a disparu. Il est rentré du travail, il a posé sa serviette contre le mur, il m’a demandé si j’avais acheté du pain. Il devait être aux alentours de sept heures et demie.

My husband’s disappeared. He got in from work, propped his briefcase against the wall and asked me if I’d bought any bread. It must have been around half past seven.

At what stage should the abandoned wife panic and call the police? What is going through her head: does she wonder what went wrong, analyse every single moment of their seven years of married life, blame herself for anything? Does she blame him, is she ashamed, do all the cracks in their family and her less than perfect relationship with her mother-in-law start to surface? At first, she believes she catches glimpses of him on the street. She learns to sleep alone, do things alone, experiences something that is both grief and a recognition of freedom. She is terrified of forgetting her husband’s face, the impression he has made on her. Fears from her childhood (of monsters lurking under her bed or vampires out to get her) start reappearing, to the point where the crime fiction lover in me starts wondering if she has done away with her husband herself…

The book reminded me of Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, where she is trying to come to terms with her husband’s sudden death. Except, of course, in this case the grief is mixed with anger and resentment, with uncertainty about the fate of the husband, reassessing their history in the light of possibly never really having known him properly, perhaps even reluctance to have him back again.

The language is dreamy and poetical, there is a lot of underwater imagery, the sense of drowning, endless rain, memories being washed away. In French, this dream-like quality is further enhanced by alliteration of ‘s’ and ‘eu’ sounds, which remind me of a murmur of streams and a breeze blowing over them. The translator does an excellent job of maintaining the repetition of ‘s’, although the ‘eu’ is impossible to render in English.

Mais ce matin-là, le matin de ma nouvelle vie, comme je n’avais pas fermé l’oeil l’aube fut une nouveauté autant qu’un soulagement (et les deux avaient sans doute partie liée). Les rues étaient sombres encore, aquatiques, bleutées. Sans souffle, sans même un froissement, asphyxiées sous le ciel fermé, elles devenaient presque reposantes à contempler.

But that morning, the first morning of my new life, since I hadn’t had a wink of sleep, the dawn came as a novelty, as well as a relief (and the two were no doubt not entirely unconnected). The streets were still dark, and wore a bruised, underwater look. Not a breath of air, not the slightest rustle, asphyxiated under a sealed sky. I started to find them quite restful to look at.

The first thing that struck me in this passage is how French has certain adjectives which need to be translated into phrases to make sense: ‘aquatic, bruised streets’ would sound strange in English. Plus the nuance of ‘blue’ in the French for bruised describes the colour of the drab early morning streets and the narrator’s grief so well – this gets lost in translation. ‘Froissement’ also encompasses more than just ‘rustle’, there is also the feeling of shudder, of cold (from ‘froid’), of being crumpled or creased like a piece of cloth, of being hurt, like a muscular strain. How to convey all of that?

I do like the use of ‘sealed’ to describe the low clouds, ‘closed’ look of the sky, plus it adds to the alliteration. I’m not quite sure about the use of ‘novelty’ to describe the dawn, seems too literal and sounds more like advertising language. Nor am I sure about the change in subject in the final sentence. In French the narrator is letting the landscape, the streets, the view from the window dominate that paragraph, which underlines her passivity. In English, by introducing the ‘I’ (I started to find them quite restful), it makes her too much of an actor, gives her too much choice.

This is a challenge I have observed in other books translated from French (and when I was teaching French speakers how to write reports in English). The passive voice sounds much more natural in French, as does the use of the second person. This book has abundant examples of both and it is difficult to make comprehensible English out of them without losing slightly that sense of distancing and distinction between ‘I’ and ‘him/you/other people’ which the narrator seems to feel so acutely, and which is subtly conveyed throughout the book by the author – culminating with the final paragraph which is all about the ‘I’ that has broken free.