Fernando Pessoa – Portugal – #EU27Project

It’s impossible to read The Book of Disquiet in one go, or to attempt to review it in any coherent way. It’s a book of reminiscing, musing, poetic flights of fancy, philosophical fragments, a writer’s diary, the journal of an anonymous little clerk, descriptions of Lisbon, it’s nothing and everything at once, and he scribbled in this ‘notebook’ practically every day from 1912 until his death in 1935. Pessoa is now considered one of the foremost Portuguese poets, part of the modernist movement, but during his lifetime he wrote mainly for himself, and most of his work was published posthumously. To make matters even more complicated, he also wrote as numerous other ‘people’, created persona as easily as I create carrot cake (and then consume it). The Book of Disquiet is a collation of his manuscripts, an approximation of what he intended, since many notebooks or pieces of paper were undatable. So the editors and translators have chosen to group things roughly by themes.

I read a few pages at a time, and I underline almost every second paragraph. It’s the kind of book you want to use as inspiration for your own writing, a way to push forward your own thinking. There are many riffs on the anguished soul of an artist, which will appeal especially to writers. It reminds me of Kafka, but with a more dramatic Latin flavour, when he talks about his ‘paper-thin skin stretched over nerves too near the surface, notes playing scales on the awful, inner piano of memory.’  Let me just share some quotes with you, to give you a flavour:

My soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddlestrings and harps, drums and tambours I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.

That is the central error of the literary imagination: the idea that other people are like us and must therefore feel like us. Fortunately for humanity, each man is only himself and only the genius is given the ability to be others as well.

The moment I find myself, I am lost; if I believe, I doubt; I grasp hold of something but hold nothing in my hand. I go to sleep as if I were going for a walk, but I’m awake. I wake as if I slept and I am not myself. Life, after all, is but one great insomnia and there is a lucid half-awakeness about everything we think or do.

Statue of Pessoa outside his favourite cafe in Lisbon, from levoyageur.net

Yes, we will all pass, everything will pass. Nothing will remain of the person who put on feelings and gloves, who talked about death and local politics. The same light falls on the faces of saints and the gaiters of passers-by, and the dying of that same light will leave in darkness the utter nothingness that will be all that remains of the fact that some were saints and others wearers of gaiters.

Now, as many times before, I am troubled by my own experience of my feelings, by my anguish simply to be feeling something, my disquiet simply at being here, my nostalgia for something never known, the setting of the sun on all emotions, this fading, in my external consciousness of myself, from yellow into grey sadness.

It sounds a bit like a highly condensed version of Virginia Woolf’s diaries without all the social gossip and updates on her printing. However, it’s not all self-centred musing and philosophical speculation. There are some wonderful descriptions of the city at dawn and at sunset, observations of passengers on the trams, characters on the street and in the office. There are literary references and political anger, but above all an attempt to display ‘an aesthetic of indifference’.

For this is what I found in these diaries (and what appealed to someone living through the current period): an expression of tedium and malaise, almost nihilism, as befits the times he was living in. Even though he never witnessed the Second World War, he did live through several years of the Portuguese military dictatorship and developed a sense that the world belonged to ‘the stupid, the insensitive and the disturbed’ and that the only ones who succeeded were the ones equipped with ‘amorality, hypomania and an incapacity for thought.’

I can’t say I’ve finished reading this book. The despair and darkness is only occasionally balanced by wonder at the beauty of nature or alleviated by a humorous aside. There are many who believe that the Portuguese concept of saudade, a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent loved something or someone, is untranslatable. But in Romanian we have the very same concept dor. So there is something that instinctively speaks to me in Pessoa’s work (and yes, he has been translated into Romanian and is a bit of a cult figure there).  It’s a book I will dip into again and again, certain in the belief that I will always find something new which will incite me to explore my own beliefs and thoughts.

In fact, the recent attempt by an independent publisher to present these random jottings in a medium that more closely mirrors the intent of the original, on recycled pieces of paper and in a box, is probably the best way to read them (see above). If you can’t afford that, then Serpent’s Tail has a lovely new complete edition.

 

 

#WITMonth: Svetlana Alexievich and Women’s War

Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War (transl. Pevear & Volokhonsky)

This oral history of Soviet women’s experience of WW2 was compiled with sensitivity, patience and emotion by Svetlana Alexievich in the 1980s, updated in 2000 and has finally been translated into English by that indefatigable duo that is Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

And what a surprising, moving and often shocking story it is! It provides an alternative view of war, from the point of view of women on the front line, as well as the lesser known point of view (in the Western world) of the terrible human cost of war amongst the Soviet army. It is an unforgettable virtuoso piece of storytelling and it left me in goosebumps, although I’d heard a few (much milder) stories from my own grandmothers.

Author picture from The Independent.

Alexievich explains her mission in the foreword (and it was revolutionary back then, in the days before perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet empire): history is ‘in the street, in the crowd, in each of us there is a small piece of history’. She wants to give voice to those who have been ignored, forgotten, whitewashed out of history, who have been silenced or simply never been listened to. Not all of the women wanted to speak to her at first: for some, the memories were too painful, for others it was like opening up a dam. On the whole, she is received with warmth, made up of equal parts eagerness to share the untold stories, and reluctance to dwell too much on the details. They explain in simple terms, in language so stark and unadorned, yet with such vivid detail, what it means to survive such darkness.

Although few women veterans suffered the fate of the men who returned to war only to be sent to gulags by Stalin, it is quite shocking to read of the less than triumphant reception many of them experienced. There was no counselling, no treatment for post-traumatic stress after the war. Many of them received nothing except for a few medals – not even adequate housing which they should have been entitled to as war veterans. The state ignored or downplayed their contribution (perhaps out of a sense of shame that they had to resort to using women in their war effort), there was little support for these heroines and little effort to reintegrate them into society. In contrast to the protective and gallant way they had been treated by their male comrades at the front, many women had to pretend afterwards that they had never been in battle, because the men feared these women and longed to marry someone more feminine and untarnished by violence.

Unsurprisingly, women felt that the Great Victory came at a terrible human cost and sacrifice, and they are more aware of this and more willing to acknowledge it, while men were disposed to wax more nostalgic about heroic deeds and former Soviet greatness. And yet, one of the women says:

Life is hard… not because our pensions are small and humiliating. What wounds us most of all is that we have been driven from a great past into an unbearably small present.

In other words, they are beginning to wonder if it was all worth it. Yet, at the time, no one questioned the ideology. It was not just that their country was attacked, nor that they unquestioningly followed Stalin. They just felt they had to do something to help, they did not stop to think of themselves (or of their families or even their children) – they felt they were cornered and had no choice other than fighting the enemy as best they could. These women were not just nurses, doctors, bakers, laundrywomen, but also engineers, telecommunication experts, tank commanders, snipers, artillery and cavalry soldiers etc. They were everywhere and each one of them saw things that are almost unbelievable and unbearable. And, unlike men, they struggled far more with killing the enemy or watching their comrades die. One married couple reminisce about the war together and the husband says at one point that the grandchildren don’t want to hear his tales about historical detail, generals, facts, figures. They want to listen to her stories, which are all about feelings and momentary impressions.

War is first of all murder, and then hard work. And then simply ordinary life… how unbearable and unthinkable it is to die and to kill…

It’s the small details which make all the difference: the shoes which were several sizes too big and caused blisters; how they all had to chop off their braids; how uncomfortable it was to pee when they were in the tank with all the men; how they would kiss dying soldiers to soothe their pain; how there was no material to stop the flow of menstrual blood; how they could never bear the colour red after the war or buy meat from the shops.

There is a section on the mixed feelings the army had when they reached Germany. How tidy and wealthy the country seemed to them, to the extent where they couldn’t understand why these Germans had wanted to attack other countries. How they felt they would never be able to forgive them, yet they fed the frightened German children. The women whisper (in fear) about how their male colleagues did in many cases kill in revenge, rape and pillage, things which had been left out of the official history books – ‘are we allowed to mention that now?’.

There is bittersweet recognition that human nature did not learn from the past:

We dreamed: ‘If only we survive… People will be so happy after the war. People who’ve been through so much will feel sorry for each other. They’ll be changed people… We never doubted it. Not a bit.

Some of the girls were as young as 16 when they joined up and only 18-19 by the time the war ended.

Yet there were also instances of compassion and I want to finish on one of those, with the simple, unfiltered words of someone who has witnessed it herself. The last interviewee in the book tells the story of when she was carrying two wounded soldiers on her back, in turns, from the battlefield around Stalingrad. At some point, she realises that one of them was a German and starts getting angry with herself for making a mistake.

Should I go back for the German or not? I knew that if I left him he would die soon… And I crawled back for him… There can’t be one heart for hatred and another for love. We only have one…

Pictures are from Sputnik International and Global Research websites.

WWWednesday: What Are You Reading? – 16th August

WWW Wednesday is a 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.

Current:

Ileana Vulpescu: Arta Compromisului (The Art of Compromise) – a Romanian writer for #EU27Project, although I can’t really claim her for #WITMonth, as she hasn’t been translated into English

Chris Whitaker: All the Wicked Girls – to be reviewed soon on Crime Fiction Lover. I loved his previous book Tall Oaks, but this one is quite different, although it still depicts small-town America.

Finished:

Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II (transl. Pevear & Volokhonsky) – another wonderful choice for #WITMonth, this is oral history at its most riveting and poignant. Such strong women, but the scars are there. Review to follow.

Elena Varvello: Can You Hear Me? – a perfect fit for #WITMonth and #EU27Project

 

Next:

Mohsin Hamid: Exit West – this one doesn’t fit into any of my reading plans, but I saw the book at the library and I’d better read it before I need to return it. Besides, I can never resist a story about refugees. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017.

Margaret Millar: Collected Millar (Vanish in an Instant, Wives and Lovers, Beast in View, An Air that Kills, The Listening Walls) – this is for a feature I’ll be writing for Classics in September for Crime Fiction Lover, reviewing the work and legacy of Margaret Millar and suggesting the top five reads if you are new to her excellent suspense novels. The real and inimitable creator of domestic noir.

Have you read any of the above? And what are you currently reading or planning to read? Do share in the comments below. You know I am such a nosey parker!

Can You Hear Me by Elena Varvello #EU27Project #WITMonth

How nice to find a book which fits in perfectly with two reading challenges! A contemporary entry for Women in Translation Month and for Italy in #EU27Project.

Elena Varvello is an Italian author from Turin and this is her first novel to be translated into English by Alex Valente. It has been described as a coming of age story and a thriller, but it is far more of the first, although it does have its suspenseful moments. It is also the story of the fissures tearing apart a family (or even two families) and a description of an individual mental breakdown and its effect on others.

The narrator is sixteen-year-old Elia Furenti, who lives with his mother and father on the outskirts of a small town in northern Italy, in a valley with a river, surrounded by forests. Despite its seemingly idyllic location, the town has fallen on hard times. The local factory has closed down and his father has lost his job. His father could be humorous and lively, but also a bit odd, yet the relationship between his parents has always been very loving. Yet after the closure of the factory, his father’s eccentricities have taken a turn for the worse. He seems to think there is a conspiracy against him and disappears for hours at a time. When a local boy goes missing, Elia can’t help but feel his father is somehow involved. And there is worse to follow…

If I have made this sound like a thriller, I am misleading you. Yes, there is a sense of foreboding and ‘what will happen next’. Especially in that part of the book which alternates chapters between Elia’s experience – how he befriends a boy his own age Stefano and his mother Anna, who have also been let down by a man – and his father’s attempt at kidnapping the girl who minds their neighbour’s daughter. (I am not giving away anything, as the author baldly states it in the very first sentence.)

But overall, it is far more about the unspoken, about all the things that crack open a facade and leave people broken, even though they pretend to be resilient. It is about people hiding the truth even from themselves. It is clear that Elia’s father suffers from some form of schizophrenia and/or paranoia, but everyone refuses to acknowledge it or seek help. This might seem infuriatingly obvious to readers, but from personal experience of friends with schizophrenia, I have seen families denying the fact for years, even decades.

Valley around Turin. From Tripsavvy.

With its ability to capture the tormented adolescent soul, it reminded me of Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, but this is far less idyllic and nostalgic. The tense, moody atmosphere, conveyed not through purple prose, but through a very restrained, economical style, is more reminiscent of Alberto Moravia. There are also hints of that author’s disenchantment with human nature, modern life and that elusive myth of finding happiness.

The book cover of Can You Hear Me captures that one moment of unalloyed happiness in the whole story. Yet even that is tinged by the discovery of some squashed beer cans in his one place of freedom and happiness. The idyllic valley becomes claustrophobic and Elia can’t wait to grow and move away… to another valley, another river, another forest just like the one he can’t quite leave behind.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

I’m sorry I did not take the advice of my fellow bloggers AT ONCE and dive into this charming, funny novel by Winifred Watson. It is sweet without being too sickly, an escapist fairytale with a good dose of humour and wisecracks to keep it grounded. It has the feel and style of those 1930s Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers comedies which I used to watch after coming home from school in the afternoon, before I sat down to do my homework. It was – for once – not relegated to the underground storage room of the library, but up proud and yellow on the ‘mood boosting books’ shelf. And never a truer word was spoken!

It is a fairy-tale, a Cinderella story of a middle-aged, downtrodden governess who is sent by mistake to the apartment of a glamorous nightclub singer, Delysia LaFosse, rather than a household full of unruly children. Before she has a chance to clear up the misunderstanding, she becomes involved in Delysia’s complicated love life and, with her level-headed, prim attitude and warm-hearted if slightly bossy style of questioning, she soon gains Delysia’s trust and gratitude. She gets swept up in the hedonistic lifestyle of her employer and over the next 24 hours experiences the most intoxicating period of her life. But once those giddy hours are over, she is very much afraid she will have to go back to her drab, near-unbearable life.

There is just enough backbone to Guinevere Pettigrew (that first name says it all), and just enough careless charm and genuine warmth to Delysia and her friends to make this story seem almost feasible, while the witty, self-deprecating observations keep us one step removed from fantasy land.  One could dismiss this as ‘romantic tosh’, but it is far more subversive than that. The lifestyle described is a little too decadent and Miss Pettigrew’s conclusion almost too forward for the time period she was living in:

I find it much pleasanter not to be a lady. I have been one all my life. And what have I to show for it? Nothing. I have ceased to be one.

The original illustrations by Mary Thomson are equally humorous and reminded me very much of the illustrations for Ballet Shoes (although those were drawn by Ruth Gervis). Just one note of caution: there are one or two offensive remarks about Jews and ‘dagos’ in there, reflecting the attitudes of the time, but not excessively so, it doesn’t sour the rest of the story.

As I said above, this book has been reviewed extensively by book bloggers I admire, such as Jacqui, Kate Vane, Simon Savidge , Emma, Max and Resh Susan. I haven’t seen the film but Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew strikes me as an inspired choice.

#WITMonth – Japanese short stories

This is one of my favourite times of year in terms of reading challenges, namely the wonderful Women in Translation Month created and championed by the ebullient force of nature which is Meytal Radzinski (aka as Biblibio on Twitter). I’m not always good at matching August to translated women writers, but I do try to read a good proportion of them throughout the year.

This month, courtesy of the slim volumes of short stories/novellas published by Strangers Press, a University of East Anglia publishing venture, I have discovered three new Japanese women authors.

Misumi Kubo: Mikumari (transl. Polly Barton)

A bit of a scandalous subject this: the story of a high school student (under age), who meets a married cosplayer Anzu, more than ten years his senior at a comic convention in Tokyo and embarks upon an intense affair, which at once thrills and disgusts him. During the summer, the boy is working as a lifeguard at the pool and gets to spend time with his classmate and more appropriate crush, Nana. As he tries to distance himself from Anzu, he realizes that desires are never straightforward and not always as pleasant as we like to think they are.

There is a matter-of-fact description of sex in all its wet, glistening, slippery glory and repulsiveness which I have only ever found in Japanese authors. None of the sentimental rosy-cheeked intoxication with our own words which you might find in Romance languages, nor the timid self-consciousness so prevalent in Anglo-Saxon literature. The subject matter is deliberately designed to shock, and yet the narrator is no stranger to women’s bodies and all the bodily fluids: his mother is a midwife who works from home and he often helps out with the births. By the end of this brief story, he begins to realize something about himself and about the continuity of life, although it might take a while until he comes to term with the unbreakable mix of purity and dirt which lies in all of us. The sentence which really stuck out in my mind was:

…it seemed unbelievable that water so clear could be connected with the filthy river flowing near our house.

This has all the shock factor, darkness and yet underlying tenderness of Natsuo Kirino.

Nao-Cola Yamazaki: Friendship for Grown-Ups (transl. Polly Barton)

There are three loosely linked stories in this volume, connected more through the names of the characters than through any storyline. There is an odd, timeless tale of human development called ‘A Genealogy’. A (still) young woman named Kandagawa tries to recapture a moment in her past with her former lover on the site of their former apartment in ‘The Untouchable Apartment’. A relatively new author Terumi Yano dithers between her art and love, when she attracts the attention of a young music scholar at an author event. There is a wonderful sense of confusion and yearning about each of these stories, that hesitation about which path to take, that mourning about ‘what ifs’, that need to justify one’s decisions a posteriori, which will sound very familiar to women in their thirties. A delicate, melancholy description of the life of Japanese women reminiscent of Fumiko Enchi.

Aoko Matsuda: The Girl Who Is Getting Married (transl. Angus Turvill)

This was perhaps my favourite of the three: a very strange story which feels like an Escher woodcut. Just when you think you’ve grasped it, the point of view is all changed, turned upside down and you question everything you know.

An unnamed narrator visits her friend, the girl who is getting married. As she climbs up the stairs to the fifth floor, where the girl who is getting married lives, she recalls fragments of their life together and their friendship. But each account differs: they met when they were children, they met at secondary school or at work, on the train or at a cookery school. As the story shifts like quicksand under our feet, we understand more and more about the deepest needs and constraints of the narrator and we begin to question just whose eyes we are looking through. There is an almost obsessive repetition of the expression ‘the girl who is getting married’ (there are no names at all in this story) – and in the original Japanese it is even more emphatic: ‘moo sugu kekkon suru onna’ – the woman who is getting married imminently/very soon. Why does that sound so threatening? Whose fears are being projected here? The very plain, unadorned, clear prose belies the surrealism of the scene, where any interpretation is possible (and most likely wrong). There is a hint of Haruki Murakami’s short stories here.

The Month That Was July 2017

You can tell it’s holiday season, as my reading has slipped into crime more often than not. Out of the 11 books I read this past month, 8 have been crime-related and only 4 of those were for reviewing purposes. Sadly, only two books were in translation, although this was not a deliberate decision. The gender ratio is somewhat better with 6 1/2 female authors (one half of Nicci French).

Crime fiction

Nicci French: Saturday Requiem – a moving entry to the series, as Frieda Klein’s compassion comes to the fore, rather than just her stubbornness and recklessness

Paula Lennon: Murder in Montego Bay  – for fans of Death in Paradise, but showing a grittier view of Jamaican island life

LV Hay: The Other Twin – life, death, gender issues and social media in Brighton

Mary Angela: Passport to Murder – cosy campus crime, review to follow soon on CFL

Robert B. Parker: Bad Business – not the best in the Spenser series, this story of adultery and business interests is nevertheless full of the trademark humour and sharp wit

Helen Cadbury: Bones in the Nest – I will be forever sorry that this series will not run for longer, as Sean Denton is such an endearing hero. In this book his POV is matched by another compelling character, the hapless Chloe, recently released from prison.

Sandrone Dazieri: Kill the Father, transl. Antony Shugaar – not for those of a squeamish disposition, since it deals with child kidnapping, yet it manages to refrain from all too graphic descriptions of that. A wowser of a thriller, with two complex and entertaining main characters, who are a delight when they interact with each other and with other members of the police in passionate Italian fashion. Review coming soon to CFL. But shame on Simon & Schuster for not naming the translator on either the cover or the title page!

Emmanuel Carrère: The Adversary, transl. Linda Coverdale – reread this in English translation for CFL, as it has recently been reissued. I hope that means that other translations of works by this author are forthcoming, as he is interesting both as a fiction and non-fiction writer. I have a personal interest in this story, of course, as I lived for five years in the area where this tragedy took place.

Other Reading:

Jane Austen: Persuasion – still my favourite Jane Austen novel, it is sweet, mature, restrained and so precise in its description of near hopelessness

Anthony Cartwright: The Cut

Naomi Alderman: The Power – great premise, enjoyable and thought-provoking read, but slightly too long and too much jumping around from one point of view to the other. The ending also felt a bit of a cop-out.

Undoubtedly, my (re)read of the month was Persuasion – there can be no competition! Meanwhile, my favourite crime read (if I take aside The Adversary, which was a reread) was probably Bones in the Nest.

Plans for August

I do want to take part in #WIT – Women in Translation Month, and have all the Japanese novellas lined up for that purpose, as well as Romanian author Ileana Vulpescu. However, I also want to catch up with #EU27Project, which I have shamefully neglected. And, of course, write and edit, which I haven’t been able to do much this past month. Let’s see how it goes!