Virginie Despentes: Vernon Subutex 1 – ennui and more ennui

This book fits into no less than four categories of hashtags: #TranslationThurs, #EU27Project, #WomeninTranslation and #20BooksofSummer. However, it didn’t do much else for me! Which is a shame, because I’ve had a good experience, on the whole, with Despentes’ writing.

This time, however, she focuses on such a narrow category of arty-farty pretentious Parisians that it’s difficult to care about any of them. Vernon is a middle-aged loser, former record shop owner now sofa-surfing from one dubious acquaintance to the next. Besides, haven’t we had enough of French male midlife crisis, portrayed in so many French novels and films? I wouldn’t have expected a woman to write about it – although she supposedly makes fun of it. But for a figure of fun, we simply get too many details about Vernon and the people he mingles with.

Everyone is neurotic, narcissistic, racist, drugged to the eyeballs or all of the above. You switch quite rapidly from one point of view to the next, which does allow for comic effect (what people believe about themselves and how they are perceived by others vs. how people are actually perceived by others), but rarely digs beneath the surface of a character. Despentes has created unlikable narrators before, but then gradually revealed many more layers to them. No time for that in this rather futile, repetitive and overly long novel (and there are two more volumes of this!)

There are some good social observations, as you might expect of Despentes, but it’s simply not political enough, witty enough or engaging enough to sustain my interest. It must have been a bit of a challenge for the translator as well to use so much bad language – Trainspotting for the chi-chi media set and those funding them.

The cultural habits of the poor make him want to spew. He imagines being reduced to such a life – over-salted food, public transport, taking home less than 5000 euros a month and buying clothes in a shopping mall. Taking commercial flights and having to wait around in airports sitting on hard seats with nothing to drink, no newspapers, being treated like shit and having to travel in steerage, being a second-class scumbag… Screwing ageing cellulite-riddled meat. Finishing the working week and having to do the housework and the shopping. Checking the prices of things to see if you can afford them. Kiko couldn’t live like that… Guys like him never act like slaves…

Kiko’s job? Trader on the stock markets.

DNF

P.S. A French friend who works in publishing says it’s a ‘roman à clef’ with recognisable characters from the Parisian media world, but that is too narrow a satirical premise to appeal to me.

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Half Year Mark: Favourite Books So Far

We are halfway through the calendar (well, a little bit over, but who’s counting) and I wanted to take a look back at all I have read and jot down some favourites before I forget them in the end of year scramble. [Instead of the book covers, which I have already used in previous posts about those books, I thought I would include pictures of my two favourite libraries in London instead.]

A noirish picture of Senate House which seems to have stepped out of a Graham Greene novel.

According to my Goodreads counter, I’ve read 75 books so far this year. There have been some periods when I could barely concentrate on reading, when I was too het up with work and personal matters, but on the whole it’s not a bad number, an average of 12.5 books a month. It feels like it’s been a good mix of male and female authors, translated or foreign language books and English language ones, and a broad mix of genres. Here are the books which really stayed with me long after I read them (in chronological order of reading):

César Aira: The Lime Tree

The first Asymptote Book Club title, which I read just in time to ring in the New Year, and gave me a hunger to read more by this author. I love his slapdash style and the way he zooms in on the fine detail, then telescopes out to describe the historical and social issues of his country.

Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson – A Rather Haunted Life

This gave me so much insight into the life of one of my favourite authors. Suddenly, a lot of things became clear to me, and, although it was sad, it was somehow not as depressing as the Blake Bailey biography of Richard Yates. P.S. Why do so many writers I admire have difficult relationships with their mothers?

Senate House Library

Michelle McNamara: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Not usually a fan of true crime, which I always feel slightly icky about because of its voyeuristic qualities and because it focuses so much on the criminal instead of the victims. But this book (which has now deservedly achieved higher visibility because of the finding of the killer she describes) gets the balance just right. Yes, it is the story of a woman’s – and a group’s – obsession with a killer who made life in California hell for several years in the 1970s, but it also is compassionate and respectful towards the victims.

Bibhutibhushan Bopadhyandyaya: Aranyak

Another Asymptote Book Club title, an immersive experience of a lost world. It may not be the most flawless book from the storytelling point of view – in fact, it often feels more like anthropological field notes rather than a novel (and I know not everyone finds the two equally fascinating). But there are beautifully nuanced observations (as well as blind spots) and lyrical descriptions of the forests which I loved.

Senate House Library, the Periodicals room.

Hanne Ørstavik: Love

OK, you’re going to think I’m just doing one long advertisement for the Asymptote Book Club, but I’ve honestly been blown away by their selection of books, most of which have pushed me a little beyond my comfort zone (which I like to think is plenty spacious enough already, but there is always room for more). This quietly devastating story about looking for love in all the wrong places had my heart in my throat all the time while reading it.

Karin Brynard: Weeping Waters

As a crime novel this may not be quite perfect (I guessed the perpetrator fairly early on, although the author does its best to create a list of suspicious characters), but it is a hard-hitting description of rural life in South Africa, the life that so few tourists get to see. It really helps us to understand the Afrikaner mentality a bit better, and tries not to take sides in the tricky matter of land ownership and race in that beautiful but troubled country. It got me doing more research on ‘plaasmord’ and South African history.

My beloved old British Library reading room, back when it was housed in the British Museum

George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

So grateful the David Bowie Book Club made me reread this one, as it seems to be ever more appropriate to the present-day.

Fiona Mozley: Elmet

A debut novel that is the reverse of Cold Comfort Farm, in many ways. Instead of parody of the gloomy, dramatic portrayals of country life, we have a modern take on life in the countryside which seems to not have changed much for the better. Like Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, this is both a family story and the description of a very tough way of life, which is being encroached upon by big agriculture and developers. The prose was so poetic and accurate, that I was completely won over.

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

I started reading this under the impression that it was a collection of essays rather than a novel, and I’m still not quite sure what it is. But it doesn’t matter. This constellation novel is a jazz improvisation on the subject of travelling, escaping, finding freedom, and it’s the flights of fancy which charmed me.

What books have inveigled their way into your heart this year? And do you think they will continue to claim their spot in your heart until the end of the year?

The modern British Library

 

The Tidings of the Trees: #AsymptoteBookClub No. 7

The Asymptote Book Club selection for June is a slim volume by (East) German writer Wolfgang Hilbig, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole. In the original German, this novella appeared in a collection together with other stories such as Old Rendering Plant, but Two Lines Press decided to publish the translations individually. It is also the first Book Club selection which is translated from a language that I read myself, so I was in two minds about it.

But what this book lacks in number of pages or in unknown language quality, it certainly makes up for in terms of depth, with a style that pushes you along to the finale. There is something to be said about allowing the wave of prose and ideas to crash over you in one sitting. I read it in one day, in three distinct gulps, but I also want to return to it and reread at leisure, to observe the nuances.

Although written in 1991-92, after the fall of the Wall, the book reminded me very much of literature written under the threat of censorship: you write about one thing, but in fact what you are really writing about is something completely different. The subject of the book is ostensibly a worker-writer Waller talking about his writer’s block, bemoaning the chopping down of the cherry trees in his home town and describing his childish stand-off with the garbage collectors. In fact, we could interpret this story in several different ways.

One would be the destruction of nature in the brown-coal industrial area of Germany where the author originally came from. Ash and dust seem to permeate every page of the book, threatening to engulf the town, the narrator, the reader. But the ash quickly turns into something else: historical ash, layer after layer, covering the world in the silence of complicity or self-censorship. For there is undoubtedly an overt political message to this book. A whole country and political system is being relegated to the rubbish heap, a whole population has had its thoughts infiltrated ‘by the ghastly substance of the ash, which is nothing but gray stuff, dry and thundery, hard and unfeeling and burned-out’.

Then there are the garbagemen, unknowable, sinister beings, although Waller tries a game of one-man-upship with them. But are they really sinister, or are they the equivalent of the Trümmerfrauen, those almost mythical women who sorted through the rubble after the Second World War and helped to rebuild it? In the meantime, of course, we know that the Trümmerfrauen image is a bit of a myth, that the rubble was in fact cleared by prisoners both during and after the war. To what extent are those mysterious garbagemen themselves prisoners, or are they the guards of the prison camp? Or are they the ones who get to sift through the past, perhaps even seek to preserve it, while governments erase history and people are only too eager to forget. But what is worth preserving – and who gets to decide it?

Hilbig in the beer garden in Leipzig., 1985. From the Wolfgang Hilbig Society website.

Hilbig describes perfectly the claustrophobic sense of stagnation of living in a country closed off from the outside world, a soundproof room,  and passages such as the one below resonated profoundly with me and explains the sense of ‘protection from the unknown’ that Communism also brought to many:

We lived in a country, cut off, walled in, where we had to end up thinking that time had no real relevance for us. Time was outside, the future was outside… outside everything rushed to its doom.

A book which resurfaced many old memories through its half-hinting, half-deliberate metaphors, and perhaps explains the drive for joining the EU, so I shall add it to the #EU27Project. Hilbig was a vocal critic of the GDR regime, and only got to publish one book there before he was forced to move abroad in 1985. He has, however, won every German literature prize worth having since then.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 2018 Reading Summary

I’ve been a little naughty about tagging my books with Goodreads lately, plus they seem to have changed their way of showing what you have read, so I hope I haven’t forgotten any here. It seems that June was an opulent reading month: 16 books finished, only 1 abandoned. Lots of lighter reading too. 7 male authors, 9 women, 5 translations. And I even got to review some of these, so bravo bravissimo me!

#20BooksofSummer Challenge

I’ve done reasonably well, reading 5 books this month, which is not bad considering that I started nearly a week late.

Zygmunt Miłoszewski: Priceless, transl. Antonia Lloyd-Jones – an adventure and crime story about tracking down art treasures stolen from Poland during the Nazi occupation. Described as ‘reminiscent of Dan Brown’, I actually enjoyed it much more than Dan Brown – maybe because it is Europe NOT seen through the eyes of an American. Well researched, but the author also dares to go off on flights of (plausible) fantasy. This also fits in with my nearly forgotten #EU27Project, as an entry for Poland.

Belinda Bauer: Snap – gripping and sad by turns, another pageturner by Bauer, who is so good at creating believable children’s voices. Some implausible coincidences slightly marred it, thereby not making it one of my favourite books by her, but still a good read.

And then the three I reviewed earlierAuntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, The Single Mums’ Mansion and Bookworm.

For review on Crime Fiction Lover site:

Pol Koutsakis: Baby Blue – realistic and sombre portrait of present-day Athens and its homeless population

Eliot Pattison: Savage Liberty – historical crime set on the eve of the American Revolution, somewhat long but absolutely fascinating

Bob Van Laerhoven: Return to Hiroshima (review to come) – the after-effects of the atomic bomb, Japanese cults, expats in Japan – this one ticked all the boxes for me on paper, but did it live up to my expectations? You’ll have to check on CFL to find out.

Carol Fenlon: Mere – although it’s an atmospheric tale set in the meres of Lancashire, it’s not crimey enough, so I won’t be reviewing it for the site, although I might still do it on my blog

Then there was another book in this category which I did not finish. I had actually asked CFL to allow me to review it, as it was written by an acquaintance, but I didn’t like it. Tricky situation, telling my acquaintance that I wouldn’t be reviewing it after all.

Non-fiction

Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason  – hard to believe how out-of-date this book already is, given all that has happened since it was published in 2008. It really opened my eyes to things about American education, culture and public debates that I didn’t know or couldn’t believe. Although it is quite dense on scholarship and evidence, the prose is remarkably deft and accessible.

Blake Bailey: A Tragic Honesty – this biography of Richard Yates depressed me no end – because it seems his themes and nihilistic writing are a result of personal experience. I guess it really pays not to know too much about your favourite authors! He made all the mistakes, displayed all the boorish behaviours, was a dreadful husband and friend – and yet had the ability to notice, analyse and mock all of these characteristics in his writing.

Others

Joanna Walsh: Break.up – this one got me pondering, because whilst I welcome non-plot driven novels (and loved Tokarczuk’s Flights, which is in a similar vein), this one exasperated me in parts. Perhaps because the topic of lost love irritated me – it is a strange relationship anyway that the narrator is recovering from – a bit of a non-relationship really. However there were many enchanting and pertinent observations too.

Ali Smith: Autumn – I appreciated it but did not love it; the relationship between young and old is interesting and often underrepresented in fiction, and the description of post-Brexit Britain is necessary, but perhaps it’s too soon to produce masterpieces on that topic

Marian Keyes: The Break – an impulse library loan, it was funny, occasionally painful but a little too long

John Berger: G.  – watch out next week for Shiny New Books’ special Golden Man Booker Prize features, where I briefly analyse this by now largely forgotten winner

My favourite book of the month

is actually the first one I read this month: Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover. Brilliant story of an Iranian family who suffer political disillusionment, go into exile and never quite find themselves again thereafter, seen through the eyes of the daughter who is trying to continue the family line through IVF treatment. Full review to come soon on Shiny New Books. This also counts as a French entry to #EU27Project, like I don’t have enough French entries anyway!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s my party and I’ll buy if I want to…

My birthday month, my right to buy books!

In fact, they’ve been creeping up on me for a while now and the ones I got in Berlin (pretext: much cheaper to get them directly there than to pay for P&P) were just one of many slippery slopes. First there was a slip of the foot as I entered the Waterstones Gower Street on the way home.

Second hand bijou:

I remember my mother’s generation (all of my friends’ mothers too) were reading (alongside The Thorn Birds) the Jalna series by Mazo de la Roche (who, it turns out, is a woman rather than a man). A bit of Canadian history and family saga, something very unlike what I would usually read, so why not push the boundaries and see what all the fuss was about?

Jessa Crispin is perhaps better known as the Bookslut (although that book blog has closed down now). I’m somewhat ambiguous about her most recent book against what she calls ‘lifestyle feminism’, which has become indistinguishable from white capitalist privilege. I agree with many of her points, but find it strangely de-contextualised, as if she hasn’t read any other feminist texts which address many similar issues. However, this book The Dead Ladies Project sounds interesting, even though I’m not usually of the self-discovery as a book project school of thinking, because the author travels through Europe in the footsteps of women writers as exiles, expats, and exploring ex-countries.

New acquisitions:

I picked up Breton’s Nadja, which I read in my teens, to see how I might feel about it nowadays, and because it was quoted by Joanna Walsh in Break.Up. I’d meant to get The Sorrows of Mexico at Hay Festival, because I saw the editor speaking there, but better late than never. I couldn’t resist the last instalment of Rachel Cusk’s trilogy, which somehow resonates with me, forever the anthropological observer. I heard so much about Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers and am never immune to that subject. Last but not least, I’m still not over my Hamilton fixation, so I thought I’d attempt to read the biography that started it all.

Arrived too late for a group photo: Rhode Island Red by Charlotte Carter, an almost forgotten book about a young black woman playing jazz saxophone on the streets of New York and casually solving crimes alongside. Two late additions which have not arrived yet but will also fall in my birthday indulgence (and after that I stop! I promise!): Josephine Corcoran’s debut poetry collection What Are You After from Nine Arches Press and Lucy Fricke’s Töchter (Daughters) about taking a terminally father to Switzerland and then travelling on, trying to make sense of life, loss, middle-age and female friendships. It came highly recommended by a German blogger I trust, Cafehaussitzer (Uwe Kalkowski), but I only read it after my trip to Berlin, so had to order online…

 

Novel or Novelty Gimmick?

It was sheer coincidence, reading three novels with unconventional structures in quick succession. So uncoventional that one might question if they are even novels. They certainly felt more like essays or biographies or memoirs, but with fictional narrators and characters. You could say it’s a trend, but while two of the novels are recent, one was published in the 1970s. In fact, it might be safe to say that such novels have existed since the beginning of time: 1001 Nights, Tales of Genji, Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote all mess up with our love of clear chronology and neat linear narratives. So why do I feel that perhaps there is more of an appetite for it now, and that some authors and publishers are deliberately jumping on the bandwagon? Is it indeed that, as our attention spans have shortened, as we get inundated with scraps of half-digested and unproven information, we find it difficult to believe in the authoritative author’s voice and unified narrative?

The three books that got me thinking about all this and more are: Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, Joanna Walsh’s Break.up and John Berger’s G. However, other recent publications also come to mind, such as Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, Heidi Julavits’ The Folding Clock, Rachel Cusk’s recent trilogy (I’ve yet to read Kudos), Lisa Owens’ Not Working  and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I’ve loved some of these and not liked the others all that much, so I don’t think it’s a lack of willingness to engage with experimentation. (On the contrary, how often have you heard me complain that the author has an original concept but simply does not go far enough?) When done successfully, you can feel there is an underlying pattern and intent there, even if you are not sure that you understand it. At times, however, the lack of structure or ‘démontage’ of structure feels more like a lazy mess than deliberate experimentation.

The authors of these novels (not all of them describe their work as novels) justify what they do by saying they are ‘lassoing moments that were about to be lost’ (Julavitz) or they are emulating Heraclitus’ river (no matter where you step into the book, it is never the same book – Maggie Nelson). Tokarczuk speaks of the constellation novel, where each person detects their own pattern, based on their past experiences and present sensibilities. Cusk presents the flat, bland heroine who seems to reflect back the thoughts, desires and words of all the people she meets – what I would call the would-be objective anthropological narrator (although we all know that there is no such thing as complete objectivity). Joanna Walsh describes her work as ‘hybrid’, and her ‘novel’ is about the end of an affair (which seems to have existed largely in the narrator’s own mind), a travelogue and lots of internal monologue or attempted dialogue with the absent lover. John Berger’s retelling of the adventures of Giacomo Casanova during a troubled period of history is anything but a conventional biography, going off on substantial tangents and interspersed with secondary characters’ thoughts and back stories. Meanwhile, Jenny Offill argues that the broken structure of her novel reflects the narrator’s broken state of mind, with thoughts randomly coming into her head without too much context. Lisa Owens’s heroine is full of acerbic asides and amusing observations – a fragmented, post-modern Bridget Jones maybe.

I fall for the theoretical explanations of purpose every time, but I have to admit that not all the books are equally adept in the execution. I still think it is far harder to have an overarching theme that plays out through a perfect balance of characters and plot. The danger of fragmentation of course is that the novel becomes a kind of pick’n’mix. Readers will like certain parts and hate (or skip others). Perhaps it is not that different to how I read War and Peace, skipping over most of the battle scenes, unless they featured Napoleon or Prince Andrei? Or does it help if I think of them as poetry, like in the case of Bluets?

Perhaps that is why I enjoy the Spanish or Latin American novels way of storytelling? There are many, many tangential stories in those novels that seem to bear no relationship to the main story and yet you feel that you are progressing, that there is a purpose to the story. Of the books I mention above, I felt that same sense of ‘the author knows where she is going’ with Flights and Bluets, and they are the ones that stayed with me most. And a final point which puzzles me: why are most of these novels written by women in the English-speaking world (which is most certainly not the case in the Spanish-speaking one)?

 

 

 

#20BooksofSummer: Sicilian Lions, Single Mums and Lots of Books

It’s been a very busy, tiring and emotionally draining start to June, so I eased myself into the #20booksofsummer with some lighter reads.

Mario Giordano: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, transl. John Brownjohn

Not perhaps the most exciting or coherent of investigations, a lot of the detective work relies on coincidence or sheer nosiness, and there is something rather implausible and artificial about the whole story within a story set-up (narrated by the Auntie’s nephew, but as it is told to him by the woman herself). Nevertheless, this is a charming cosy crime caper set on the beautiful island of Sicily, stuffed to the gills with comic characters, some of them loud and obnoxious ones, others more than a little shady. And Auntie Poldi bridges the gap between Italian and German culture beautifully: an independent, candid woman with a passion for uniform and a lust for life that I can only hope I will have when I get to her age.

Janet Hoggarth: The Single Mums’ Mansion

This was not quite the fun read I was expecting and when I heard about the origin of the book as a blog about a difficult divorce, it made perfect sense. There is a lot of bitterness and genuine sadness mixed in amongst the obligatory chick lit references: drinking and taking some recreational drugs, lusting after men, supportive female friends and some silly mistakes as they finally move on from the broken wreckage. There were at least two things that annoyed me about this book: the unrealistic way in which these women didn’t seem to have to worry about money, feeding and clothing their children or losing their houses (OK, one of them moves in with the main character for a while, but few of my friends have houses big enough to take anyone else in). And yet they all seemed to have freelance jobs that don’t pay that well: photographer, writer, yoga instructor…

Secondly, none of them seemed to have any other interests other than getting drunk or laid.  Granted, it’s not easy to go out when you have three small children – so why not make the going out count? Or am I the only one who’d far rather have gone to a show or exhibition or a salsa class instead of drowning my sorrows in some expensive bar? Or is that the age difference talking?

Lucy Mangan: Bookworm

Not a systematic discussion of children’s literature, but simply an idiosyncratic and very personal memoir of the books she grew up with. I seem to be of a similar generation to her, as there is a considerable overlap of our books. Lucy Mangan is witty and charming, but you can’t help but notice quite a gap in her reading culture (probably not through any fault of her own, but simply a reflection of how little else was available in English at the time). She mentions Struwelpeter (giving her nightmares) and the colonial excesses of Babar, but no Moomins, no Asterix and Obelix, no Little Prince, no Pippi Longstocking, no Robber Hotzenplotz… It makes me realise how lucky I was to grow up with 3-4 languages and cultures all around me (and many more influences). She admits she was not a very adventurous reader, that she liked her world to be contained and safe, but there was something just ever so slightly too nostalgic about Enid Blyton and P. G. Wodehouse which didn’t sit comfortably with me. And yet there was so much about her account of growing up bookish that I could relate to…

I think for the next batch of #20books I might need to turn my attention to those that have been on my Netgalley shelf for a long, long time.