#JanuaryInJapan: Dazai Osamu Rewriting Fairytales

Dazai Osamu: Otogizoshi: The Fairy Tale Book of Dazai Osamu, transl. Ralf F. McCarthy, Kurodahan Press, 2011.

How can I have a January in Japan/Japanese Literature Challenge 16 without sneaking in at least one book by my favourite Japanese author Dazai Osamu? I may have mentioned him once or twice before… Anyway, this year I dug out this slim volume of ‘retold’ fairy tales by Dazai, which was pretty much the only way that he could publish during the Second World War. In1945, as the air raids were destroying much of Tokyo (including his own house), he played around with four of the best-known Japanese folk tales, retelling them not just for children, but particularly for grown ups.

There aren’t any overt criticisms of the Japanese war strategy, or even much mention of the dire situation the country was in by that point. However, the war is included, because the stories start off with a short prologue in which the author/narrator (always a tricky matter to distinguish the two with Dazai) starts telling stories to his children while they are seeking refuge in an air raid shelter. Additionally, the narrator keeps interrupting the flow of his narrative to comment that he cannot ascertain a particular detail because he doesn’t have a dictionary or encyclopedia handy, or that he cannot recount the most famous story of them all Momotaro (which had been used for propaganda purposes by the Japanese government), because ‘an author who has never been number one in Japan – or even number two or three – can hardly be expected to produce an adequate picture of Japan’s foremost young man’. His sarcasm extends to samurai warriors and their ideology, to landed gentry (such as his own family) and the heroic interpretations of Japanese history.

Traditional representations of Urashima Taro.

For example, here he is having a pop at Urashima Tarō, who is rewarded for rescuing a turtle by being taken to the Dragon Palace deep underneath the sea and meeting the Sea Princess, and generally having a great time there. When he returns on land, he discovers he has been away for a hundred years. The story is so well known that it has been a set text for elementary school in Japan for over a hundred years. Urashima Tarō is generally portrayed as a simple fisherman devoted to his mother, but in Dazai’s eponymous story he becomes the eldest son of an old and respected family with many servants.

Among second and third sons one often finds that variety of prodigal who overindulges in liquor and pursues women of lowly birth, muddying his own family’s name in the process, but the number one son… comes naturally to acquire a certain steadfast stodginess…

You can’t help but feel he is remembering some of his altercations with his older brothers! His rather cynical views of married life and suffocating families also find their way in other tales, such as the farcical ‘The Stolen Wen’ (aka ‘How an old man lost his wen/boil/lump’). The old man in the folktale is not a drunkard, but Dazai was, so he can’t resist giving him this trait.

In short, this family of Oji-san is nothing if not respectable and upstanding. And yet the fact remains that he is depressed. He wants to be considerate of his family but feels he cannot help but drink.

Throughout, there are a few digs at people’s behaviour, uttered by some of the characters, for instance, the tendency to gossip about one’s neighbors (which I can imagine a lot of people had been doing about Dazai all his life). Here is another husband complaining to his wife in ‘The sparrow who lost her tongue’:

Who do you think made me such a taciturn man chatting and laughing about what over dinner? I’ll tell you what – their neighbors. Criticizing. Tearing others down. Nothing but backbiting, malicious gossip…The only thing people like you can see is other people’s faults and you’re oblivious to the horror in your own hearts. You people terrify me.

It’s hard to demonstrate Dazai’s humour unless you know the original folk tales, for he takes great pleasure in subverting them, adding a running commentary as the storyteller. His Oni ogres are anything but terrifying, and he makes the link with the literary world of his time:

We use the word [Oni] to describe hateful people, murderers and even vampire, and one might therefore feel safe in assuming that these beings possess, in general, fairly despicable personality traits. But then one spies in the New Books column of the newspaper a headline reading ‘The Latest Masterpiece from the Ogre-like Genius of So-and-So-sensei’ and one is perplexed. One wonders if the article is an attempt to alert the public to So-and-So-sensei’s wicked influence or evil machinations… One would think that the great sensei himself would react angrily to being called such nasty and insulting names, but apparently that isn’t the case. One even hears rumors to the effect that he secretly encourages their use…

‘Monstre sacre’ indeed, as the French would say!

If you want to discover the lighter side of Dazai Osamu, the brilliant conversationalist he undoubtedly was (despite donning the mantle of grumpiness whenever it suited him), then I would recommend starting with his short stories, and these retold folk tales fall into that category, showing how much he could achieve even working within formal constraints. It’s not easy to find though…

#JanuaryInJapan: Reading and Watching Tokyo Vice

Something completely different now for January in Japan – not really a Japanese literature challenge as such, but an account of Japanese vice and crime written by someone in the know – and the TV adaptation of it, which incorporates a lot of actual Japanese language and perceptions.

Jake Adelstein: Tokyo Vice, Corsair, 2010

I met Jake in person at Quais du Polar in Lyon in 2016 and we chatted a bit about Japan, so I felt compelled to buy his book, although it was ‘true crime’, a genre I don’t read that much. However, he described the book in the following intriguing way (in interviews):

You could also say it’s about a sleazy Harry Potter finding that he can oust yakuza Voldemort from power but only at a great cost. And Voldemort lives.

Over the next six years, I read certain passages from it, but not the whole book (it contains all sorts of stories from Adelstein’s time as a reporter for Yomiuri, one of the biggest newspapers in Japan)… until I heard that a TV series was coming out. Although the series was initially only available on HBO, I was finally able to watch it on BBC iPlayer throughout December and January. I like to watch one episode at a time instead of bingeing, but I watched it on consecutive nights, as it was quite thrilling.

So I was able to compare the two – and what month better to do so than in January in Japan?

In the book, there are many different anecdotes and characters – after all, the book covers approximately 12 years of crime reporting. The book has far more explanations and subtleties (far more shades of grey) – but it does not hide the fact that some investigations took years to develop and were often never satisfactorily resolved. In the TV series, some of the incidents and interactions were repeated verbatim, but other scenes or characters were conflated, woven together, and certainly made to seem concurrent or happening over a very short period of time to heighten the dramatic tension. I think those changes are justified most of the time – and charismatic performances from several of the Japanese actors meant that there was less of the ‘white saviour’ narrative here than there might have been in the book.

Actually, I am not accusing the book of that either. Yes, perhaps the author is a little proud of the corruption and horrendous stories he uncovered (he was involved in investigative journalism in the Lucie Blackman case, for example) and it is undeniable that the yakuza, the Japanese government and the media often have a cosy ‘understanding’ which makes it difficult to surface such stories. But I don’t think he is glorifying himself: on the contrary, I found his candour in admitting his mistakes, his cultural misunderstandings, and his disillusionment to be quite refreshing. In some ways, it reminded me of Lost Illusions by Balzac, which I am also currently reading. You go into journalism with the idea that you are chasing after the ultimate truth and that you will change the world… and then find yourself having to compromise and making very little real difference.

And yet the senior reporters and mentors at Yomiuri greet the budding journalist with an idealistic speech about the value of the work they do:

It’s not about learning – it’s about unlearning. It’s about cutting off ties, cutting out things, getting rid of preconceptions, losing everything you thought you knew… You learn to let go of what you want to be the truth and find out what is the truth, and you report it as it is, not as you wish it was. Journalists are the one thing in this country that keeps the forces in power in check.

Ah well, only if they do their job properly and are not funded by various individuals with particular political preferences…

Tokyo Vice – TV series

Of course everybody is very good-looking in the TV series. I’m not a huge fan of Ansel Elgort, and he is far taller and blonder than the real-life Jake Adelstein. However, that makes him stand out even more as a gaijin (foreigner). What surprised me is that the TV Jake is not necessarily presented all that sympathetically – he is stubborn, makes mistakes, is selfish, treats others badly at times. I was wondering how the real Jake felt about that – but when I read the book, I realised that the author is quite hard on himself too.

Meanwhile, I fell in love with the young Japanese actor Sho Kasamatsu, who plays a yakuza underling who gets a little too friendly with Jake and a foreign girl, and develops too much of a conscience.

But it’s not just the actors who are pretty: the production values and cinematography are quite good-looking too, even when we go off exploring the seedy underbelly of Tokyo. I particularly liked the bilingualism of the show – the American actors did their best to learn Japanese, while the Japanese actors learnt some English, and the dialogues incorporate both.

The first season ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, but I understand a second season is forthcoming. Of course, having read the book, I have my suspicions about how some of the storylines are going to end…

Brief Thoughts on Lessons in Chemistry

Bonnie Garmus: Lessons in Chemistry

I’d almost forgotten I had reserved this book from the library, as it took so long for it to become available. I also have to return it quickly, as there are 20 reservations on it! So it would be fair to say that it was one of the ‘buzziest’ titles published in 2021, a magnificent feat for an author in her 60s. I usually avoid hyped books like the plague, but I really enjoyed this one and gulped it down in a day. I won’t write a full-length review, however, because (a) I don’t have the time; (b) it clearly doesn’t need my approval to sell bucketloads. But here are a few observations and quotes, to give you a taste of it.

  1. The cover is a bit misleading – all cosy 1950s domestic scenes like in Rockwell paintings. Although the ending of the book is perhaps a bit Disney and wishful thinking, the book as a whole is much darker than I was expecting. Also, I couldn’t help thinking that it was highly unlikely that America would ever whole-heartedly embrace Elizabeth Zott (even with the small exceptions addressed in the book, particularly the religious beliefs aspects). Not when you see the ridiculous divisive debates going on there in the present day – and remember that this is set in the McCarthy era.
  2. I’m getting a little bit tired of the ‘quirky’ protagonist who lacks social skills and is perhaps somewhere on the autism spectrum. There has been a spate of such books lately (the four I recently reviewed for January in Japan can be said to fall into this category) – but it can be well done and badly done. In Nita Prose’s The Maid, I felt we were laughing too much AT the main character, while in this case, I feel Elizabeth Zott inspires admiration rather than pity.
  3. I’ve already mentioned the rather too neat and satisfying ending, but perhaps it would be wrong to call this the Disneyfication of a story. Perhaps the story more closely resembles Charles Dickens – pile a lot of suffering and constant battles onto your heroine, and then somehow find a solution. As in Dickens, we have a lot of secondary characters we can have fun with, not least a super-intelligent dog called Six-Thirty. Actually, what this book reminded me most of was the Japanese anime (and manga) series ‘Spy x Family’, which is charming and funny, but also contains some high-stakes Cold War issues (albeit toned down for a young audience).
  4. There is a lot of feminine anger in this book, as much as in some other books that I’ve read recently, but presented in a palatable way, injected with lots of humour and with a whiff of magical realism. Perhaps, as with the film ‘Hidden Figures’, the beautifully recreated 1959s/60s setting helps to make it seem like a charming ‘period piece’, and thus muffles the cries of anger? For what could we possibly have to be angry about in the present day?
  5. You can see that Bonnie Garmus has worked as a copywriter and speechwriter – her style is breezy, her sentences perfectly tuned and always veering off into the unexpcted, this will keep you reading as if it were a suspense novel, even when you think you know where it’s going. Don’t overthink it, just enjoy!

Yes, living with Mr Sloane was revolting, but Harriet was not completely repelled by his physical defects – she shed herself. Rather, it was his low-grade stupidiy she abhorred – his dull, opinionated, know-nothing charmless complexion; his ignorance, bigotry, vulgarity, insensitivity; and above all, his wholly undeserved faith in himself. Like most stupid people, Mr Sloane wasn’t smart enough to know just how stupid he was.

Yet here she was, a single mother, the lead scientist on what had to be the most unscientific experiment of all time: the raising of another human being. Every day she found parenthood like taking a test for which she had not studied. The questions were daunting and there wasn’t nearly enough multiple choice. Occasionally she woke up damp with sweat, having imagined a knock at the door and some sort of authority figure with an empty bab-sized basekt saying: “We’ve just reviewed your last parental performance report and there’s really no nice way to put this. You’re fired.”

She only ever seemed to bring out the worst in men. They either wanted to control her, touch her, dominate her, silence her, correct her, or tell her what to do. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t just treat her as a fellow human being, as a colleague, a friend, an equal, or even a stranger on the street, someone to whom one is automatically respectful until you find out they’ve buried a bunch of bodies in the backyard.

#JanuaryInJapan: Loneliness and Finding Your Passion

I was going to write separate reviews, or at least talk about them two by two, but in the end they all seem to speak to each other. So I have attempted something new: an audio review (podcast seems a bit too ambitious a term).

They are all books about misfits, quirky outsiders who seem to struggle to socialise with other people, who all have a passion for something, who put up with many disappointments and ultimately find some kind of resilience or escape. They are all written by women, but in two of the books the main protagonists are men, which allows for an interesting contrast. I discuss several common themes that run through all the books: the lonely, socially inept main protagonist who explores ways in which to live their life via their craft or hobbies; the yearning for human connection, perhaps even love; the mentor character; the pragmatic character who provides a strong contrast to our dreamy protagonist; finally, some thoughts about style and appeal.


Kawakami Mieko: All the Lovers in the Night, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd

Miura Shion: The Great Passage, transl. Juliet Winters Carpenter

Miyashita Natsu: The Forest of Wool and Steel, transl. Philip Gabriel

Plus a Taiwanese novel that also fits this theme:

Lee Wei-Jing: The Mermaid’s Tale, transl. Darryl Sterk

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. However, you can also set up a link to your favourite independent bookshop and they too will get a share of the sale price.

You may be surprised to discover that The Great Passage has been adapted for an animated TV series. Here are the characters from the book in their anime form.

December Diva: Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias

Javier Marias: Your Face Tomorrow (Fever and Spear, Dance and Dream, Poison, Shadow and Farewell), transl. Margaret Jull Costa, Vintage Books.

I spent most of November reading Solenoid, which I then somewhat laughingly called my December Diva, but I have also spent the past three months reading Javier Marias’ trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, roughly one volume per month, and even before finishing the last volume, I had decided this was going to make my ‘best of the year’ list. Yet it was tough getting going with it.

I had attempted the first volume once before, about a year or two ago, and abandoned it. After the death of Marias, I decided to give it another go, especially since Jacqui warned in her review that it started slowly. I believe the only way to enjoy Marias’ notoriously long sentences and repetitions is to submerge yourself in the text like plunging into the sea, allow the waves of his thoughts and prose to wash over you. But you have to be in the mood for this. Luckily, this time round I was, and volumes 2 and 3 got better and better, as you can see from the number of little post-its I used.

The first-person narrator is Jacques Deza, who is separated from his wife and children, living in England while they are back in his native Madrid. The rather shady Bertram Tupra approaches him and convinces him to work for a mysterious organisation, since he appears to have a particular talent for examining people’s faces and behaviours, understanding an individual’s true nature and predicting what they might be capable of in the future. That is basically the entire story arc of the trilogy, but there are numerous incidents and complications along the way, Jacques starts to question just what is required of him and why, but gradually succumbs to the ideology of ‘pre-emptive strike’, and ends up applying it in his personal life, with all that it entails: surveillance, lies, manipulation, aggression and torture.

The build-up is so gradual, each incident is described in such detail (not forgetting the endless divagations and spirally returns to a scene – each time with an additional piece of information), that when we get those moments when the underlying menace suddenly burst out as real violence, for example when Tupra threatens to cut someone’s head off with a sword, it is profoundly shocking. The hypnotic long sentences, the descriptions of paintings, James Bond books and Hollywood stars, the references to the Spanish Civil War all lull us into a false sense of security: this is a civilised world, a world of Oxford academics and cocktail parties and absurd, conceited little diplomats. Yet all that multilingual politeness is but a thin veneer, and there is an abyss of vindictive or, even worse, indifferent cruelty just below that.

We discover all this at the same pace as Jacques, a slow pace, since he tends to overthink every little gesture, word or happening. How reliable a narrator is he really? Does it matter? The author sets out his stall quite quite early on:

A very thin line separates facts from imaginings, even desires from their fulfilment, and the fictitious from what actually happened, because imaginings are already facts, and desires are their own fulfilment, and the fictitious does happen, although not in the eyes of commons sense and of the law… But consciousness knows nothing of the law and common sense neither interests nor concerns it, each consciousness has its own sense, and that very thin line is, in my experience, often blurred and, once it has disappeared, separates nothing, which is why I have learned to fear anything that passes through the mind and even what the mind does not as yet know…’

It’s this intimate understanding of even the most tentative and secret impulses of human nature which fascinate me so much about Javier Marias. Just like Cărtărescu does in Solenoid, Marias cannot resist chasing down rabbit holes, bringing in so many apparently tangential topics, ruminating or speculating about human nature so broadly, that we wonder what on earth will finally get the story to move on. Yet, although we can hardly call this propulsive forward motion, I have the feeling that each parenthesis does have its purpose and evidences something deeper about the characters and situations.

Or perhaps I simply do not care how much he deviates from the main subject, as long as he can come up with perfectly-formed aphorisms such as these (almost Cioran-like):

There is nothing worse than looking for meaning or believeing there is one. Or if there is one… believing that the meaning of something… could depend on us and on our actions, on our intention or our function…

There are, as you know, always reasons a posteriori for any action, even for the most gratutious and most unspeakable actions, reasons can always be found, ridiculous, improbable and ill-founded sometimes and which deceive no on or only the person who invents them. But you can always find a reason.

In another language you cannot help but feel that you are always acting or even translating (however well you know the language), as if the words you pronounce and hear belonged to some absent person…

It’s always safer to betray an individual… than some vague, abstract idea that anyone can claim to represent… that’s the bad thing about ideas, their self-declared representatives keep crawling out of the woodwork, and anyone can take up an idea to suit their needs or interests and proclaim that they’ll defend it by whatever means necessary, bayonet or betrayal, persecution or tank…

This is the kind of profoundly unsettling work that leaves you with more questions than answers, where whole paragraphs or concepts will burrow themselves under your skin, and you will want to go back and read in smaller gulps again and again. Marias is an author who is not afraid to tackle big subjects, who manages to effortlessly weave cultural specificity (and occasionally mischievous observations about other cultures) with universal fears about baser human instincts. I

It’s dreadful to have ideas put in your head, however unlikely or ridiculous and however unsustainable and improbable…any scrap of information registered by the brain stays there until it achieves oblivion… and however much you clean and scrub and erase, that rim is the kind that will never come out; it’s understandable really that people should hate knowledge and deny what is there before their eyes and prefer to know nothing, and to repudiate the facts…

This describes what Marias does to me, but I will always prefer to know and to explore, which is possibly why I find him quite addictive. If some of our Book Club members said that there were whole passages of Tomb of Sand where they felt they did not understand what was going on, and could not follow the flow of the sentences, and if I occasionally considered Solenoid too meandering and self-indulgent, I was never bored with this trilogy, especially in volumes 2 and 3. I almost wanted more of it (and luckily have a few more books by Marias on my shelves).

Of course, this is in no small part thanks to Margaret Jull Costa’s impeccable translation: she seems to understand Marias better than anyone else (although she has admitted that he was not always easy to work with) and has managed to capture that Latin flow in the sentences, while remaining clear and precise in English.

Winding Down and Wrapping Up (Part 3)

If there was a glimmer of hope and joy in the late spring and early summer, the third trimester of the year was when things started to go seriously wrong in my personal life. Rading, as always, helped me through that but it veered mostly on the escapist side, with very little reviewing. Unsurprising, perhaps, that the dominant colour for this period was blue.

July was not that bad, as the boys and I went to Romania for the second half of the month, but there was a lot of work to complete before going on holiday, as well as desperately trying to find someone to look after Mademoiselle Zoe, who had just been diagnosed with a tumour in her intestines and was undergoing chemotherapy. I looked into changing flights so that I could spend more time with her, but that would have been far too expensive, and my parents were impatient to see their grandsons after nearly 3 years. The holidays themselves involved a lot of travelling around and meeting family and friends, which is never restful though lovely. Sadly, I also realised that my mother’s dementia is progressing faster than we had initially expected. As an only child, I worry about how I can best help her while living at a distance (and our relationship has always been delicate even at best) and how to support my father as well.

July was meant to be the month of Spanish and Portuguese Language reading, but in fact I read very few books translated from those languages. One that did really stick with me from that month was Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho, so concise and yet so memorable. This book also fitted well with a film I watched during this period in the hope that it might amuse me, but which ended being quite grim, since it deals with domestic violence, cheating and macho culture, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. I also tackled a less well-known work by a favourite author, Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial, and checked out several other authors for a potential fit with Corylus Books.

Almost immediately after coming back from holiday, I fell and broke my elbow and wrist on my right (writing) arm, then very nearly developed an ulcer from all the painkillers I was swallowing. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t review much. August is traditionally Women in Translation month, but once again I fell somewhat short on that topic and relied instead on a lot of very escapist, very light literature. I did read the International Booker Winner Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, which I found exhilarating and deeply moving, although I probably missed quite a lot of the cultural references and found it a bit overlong. I reviewed it in September together with the rather deliciously subversive Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (not pictured here because I didn’t like any of the covers).

Another highlight in translation was a coming-of-age novella by Mieko Kawakami Ms Ice Sandwich, while my own bout of ill health and Zoe’s sudden decline and death made me connect even more with the book by Tanya Shadrick about creativity, motherhood, facing up to illness and mortality, The Cure for Sleep. The only book I could read during those painful last days with Zoe was (unsurprisingly) Paul Gallico’s Jennie.

I had a brief moment of joy in September when I went to Bloody Scotland in Stirling, but that did not go unpunished, as I came back with Covid, which once again laid me low and meant my immune system has struggled to cope with things ever since. I was also delighted to find that my translation of Mihail Sebastian’s play The Holiday Game was highly commended for the John Dryden Translation Prize – a great honour, although that doesn’t make it any more likely to be performed or published. Rejections followed thick and fast for other writing or translation pitches, while my day job remained busy, so I was struggling to make it through the remaining weeks until my much-awaited writing retreat holiday in Yorkshire in October (which did not quite live up to expectations). In the meantime I was delighted, however, to reconnect with Istanbul and my beloved detective duo of Ikmen and Suleyman created by Barbara Nadel, plus discover a new series by an author I have enjoyed in the past, Vaseem Khan’s Midnight at Malabar House, while the historical fiction of Set in Stone by my friend (and near compatriot) Stela Brinzeanu was a welcome change of pace from crime fiction.

You can find the first and second part of the annual reading review on my blog, but you’ll have to wait for the final part while I do some more reading.

Winding Down and Wrapping Up (Part 1)

I don’t like to start my ‘best of the year’ reading summaries too early, especially when I have some seriously promising books planned for December. However, this year I thought I would copy A Life in Books Susan’s approach to summarising the year, i.e. remembering the monthly highlights, with a post for each season. By the time I reach the October to December slot, I should have completed most of my December reading – that’s the plan, at least!

2022 started pretty much in the same way as it is about to end: in hibernation. I had just suffered a long period of falling ill constantly from September to Christmas 2021, so I stayed indoors quite a bit. However, it was productive hibernation. I wrote and submitted a lot, I translated and pitched (unsuccessfully, but it’s the intention that counts). I taught translation in classrooms with the Stephen Spender Trust (it was lovely to work with primary school children once more, although tiring!). Above all, I spent time in Japan – or at least immersed in Japanese literature and films for #JanuaryInJapan. My favourite Japanese book that month was Tanizaki’s charming A Cat, a Man and Two Women, which became all the more poignant after my beloved Zoe fell ill a few months later.

Two other books I greatly enjoyed in January were Deborah Levy’s Things I don’t Want to Know and Real Estate, the first and third respectively in her memoir trilogy. While they weren’t quite as immediately relevant to me as the second one, The Cost of Living, which I read a few years ago, they were thoughtful explorations of what it means to be a woman, a writer, middle-aged, a mother, and a rational yet also idealistic thinker. They are less self-effacing than Rachel Cusk’s trilogy, but all the warmer and more personal for it.

In February I tried to escape from my not-terrible but time-consuming day job, as I wanted to spend more time on my writing, publishing and translation ventures, even if it meant a loss of income (this was before it became clear that the cost of living crisis was getting worse and worse throughout the UK). I was interviewed for a children’s literature publisher and a bookselling job, but neither of them led to anything. So I escaped instead via reading to warmer climates, namely Australia, a country I have not explored much at all, to my shame. Two books stood out for me: the surprisingly fresh and candid My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin and the fascinating fictional perspective on the League of Nations in Geneva in Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days.

In March I devoured Italian literature, partly inspired by my ongoing Italian lessons via Zoom. We have a very small group (all with Italian partners, save for me) and a lovely teacher, so I have decided to continue this coming year as well. I don’t think I am able to read books in the original yet, but I managed to cope with the bilingual edition of Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words. It was an interesting exploration of translation and finding the language of your heart, but not quite as memorable as Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds, which I read a couple of years back. Of the Italian authors, I was intrigued but not enamoured by Italo Svevo’s A Perfect Hoax and really loved Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues.

Aside from the Italians, I was also impressed by the exuberance of Doina Rusti’s The Book of Perilous Dishes and the darkness at the heart of the unforgettable story by Dorothy B Hughes In a Lonely Place.

Quite an orangey-brownish-rusty collection of book covers, as I noticed when I put them together below. Mirroring my own state of mind, a stagnant pool, during the first three months of the year.

December Diva: Solenoid by Mircea Cărtărescu

I was looking for a good alliteration for December with the meaning of ‘chunky’, ‘lengthy’ read, but all I could find was ‘drawn-out’, which doesn’t sound very complimentary. Not sure that Diva sounds very flattering either, but at least it promises something dramatic, exciting, with flair… Besides, it’s all nonsense about creating a memorable alliteration with ‘D’, since in truth I read Solenoid in November, thanks to the wonderful Reem and her read-along. Deep Vellum recently released Sean Cotter’s translation of this book, often considered Cărtărescu’s masterpiece, but I read it in the original, having bought the book back in 2019 on my last visit to Bucharest before the pandemic.

I am familiar with much of Cărtărescu’s work, and even went a couple of times to the writing circle he organised for students (one of my friends was a devoted Cărtărescu acolyte and took me along). At the time, I liked his poetry more than his prose, but since then I have enjoyed his diaries (which show him to be quite an insecure person, like many other writers, despite his considerable national and international success), was not overly impressed with his short stories, really liked Nostalgia and Blinding, so was curious to see how I would feel about Solenoid.

Perhaps I should state upfront that I don’t think it’s his best work.

It treads over much of the same ground that he covered with more brilliance and gusto in the trilogy Blinding (although here it covers mostly the 1960s and 70s, while in Blinding there is a much longer time span from the 1950s to 1989 and the fall of Communism): his childhood experiences of health scares, his extensive reading, Bucharest as a city in decay, the shape of an individual life and how it comes to represent any life, the fallibility of memory. Autobiographical elements combined with surrealist flights of fantasy. Solenoid is more rambling, less inventive and surprising than Nostalgia. The problem is that Nostalgia is not translated particularly well in English by Iulian Semilian, so it doesn’t do justice to Cărtărescu’s style, while Sean Cotter does a much better job with the first volume of Blinding, but volumes 2 and 3 never made it into English.

However, Solenoid is a good compromise if you want to discover the work of this Romanian writer who has been occasionally tipped for the Nobel Prize. I found myself enjoying it quite a bit, in spite of my reservations. There is much more humour and self-deprecation than I expected, for example, when the narrator describes the ambitious epic poem about everything which he wrote at the age of 17, which is openly derided at the writing circle, thus making him renounce his literary ambitions and go into teaching, a job he despises and only does half-heartedly.

Bottomless ambition made the poem ridiculous. You have to learn to walk first before running. The poet who read tonight was like a child in a baby walker who wants to take part in a marathon and even win it.

[About teaching] It’s only for a year, till I get taken on at a publisher or literary magazine… [then he stayed on] 40 more years and I’ll retire from here. It hasn’t been that bad. I even had some lice-free periods!

I think it excels particularly in the realistic details of life in 1970s Romania which sound so absurd that they almost become surreal (and therefore are a good match for the magical and surrealist elements the author introduces into the story). Oone memorable scene is about the spitting on icons competition in the classroom, to determine who is the best atheist.

We’d go early in the morning, sometimes before it even got light, to queue up in the freezing cold, like a herd of animals, for a chicken carcase or a bottle of milk diluted with water.

The only thing the children learn from weekly Constitution class is the name of the person whose portrait hangs above the blackboard in every class. This person, who appears on TV frequently, speaking some strange language, is someone about whom we can’t tell jokes.

There are also some beautiful phrases and memorable passages, some of which remind me of scenes from Tarkovsky films and which will stay with me forever: the abandoned factory where the narrator and another schoolteacher go to search for their older pupils; the nameless fear that the narrator experiences as a child when he leaves his aunt’s house on the outskirts of town one night with his mother and they see a heavily starlit sky; the gathering of the Picketer protestors in something resembling Dante’s circles of Inferno.

Above all, I enjoyed the author’s riffs on reality and whether the human mind has the capacity to transcend it. Dreams appear to be the only means of escape from a grim and grey world (and yet I found the long descriptions of dreams quite repetitive and wearisome).

We search foolishly, in places where it’s impossible to find anything, like spiders weaving webs in bathrooms where no fly or mosquito will ever get in. We shrivel up in our webs, but we never lose our need for truth.

But the enormous, real world around us cannot be described by the senses, even if we had a million of them like a sea anemone swaying in the ocean current. The world is all around us, crushing us in its embrace, bone by bone.

The old man was clearly delusional, but I knew better than anyone that delusions are not the waste byproduct of reality, but form part of it, indeed are sometimes the most precious part of reality.

Maybe I’m the last human left on earth, maybe this labyrinth I am entering is being generated moment after moment just for me, maybe my conscience itself is a mere projection of a mind far greater than my own…

There were many erudite asides and mini-biographies of real life characters to explore along the way. While most of them were fun to google (the Voynich manuscript and the novel The Gadfly by Ethel Lilian Voynich), not all of them were strictly necessary, some of them felt self-indulgent. There is no excuse really for 11 pages (in my edition) of the word ‘Help’ repeated over and over again. A couple of pages would have been just as effective. But I suppose no one dares to edit the demi-god of contemporary Romanian letters.

The six solenoids that lie buried at different points under the ugly city of Bucharest are an attempt to link together the disparate stories of an author who never knowingly avoids a tangential thought or an opportunity to show off a bit of research. I suppose the author himself and many of his dedicated readers will say that each anecdote fully deserves its place and adds something to the book, but many of them felt like red herrings to me.

The Uranus neighbourhood was entirely demolished to make room for the building of Ceausescu’s House of the People. The author repeatedly refers to lost/demolished areas.

And yet there was a lot that I loved about the book. The atmosphere of a city in an advanced state of decay (and yet a strange kind of love for this city) reminded me of the descriptions in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. The self-critical humour about the budding writer and his lack of skills, combined with a huge ego and a streak of cruelty towards others (especially about their appearance or intelligence – many of the female teachers feel like caricatures, for example) reminded me of Karl Ove Knausgård. The hallucinatory long sentences, with an incantatory quality and spot-on satirical observations (plus sudden bursts of violence) were reminiscent of Javier Marias. I know that Cărtărescu greatly admires Kafka, but although the sense of absurdity and anxiety might be similar, Kafka’s style is far more concise and minimalist, so it’s not a comparison that would naturally come to mind. However, as Andrei from The Untranslated blog said about the book when he read it in Spanish long before it was translated into English, it is an excellent addition to and perhaps a crowning of the surrealist canon: unashamedly ambitious and what some may even call ‘elitist’.

But I still think I prefer my masterpieces to be more concise and allow me to do most of the thought-provoking.

#GermanLitMonth: A Biography of Marlen Haushofer

Daniela Strigl: Wahrscheinlich bin ich verrückt… Marlen Haushofer – die Biographie. (I’m Probably Mad: the Biography of MH) List, 2007.

I was planning to read several novellas for German Literature Month (and thus fulfil a double function, to fit Novella in November Month too), but I got sidetracked once I finished Marlen Haushofer’s The Loft. I had acquired this biography of Marlen a year or two ago, after being so impressed with the few books of hers I’d managed to find and read in German. I knew the broad outlines of her life, but this time I could not resist delving a little deeper.

Marlen was born Maria Helene Frauendorfer in 1920 in Upper Austria. Her father was a qualified forester, while her mother was also descended from a forester family but had tried to escape her family fate by working as a maid for a noblewoman in her youth, travelling all over the world and staying in luxurious hotels. Marlen was a lively little girl who enjoyed the great outdoors and the freedom of wandering in the forests, playing with animals, listening to stories told by her favourite uncle – she later described those early years as quite idyllic, although she did suffer when her brother Rudi, the apple of her mother’s eye, was born.

All this was well-known to me. What I did not realise was just what a fall from paradise it was for Marlen to be sent to a convent school in Linz at the age of ten. She was one of the brightest girls in her class, but she was homesick, became depressed and succumbed to TB. She interrupted her studies to go to a sanatorium, and then fell promptly ill again. She finished school just after the Anschluss and was forced to do a year of civil service on the eastern borders of the German empire. In 1940 she started studying philosophy, German and art history in Vienna, which is where she met Manfred Haushofer, who was studying medicine. I knew that they got married in 1941 but what I did not know was that before the wedding Marlen had given birth to a little boy whose father was not Manfred, but a German student whom she had met a year earlier. Manfred accepted her illegitimate child, but he lived apart from them for a long time, even after they had a son of their own in 1942.

Manfred and Marlen settled in the little town of Steyr (a truly provincial town not far from her parents in Upper Austria) and opened a dental clinic together (Marlen helping out with the admin). Although this should have been a lucrative business, Marlen’s husband proved hopeless with money, always dashing after shiny gadgets and cars and other women, so they were never very well off. Marlen started writing, and had her champions in Vienna, but overall was not taken very seriously by the Viennese literary circles and experienced multiple rejections. Although she moved in the same circles as Ingeborg Bachmann, Ilse Aichinger, Thomas Bernhard, she was often mocked as the ‘provincial egg, the dentist’s wife, the forester’s daughter’.

I had always wondered why Marlen divorced her husband in 1950, only to then get remarried to him in 1958. I suspected he was a serial womaniser, which was true, and the last straw was when he had a serious relationship with one of Marlen’s best friends. However, I was stunned to discover that they continued to live in the same house and work together in the dental practice, that very few people (not even their children) knew that they were actually divorced, and that they both pursued other relationships during their years of estrangement. Marlen did not seem at all blind to her husband’s faults, nor was she deeply in love with him any longer, so why did she remarry him? She once told a friend that ‘you cannot be divorced in Steyr’. Perhaps, like the narrator in The Loft, she craved the comfort of routine. Perhaps she was disappointed by her occasional forays into Viennese cultural life and the other men in her life proved disappointing as well. She complained about not having enough time to write, of being a victim of her domestic arrangements, and yet she seemed reluctant to rid herself of her chains. As one of her writer friends said: ‘You know where you are going wrong, Marlen? If your husband asks you for a slice of bread and butter, you immediately make three for him.’

Her health had never been brilliant, so she mostly ignored the hip pain that started plaguing her in the mid-1960s. In 1968 she was diagnosed with bone cancer, which she kept hidden from friends and even her immediate family for as long as she could. This was a family where hardly anything was ever openly discussed. She died just a few weeks short of her fiftieth birthday in 1970.

The biographer Daniela Strigl interviewed family members and friends of Marlen Haushofer, as well as researching the archives. I wasn’t entirely convinced by her extensive use of quotes from Marlen’s novels to illustrate biographical details, but am not sure what else she could have done, because Marlen systematically destroyed all of her diaries (with one small exception) and the letters she received. Luckily, some of her correspondents kept the letters she sent them, but even then it would be a mistake to believe that this enigmatic author always meant exactly what she wrote. She wrote for maximum effect, in what was often a devastatingly cynical way that was in direct contrast to her apparently settled bourgeois housewifely existence. She was such a secretive person that her friends could never quite agree what she was like, whether she was happy or not – or even the colour of her eyes.

I’ll end with a few quotes from Marlen’s writings, some from her fiction, some from her personal papers:

You should never ask for too much, then you can never receive too little.

I find myself here in a place where I do not belong, living among people who know nothing of me, half of my strength is wasted on the effort of remaining inconspicuous. The older I get, the more I realise how hopelessly entangled all of us are, and I envy the person who never becomes aware of this.

She has become that friendly, slightly distracted woman who goes for a walk with her child, reads novels, receives her guests, puts flowers into vases, and generally feels life trickling away from her gently, without regrets. One of the many women whose will is broken, who are no longer really there. No matter how she chooses to live her life, she will sit there on that stone today, with the suspicion in her heart that she has picked the wrong path.

In spite of all my efforts, I seem stuck… I have the feeling, I am wasting all of my strength. I would not take pleasure in writing a successful book if I had the feeling I had let my family down. I really think it is impossible to be a good person and a good artist at the same time.

Marlen’s final letter, a sort of literary testament, which she wrote a week or so before her death, is truly heartbreaking, yet without the faintest hint of self-pity or self-indulgence:

Do not worry. You have seen too much and too little, just like everyone before you. You have cried too much, maybe too little, just like everyone before you. Maybe you have loved and hated too much – but not for long – twenty years or so. What are twenty years anyway? After that, part of you died, just like it did for all people who can no longer love nor hate […] Do not worry. Everything will have been in vain, just like it has always been. A completely normal story.

This is my last contribution to the German Literature Month extravaganza, but do please head over to the website hosted by Marcia (aka Lizzy Siddal) to see what other people have read this November.

#GermanLitMonth and Books Set ‘Abroad’

While my little household was visited by bronchitis, tonsillitis, RSV, coughing till your rib cage hurts and other such delightful guests, I needed something less demanding to read for German Literature Month. So I turned to the comedic delights of The Peacock by Isabel Bogdan, translated by Annie Rutherford and published by the wonderful V&Q Books.

Lord and Lady McIntosh are renting out parts of their dilapidated estate in the Scottish Highlands, but it all reaches crisis point when a group of investment bankers descend upon them for their off-site teambuilding exercise in the depths of winter, while their housekeeper has broken her arm, a peacock is running riot, and a snowstorm is on its way. Rather than descending into a Golden Age murder mystery (although at times the participants might be tempted to wring each other’s necks), it becomes a comedy of manners with moments of high drama and farce.

It was indeed a fun read, showing that Germans do have a healthy sense of humour: a satire about corporate teambuilding, British plumbing and draughty homes, as well as the renowned British love for animals which lives alongside their love for hunting. It is not at all vicious satire though: every one of the characters is redeemable, despite their obvious flaws. There is depth behind each stereotype: the iron lady boss, the suck-up, the older nerd and so on.

As the translator says in her note at the back of the book, ‘the idea of a German book set in Scotland and translated “back” into English was clearly a novel one’. But why would that be the case? We read books by American and British authors set in foreign countries ALL the time and many of them do not even depict expats: Donna Leon, Victoria Hislop, Alexander McCall Smith, take a bow!

The latest example of this is Berlin by Bea Setton, yet another book in the growing list of ‘expats moving to Berlin in the hope of starting with a blank slate and finding you can’t outrun your own bad habits and impulses’. [Rest assured that when I move to Berlin, I intend to continue the very boring middle-aged life that I have here in the UK – just with more freedom of movement and time to dedicate to literary pursuits.] It forms a perfect counterpoint to The Peacock, as it is almost entirely self-centred rather than focusing on a larger cast of characters. Written in the first person, with an unreliable narrator named Daphne – or, if we’re feeling generous, a narrator who is deceiving herself as much as she is attempting (and often succeeding) at deceiving others – we explore nearly a year in the life she is attempting to create for herself, albeit half-heartedly, in Berlin. The only thing she seems to be serious about is German grammar and vocabulary: she fails to establish any meaningful relationships, she sponges off her wealthy and far too unconcerned parents and therefore doesn’t have to work for a living, and she drifts along, a voyeur to her own life, not even decadent enough to come apart at the seams via clubbing, drugs and wild sex life (like the other Berlin-set expat novels I have read over the past year). The only thing she seems obsessive about is her running and controlling her eating, and inventing various subterfuges to disguise her eating disorder from her acquaintances.

The kind of book that made me feel old and grumpy, as I lost patience with the ‘first world problems of young people from privileged Western backgrounds today’.

This very bare-bones review is my third for #GermanLitMonth, and I hope to write one more on the biography of Marlen Haushofer. Meanwhile, I would recommend The Peacock as a delightfully escapist but not saccharine read – although the author underestimates how much the English investment bankers might drink!