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

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

illegalliaisonsGrażyna Plebanek: Illegal Liaisons (transl. Danusia Stok)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sneak Preview: The Illegalists

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

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

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

 

 

 

Friday Fun: Two Artistic Discoveries

Everyone has heard of Lalique and his famous glass creations, but have you ever heard of equally gifted and far less well-known Maurice Marinot? He was a painter and artist in glass from Troyes (1882-1960), but his glass-making period was relatively short. He only discovered the medium in 1912 and stopped working in it in 1937, when the glass factory that he had been working with closed down.

Another reason that his output wasn’t huge was that he was quite experimental (and not all the experiments went well) and a bit of a perfectionist, sometimes taking as long as a year to produce one piece. To top it all, his workshop suffered a direct hit during the Allied bombing, which destroyed most of his glass and paintings.

Here are some captivating examples of his work in the Lyon Museum of Art. Of course, glass through glass is notoriously difficult to photograph, so I apologise that you cannot see the beautiful shimmer and reflexes on these creations.

P1040530

The second artist I discovered at the Art Museum in Lyon is Louis Janmot, a 19th century Lyonnais artist whose style is oddly reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites. An ardent Catholic, deeply affected by the childhood loss of his siblings, his work is romantic and profoundly spiritual.

I fell in love with his Mona Lisa equivalent, a painting entitled Flowers of the Fields, featuring the Bugey landscape around Lyon in the background.

P1040532

However, he is best known for his magnum opus Poem of the Soul (Poème de l’âme), which he spent nearly 50 years on (and which was still not complete at the time of his death). He also wrote a lengthy poem (2800 verses) to accompany it. It’s a sort of reinvention of Catholicism, showing the life-cycle of a human, accompanied at all times by his/her soul. The first series of 18 paintings are displayed in a room in the museum.

Spring of the Soul.
4: Spring of the Soul.
The Wrong Path
7: The Wrong Path
Up the Mountain
14: On the Mountain
The Ideal - and no, this is not the final one in the series. No. 18 is called The Reality.
17: The Ideal – and no, this is not the final one in the series. No. 18 is called Reality.

 

 

Blockbuster of the Summer: Jaume Cabre’s Confessions

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

City of Books: Lyon

Lyon has an impressive number of independent and chain bookshops, antiquarian and plain second-hand bookshops, as well as a thriving books on the quay (bouquinistes) lifestyle in summer.

Bookstands on the Quai de la Pecherie, on the Saone.
Bookstands on the Quai de la Pecherie, on the Saone.

Although I did stop to peruse outdoors, I was heading to a specific location: the second-hand bookshop Le Pere Penard on the Quai Fulchiron. I had met the owners at the Quais du Polar, and discovered they had a fantastic selection of noir and crime fiction, as well as BD. So I ordered some Jean-Claude Izzo through them. However, the shop is huge, stuffed to the gills with books in all genres, including cookery, history and coffee-table books.

Something for everyone here.
Something for everyone here.

It was set up by a group of friends in 1994: members of the group have changed over the years, but the passion for books has stayed the same. It’s a real treasure trove of a place, to explore at leisure, over many hours.

Upstairs, downstairs...
Upstairs, downstairs…
... and in my lady's chamber...
… and in my lady’s chamber…
... where I found...
… where I found…

a title by Pascal Garnier that I was unfamiliar with, a short novella called Nul n’est a l’abri du succes (Nobody’s safe from success). Then, to my utter surprise and delight, look what I discovered when I looked inside!

Garniersignature
Allons, ca de fait pas si mal que ca, parce que…. Amicalement, P. Garnier.Translation: There, there, it’s not that bad, because… With friendship, P. Garnier.

Yes, it’s a signed copy and it’s as if the author (whom I only discovered about 4 years ago but who’s since become a firm favourite) is talking to me from beyond the grave.

For more Lyon bookshops, see this earlier post. And no, the Lyon Tourist Office is not paying me to promote their city!

 

Happy Anniversary, dVerse Poets!

I’ve become a much less frequent visitor to the dVerse Poets Pub in the last few months, but it’s still the friendliest, most fun poetic community that I’ve come across. They are celebrating five years of poems, discussions, shared thoughts and laughter, so join us there , find out what Brian Miller (one of the founders of dVerse) has been up to recently, and take part in the first challenge of the week: a quadrille about ‘Journeys’.

A quadrille is a poem of 44 words exactly. Here is my attempt.

Refugees

The journey’s start
your journey’s end
Ouroboros alone knows
when we are done exploring in porous dinghies
or flour containers
in baroque façade deceptions
carton jungle of dead ends
where our feet move on and on for miles
yet our hearts not one iota

Calais

Perfect Summer Read: Shining Sea by Anne Korkeakivi

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is home. He is home.

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