Reading Summary April 2022

I know it’s a bit early to summarise the month, but since I only post on Mondays and Wednesdays (and the more pictorial Friday Funs), this is my last chance to summarise the month before we embark upon May. As such, I have not quite finished two of the books I feature on my list (Nostalgia and the escapist Georgette Heyer) but expect to do so by the weekend. I also intend to review in more detail the two surrealist pieces of literature (Ehin and Urmuz) on Monday 2nd of May, when we will be discussing the Estonian book at our London Reads the World Book Club.

Eighteen books. Bit of a record reading month in terms of quantity, partly because I had so much time off – on holiday until the 11th, then university closure around Easter – and partly because I was racing through some rereads for translation funding applications for Corylus. 12 of those books were in Romanian, and I’ve already written about some of them. I have already expressed some of my dissatisfaction with the translation of Nostalgia and my mixed feelings about Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir of learning Italian.

There were two non-Romanian books that I read for book clubs – the highly unusual supernatural crime novel The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox and the even more unusual vignettes/short stories by Estonian author Kristiina Ehin, translated by Ilmar Lehtpere. I alternated my serious reads with two escapist, nearly-but-not-quite romance books from the library: Clare Chambers’ The Editor’s Wife (entertaining if rather predictable) and one of Heyer’s Regency novels The Reluctant Widow (which seems more of a crime caper than a romance, a bit of a colour by numbers effort from the author, but one of the few of her books available at the library).

My reading plans for the next few months are:

Anglos Abroad in May – American and English writers who have set their books in other countries, whether it’s fiction or a memoir, depicting some sort of culture clash – and quite a few of them will be about Berlin.

June: French literature – for no other reason than remembering how much I adored these verses by Rimbaud and the lime trees on the promenade.

On n’est pas sérieux, quand on a dix-sept ans

On va sous les tilleuls verts de la promenade.
Les tilleuls sentent bon dans les bons soirs de juin !

July – Spanish Lit Month – and I intend to focus on Latin America mostly

August – Women in Translation Month – not that I don’t love reading women in translation all year round.

Heavy Weather: Overthinking Translation

This post is probably going to annoy a lot of translators, academics, publishers and critics – so it’s just as well that not many of them read my blog. I’ve recently read two books which made me wonder if some people consider learning a new language or translating literary fiction to be an opportunity to show off.

Maybe I am not the right person to be criticising this approach, since I was fortunate enough to grow up trilingual and therefore never had to work hard at languages or think of them as something to boast about. I hasten to add that I will always, always admire people who make themselves vulnerable by learning a new language, and that I am endlessly grateful to translators for making so much wonderful work available to us readers. I can also spend hours or even days debating punctuation marks or a particular word when translating a text – a pleasure-challenge-despair that only other translators will understand, while normal people will say ‘Get over yourselves!’ However, at times, it feels like a performance sport: who can be most opaque, most complicated, most scholarly – and thus most ‘valuable’ as a language expert and translator? Under the guise of being most ‘congruent with the original’, I find tortuous language patterns and syntax in the English translations which occasionally might give me a small flavour of the original, but usually end up putting me off that particular author.

I am by no means a proponent of smoothing things so much for readers that they feel they are reading an English book (someone commented recently on my blog that they translated Reichsmark currency in Emil and the Detectives as pounds in a recent edition!!!). Yet overcomplicating things simply to show off your erudition also feels like a disservice to readers – and ultimately to the authors themselves. This tends to happen less with the major languages (French, German, Spanish), where you have professional translators who are extremely good at capturing the right tone. But publishers of translations from ‘small’ languages tend to prefer academics to do the translation – probably as a quality assurance tool – and the result can be deplorable.

Take for example Nostalgia by Mircea Cărtărescu. It is one of his best and most accessible ‘novels’ if we can call it that (it is a loosely-linked set of novellas), but the translation by Julian Semilian feels heavy-handed and verbose. I am not saying that the author is not verbose in the original, but he is limber and lithe, playful with language, skipping through metaphors, slippery yet hypnotic – everything that Javier Marias is, but which is rendered so elegantly and easily into English by Margaret Jull Costa.

Meanwhile, Nostalgia is anything but effortless. Whole paragraphs seem lumbersome and clumsy, but there are certain phrases which simply sound wrong in English.

Suddenly the animation of the ‘stockholders’ – as I was to find out was the name given to those who bet on this game – abated.

I claim no merit for knowing him or that I can write about him.

For better than ten years’ time…

While I wrote these lines, my room, my tomb, has whirled so quickly through the black fog outside that I got sick.

Of course, there is an additional element to that confusion and I’ve ranted about it before. When you only get a few translated titles from Eastern Europe every year, publishers tend to prefer those that fit in with their preconceptions of what that should look like (and what they think readers expect): difficult, worthy, filled with trauma, mainly about the disaster of Communism (if you aim to sell more than a few copies) or post-modernistically dense (if you wish to appeal to a niche audience and get reviewed in academic journals). And yet Ottilie Mulzet’s translation of László Krasznahorkai (who is all of the above) seems capable of conveying the endless sentences and breathless narrator voice without making them too impenetrable and off-putting.

I look forward to reading Sean Cotter’s translation of Solenoid when it comes out and seeing what he makes of Cărtărescu’s later style (although I think it is a weaker work in the original). I would certainly recommend Cotter’s translation of Vol. 1 of the Blinding trilogy, if you want a better introduction to Cărtărescu’s work (I do have quite a lot of issues with the way he portrays women in his work though – very typical of Romanian male writers or perhaps Murakami Haruki). See what Tony Malone thought of that book.

If you feel I’ve been too harsh with Julian Semilian, I should say that on paper he seemed to be an excellent translator for this particular author: they are of roughly the same age, Semilian was born in Romania but soon moved to the States, where he had a successful career as a Hollywood film editor, and more recently as a writer and documentary filmmaker. He corresponded with the author during the translation process and I can imagine they became friends. But I couldn’t help feeling that Julian is not immersed in the Romanian language and culture, especially not in the way it has evolved since he left the country – it does not come as naturally as breathing to him, so he overthinks it. [Or maybe he is just too much of an academic now.]

This ‘immersion’ is precisely the subject of the second book that made me ponder on linguistic expertise recently: Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words. I read the bilingual version, with the Italian on the left-hand side and the English on the right, and was surprised to discover I could understand quite a bit of the Italian – which Italian speakers have told me is partly because the author starts out with quite simple, basic Italian, but that it gets more sophisticated as it goes along. I enjoyed this book and found the passages about growing up bilingual but with very different approaches to the two languages extremely relatable. However, it seemed more self-absorbed and far less interesting than Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds, which is also about falling in love with a language and a culture.

I too have recently started learning Italian for no other reason other than that I love the language and the culture – but I did not feel that I was getting a full sense of the beauty, charm, history of the place and its people in this book. For something that has been labelled ‘a love story’, there was little attempt to capture just what made the object of one’s love so irresistible. I admired the hard work and determination in learning the language, and I could understand the temptation of starting afresh in a new language, the freedom of being allowed to be imperfect. But at times she does make things needlessly complicated and repetitive, and I feel like saying: ‘Get over yourself!’ Still, I was relieved to discover this was not Eat Pray Love with a lexicon attached. Despite its simplistic style (a style that is neither English nor Italian, I feel, but hovers somewhere in the middle), there are moments of true insight, beautifully expressed.

Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realize that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.

In conclusion, I suppose what I am trying to say is that I am glad that translators are gaining more visibility and sharing their thoughts on the challenges of moving between languages and cultures. I greatly enjoyed Daniel Hahn’s translation diary, for example, and found much food for thought there. I am pleased that language learning and translation are viewed as serious and praiseworthy undertakings. But, just like in ballet I admire something that seems effortless even though I know the huge amount of effort that goes into it, I prefer translations to feel as natural as leaves on a tree, not to poke my eyes out with their branches.

Friday Fun: The Little Royal Town

My parents chose to retire in the little town of Curtea de Argeș (population 27,000), because they were both originally from the local area, still have family there and can easily go and visit the family graves or native village without having to live in a completely rural environment. Despite its idyllic location in the foothills of the Carpathians, it is a sleepy town for most of the year, without a single theatre, cinema or leisure centre, and a library and museum that are hardly ever open or visited by anyone. In recent years, quite a few people from Bucharest have chosen to retire there (usually because of family connections) and built quite beautiful and large houses, in the hope of luring back their children for the holidays. But the children tend to find the place completely dead after they turn seven or so.

However, the name of the town itself hints at its former glory, for it literally means The Court on the Argeș, which is the name of a rather manky looking river nowadays (because they have built hydro power stations all along it), and also the name of the county. In the Middle Ages, when several local fiefdoms united to form the basis for Wallachia (which later became one of the founding states of modern Romania), it was here that they established the first capital city. You can still see the ruins of the court of the Basarab family and the church that they built here, which is even older than the famous local monastery.

Built by 1351, although the interior frescoes weren’t completed until 1369.
Detail: this style of building with layers of horizontal bricks alternating with stone is quite unique to this area, as far as I am aware. The renovated sculptural details around the window casing data from the 17th century.
The grand entrance to the royal court: the ruler himself lived in a fairly simple two-room accommodation on the right-hand side as you walk in, but his ‘offices’ on the left-hand side, where people came to petition him and where he received foreign dignitaries, were much grander. Still, he could walk from home to work, right?
The gatekeeper’s house was built in the mid-19th century to mimic a traditional peasant house from the local area.
Couldn’t resist this juxtaposition of old and new – this church was built at around the same time on a hill just outside the Royal Court and probably served as a watchtower. Nowadays, the small park contains the War Memorial.
The covered market was built in the late 19th century, when the little market town became popular again because King Carol I decided to make it his final resting place for him and his descendants.
Not my picture, but to give you an idea of what it looks like inside: from ZiarulActualitatea.com. Nowadays, however, the farmers’ market is next door in a slightly more modern building, while the main building is dedicated to butchers and fishmongers. Still a great place to shop, though!
This, however, is what the town is best known for: the Monastery, with its rather gruesome legend with echoes of Icarus and human sacrifice, which has led to one of the most enduring and heartrending ballads in Romanian literature. Proud to say that my younger son was christened inside it, especially since the church is no longer used for ceremonies.
But there are plenty of examples of eclectic 18th and 19th century architecture peppered across town, despite the Communist drive towards industrialisation and ugly blocks of flats.
Traditional architecture in Casa Cioculestilor, from ro.wikipedia.org
Casa Chiriță from the early 20th century in neo-Romanian style.
Casa Norocea from 1913.
The town is also an important archdiocese for the Archbishop of the local area and obviously has reserved a fine building for him and his workers.
The Teodorescu House, from ro.wikipedia.org
The Hohenzollern royal family liked this place so much, they built a whole railway track from Pitesti, with each station along the way in a distinctive red brick style and of course culminating in this gorgeous oversized end of the line station. Sadly, although the local council wants to renovate it as a historical monument, it belongs to the National Rail equivalent in Romania, who doesn’t have the money to maintain it. From ro.wikipedia.org

Reading Romanian Literature

I have already mentioned the stash of books I brought back with me from my trip to Romania earlier this month. I also had a bit more time to read, being on holiday (although, naturally, I did spend a lot of time sorting out paperwork and chatting with my parents, which were the two main reasons for going there). So I also raided my father’s bookshelves. He is as great a reader and book collector as me, although he tends to prefer non-fiction, political biographies and history. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that I’ve managed to read ten Romanian books already this month – with more than a third of the month still to go. Since none of them have been translated into English, I will review them briefly here.

Martha Bibescu

Martha Bibescu: Berlin Journal 1938 and War Journal 1939-1941

Princess Martha Bibescu (aka Marthe Bibesco in France) was born in 1886 in a noble family in Romania (Lahovary) and married into another noble, even princely, family (Bibescu). She spoke several languages fluently and knew everyone who was anyone across most of Europe during the early part of the 20th century. She was also a popular writer, a prolific diarist and a cultural and political hostess, often engaging in ‘soft diplomacy’ with those in power.

These two diaries are fascinating for their insights into the political climate of the time. I expected Martha Bibescu to be the typical spoilt socialite complaining about declining service and the lack of respect of the working classes, but she comes across as remarkably empathetic and clear-eyed. Despite her obvious privileges, wealth, many love affairs, she was a shrewd judge of character, especially of politicians and their duplicity. She was a personal friend of Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany and in her Berlin journal, she describes the delusional hope that he and his wife harboured about every becoming essential to German life again. She also met Hermann Göring during that trip, but never succumbed to the Fascist temptation: on the contrary, she describes a handsome young officer in SS uniform as the ‘bait to reel them [Western powers] in’.

She was also profoundly loyal to Romania, although not necessarily to the constantly changing governments of the time and rapid switches in alliances. She was fully aware of the challenges of being a small country surrounded by great empires and I couldn’t help but admire her analytical abilities, how she cut through the bullshit to get to the core of problems. She was a great admirer of British diplomacy and level-headedness, although she had been brought up in a Francophile culture, and sent her grandson to be educated in England, believing that would be the most influential culture in the future.

Lavinia Braniște: Sonia ridică mâna (Sonia Raises Her Hand) and Mă găsești când vrei (You Know Where to Find Me)

Braniște is the epitome of the millennial generation in Romania, I feel, and the three novels she has written to date are excellent at describing the daily grind of life in contemporary Romania from the perspective of a young woman, well-educated but somewhat drifting between jobs, relationships and family, struggling to find a sense of purpose in a society which is still quite prescriptive about what your goals and direction should be. Both of these novels are somewhat similar in style to her first one (the one I am trying to shop around at various publishers), but address different topics: in the first, Sonia is confronting the recent Communist past and how it lives on in the memories of her parents’ and grandparents’ generations; in the second, she explores issues such as domestic violence, force control and lack of self-esteem. Both are topics that are often brushed under the carpet in Romania.

Mihail Sebastian: Ultima oră (Breaking News) and Insula (The Island)

Sadly, Mihail Sebastian only wrote four plays, of which only the first two are frequently performed. These are his two lesser-known ones: Breaking News is a frankly barely believable farce about a mix-up in a printing press. The historical research paper of a university professor accidentally gets published in the local paper, full of misprints, causing mayhem when an oligarch and his pet MPs and ministers believe that it is written in code, threatening to reveal some of their nefarious corrupt or even illegal deeds. Some might describe the comedy as heavy-handed, but the absurdity of censorship reminded me of Communist times (no wonder this was not performed much back then), while the lengths to which politicians are prepared to lie and obfuscate… well, quite frankly, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched anymore.

The final play, The Island, was never finished – only two acts out of the planned three exist. It was nevertheless performed posthumously in 1947 with an ending by Sebastian’s friend Mircea Ștefănescu, but I only read it in its original state. As if to emphasise the universality of his themes, Sebastian has set this play in an unspecified country (possibly in Latin America), prone to revolution or civil war. Three travellers, Boby, a football player, Nadia, a young painter, and Manuel, a wealthy businessman, are all stuck in the country when an unspecified major war-like event breaks out. There are no ships or trains to take them out of there, banks are frozen, so they have to find some cheap accommodation and sell off their possessions in order to survive. They are so hungry that they eat a pack of aspirins that they manage to find somewhere. Although there is some witty banter, this feels much less like a comedy and more like a serious drama about the plight of refugees – which is understandable, since it was written in 1943-44, when the outcome of the war in Europe was still far from certain. As a Romanian Jew, I have no doubt that Sebastian was both more aware of and more sympathetic to the refugee stories they must have been hearing at the time.

Tony Mott: Toamna se numără cadavrele (Autumn Is the Dead Season) and Bogdan Teodorescu: Băieţi aproape buni (Nearly Good Guys) and Teodora Matei: Himere (Illusions)

I reread the first two and read the third one so I could write an application for a translation grant for Corylus Books. Fingers crossed we get some funding this time, as I think they would both appeal to an English-speaking audience. Tony Mott’s book is set in beautiful Brasov and features an indomitable, fast-talking, no-nonsense female forensic scientist, while Teodorescu’s is a more experimental novel depicting politics and social issues in recent Romanian history, under the guise of a juicy bit of police investigation. Teodora Matei’s book continues with a slightly more light-hearted entry in the police procedural series featuring the older, slightly jaded chief inspector Iordan and his young, charismatic sidekick Matache, investigating an apparently unrelated series of killings of family men all over the country.

Alina Nelega

Alina Nelega: Ca și cum nimic nu s-ar fi întâmplat (As If Nothing Happened)

At first glance, a story like thousands of others, about growing up during the 1980s in Romania, but the author is a playwright and theatre director, and it shows in the phenomenally fluid way she slips into other people’s voice and stories. The main character here is Cristina, who has to come to terms with her own sexuality as a lesbian, which was completely illegal in Ceauşescu’s Romania and punishable with jail, but there are many other experiences we hear too, in an indirect but extremely lively speech, as if we are following someone filming a speeded up documentary of tragicomic scenes. Although both the author and her main protagonist are roughly a decade older than me, there were so many descriptions of situations, people and places that I could relate to and made me laugh or wince out loud in recognition.

One unforgettable vignette is when Cristina, who lives in a small town in the north of the country, attempts to go to the seaside with her small son and her friend Nana. As they reach Bucharest on the train, she realises she forgot to take the rubbish out and that her house might be full of cockroaches when she gets back from holidays. She can’t phone her friends to take out the rubbish, because most of them don’t have a phone or else aren’t close enough to borrow a set of keys off someone and empty her bin. She can’t go back to do it herself, as the train connections are horrible and it would take her forever. So she decides it would be best to send a telegram from the Central Post and Telephone Office in Bucharest (the only place from which you could send telegrams at the time), but the girl at the counter becomes suspicious that Cristina’s laconic text ‘Please throw rubbish’ could be a code for something political, so she refuses to send it.

I hope this gives you an idea of the great variety of books being published in Romania today – and hopefully at least a couple of them will get translated into English (they seem to be doing better with French or German translations).

#1954Club: Tintin goes to the moon

I had no idea that 1954 was such a good year for literature, particularly children’s literature. So many old favourites were published that year: The Horse and His Boy from the Narnia series, the first in the Children of Green Knowe series, the first two volumnes in the Lord of the Ring trilogy, The Eagle of the Ninth, The Lord of the Flies and Moominsummer Madness. Oh, and Good Work, Secret Seven by Enid Blyton, which I have to admit I devoured when I was a child but my children never quite relished.

However, I haven’t had the time to reread any of these or to explore any other books for grown-ups published in 1954 this week, so I will participate with the shortest book I could find, namely Hergé’s 17th album in the Tintin series: On a Marché Sur La Lune (Explorers on the Moon), the second in a two-volume mini-series about lunar exploration. In this book, Tintin, Captain Haddock , the Professor Tournesol/Calculus, engineer Wolff and the Dupont-Dupond /Thompson twins, together with the only sensible creature on board the indomitable dog Milou/Snowy, all set off on the rocket to the moon. But the evil machinations that were afoot in the first volume continue, and there are betrayals and dangers aplenty, as well as impressive speculation of what one might find on the surface of the moon – considering this was written well before the first moon landing.

‘I’ve taken a few steps and for the first time in the history of humanity, one can say: “We have walked on the moon.” ‘ says Tintin long before Neil Armstrong.

This is such an iconic album that I don’t even remember when I first read it, but I remember rereading it with my boys while we were living in France and that they had a moneybox in the shape of Tintin’s rocket.

There are some running gags in the book which faithful Tintin readers will remember from other volumes: the sudden spurt in hair growth and change in hair colour of the twins, the Captain’s drinking habits, going round in circles. But there is also a lot of innovation and research, science fiction which later proved to be incredibly accurate – and the discovery of ice caves on the moon!

My favourite thing, however, is Milou’s adorable little astronaut costume.

I seem to remember in my childhood there was a French song about Milou and I wanted to link to it, but cannot find it anymore nor remember anything much about it other than that there was a Milou in the chorus and it wasn’t a children’s song. My favourite album used to be this one with the moon landing, but after living in Geneva for a few years, L’Affaire Tournesol overtook it, because so many of the landmarks were very familiar to me.

The British were latecomers to Tintin – the first translations by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner did not appear until 1958. They worked closely with the author to try and capture his humour, but the whole idea was to translate quite freely and anglicise things to make life easier for English-speaking readers, hence Milou becoming Snowy, Chateau Moulinsart became Marlinspike Hall etc. Some of the translations were very clever (like the Thomson/Thompson twins) or the Captain’s imaginative curses ‘blistering barnacles’ (Mille sabords! in the original).

So please excuse my very brief participation in the #1954Club, but do go and check out the links of everyone else taking part this week.

Friday Fun: Walking down the boulevard

I wanted to keep all of the architectural pictures I took in Romania in one place, although there are so many of them, that it will end up being two or even three Friday posts, if you can cope. The first installment is from Bucharest, on the boulevard I walked down nearly every day to get to my university department (which was not at the main university building). It was always a prestigious location, with fine noble houses from the 19th century. Now back to its old name (of a 19th century conservative politician) to replace the 1848 woman revolutionary Ana Ipătescu, simply because that was the name of the street during Communist times, although naturally she had nothing to do with Communism. I’m quite incensed about this change of name, actually, and not quite sure whether I should be grateful or sad that the most beautifully renovated buildings are embassies or foreign companies nowadays.

A balcony worthy of Romeo and Juliet – and more magnolia.
Some of the buildings are very Parisian in style and feel.
While others have (to my mind) a more Oriental/Turkish twist.
Some are clearly more Scandinavian or inspired by mountain chalets.
Some might call this hodge-podge, but I quite enjoy the variety of styles on display.
Clearly, there was a bit of ‘outdoing your neighbours’ rivalry going on.
Who has the best decoration, round windows, little turrets, balconies, iron gates?
A friend of mine lived in a flat in this building (back when it was nationalised), so it’s sad to see it is one of the few remaining unrenovated ones. Although it has a certain decaying charm…
Glad to see that this one is getting refurbished. I’d love a study right there at the very top, wouldn’t you?
Away from the fancy houses on the main street, the back streets in this area are still full of the more modest houses of the bourgeois professional classes. This ‘bungalow’ one might have belonged to a doctor or a lawyer.
It’s the little details that I love. So unnecessary, so charming.
And this is my favourite house, in the so-called neo-Romanian style which was hugely popular at the start of the 20th century. You might recognise it from the first picture at the top.

Incoming Books (March & April 2022)

I travelled to Romania with a rather small suitcase, so I could not bring back all of the books of contemporary Romanian literature which I had ordered and had delivered to my parents’ address. Besides, I also had to bring back some wine, honey, tea and spices, didn’t I? The remaining books will have to wait until my next visit in summer (when I will have my sons’ additional suitcases to play with). Here are the ones that I prioritised this time round:

As you might know, Mihail Sebastian is one of my favourite Romanian writers, and this volume contains all of his plays, including The Holiday Game, which I’ve translated, Star with No Name, which Gabi Reigh has translated for Aurora Press, and two lesser-known works written during WW2, both of them still extremely topical: Breaking News (about fake news and political corruption) and the unfinished The Island (about war and refugees). There is a play by a contemporary of Sebastian’s, Gib Mihaiescu, which reminds me a lot of the Garcia Llorca. I have also brought back books by contemporary playwrights, as I hope to translate more theatre – and maybe even see it performed at some point: Octavian Soviany, Mircea Ionescu, Edith Negulici and Catalina Buzoianu’s adaptation of a hugely popular Romanian novel called Wasted Morning (Dimineaţă pierdută).

Tony Mott is a Romanian crime author, her books feature the indomitable forensic scientist Gigi Alexa and are set in the beautiful city of Brasov ‘where nothing much ever happens’ – except murder, of course. We hope to publish her work for Corylus soon.

I am also hoping to drum up some interest among publishers for Lavinia Braniste, one of the most interesting women writers working in Romania today. Her description of millenials trying to find their feet in a rapidly changing social and economic environment seem to me (sorry!) far more interesting than the rather banal ramblings of some English-speaking writers of the same age group.

Also with a view to possible future translation, an old favourite of mine: Urmuz, an avantgarde writer who was born in the same town that my parents now live in, Curtea de Arges, with a tiny output (he died young) but a huge influence on later writers. Some of his work has been translated, but I don’t think very well – besides, it should be a fun challenge to have a stab at it.

Simona Popescu and Bogdan Suceava might not remember me, but I know them personally, albeit tangentially. Simona is primarily a poet (although this book is a novel) and used to take part in one of the literary circles I also attended at university (‘cenaclu literar’ we used to call them), and I have reviewed some of Bogdan’s work before.

Last but by no means least, I have added Stela Brinzeanu’s new novel to this list, because it arrived while I was away, because she is originally from Moldova although she writes in English, and because this piece of historical fiction is based on a legend that lies at the heart of the construction of the fine monastery in Curtea de Arges.

Missing from the picture: two volumes of poetry by really young and adventurous women poets Ofelia Prodan and Deniz Otay; and the first novel by a highly-regarded playwright Alina Nelega.

Needless to say, these weren’t the only books I acquired over the past month and a half.

Impulse buys from the second-hand shelves just outside the Gower Street Waterstones: Christpher Isherwood, Max Beerbohm’s hilarious and surreal Zuleika Dobson and a crime novel by Cyril Hare. I ordered the memoir of living in Berlin by Kirsty Bell from Fitzcarraldo after reading a review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. As for Percival Everett, I was so taken by the enthusiasm displayed for his book I Am Not Sidney Poitier on Late to It podcast, that I had to buy two of his books. He seems a very interesting and versatile writer, to say the least.

I fell a victim of my own research, when I reviewed Frank Moorhouse’s novel about the League of Nations and included some other books about international organisations. I think I might have read Fieldwork, but I had to get both Mischa Berlinsky books about anthropologists and NGOs, while Mating by Norman Rush was a suggestion by my friend Jennifer Bew Orr. With friends like these depleting your pockets, who needs enemies, right? 😉

Continuing the ‘moving to Berlin’ theme (can you guess what I might be planning in the nearish future?), I had to get Amy Liptrot’s latest book, as I cannot imagine a greater contrast than Orkney Islands to Berlin Mitte. Meanwhile, Clare Chambers’ The Editor’s Wife was a direct consequence of listening to Clare talk about her writing challenges and failures on Francesca Steele’s podcast Write Off. Finally, The Seven Deadly Sins is a collection of essays on the traditional sins by contemporary Catalan authors, all translated by Mara Faye Lethem and published by Fum d’Estampa Press.

Do any of the above tempt you? Which would you like me to read and review first? Which would you like to get for yourself?

Trip to Romania

It wasn’t exactly the most restful of holidays, but it was something that my soul had been begging for over the past 29 months – a trip back ‘home’ to my country of birth, to see my parents. I have shared various pictures and trips down memory lane via Twitter – and I will probably use my many, many attempts to capture Romanian architecture over the next few Friday Fun posts. Here are a few rather haphazard thoughts about my first trip abroad since the Covid outbreak – almost like an attempt at catching a few birds before they all scatter and fly off!

  1. For a country that is among the poorest in the EU and has had a somewhat troubled history with Ukraine, I was very impressed at the genuinely warm and well-organised welcome being extended to the Ukrainian refugees. Not so impressed with the news about the lone madman (and convicted criminal, and also ex-politician) who tried to ram his car into the gate of the Russian Embassy in Bucharest after dousing himself in flammable liquid. But the war seems more immediate when you’re bordering the country involved (which is why I remember the war in Yugoslavia so clearly still).
Temporary shelters set up in the main railway station in Bucharest, for late arrivals from the Ukrainian border around 483 kms to the north. (There is another Ukrainian border to the east which is much closer)

2. Romanian government, state institutions and bureaucracy are difficult to navigate, chaotic and corrupt and all too often quarreling amongst themselves. However, the Romanian population are almost resigned at seeing themselves as being at the ‘back of the class for misbehaviour’ and refuse to believe that other countries can have equally appalling public institutions or politicians.

Did I manage to complete all the paperwork required for renewing my passport? Very nearly, except it will take three months until they return them and I can then submit them to the Romanian consulate in London. Just as well I have another passport, isn’t it?

3. My parents have become frail over the past two and a half years, especially my mother. I will have to start planning more frequent trips back to Romania to see her and help support my father in caring for her. Our relationship has not been a very harmonious one over the years, but this time we managed not to quarrel. Doubtlessly, the long absence played a part. Besides, she only mentioned two of her major disappointments with me (my weight and that my career did not live up to my initial promise) instead of the habitual four. I did weakly attempt to justify my many sideways career moves and changes, but then realised that no matter how good my career might have been (and how content I might have been with it), it would not have lived up to her expectations.

4. The countryside is still filled with middle-aged people who toil in hard-core manual labour on their small pieces of land in what is essentially subsistence agriculture – and who have built or renovated quite impressive houses for their children to inherit. Yet their children have either moved to the city or abroad and have no intention of ever inhabiting those houses. It breaks my heart to see them all working so hard for nothing, and never getting a chance to enjoy their own lives or retire properly.

My grandmother’s house used to be the traditional white of the region with grapevines growing all over its facade. It is now empty for most of the year, although my father and other relatives go there occasionally to maintain it. It is NOT one of the impressive houses I mention above, but full of fond memories.

5. I was determined to focus on the positives and took lots of pictures of well-renovated buildings in both Bucharest and the small town of Curtea de Arges, which was the first capital of Wallachia in the 13th century – before regaining its royal favour in the late 19th century, when the Hohenzollern kings imported to Romania at that time decided to make the famous monastery there their official burial site. Sadly, some of the beautiful old buildings that were nationalised by the Communists and then reclaimed by the original owners are being allowed to fall into ruin deliberately, so that the land can be sold or something more lucrative (like a block of flats) built in its place.

The Writers’ Union was housed in this Monteoru Palace in Bucharest and returned to the descendents of the family in 2013, who declared their intention to turn it into a cultural centre. So far, the only change I have seen is a mobile cafe/bar in its front garden.
Luckily, the Romanian Academy was purpose-built for the organisation in the late 19th century. I used to laughingly call it ‘my future workplace’ as a child.

6. There had been a cold snap during the previous weeks in Romania (and two heavy rainstorms while I was there), so the tree blossoms and flowers were far behind their British counterparts. I still enjoyed walking through the parks where I spent so many lovely and romantic moments in my youth (I lived entirely in Bucharest – with the exception of the summer holidays – from the age of 14 to 22), but the trees did look slightly threadbare. Nevertheless, I made several trips to check out the beautiful protected magnolia tree which I walked past each morning on my way to school and where I first kissed my high-school boyfriend. Although we moved to different countries, married, had children, divorced, remarried, we have loosely kept in touch over the years (incidentally, the only one of my exes to ever ask me how I was and how my writing was going instead of boasting about his achievements), so I couldn’t resist sending him a picture of the magnolia and he wrote back at once to say: ‘So many lovely memories!’

And now I am still floating around in that state of limbo, in which my mind has been scrambled and shaken out of its routine and habits. I have been confronted with a culture that is still so familiar to me but so different from my everyday life here in Britain. I became immersed in my past and that of my family, talking almost non-stop with my parents about all the friends and relatives, about family secrets and my own childhood as well as theirs. But actually, what I find most confusing and tiring is that the country, culture and language has moved on without me while I have been living abroad. It’s not just the change in street names or orthography, or the new bars and restaurants that have opened up, the Americanised vocabulary… It’s the fact that those young people who have known no other political and economic system than the current one (those born after 1990) are now approaching their thirties and finding our tales of life under Communism quaint and ever so slightly unbelievable.

Friday Fun: Chateaux with Modern Interiors

You don’t always have to painstakingly maintain the traditional interior of a chateau, it appears that heritage laws are not always that strict – possibly if you have enough money to circumvent them.

Of course a chateau has to have a double-spaced great hall with a gallery, right? From Angus2012.
Keeping it simple, with bare floors and dark walls, from nbaynadamas.blogspot.com
A rather more ornate reinterpretation of a chateau, from Architectural Digest Middle East.
A blend of traditional bookcases and modern furniture and lighting, from Architectural Digest.
A timeless interior, with a few iconoclastic touches, like the shaggy chair, from House Beautiful.
With these frescos, this apartment on the Riviera only needs the bare minimum of furnishings, from The Spaces.

March Summary: Books and Films

I’m on holiday for the next two weeks and not sure how much time or internet access I will have for posting anything new (other than Friday Fun posts, which I’ve scheduled already). So here is a quick summary of the month of March and see you in mid-April!

Reading

Not a massive quantity of books this month (eleven rather than the twelve shown in the picture, because I read the Doina Rusti in both Romanian and English). I decided somewhat upon a whim to dedicate this month primarily to the small number of contemporary Italian books I have on my shelf (I’ve read hardly anything published after Lampedusa’s The Leopard, and most of the translations were in Romanian rather than English, because I believed the cultural and linguistic similarities would be helpful). I read a total of six Italian books, which I divided up into two blog posts of mini-reviews:

Non-fiction: Alberto Prunetti’s Down and Out in England and Italy (trans. and Natalia Ginzburg: The Little Virtues

Fiction: all very moving in different ways – Andrea Bajani’s If You Kept a Record of Sins (trans. Elizabeth Harris), Concita de Gregorio’s The Missing Word (trans. Clarissa Botsford – which I think is more fictional than non-fictional, although it is based on a real case and real people), Italo Svevo’s A Perfect Hoax (trans. J. G. Nichols) and Claudia Durastanti’s Cleopatra Goes to Prison (trans. Christine Donougher).

Not sure I can generalise about modern Italian literature on the basis of just a few books, but all of the ones I seem to have picked have been remarkable in their acute observation and restrained style. Quite, quite different from the exuberant, virtuoso storytelling style of The Book of Perilous Dishes, which makes 18th century Bucharest really leap off the pages.

To finish off my Italian sojourn (and because finally my library reservation arrived, after several months), I loved reading about Alan Taylor’s account of his friendship with Muriel Spark when he met her at her house in Arezzo. I love Spark’s writing, but was always doubtful I’d have enjoyed meeting her in person – but this is a loving (not gushing) memoir which slightly changed my mind about her.

Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms was very well written and subtle – but oh boy, if you English consider that a difficult mother-daughter relationship (when they only see each other once a year in London for their birthdays), you have no idea how difficult the parent-child relationship can be in other cultures!

I had seen the film adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place, but of course with Humphrey Bogart in the main role, it was never going to be as dark and mean as the book. Remarkable depiction of psychological self-justification and unravelling – perhaps the book that American Psycho wanted to be but didn’t quite manage.

Although I wished Down and Out in England and Italy could have had more wit and depth, the only book that disappointed me this month was The Twyford Code (I loved the unusual storytelling style in the first book The Appeal, but the audio transcripts here got annoying and repetitive rather quickly, and it was trying a bit too hard to be clever).

Films

The eight films I’ve watched this month can be divided into :

  • heartwarming (Studio Ghibli to the rescue once again, with a rewatch of Howl’s Moving Castle and wistful new entrants From Up on Poppy Hill and The Tale of Princess Kaguya)
  • sinister (featuring strong-minded and cruel female leads: Lady Macbeth and Black Medusa or dodgy, damaged male leads in The Master)
  • ‘talkie’ comedies (where the script and dialogue are the most important components, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)

Other Activities

This month I got a chance to remember how rewarding but also energy-consuming it is to work with primary-school children. I ran an assembly and a couple of translation workshops for six and seven-year-olds, introducing them to my favourite little penguin, Apolodor, an intrepid but not very bright traveller from a well-loved Romanian children’s book in verse by Gellu Naum. As students during Communist times, we adapted the story for the stage… and promptly got censored for daring to talk about travelling abroad. But this time, the story had a happy ending and the children enjoyed it a lot (although not necessarily the ‘having to translate it’ bit).

After a brief hiatus while we were all busy translating and working on other projects, Corylus is now back on track with editing and finalising our next two titles, which should be out before the summer. I sent out our very first newsletter, and there was so much I wanted to say that I had to be really, really selective, so as not to make it an overlong reading experience. In future months, I hope to talk about international crime fiction more widely, have guest contributors, cover reveals and exclusive additional material (such as short stories). If you think you’d like to be part of the Corylus family, you can sign up for the newsletter on our homepage.