Grandmother Troy

I adored both of my grandmothers – the one I was named after, and the one who died just as I was due to give birth. Forceful women with strong opinions, difficult lives in the countryside through multiple regime changes, a backbone of steel even as their bodies betrayed them.

The goats bring sticks to her porch.

Her hair harbours leaves.

Brother Pig snouts amiably at the damp patch

beneath the hearth

where she –  once more –  spilled the soup,

bread chunks now softened enough

for her remaining three teeth.

She warms her swollen knuckles

against the earthen pot:

all she can hear are the mild-greedy snuffles

of her four-legged companions.

Soot caresses the damp wool

of jumpers hung to dry.

She no longer cares if mulberries stain

her thumbs or clothes, grey hair in its plait.

Fingers in knots, eyes milky clouds,

she no longer mops the muck she cannot sense.

Still slashes her way

through nonsense with a crackle of joints.

Picture courtesy of rivi.ro

Most Obscure on my Bookshelves – the Romanian Poets

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I’ve had to break this down into two posts, one for poetry, one for prose, for fear of it becoming a post as long as a novella. When it comes to poetry, there is a saying that ‘Romanians are born poets’ – a double-edged sword in the original Romanian, akin to the Irish kissing the Blarney stone. It means we are eloquent and make full use of our musical language and romantic/ fiery Latin disposition. But it can also mean that we have little of substance to say, but we are able to say it beautifully.

This is not the case with the three poets I mention below. They combine style with substance. They are perhaps not as famous as our ‘national’ poet, the arch-Romantic Mihai Eminescu, but they are my favourites. I’ve had to limit myself, however, to those that you can find (albeit with some difficulty) in English translation. I hope you will get a chance to discover at least one or two of them!

The Poets

Lucian Blaga – Complete Works

My favourite Romanian poet (and certainly in my Top 10 worldwide), Lucian Blaga was a philosopher, writer, diplomat and translator, best known for the poetry he published between the two world wars. When the Communists came to power after WW2, he lost his position as a university professor because he refused to pledge allegiance to the new government. His philosophy was also considered too idealistic and suspect, so he was sidelined and not allowed to publish anything other than translated works. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in the mid 1950s but the Romanian state protested against it. Luckily, by the 1980s when I went to school, he was once more studied in school, although we avoided discussing his philosophy. His poetry is best described as lyrical, highly spiritual, searching for the transcendence of self. He has a nostalgia for village life, for folklore, nature and the past, a Jungian yearning towards something greater than one’s conscious self. The language is musical and sensuous. This is an old volume of his all his poetical work, translated by Brenda Walker. And you can get a brief taster of my favourite poem as a teen, translated on my blog here.

George Bacovia – the grey poet

Bacovia is more of an acquired taste. Back in school, most of my classmates hated him, his gloomy depression, his seemingly endless rain-soaked landscapes. The one poem they could relate to was ‘Liceu’:

High school, graveyard of my youth,

Pedantic teachers,
Hardcore exams,
You still make shiver…

This might sound light-hearted, but on the whole he is the poet of melancholia, a symbolist, a modernist, even a surrealist – fitting in well with other contemporaries of his such as Eugene Ionescu or Tristan Tzara. [Blaga was also a contemporary, but very different.] Bacovia is the poet of the urban landscape, of industrialisation, of smog and dirt. Unsurprisingly, he suffered from lung disease most of his adult life, which may have coloured his perceptions. There is a lot of talk of spitting blood, of decay both of the body and of nature, in his work. Naturally, it appealed to my dark, dramatic teenage self.

There is no full translation of his works in English, but you can get a flavour of his work, plus a short critique, here.

Nichita Stanescu

Younger than the other two, Nichita Stanescu lived through the tumultuous post-war world and the ascent of Communism. He chose not to go into exile, but never became a spokesperson for socialist realism either. His poetry is relentlessly soul-searching, scathing, at times enigmatic, at times openly angry. Intense and personal, unashamedly romantic yet at the same time political in the way that any meditation about a human’s place in the world is political. His lifestyle was the stuff of legends: a rebel who refused to play the literary awards game (although he won several, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1980), he spent most of his life in a grubby little flat, with a mattress on the floor and at least two bottles of vodka a day. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he died in 1983 at the age of 50 of cirrhosis. The last great self-destructive Bohemian, one might say.  Here is a poem of his which every single Romanian person seems to know:

Tell me, if I caught you one day
and kissed the sole of your foot,
wouldn’t you limp a little after,
afraid to crush my kiss?…

You can find a selection of his poems translated by Sean Cotter reviewed on Words without Borders.

 

 

 

 

 

Good Books Come to Those Who Wait…

I had ordered some books a while ago, from many different sources (mostly from the US) and for two weeks the postman brought me nothing but bills and renewal notices. I began to think that he was avoiding the regular heavy book parcels. Yesterday four packages arrived all at once, so I take it all back and am full of admiration once more for my postie’s muscles and patience!

Three from US, one from Amazon. Yes, I admit I do still occasionally buy from Amazon, although I try elsewhere first.

So here are my latest delights:

Sam Shepard In Memoriam

Other than Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby and Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, I am not a great admirer of blonde male actors. But Sam Shepard was an exception. He was not only the epitome of cool yet tormented, but the fact that he could also write – and write so well – was a major attraction. I loved his plays back in the days when we were doing amateur drama, especially Fool for Love, but I never owned any of his books nor read any of his prose. So, saddened as I was when I heard about his death, I felt I owed it to him to buy Fifteen One-Act Plays and (recommended by Stav Sherez, who is so much more knowledgeable about American literature than me and called it one of the best books of recent times) Cruising Paradise, a collection of short stories, dialogues, diary extracts to portray remote or small-town America.

Open Letter Irresistible

To celebrate the 4th of July, American publisher Open Letter Books (a nonprofit, literary translation press established at the University of Rochester) has a 40% off sale, so I went on their site intending to buy just one book but came away with three.

Lucio Cardoso: Chronicle of the Murdered House

I mean to read this Brazilian novel, translated by the ever-wonderful Margaret Jull Costa, as soon as it was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, but I ordered from a German site and it never materialised. In the meantime, it has won that award, so this was my second attempt to get my hands on a copy, this time directly from the publisher. It’s a novel from the 1950s, set in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil (a former agricultural and mining heartland), and it describes the decay and fall of a patriarchal family. But it’s not your average historical family saga – it represents a move towards the modernism of Clarice Lispector, who was a close friend.

Dubravka Ugresic: Europe in Sepia (transl. David Williams)

One of the greatest Croatian and European writers of the past two decades, I love her more for her essays than her fiction. This is a collection of what one might call travel essays, but in her hands it becomes a meditation on the past, present and future of Europe, equally wise and well-informed, bitter and funny, whether she looks at history, politics or popular culture.

Inga Abele: High Tide (transl. Kaija Straumanis)

I couldn’t resist this contender for Latvia for my #EU27Project. This is apparently the story of a love triangle with political and historical dimensions, and Abele is one of the most notable young writers in Latvia, with a combination of lush descriptions, directness, evocative language and precision in mining psychological insights.

 

For Review

Eshkol Nevo: Three Floors Up (transl. Sondra Silverston)

A best-selling Israeli novel set in a Tel Aviv apartment building, this novel examines a society in crisis, social and political ills, through the lives and problematic decisions of three of its residents. I will be reviewing this for Necessary Fiction, which has been such an inspirational website, introducing me to so much less highly publicised writing from independent publishers, both in English and in translation. This book will be coming out from Other Press in the US in October 2017.

The Mistake

Francis Beeding: The Norwich Victims (An Inspector Martin Mystery)

This is the book I ordered from Amazon and it was, quite honestly, a mistake. I had read a review of it on the Puzzle Doctor’s blog and was planning to get it on Kindle, but I pressed the wrong button. Never mind, it wasn’t too expensive, and I prefer reading in paperback anyway. Originally published in 1931, now reissued by Arcturus Crime Classics. This is the one that arrived within a couple of days rather than a month.

My keen fingers may have slipped a little and ordered a few more books which should be arriving within the next two weeks – Brazilian, German, Austrian, Japanese and American authors will be joining me presently.

 

Friday Fun: Hiding in the Forest

For those days when you just need to go off-grid and get away from it all, here are some dream-like cabins in the woods. (Appropriately enough, following my review of Do You Hear Me yesterday, which also takes place in a forest, although under less pleasant circumstances.)

Winter cabin, with heating (one assumes), from Bookends and Daisies on Tumblr.
Rather grander modernist interpretation of isolated cabin, from Cuded Art Design. Not off grid.
A place inspired by native huts, to dream away your worries, from Bridge and Burn on Tumblr.
I can never say no to Japanese tea houses, even if they are not all that remote. From houzz.com
Cabin for a romantic rendezvous, from Cabanes de Salagnac in France.
Sculptural cabin designed by Sergio Gomez.
Tree houses or houses on stilts will never cease to appeal, from Sky with lemon website.

Can You Hear Me by Elena Varvello #EU27Project #WITMonth

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

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

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

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

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

Valley around Turin. From Tripsavvy.

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

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

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

#WITMonth – Japanese short stories

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

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

Misumi Kubo: Mikumari (transl. Polly Barton)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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