What Is Love? #AsymptoteBookClub No. 3

Hanne Ørstavik: Love, transl. Martin Aitken

A single mother arrives home tired but quietly triumphant after doing her first presentation at her new workplace. Her eight-year-old son is waiting for her, listening to every step as she walks in and starts cooking. They have dinner and some conversation, but each is wrapped up in their own thoughts and dreams. They only have each other, since they moved away from town, from the boy’s father. The mother settles down with a book and dozes off, the boy goes out to sell raffle tickets. The mother wakes up and decides to slip out to the library herself, believing her son is safely tucked in bed. And so they narrowly miss each other on this winter night in a village in Northern Norway.

It’s difficult and probably unwise not to read Hanne Ørstavik’s slim novel all in one gulp. You need to go somewhere with that sense of foreboding, the crescendo of compassion, pity and dread, the certainty that something bad will happen to Vibeke and her young son Jon as they wander about their village that evening like lost souls. Every mention of the birthday cake that the little boy keeps hoping that his mother will bake for him pierced my heart. Every time Vibeke looks at herself in the mirror, dreams of being admired and loved, is almost desperate to become visible in some way, my skin tingled in recognition and pity. I doubt I would have been able to keep on reading with such physical discomfort if the book had been any longer, or if I’d had to go back to it in dribs and drabs.

Both the title and the character of Vibeke have provoked debate on the Asymptote Book Club discussion thread. Why ‘love’ when the book shows us such an imperfect example of it, perhaps almost the absence of it? To my mind, both Jon and Vibeke are searching for love, desperate for it to the point of naivety and reckless endangerment. The love that they get from one another is not quite enough to fill this deep hole in the centre of their lives. The father would not have filled the hole either. They are both dreamers, they both desire something that they have never experienced but that they haven’t quite lost hope of finding, despite countless disappointments. The tragedy is that they are not quite aware of this hunger in themselves, so they cannot talk to each other about it, and not just because of the age gap.

I remember an instructor at a poetry workshop saying that we should never talk about love, hearts and the moon, as it is far too easy to descend into sentimentality and cliché. This book talks about all three but manages to avoid that dishonourable fate. How does it do that? Firstly, the style is unadorned and kept deliberately detached. Third person, moving swiftly from Jon to Vibeke’s point of view, but without dwelling on their emotions. Everything is implied in their reactions and gestures rather than through authorial intervention or judgement. At first I thought that the style alternated between long and short sentences, but in fact even the long sentences are often made up of short, coordinated clauses, loosely linked through commas. This, together with the use of the present tense, gives a breathless quality to the narration which contrasts with the cold observation. This really helps in the build-up of suspense, plus author selects just the right amount of telling details to give us a precise, almost step-by-step description of events which never feels repetitive.

I’ve read some great reviews of the book already by Asymptote Book Club subscribers. Ali comments on how love can be both good and terrible. Old Books Abe describes the feeling of helplessly watching the characters fall into peril behind a layer of ice, unable to stop it. Enrico Cioni is fascinated by Vibeke and compares the book to other two recent translations Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin and Die, My Love by Ariana Harwitz. I also found a resemblance to Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment – that same almost animal instinct for surviving pain, of blessed temporary selfishness, but set in a tighter-lipped, colder climate. For another powerful example of Ørstavik’s understated and elliptical style, see The Blue Room.

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What Book Clubs Mean to Me #AsymptoteBookClub

This is not a promotional post to encourage you all to take part in a competition to win a 3 month subscription for the Asymptote Book Club – although it would be great if you would! It is an explanation of why I have become so wed to the idea of an international virtual book club. But first, here is the information you need to take part:

The first book club I joined formed organically amongst friends. When I returned to Romania as a fourteen year old, I suddenly found many of my favourite authors were banned, sometimes simply for being from a certain country. (Those evil capitalist bastards etc.) At first, I tried to borrow books from the libraries set up by foreign embassies – until my father was told at his workplace that I should stop doing it, I was endangering the family. I persevered, underground. I went on to study Foreign Languages, and we all had our sneaky ways of getting hold of forbidden books (which might include the Metaphysical poets – we skipped from Shakespeare straight to Wordsworth in English literature, for instance): smuggled copies, photocopies, forgotten family inheritance, passing through all our hands. We spent long afternoons and nights debating them at parties (whilst listening to bootlegged Western music). It certainly made us value books for more than just their physical scarcity – they were the glimpse of a world beyond our own, the doorway to infinite possibilities when we felt we were walled in.

My second book club was more deliberate. I had developed a bit of a reputation amongst friends as the person who could always recommend a good book. After the birth of my first child, I was no longer able to go out to cultural events so frequently, so when I was invited to a book club run by local mums, which was meeting just a few houses down on my street, I jumped at the opportunity. I remember the first book we discussed was Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the meeting consisting mostly of wine and snacks, 10 minutes of chatting about Oxford (the setting of the book) and then the rest about babies, sleep patterns, potty training etc.

So I swore off book clubs for a while, although I kept hoping I would meet like-minded people. The Geneva Writers’ Group proved a good forum for some reading discussions, but we were mostly about the writing.

I then discovered my reading family online, via blogs and Twitter. First I developed a crime reading community, then I moved onto translated literature. I’m not giving up either any time soon. These are all people who are as passionate as me about reading, thinking about the reading, debating, listening to other points of view. But of course we all read books at different times, so the conversation sometimes takes a long while to develop. ‘Ah,’ I find myself saying after reading someone’s post, ‘I used to love that book in my teens, but I haven’t read it since.’ Can I really contribute to the conversation, when I can barely remember it, probably overestimate my reaction to it at the time, and would almost certainly feel differently to it now?

All of this is a long-winded way of saying how wonderful it is to be part of the Asymptote Book Club, which I would be supporting even if I weren’t helping out at Asymptote. Books from independent publishers from all over the world, books that don’t have the publicity budgets of the big hitters and risk being overlooked, books that are translated with much care and thought, the opportunity to discuss the same book with an international group of book lovers, to ask the translator questions, to find out more about the culture behind the book… And something that I can join in whenever I am free, without the risk of missing a meeting. Sounds pretty much ideal to me.

 

The Darling Buds of March – Reading Plans

I can’t wait for the tender shoots of March to nudge their way out of the snow – my reading buds are certainly coming along nicely and getting me very excited this month!

I have somehow found myself with a number of reading challenges – or opportunities (because I find them a great deal of fun), plus quite a few books to review. More than enough to keep me busy this month. In fact, I am somewhat envious of Bookish Beck’s formidable shelf organising skills and am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that I may need a better TBR filing system than an overflowing armchair or night-table.

Asymptote Book Club:

Hanne Ørstavik: Love, transl. Martin Aitken

I read her first book to be translated into English The Blue Room published by Pereine, Love is the story of a single mother, Vibeke, and her son Jon, who have just moved to a remote small town in the north of Norway. It’s the day before Jon’s birthday, but with concerns of her own, Vibeke has forgotten this. With a man on her mind, she ventures to the local library while Jon goes out to sell lottery tickets for his sports club. As a newly single mother (albeit uninterested in new men), this one may hit me hard, but I’m prepared…

David Bowie Book Club

Spike Milligan: Puckoon

Very topical indeed – a comic novel about set in 1924, it details the troubles brought to the fictional Irish village of Puckoon by the Partition of Ireland. Because of government indecision and incompetence (wow, is that possible?) the new border passes directly through the middle of the village. I’ve managed to find a copy of this in the reserve fiction section (i.e. buried in the  basement) of my local library and I hear there’s a film as well.

Muriel Spark #readingMuriel2018

I still have to review Symposium for Ali’s Reading Muriel initiative , but also planning to read The Comforters – her first novel but already showing a very unusual mind at work. The heroine, Caroline Rose, is plagued by a Typing Ghost and realises she is a character in a novel.

#EU27Project

Enough shilly-shallying with this one, I need to get cracking and have also got some non-fiction and poetry planned for a change.

Dubravka Ugresic: Europe in Sepia

Tangerine Sky: Poems from Malta

Film poster for the book

Dan Lungu: Sînt o babă comunistă! (I’m an Old Communist Biddy) – a Romanian satirical book, which has also been adapted for a play and a film, in which the author tackles all that inertia and nostalgia for everyday Communism which some of the older generation inexplicably have (or perhaps not that inexplicable after all)

For Review:

Stuart Turton: The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (71/2 in the US)  – Golden crime meets the film Memento, in a complicated, brain-melting story about trying to prevent a murder and living with guilt.

Death Notice by Zhou Haohui – Chinese crime fiction written, unusually, by a contemporary thriller writer residing in China. Set in Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province, this promises to be a gritty series, which has also been turned into a very popular TV crime drama.

Victor del Arbol: A Million Drops – an ambitious political thriller dissecting the heritage of Communism and Fascism in Spain, and how the past still impacts the present

Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji, transl. Dennis Washburn – having a quick read through to compare and contrast different translations of one of my favourite books for an essay to appear in Asymptote

Still reading from February:

The Welsh book The Caves of Alienation by Stuart Evans

Tom Hanks: Uncommon Type – a short story collection, and although Hanks is actually quite good with words, the stories themselves are slight slices of life, tolerably amusing, but leaving me with a yawnish ‘so what?’ Probably will not finish or try again later.

 

 

 

No. 2 #AsymptoteBookClub : Aranyak

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay: Aranyak (transl. Rimli Bhattacharya)

This is why I am grateful to have other sage people choose books for me on occasion: because they unearth things that I would never have come across on my own. Aranyak is one such gem of Bengali literature. Written in the 1930s, translated here for the first time in English, it talks of a lost world, the rapid sale of land for farming and consequent deforestation of large swathes of the Bihar forests in the north-east of India, neighbouring Nepal. The narrator contributes to what we would now consider an ecological devastation, but which at the time was considered completely appropriate.

The story is loosely autobiographical, a series of vignettes about the life of an earnest young man from Calcutta who works for a few years as an estate manager in Bihar. In a way, he is as much a victim of the greedy landowners as the poor farmers are: unable to find a job in the city, he takes this poorly compensated job in a remote location, suffers homesickness initially, is transformed by the people and the landscape, but then has to bear the guilt that he took part in its downfall. This is why the whole book is designed to be the confession of an old man looking back on his youth.

But those memories do not give me pleasure; they are filled with sorrow. By my hands was destroyed an unfettered playground of nature. I know too, that for this act the forest gods will never forgive me. I have heard that to confess a crime in one’s own words lightens somewhat the burden of the crime. Therefore, this story.

There is no real plot to the novel, merely a chronological description of events and characters. The narrator tries to give voice to the many people he meets, many of whom are so poor that he cannot believe what they are willing to do to survive. This is why the book feels more like the field notes of an anthropologist. And, just like an anthropologist of the first half of the 20th century, he cannot resist adding himself to the narration, interpreting, casting judgement, expressing love and concern for the people he meets, but still considering them ‘subjects of enquiry’, with a paternalistic attitude. Malinowski’s ethnography of the Trobriand Islanders (1922) and Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Azande (1937) fall firmly within this category. Yet the impotent sadness at the social injustice paves the way to the more self-conscious anthropological memoir of Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1955).

It is a fascinating book, full of vivid character studies and life stories, some of them desperately sad, some of them a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit. The author warns us how important it is to understand the context within which these stories arise, to leave our own world behind:

These stories of Ganu that sounded so mysterious and so delicious in the environs of the lonely forest would certainly, I know, sound absurd and false if one were to listen to them in Calcutta. One may not listen to stories anywhere and everywhere. Nor are stories to be recounted carelessly. A story lover will know how much the pleasure of a story depends on the immediate environment of its telling and the receptivity of its listeners.

I also love the lyrical descriptions of nature (even though they are probably soaked in a nostalgic haze). The narrator gradually succumbs to the magical beauty of the landscape. In anthropological terms, he ‘goes native’ and may find it hard to ever return to his home town.

It is better for those who have to live within the strictures of domesticity never to catch sight of this beauty. In this bewitching guise, nature makes men abandon their homes, fills them with wanderlust… He who has heard the call of the wild and has once glimpsed the unveiled face of nature will find it impossible to settle down to to playing the householder.

I have to admit that I found the narrator’s open admiration for the humble, sweet women he meets in the forests a trifle creepy. It sounds like he was taking advantage of his halo as the powerful outsider, although he exalts their beauty and gentleness. The ‘angel in the house’ mentality of Victorian Britain shines through, even more potent because of the infantilisation of women and of this ethnic group, this less deserving ‘caste’ (although the narrator also mentions instances when he ignores the caste system):

I have noted that like the open and generous countryside – the forests, the clouds, the range of hills, free and untrammelled – Bhanmati was unencumbered, innocent and free in how she conducted herself. So were Manchi and the poet’s wife… The forests and hills had liberated their minds, expanded their vision with generosity; in like maner, their love was deep, generous and liberating. They could love greatly because of the greatness of their hearts… The dictates of refinement and the pressures of the civilized world had erased in her sisters the eternal woman that resided in Bhanmati.

Whether creepy admiration or not, you cannot doubt the narrator’s sincere love for life in the jungle, despite his initial reservations. In fact, one of the amusing passages in the book occurs when he stumbles across a group of Bengali tourists having a picnic in the jungle, woefully unprepared and blind to all the beauty around them.

By a stroke of rare fortune, they had landed in this extraordinary kingdom of nature, but they lacked vision to appreciate what they saw. In fact, they had come with the sole purpose of hunting, as though birds, rabbits and deer were all awaiting them by the roadside, waiting patiently to be shot.

The book ends rather abruptly with the narrator sitting under a tree fifteen years later and musing about what might have befallen the people he knew there in the meantime. I would have liked to hear about his difficulties in fitting back into the society he had left behind, the reverse culture shock, that sense of never quite belonging there anymore, because his eyes have been opened. But that is probably another story.

I think this is a book that we certainly have to read bearing in mind the attitudes, perspectives, policies and politics of the time. There are elements in it which will feel uncomfortable to a modern reader, but in many ways Bandyopadhyay was ahead of his time. It also raises many interesting questions about ‘fashions’ in nature writing and anthropology, about our espoused values vs. our behaviours in the present day. Yes, we are more ecologically aware, but vast areas of jungles are still lost every day in the name of economic progress. Yes, we claim to be less paternalistic about other cultures, but we still systematically represent them as ‘token exotic exceptions’ in popular culture. It must also have been fiendishly difficult to translate, to decide how much of the original names and expressions to leave in, one different culture talking about yet another different culture. You can find an interview with the translator on the Asymptote blog and you can read another review of the book on Ali’s blog.

WWWednesday What Are You Reading? 7 February 2018

It has been a few months since I last joined in with this weekly meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Current:

Muriel Spark was born on the 1st of February 1918, so what better time to celebrate the #murielspark100 than this month? I have embarked the brief Symposium, one of her later novels – one that I hadn’t read before. It seems to be tour de force of characterisation through dialogue, something Spark does so well.

Just read:

The Asymptote Book Club’s January title Aranyak by the incredibly beautifully named writer Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, one of the greatest writers of modern Bengali literature. It is truly ahead of its time: a 1930s ecological novel, although it seems to stem from an older man’s regret for the events which he has witnessed and played a part in bringing about (the deforestation of Bihar to make way for agriculture and the disappearance of a traditional way of life).

To be read:

I will read two simultaneously, as is my wont. The two I’ve got my eyes on are from Croatia and Wales, respectively. Dubravka Ugresic’s Europe in Sepia is a collection of what one might call travel essays (not just about Europe), full of sharp observations about populism and the hunger for imagined past glories. Meanwhile, Stuart Evans’ The Caves of Alienation has been waiting for me since I reached Chapter 3 during my residence at Ty Newydd, but couldn’t  find the book anywhere outside Wales. I’ve got a rather mangled former library copy at long last and will probably have to restart it.

So, what are you reading this week? Anything that might tempt me? (Luckily, you know I have a will of iron, don’t you?)

Weekly Cultural Summary and February Events

I have been very busy at work this week, so no time for cultural events, other than to note that I posted copies of Asymptote January book club title to all of the UK and Canadian subscribers. Some of you have received them already, and we will be revealing the title next week. It took a little longer than usual to arrive, as it was shipped over from somewhere far, far away. I am very excited about this book, as I have to admit (to my shame) that I have not read anything translated from this language before.

The only other contribution I made this week was to ogle at Silent Witness on TV, which featured my workplace as a stand-in for the American Embassy. I believe they were filming those episodes when I went in for my job interview, so I was surprised that it was swarming with police and uniformed guards.

Senate House, London

There are, however, plenty of interesting events coming up in February that you might be interested in:

French Film Festival

Thank you to Emma from Book Around who made me aware of this. From 19th Jan to 19 Feb you can stream a selection of recent French films. 10 short films are free, 10 feature films are accessible via a small fee. With subtitles, naturellement!

Swiss Cabaret

A literary cabaret on Feb. 9th, featuring obvious Swiss writers such as Peter Stamm, Monique Schwitter, Nicolas Verdan and Pedro Lenz and others whose links to Switzerland might surprise you (as they did me): Alain de Botton, Deborah Levy and Xiaolu Guo. At the Tabernacle in Notting Hill.

Reconsidering the Raj

Programme of monthly lectures organised by the Institute of Historical Research at Senate House, London – through until April. While you’re there, you might also want to have a look at the Queer between the Covers exhibition at the Senate House library .

Imagine Children’s Festival at the South Bank

Focus on Storytelling with guests Jacqueline Wilson, Francesca Simon, Harry Hill and many more, Kids Takeover (programming, organising ticket sales, intercom announcements etc.), Super Hero parties and many free events. WED 7 FEB – SUN 18 FEB

Julian Barnes in conversation with Hermione Lee

On the eve of the publication of his latest book The Only Story, Wednesday 21st February 19:00 at The Royal Institution. Very tempted to go, as I love both of them.

So, after a very long January, February beckons at last (perhaps even with some bulbs in the garden coming to life). What are you looking forward to this coming month?

Week in Review with a Book Haul

Honestly, sincerely, believe me I meant it… when I said I would start digging into my TBR pile and stop buying books this year. But accidents do happen! And this is how my week panned out…

First of all, I realised that it has been weeks since I last saw my Kindle. I have searched for it everywhere but cannot locate it. So this means no more acquisitions via Netgalley, but also no more reading of the long, long list of books I have there, including some rather pressing reviews. I would buy a new one, but I am fairly sure that the instant I order it, the old one will resurface from some cavernous depth of my house (I don’t often take it out unless I am travelling, and I have already searched my suitcase).

Secondly, I have enjoyed reviewing my first Asymptote Book Club read, Cesar Aira. A new author to me, but I enjoyed him so much that I read two other novellas by him in quick succession. He is remarkably prolific, so he might be a bit hit and miss, but so far I really like him.

Thirdly, I had a busy week at work, but it was creative, strategic work which I enjoyed, made all the better by listening to Hamilton, which I now have uploaded onto my laptop. Initially I loved all the big, obvious songs like My Shot or The Room Where It Happens, but now I am more drawn to Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story and the optimism of The Story of Tonight. ‘Raise a glass to the four of us, tomorrow there will be more of us.’

Finally, yes, OK, I admit I did get some new books this week. What?! You expect me to pile ashes on my head and put the hair shirt on? I only bought three, of which two were second-hand, and I received two more for review.

Alison Lurie: Women and Ghosts

Collection of short stories, sometimes comic, sometimes, haunting, where people’s lives are disrupted by supernatural occurrences. Not normally a fan of ghost stories, but I know that Lurie is such a keen observer of human foibles, so I think this could be good.

Jodie Hollander: My Dark Horses

A debut poetry collection that traces the troubled relationship of the poet with her mother, as well as the charms and vicissitudes of growing up in a family of obsessive musicians. I have to admit to a selfish reason for ordering this one via Waterstones: it was recommended to me by a fellow poet after she read my poems about my mother.

Nice cover, but isn’t that dress from post WW2?

Paula McLain: The Paris Wife

I’ve been meaning to read this forever, ever since it came out in 2010. I really enjoyed Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, with its portrait of bohemian expat artist life in Paris in the 1920s, but that is just Hemingway’s side of the story. And, as we all know, he wasn’t really good to the women in his life.

 

Thomas Enger: Killed

Orenda Books shares my passion for Norway and has kindly sent me the dark, suspenseful finale of this series about crime reporter Henning Juul.

Kate Rhodes: Hell Bay

This is the start of a new series by Kate Rhodes, set on the Scilly Islands (which I now want to visit). I read a sample of it after going to the Simon & Schuster launch evening last year and have been eagerly awaiting the rest of the story ever since.