Back to work, school and literary life! I do love September and its routines, although this week has been very tentative about routines so far.
I was still recovering from my trip to Vienna at the start of the week and pleased that my older son is now a Mozart fan as well (thank you, Amadeus the film, despite all your inaccuracies!). On Wednesday night I was blown away by Janelle Monae live. On Thursday I trialled a contemporary dance class and enjoyed running low and artistically from one corner of the gym to another (yep, I’ll be going regularly). On Saturday I attended a workshop organised by The Word Factory and run by Isabel Costello and Voula Tsoflias on developing your resilience as a writer. A very necessary and helpful session, which I hope will act as a kickstarter for me, as I’ve stopped submitting for about a year now, when the double dollop of rejection from writing and job applications got too much. Good news, however, about the one piece I did submit – one of the pieces I wrote during the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol this July, was accepted!
Another news item which made me very happy was that two Asymptote Book Club titles are on the first-ever longlist for the National Book Award for translated literature in the US. That is a HUGE achievement in just 9 months of existence of the Book Club. We clearly have a very wise team of editors who know how to pick the right titles (I can be immodest because it is not me that is involved in the final choice). We are going to be expanding the membership to the EU countries shortly and also organising some events, so plenty of exciting work ahead! If you are thinking of joining or renewing your membership, we have a flash sale going on this weekend. To ring in our milestone 30th issue, sign up for a three-month subscription by 2359hrs today (in your timezone) and get 10% off. And if you are wondering how you can fit in 12 additional books from all over the world to add to your tottering TBR pile, there is also an ‘every other month’ subscription option if you sign up for a whole year (with the corresponding price reduction, of course).
Last but not least, here are the three books which will be joining my bedside table pile this week.
- Asymptote Book Club’s August title is Brice Matthieussent’s Revenge of the Translator, translated by Emma Ramadan, which sounds like a postmodern confection of utter delight (a translator tries to justify the changes he makes to the novel’s plot and then blurs the lines between reality and text).
- Endo Shusaku’s Scandal, transl. Van C. Gessel, is also about a novelist, keeping up appearances and disturbing sexual appetites (it will make an interesting comparison with Leila Slimani’s Dans le jardin de l’ogre, which I’ve just reread for a review).
- Patricia Laurent: Santiago’s Way, transl. Geoff Hargreaves. A huge hit and prizewinner in Mexico, this one was translated a while ago but hasn’t received much attention here. The blurb makes me think of Zero by Gine Cornelia Pedersen. “Imagine that all your life you’ve been guided by someone else. Someone who’s steered you away from trouble, taken you across the world, brought you success. He’s called Santiago and he lives in your head—and now he’s turned against you.”
This book, which I received as my title for July for my Asymptote Book Club subscription, ticks a lot of boxes: #WomeninTranslationMonth, #TranslationThurs, an abiding interest in Brazil and a secret (or not so secret) hankering for what might be called ‘dictatorship literature’, i.e. literature about living under a dictatorship. It is something I can relate to very easily, and am always curious to see how much of the experience is the same, regardless of where you are in the world, and how much is country (or dictator) specific.
The story is outwardly simple: In present-day Sao Paolo, Gustavo is a professor (and former school principal) who is now retiring, selling the old family home and moving to the countryside. He must clear out all the papers and personal belongings in the house. Meanwhile, a young woman called Cecilia is writing a novel set during the years of the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964- 1984) and would like to hear his stories and impressions about that period. The problem is that Gustavo has been feeling guilty all his life about the part he may or may not have played in the death of his friend and brother-in-law, Armando. Both he and Armando had been arrested and tortured by the police in 1970, but only one of them survived that ordeal. Over the years, Gustavo has been trying to convince everyone around him (and even himself) that ‘he didn’t talk’ under torture, but it turns out that he was so tangential to the protest movement that anything he might have talked about would have been useless information anyway.
So Gustavo, who is by nature disorganised and forgetful, tries to make sense of the jumble of memories, his own papers and those of the rest of his family, of the ghostly apparitions of his parents, his friend Armando and his wife Eliana. There is a sharp contrast between the private man who felt he was often invisible or cast into second place in his family life and the much more opinionated Gustavo the teacher and school principal. His riffs on education and politics are among the most interesting digressions in the book. He claims he is reluctant to generalise but is quite trenchant in his opinions.
I really distrust this excessive formalization, disconnecting us from the world. Government bodies suffer from an absence of reality, not a surfeit of it… They think they are prevented from thinking by the crushing demands, the excesses of the world. But it’s the opposite… small strategies for specific cases.
Gustavo also knows his Portuguese literature and likes to bring in long quotes to support his theories. We catch brief glimpses of past moments when he started to doubt himself (hiding the fact that people are actually buried in cemeteries from his daughter, but that her mother is not buried in Brazil, for instance) but then he remonstrates with his memory, he adjusts and examines, ponders and reinterprets until he finds justification in everything.
Yet his memories are challenged by his brother Jose’s writings. Jose grew up in the same household, in the same circumstances, and yet his life took a very different trajectory, he is gay and became a very different type of character. Gustavo feels betrayed and excluded in the conversations he has with his brother and in those fragments of his brothers’ memoirs that he reads. Jose (and his younger sister Jussara) remind him of the period when he was at his weakest, but perhaps also reinforce his impression that he was always the outsider, that he never quite fitted in or made himself understood.
Those were confusing times, every utterance cut short, everyone suspected, I was always half-dirty and disheveled, returning to the home I’d left four years before… it was I who was the stranger there and everywhere else.
A chorus of voices assault Gustavo and he argues with some, talks over others, sighs and cries with the rest. The very words ‘voice/speak/talk’ appear with almost obsessive frequency throughout the novel. Gustavo tries to regain the upper hand and perhaps he does, in a way, because on the last few pages, he remembers – as if in a dream – a conversation he had with his father shortly before his death. And that conversation casts the whole story in a different light. This is the story he wants to tell, he decides.
What the author tells us, however, is that in the end, there is always going to be a discrepancy between private and public truth, between different personal interpretations of the past. In the end, your story is what others make of it.
Only 10 books this month (of which two were flash fiction collections, so much easier to read in bits and pieces). I’ve really struggled to read, and I’m not quite sure if it was because I was busy and tired, or going out too much, or just too hot to be able to concentrate properly.
6 written by women, one anthology, and 3 written by men. 3 in translation. Penance and Vernon Subutex were the only two of #20booksofsummer which I read this month, which means that I am only up to 6 out of 20. It’s not going to happen, is it?
I don’t know if my lack of reading enthusiasm influenced my appreciation of the books, or whether the lack of brilliant books led to a slump in my reading, but I have a confession to make. Quite a few of the books were not particularly exciting – mildly disappointing, in fact. I expected more, for instance, from Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends but overall I thought it pretty average, while Home Fire was reasonably good but didn’t bowl me over for all its prize winning. Vernon Subutex was the most disappointing, simply because I have high expectations of Virginie Despentes and have enjoyed her provocative, satirical writing in the past.
However, there were also some successes. I really liked Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Tidings of the Trees and Hometown, Carrie Etter’s collection of flash fiction dedicated to typical small-town America and life lived at its more precarious margins. I discovered the first thanks to Asymptote Book Club and the latter thanks to the Flash Fiction Festival. Which just goes to show that sometimes you need to allow someone knowledgeable to guide you into a new reading direction rather than rely on your favourite genres or media recommendations. American by Day was a fun crime read, contrasting Norwegian and American cultures and policing styles, although the mystery part of it was perhaps not really all that mysterious or satisfactory.
- Gine Cornelia Pedersen: Zero, transl. Rosie Hedger (which the translator very kindly sent to me) is the story of a young girl with mental health problems and has been described as ‘punk rock’
- Teresa Solana: The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, transl. Peter Bush – a collection of dark, crime-seeped stories set in Solana’s native Barcelona (thanks to publisher Bitter Lemon Press)
- Lilja Sigurdardottir: Trap, transl. Quentin Bates – 2nd book in the series about a single mother trying to escape her drug-mule past (thank you to Orenda Books)
- Beatriz Bracher: I Didn’t Talk, transl. Adam Morris – powerful story about people caught up in Brazil’s military dictatorship (Asymptote Book Club’s July title)
- Marina Tsvetaeva: Moscow Diaries 1917-1922, transl. Jamey Gambrell – diaries and essays written by one of my favourite poets during one of the most turbulent periods in Russian history (taking advantage of NYRB book sale)
- Lucy Fricke: Töchter (Daughters) – two middle-aged friends take the seriously ill father of one of them to a Swiss clinic, but things don’t quite turn out as planned. Described as a sort of Thelma and Louise road trip, it’s supposed to be both hilarious and thoughtful, and was recommended by a couple of my favourite German book bloggers.
Other books for August will be all the ones I have to review (a long, long list, as I’ve been even more lax in my reviewing than in my reading): Michael Stanley: Dead of Night; Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland; Pierre Lemaitre: Inhuman Resources; Roberto Saviano: The Piranhas. I also have three library books that I would really like to finally get around to reading, although I’ve renewed them repeatedly: Romain Gary; Eliade: The Old Man and the Bureaucrats; Norman Manea: The Fifth Impossibility (Essays on Exile and Language).
We are halfway through the calendar (well, a little bit over, but who’s counting) and I wanted to take a look back at all I have read and jot down some favourites before I forget them in the end of year scramble. [Instead of the book covers, which I have already used in previous posts about those books, I thought I would include pictures of my two favourite libraries in London instead.]
According to my Goodreads counter, I’ve read 75 books so far this year. There have been some periods when I could barely concentrate on reading, when I was too het up with work and personal matters, but on the whole it’s not a bad number, an average of 12.5 books a month. It feels like it’s been a good mix of male and female authors, translated or foreign language books and English language ones, and a broad mix of genres. Here are the books which really stayed with me long after I read them (in chronological order of reading):
César Aira: The Lime Tree
The first Asymptote Book Club title, which I read just in time to ring in the New Year, and gave me a hunger to read more by this author. I love his slapdash style and the way he zooms in on the fine detail, then telescopes out to describe the historical and social issues of his country.
Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson – A Rather Haunted Life
This gave me so much insight into the life of one of my favourite authors. Suddenly, a lot of things became clear to me, and, although it was sad, it was somehow not as depressing as the Blake Bailey biography of Richard Yates. P.S. Why do so many writers I admire have difficult relationships with their mothers?
Michelle McNamara: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
Not usually a fan of true crime, which I always feel slightly icky about because of its voyeuristic qualities and because it focuses so much on the criminal instead of the victims. But this book (which has now deservedly achieved higher visibility because of the finding of the killer she describes) gets the balance just right. Yes, it is the story of a woman’s – and a group’s – obsession with a killer who made life in California hell for several years in the 1970s, but it also is compassionate and respectful towards the victims.
Bibhutibhushan Bopadhyandyaya: Aranyak
Another Asymptote Book Club title, an immersive experience of a lost world. It may not be the most flawless book from the storytelling point of view – in fact, it often feels more like anthropological field notes rather than a novel (and I know not everyone finds the two equally fascinating). But there are beautifully nuanced observations (as well as blind spots) and lyrical descriptions of the forests which I loved.
Hanne Ørstavik: Love
OK, you’re going to think I’m just doing one long advertisement for the Asymptote Book Club, but I’ve honestly been blown away by their selection of books, most of which have pushed me a little beyond my comfort zone (which I like to think is plenty spacious enough already, but there is always room for more). This quietly devastating story about looking for love in all the wrong places had my heart in my throat all the time while reading it.
Karin Brynard: Weeping Waters
As a crime novel this may not be quite perfect (I guessed the perpetrator fairly early on, although the author does its best to create a list of suspicious characters), but it is a hard-hitting description of rural life in South Africa, the life that so few tourists get to see. It really helps us to understand the Afrikaner mentality a bit better, and tries not to take sides in the tricky matter of land ownership and race in that beautiful but troubled country. It got me doing more research on ‘plaasmord’ and South African history.
George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London
So grateful the David Bowie Book Club made me reread this one, as it seems to be ever more appropriate to the present-day.
Fiona Mozley: Elmet
A debut novel that is the reverse of Cold Comfort Farm, in many ways. Instead of parody of the gloomy, dramatic portrayals of country life, we have a modern take on life in the countryside which seems to not have changed much for the better. Like Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, this is both a family story and the description of a very tough way of life, which is being encroached upon by big agriculture and developers. The prose was so poetic and accurate, that I was completely won over.
Olga Tokarczuk: Flights
I started reading this under the impression that it was a collection of essays rather than a novel, and I’m still not quite sure what it is. But it doesn’t matter. This constellation novel is a jazz improvisation on the subject of travelling, escaping, finding freedom, and it’s the flights of fancy which charmed me.
What books have inveigled their way into your heart this year? And do you think they will continue to claim their spot in your heart until the end of the year?
The Asymptote Book Club selection for June is a slim volume by (East) German writer Wolfgang Hilbig, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole. In the original German, this novella appeared in a collection together with other stories such as Old Rendering Plant, but Two Lines Press decided to publish the translations individually. It is also the first Book Club selection which is translated from a language that I read myself, so I was in two minds about it.
But what this book lacks in number of pages or in unknown language quality, it certainly makes up for in terms of depth, with a style that pushes you along to the finale. There is something to be said about allowing the wave of prose and ideas to crash over you in one sitting. I read it in one day, in three distinct gulps, but I also want to return to it and reread at leisure, to observe the nuances.
Although written in 1991-92, after the fall of the Wall, the book reminded me very much of literature written under the threat of censorship: you write about one thing, but in fact what you are really writing about is something completely different. The subject of the book is ostensibly a worker-writer Waller talking about his writer’s block, bemoaning the chopping down of the cherry trees in his home town and describing his childish stand-off with the garbage collectors. In fact, we could interpret this story in several different ways.
One would be the destruction of nature in the brown-coal industrial area of Germany where the author originally came from. Ash and dust seem to permeate every page of the book, threatening to engulf the town, the narrator, the reader. But the ash quickly turns into something else: historical ash, layer after layer, covering the world in the silence of complicity or self-censorship. For there is undoubtedly an overt political message to this book. A whole country and political system is being relegated to the rubbish heap, a whole population has had its thoughts infiltrated ‘by the ghastly substance of the ash, which is nothing but gray stuff, dry and thundery, hard and unfeeling and burned-out’.
Then there are the garbagemen, unknowable, sinister beings, although Waller tries a game of one-man-upship with them. But are they really sinister, or are they the equivalent of the Trümmerfrauen, those almost mythical women who sorted through the rubble after the Second World War and helped to rebuild it? In the meantime, of course, we know that the Trümmerfrauen image is a bit of a myth, that the rubble was in fact cleared by prisoners both during and after the war. To what extent are those mysterious garbagemen themselves prisoners, or are they the guards of the prison camp? Or are they the ones who get to sift through the past, perhaps even seek to preserve it, while governments erase history and people are only too eager to forget. But what is worth preserving – and who gets to decide it?
Hilbig describes perfectly the claustrophobic sense of stagnation of living in a country closed off from the outside world, a soundproof room, and passages such as the one below resonated profoundly with me and explains the sense of ‘protection from the unknown’ that Communism also brought to many:
We lived in a country, cut off, walled in, where we had to end up thinking that time had no real relevance for us. Time was outside, the future was outside… outside everything rushed to its doom.
A book which resurfaced many old memories through its half-hinting, half-deliberate metaphors, and perhaps explains the drive for joining the EU, so I shall add it to the #EU27Project. Hilbig was a vocal critic of the GDR regime, and only got to publish one book there before he was forced to move abroad in 1985. He has, however, won every German literature prize worth having since then.
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.