February Summary of Literary Things

With all of the bad news coming out of Ukraine (with whom Romania shares a considerable land border), plus the usual workplace stresses and household breakages, I have been in a bit of an anxious state this month, so I am simply plodding along, taking it one day at a time. As usual, books have provided me with much-needed distraction, beauty, connection and escapism.

It’s more than just reading, it’s also attending various literary events or writing or film watching – all the things that make my life worthwhile (it has all been virtual this month – and, to be honest, if all Covid protections are completely removed, I’m not sure I’ll venture out much in the future, except for unavoidable things like work and my much-postponed but hopefully still viable trip to Romania).

Reading

I read eleven books, including two chunksters (Frank Moorhouse and Christina Stead). Two were re-reads (Mihail Sebastian for my London Reads the World Book Club on 7th of March, and Maus because of all the uproar about it being banned in certain US schools). Seven were by women authors, one non-binary and only three male authors. One non-fiction (Josie George), one collection of short stories or vignettes (Wilder Winds), one graphic novel, two crime novels (just about) and the rest novels.

I declared this an Oz Feb month, to make up for my embarrassing ignorance regarding Australian literature, but relied on books that I already had on my bookshelves. I managed to read and review five of these. Naturally, this means that my proportion of works in other languages or in translation was lower: only three books.

In retrospect, there were perhaps some better choices I could have made for the Australian authors (I also had Elizabeth Harrower and Gerald Murnane on my shelves), but if I could draw any conclusions based on the diverse writers I did read, it’s that Australian authors seem to be much more frank and direct than their English cousins, they don’t shy away from difficult subjects, their opinions can be quite unvarnished, and there is far less squeamishness about physicality: sex or the body and its biological functions.

  • Shirley Hazzard: The Evening of the Holiday – elegant and understated, she is the most similar to an English author, but with a far more international outlook
  • Miles Franklin: My Brilliant Career – irrepressible, energetic, ahead of its time
  • Christina Stead: The Man Who Loved Children – unique baroque style, striking observations, but relentless subject matter
  • Frank Moorhouse: Grand Days – great combination of the personal and historical
  • Romy Ash: Floundering – a less unique but quite visceral account of deprived childhood and bad parenting, and also my only full contribution to #ReadIndies

Although I love Louise Penny and her Armand Gamache series, this particular one was not one of her best. It was almost too topical (and slightly optimistic about the end of the pandemic), especially in regards to the ‘who should die’ debate. I also felt somewhat manipulated by the author, trying to stretch out the drip-feeding of the information very, very slowly to increase the tension.

Bel Olid’s Wilder Winds from the fantastic Fum D’Estampa Press is one of my contributions to #ReadIndies (although I don’t have time for a full review). This translation from the Catalan proves that a slim volume of very brief, almost lightning flash stories can be more powerful than many a lengthy tome. Every word, every image is packed with meaning, and there are a great variety of voices: a young girl in a refugee camp, women of all ages, coming of age, migrants, revolutionaries, workers, mothers, voyeurs, women being catcalled on the street and more. I particularly enjoyed hearing the author and translator Laura McGloughlin talk about their collaboration at the Borderless Book Club, saying these are dark tales but with a tiny glimmer of hope. Extremely poetic and thought-provoking.

Another very brief review for my final #ReadIndie contender: The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-Mo, transl. Chi-Young Kim, published by Edinburgh-based Canongate. Ostensibly the story of Hornclaw, an ageing female assassin (or ‘disease control specialist’, as she calls herself) stalked by a colleague who is out for revenge, it is in fact an unexpectedly moving story of loneliness, tenderness and regrets about past life choices. With a descent into a bloodbath at one point that I am beginning to expect after watching Korean films and TV series, the story is nevertheless more subtle than it might appear at first, and the characterisation of the contrary, stubborn, occasionally baffled Hornclaw, who can fool everyone, including herself, is spot on.

Events

Aside from the Borderless Book Club event, I also attended a panel discussion organised by the German House in New York around the anthology Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum / Your Homeland Is Our Nightmare, with authors representing various ‘minorities’ and marginalised groups in present-day Germany, as a response to the creation of a Ministry of ‘Heimat’. Let’s face it, vast swathes of Germany are very traditionalist, and one quote that really made me laugh was: ‘But how can we Germans be homophobic? We’ve got Berlin!’ The translators of the anthology explain things far better than me:

Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum [Your Homeland is our Nightmare] is the title of our collective work: essays by fourteen German-language authors, framed at the beginning of 2019 as a sort of answer to these developments. Because as one can imagine, this concept of homeland is a nightmare for marginalized groups in our society. But not just for them. That’s the reason why two words on the original cover of the book (Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum) are colored the same shade of purple as the book cover itself. Because it is not the editors and authors of this book who decide where “we” ends and “you” begins. Every reader decides this for themselves: Do I want to live in a society oriented around völkisch, racist, antisemitic, sexist, heteronormative, and trans-antagonistic structures? Or would I rather be a part of a society in which every individual—whether black and/or Jewish and/or Muslim and/or woman and/or queer and/or non-binary and/or poor and/or differently abled—is treated equally?

I also attended a couple of translation events organised by the Society of Authors, including the 2021 Translation Prizes and social, all of which finally gave me the push to join the society. Having translated 271, 340 words over the past two years, more than half of which have been published, it would be nice to think that at some point I might actually get paid for translating, even if not for the writing!

I also watched the NT Live showing of Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard at the local arts centre, not only because one of the performers was the son of a friend, but also because it shows both the charm and rot of Vienna and its persistent anti-semitism over the first half of the 20th century through the story of one extended family. Brilliantly acted throughout, it manages to be both tragic and humorous, surprising despite its predictable, all too well-known story, and posing uncomfortable questions for present-day audiences.

Films

I tend to watch more films either when Younger Son is with his father (he prefers to watch either The Apprentice or anime with me) or when Older Son the film fanatic is around. Well, this month both of these conditions were met: YS stayed for longer than expected with his father, who tested positive for Covid while he was there for the weekend (it was a mild form and YS did not catch it), while OS came back home from university for just over a week, while his lecturers were on strike. So I had a very good month of films, not a lemon among all of these. The one thing I would NOT recommend is the TV series Kitz on Netflix, which I idly watched for two episodes in the hope that it would feature mountains, snow and skiing for some restful escapism after long working days. It was all about partying, drug-taking, sexual exploits and spoilt rich kids, with clunky dialogue, exaggerated and implausible scenario, I just couldn’t bear it.

It was funny how the films seemed to come in contrasting pairs. Olivier Assayas was the director for both the light-hearted satire of Non-Fiction and the pain of grief and inability to let go of the past in Personal Shopper. The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson was at the ornate, highly stylised end of the cinematography and storytelling spectrum, while Petite Maman by Celine Sciamma was simple, almost simplistic, pared down to the bone. Both A Cat in Paris and The House were unconventional and beautiful examples of animation art, as far removed from Disney as one might imagine, but the former was an adventure story with a heart-warming ending, while the latter was a descent into the horror of house building, maintenance and ownership in Britain. The third animated film was The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s final film for Ghibli (allegedly), and I felt more ambiguous about that: although the artwork is beautiful as always, there is perhaps a bit too much whitewashing of the life of aviation engineer Horikoshi Jiro, creator of the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighter planes used by the Kamikaze pilots in the final part of WW2. He must have known what his military planes were going to be used for, yet he seems to have suffered no remorse after the war and retired as a highly-awarded professor at Tokyo University, justifying himself by saying: ‘All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful’. The final two films were both melancholy depictions of migration, loss and identity: the Quebecois Monsieur Lazhar directed by Philippe Falardeau is about an Algerian refugee teaching a class of ten-year-olds whose teacher committed suicide; while Preparations to be Together… directed by Lili Horvát is about an eminent female neurosurgeon returning to her native Hungary for the love of another doctor she met briefly at a congress in the States. A haunting story of self-delusion and hope, becoming a victim of your own dreams vs. the power of yearnings.

Writing and Translating

I have nearly finished the first draft of translation of a very long Romanian crime novel, and continued pitching another novel (by Lavinia Braniște) to publishers. You can catch me reading a small fragment from it on the Translators Aloud YouTube channel. I also entered an extract of my translation of the play The Holiday Game by Mihail Sebastian for a competition, so fingers crossed. And I have submitted my own writing as well several times this month.

I am also working hard behind the scenes of Corylus Books: launching a monthly newsletter, editing current translations in progress and considering possible future acquisitions, applying for funding, trying to find someone who can teach us how to use Amazon Ads wisely (apparently they are becoming more and more cut-throat, leading to bidding wars). I am probably neglecting my own son and health, and certainly my house, in the process – and occasionally that springs up to bite me! I sometimes wonder whether there is any point in continuing to write, translate, publish, when the world seems intent on destroying itself.

Still, I can’t help but remind myself how lucky I am, every morning when I wake up to a cold but safe house, when I switch the heating on (even if I can’t afford to heat it as much or as often as I’d like), when I sit down free to explore the internet at leisure, have access to any source of information. As the Romanian expression goes: ‘Let’s not anger God by taking this for granted!’

I’d like to conclude with a quote from Ukrainian author Andrei Kurkov. The whole lecture that he gave in 2018 in Hong Kong is worth reading (and available for free now), but this particularly stuck with me.

Even if you were born in a civilised European or other state to take your rights for granted is dangerous. We do not pay attention to the air that we breath until it becomes unsuitable for breathing due to pollution. We do not pay attention to our body while it is healthy, but we are frightened as soon as we face the first serious problems with our heart or lungs. Our rights are not violated only if we understand them and make sure that they are not violated. Forget about them, and the consequences can be most deplorable.

Incoming Books and Their Sources (5)

December was a month of book acquisition frenzy – as if I had to buy up everything before the shops closed for one or two days on Christmas Day. (Well, I knew no one was going to buy books for me as a present, and I was right!) I was planning to calm down in the New Year, but a couple of things have slipped through the net since. Plus all of you horrendously well-read bloggers tempt with various tidbits which are sometimes available at the local library… My book trolley is groaning under the weight. But the time has now come to put all of these new books in their rightful place on my shelves, so that they can patiently wait to be read.

The Turgenev Hangover

After reading my first novel by Turgenev as part of my Russians in the Snow, I wanted to explore more by this writer, so I got one of his earlier and one of his later books. Not necessarily the ones people recommended on Twitter, but the ones that sounded most appealing to me from the blurb (dangerous strategy, I know!).

The Brophy Bunch

A few days before Christmas, just as I started my holidays, Brigid Brophy’s daughter Kate Levey tweeted a little quiz about Brophy’s novels and life. My results were pretty woeful so I thought I should remedy that by reading two of her novels which come highly recommended: Jacqui liked both of them but it was her review of The King of a Rainy Country which made me choose that one, while Melissa was very pleasantly surprised by her first encounter with Brophy in Flesh.

My Hometown Buddies

As I was reading some German-language reviews of Marlen Haushofer, I came across the comment that she will always appeal to a niche audience, rather like Ilse Aichinger and Gerhard Fritsch, and will never have the acclaim (or controversy) of fellow Austrian writers Thomas Bernhard or Peter Handke or Elfriede Jelinek or Ingeborg Bachmann. I had read Aichinger before, but not much of Fritsch (who committed suicide at quite a young age). Plus, both of them are Viennese, so I consider them my ‘local’ people. As for Erich Kästner, he lived for a while in the city I hope to move to in the future, Berlin, but I came across his journal Notabene 45 about Germany during the dying days of WW2 and straight after in a review in the daily Viennese newsletter to which I subscribe – so again a connection to the city of my childhood.

Zoe approves of this book, clearly.

I was having a conversation with one of my colleagues at work, who is of Nigerian descent but has lived in a very white middle-class neighbourhood in London and gone to a grammer school in Kent. She recommended this book The Scramble for Africa to me, which she read to understand a bit more about her own background. I have always been fascinated by the way the great powers carved up a continent for its riches, not unlike Eastern Europe, I suppose, being at the mercy of constantly shifting borders and alliances.

Still in Africa

I attended a LRB session with the Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah being interviewed by Kamila Shamsie, after I very much enjoyed reading his novel Admiring Silence. So I was delighted to order a signed copy of his latest novel, After Lives, as well as finding a second-hand copy of his By the Sea.

The review copies, much loved by Zoe

Lola Lafon trained to be a dancer for quite a while, as well as spending a good portion of her childhood in Romania, so I have a bit of an affinity for her work. I am therefore really pleased that Europa Editions have sent me the ARC for her latest novel to be translated into English, Reeling (which does have a ballet theme). Meanwhile, Fum d’Estampa has a new book of short fiction out by Catalan author Bel Olid, while Canongate has a quirky Korean novel about a sixty-five year old female contract killer entitled The Old Woman with the Knife.

Vlogger’s Delight

The two books above (in this slightly shaky picture) winged their way towards me after hearing Liv Hooper, bookseller and one of my favourite bookish YouTubers, talk about them. Little Scratch is experimental fiction about an averag day in the life of an average woman, while The Least We Can Do is a manifesto about inclusivity and ethics, freedom of speech and moral discourse in the bookselling and publishing industry.

Rumer has it…

There was so much love for Rumer Godden from quite a range of bloggers in the past few years, especially HeavenAli, Harriet Devine and Fiction Fan, while Peter Leyland on Twitter said how much he had enjoyed listening to a radio adaptation of The Battle of Villa Fiorita, so I thought I’d expand my horizons beyond The Greengage Summer and The Black Narcissus. I’ve already read Villa Fiorita, which was good, but much sadder than I expected.

The American contingent

After the death of bell hooks, I just had to remind myself of her inspiring work, while various bloggers are to blame for the other temptations: Kaggsy was responsible for Gentleman Overboard, a neglected and strange little book; Guy Savage assured me I would love The Husbands; and I think I got Shelter after reading an interview with the author Jung Yun about her latest novel O Beautiful, which sounded less interesting to me.

The library books

I am now fully invested in the Brontë Sisters mystery series, so I got the latest (third one) from the library and am more than halfway through. For Your Own Good is our next Virtual Crime Book Club read, so I hope to finish it by the 31st of January, when we have our next meeting (I just picked it up today). As for The Appeal, yes, I admit, I succumbed to all the buzz about this and Janice Hallett’s even more recent one, The Twyford Code. It had better not be a disappointment, or I will blast all of my Twitterati!