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.

Asymptote Fall 2018 issue is out now

Or ‘Autumn’, for those of us who are still resisting the encroachment of Americanisms into our daily speech. With photography by Olaya Barr, visual arts, drama, non-fiction, poetry, fiction and reviews, there is something for everyone here

So many goodies to explore! As usual, the sheer ambition and mix of languages is dazzling. 31 countries featured in this issue alone. Togo is represented here for the first time, bringing the total of countries in the archives up to 122.  The number of languages featured is now at 102, with the inclusion of Q’anjob’al from Guatemala.

Just a few of the things I want to read at leisure during my holidays, if I have internet connection:

  • the special feature on Catalan fiction, about which I still know far too little beyond Mercè Rodoreda and Jaume Cabré
  • Phillip Lopate talking about the personal essay as ‘a mode of being’
  • Abdellah Taïa about why he chooses to write in French – asking himself if he even likes this language anymore, this has real emotional resonance with me, since I too write in my ‘non-native’ language
  • An intriguing review about the unfinished novel of one of the great losses to Chinese literature Xiao Hong.

The contrast between intriguing possibility and depressing probability is perhaps widest of all with Xiao Hong, who, in her brief thirty-one years on this planet, managed to write some of the finest Chinese fiction of the twentieth century. I wonder what would have happened to her had she lived another few decades, but I doubt it would have been anything good.

Dylan Suher

Blockbuster of the Summer: Jaume Cabre’s Confessions

cabreJaume Cabré is a Catalan philologist, possibly a philosopher, as well as a writer, and it shows in this massive doorstopper of a book, which takes you through most of the European history of the 20th century, plus quite a few centuries of Spanish history (notably the Inquisition). The translator Maya Faye Lethem must have the patience of a saint, because the plays on words, the fragments from other languages, the philological inventiveness and sudden changes in time frames must have been extremely challenging to interpret and translate.

So yes, I’m not going to lie to you: it is not the easiest thing to sink your teeth into. It is long, complex, toying with your mind, suddenly veering into another story, another character’s point of view, another point in time. Even in the middle of a paragraph. Nevertheless, it’s all done with great verve, charm and wit and remains coherent (just about) and fun. Even though the subject matter is anything but fun, and it can be quite emotionally draining at times. You do have to succumb to it and allow yourself time to read quite large chunks daily, otherwise the magic might dissipate.

It’s the story of Adrià Ardèvol, who comes to realise he was born in the wrong family, that he has always been very much alone. He writes a long letter to his beloved, a sort of examination of his life, before he sinks into the enforced silence of dementia. He talks about his loveless childhood; his father’s distasteful business practices and the blood-spattered background to the family heirloom, a priceless Storioni violin; about never quite living up to expectations; his love for the beautiful Sara and trying to meet her Jewish family. Interwoven with the personal, we find moving accounts and moments of sharp insight about the Spanish Civil War, about the suppression of the Catalan language, about medical experimentation and gas chambers in the German concentration camps, religious and ideological battles throughout Spanish history and so much more.

Some of the repetitions are funny, others moving, while yet others are occasionally annoying. The sudden stops mid-sentence and switching of topic can be off-putting. I think it’s supposed to reflect Adrià’s growing mental confusion. There is perhaps too much ‘bagginess’ in the novel’s structure, but the book rewards those who persevere and reveals its secrets gradually (and with an element of surprise which appears more often in mystery novels). Above all, it appears to be a meditation on the nature of evil: it is unbearably bleak at times, showing that evil has always existed and is inescapable.

This was not a #20booksofsummer effort (I wish it had been!), but it had been sitting on my shelf for far too long. I was intimidated by its length and reputation of being ‘difficult’, but the imminent move made me decide to tackle it (so that I can decide whether to keep it or donate it).

This has ‘cult book’ written all over it. As a teenage fan of Foucault’s Pendulum and One Hundred Years of Solitude, I think it’s a keeper.