Six Degrees of Separation: From The Slap to…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

The starting point for May is¬†The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. A controversial and marmite book when it first appeared in 2008, it certainly established Tsiolkas’ reputation as a frank and uncompromising critic of Australian society beneath the easy-going, laid-back surface.

I haven’t read¬†The Slap,¬†but I was utterly charmed by Christos when I met him at the Livres sur le quai festival in Morges in 2015. I have read other novels by him and I am linking up to¬†Barracuda, the story of a working-class lad trying to escape his upbringing through his talents as a swimmer. Shockingly frank and unsentimental look at Australia’s so-called ‘classless’ society.

Another book which explores notions of class and takes place in a school (as large chunks of Barracuda does) is¬†Different Class¬†by Joanne Harris. Set in St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys, it returns to the fate of eccentric Latin master Roy Straitley¬†who was persuaded to delay his retirement for a year ‚Äď but begins to regret his decision with the appointment of a fashionable new Head, who was one of his nightmareish former pupils.

Joanne Harris is of course most famous for her book Chocolat, and another book with a strong link to chocolate is Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, which is a love story underlining the strong sensuous link between cooking and lust (or perhaps cooking as a sublimation of passion), and the prevalence of chocolate in Mexican cuisine.

Another Mexican writer I have discovered more recently is Valeria Luiselli. Her Faces in the Crowd is the story of an obsession, as the narrator, a somewhat harassed mother and writer in Mexico City, tries to remember her life in New York and her growing fascination with the life and poetry of Gilberto Owen (who was a real historical figure).

The title of the book above refers to an Ezra Pound poem, so my next link is to his volume of Cantos, which influenced me profoundly in my love for poetry and for exploring other cultures, despite what I later came to find out about his anti-semitism and collaboration with the Fascists.

Perhaps another reason why I liked Pound when I was younger was for his stylish and unconventional translations of Chinese poetry, so my last link is to one of the Chinese classics which we all had to read when I studied Japanese at university, Dream of the Red Chamber, written in the mid 18th century during the Qing dynasty. The opening poem of this epic family saga says all there is to say about the fine line between fiction and reality:

Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.

So that was a whirlwind world tour – from Australia to the United Kingdom to Mexico to New York City to China. Where do your literary connections take you?

Long Overdue Reviews

I read these books such a long time ago (July, August and September). Initially, I wanted to spend time writing a detailed review for each one: each one of them deserves it. But the more time passes, the more I risk not being able to write anything about them anymore. So here are some jumbled and brief impressions of each one.

truedeceiverTove Jansson: The True Deceiver (transl. Thomas Teal)

This was a book I read for Women in Translation Month in August. Jansson is one of my favourite authors and this story of two women circling each other like bloodhounds in a snowy Northern village does not disappoint. It reminded me of another Scandinavian book I read recently,¬†G√łhril Gabrielsen’s The Looking Glass Sisters.¬†The style is spare, sombre, almost transparent in its simplicity – yet with so many hidden layers. Nothing is quite what it seems and there is no one we can fully believe, but are the characters also deceiving themselves, as well as each other? At first I was firmly on Anna’s side – the artist who likes to think well of everybody and stay a little aloof from things happening in the village – but I found myself sympathising more with the ‘intruder’ Katri by the end. There are no easy allegiances or answers to be had in this book.

blecherMax Blecher: Scarred Hearts (transl. Henry Howard)

A book that sucks you in, rather like the sanatorium sucking in its patients. A real Hotel California: you can never leave, or at least not without profound scars. The story is deceptively simple: a young man with spinal tuberculosis enters a sanatorium somewhere on the French coast, and discovers that he and his fellow patients have to make the most of their short lives, while bits and pieces of their body (and their full-body cast) fall off. This is not for the squeamish or hypocritical: description of love-making attempts in full-body casts, anyone? Or the dirt and grime that can seep into your cast when you get it wet? It is a real burst of candour and poignancy, a pulsating, urgent love of life, from a character (and an author) doomed to die. Such a modern feel to this one: Blecher does not shy away from the good, the bad, the ugly, the things we would rather not acknowledge.  I now want to read it in the original Romanian, because although the translation is quite poetic, I feel there is a rhythm to the prose which I am missing in English.

barracudaChristos Tsiolkas: Barracuda

A very different style here, much more deliberate about shocking and forcing issues out into the open (as opposed to the more veiled, allusive style of the other two authors). Danny the would-be swimming champion is a self-absorbed, obsessive hero with a huge chip on his shoulder about class, money and ethnic origin. But he is typical perhaps of a teenager, and even of his generation, so it becomes forgivable, if a little annoying at times. But the main question of the book is: is it possible to be ‘a good man’ and what exactly does it mean nowadays? Danny’s journey of self-discovery and redemption, of coming to terms with his own background, is ambitious and poignant, if a little overlong.

 

 

 

 

Signed, Seen and Just Missed: Morges 2015

I couldn’t resist the siren call of the literary festival in Morges called¬†Le Livre sur les Quais¬†this weekend, although I should have been working and packing for an upcoming business trip. But who can resist a boat trip on Lake Geneva in the company of the wise and witty Tessa Hadley?

20150906_114349

Watching chateaux and villas (usually invisible from the road) sliding smoothly by in all their glory, while listening to fellow writers from the Geneva Writers Group reading from their latest book (there were more people than that at the readings, but I forgot my camera and was late to remember my mobile phone). The full list of authors reading (with links to the books they were reading from): Lesley Lawson-Botez, Ellen Wallace, Katie Hayoz, Massimo Marino, Olivia Wildenstein, Nancy Freund, Gary Edward Gedall, Peter St. John, Daniela Norris, Susan Tiberghien and Leonie van Daalen, who was also celebrating her 63rd wedding anniversary onboard.

20150906_110215

The tent where books, authors and readers meet each other was constantly full, even at lunch time, but I forgot to take pictures of the authors I did get to see.

20150906_130217

To arouse your envy, here’s a short list of authors I spoke to (some of them I also got to see later in panel discussions): Christos Tsiolkas, Ben Okri, Petina Gappah, Michelle Bailat Jones, Gabriel Gbadamosi, Dinaw Mengestu. And not just English-speaking ones: Yasmina Khadra, Alain Mabanckou, Metin Arditi, Romain, Slocombe, Gregoire Delacourt, Joseph Incardona (who actually remembered me from last year – I was very flattered). The pictures I did remember to take at the panel discussions are not very good, unfortunately.

Christos Tsiolkas and Gabriel Gbadamosi.
Christos Tsiolkas and Gabriel Gbadamosi.
Ben Okri, Petina Gappah and Dinaw Mengestu from Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia/Midwest Unites States respectively.
Ben Okri, Petina Gappah and Dinaw Mengestu from Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia/Midwest United States respectively.

Sadly, I did not get to see any of the Greek writers who were the guests of honour at the festival: Petros Markaris, Ersi Sotiropoulos, Yannis Kiourtsakis, Takis Theodoropoulos. Nor did I have enough time to go back to the tent and meet the following authors who are very much on my TBR list: Peter Stamm, Emilie de Turckheim, Sophie Divry, Mathias Enard, Hadrien Laroche.

In its sixth edition now, the festival is becoming perhaps just a little too big to be able to see everyone and attend all the sessions you would want (many of the most interesting ones were concurrent). To me, however, it’s¬†an unmissable event in my annual literary calendar. And when the sun comes out, it’s even more beautiful.

20150906_110055

A good book haul ensued as well – all with rather lovely dedications. Meanwhile, a little part of Morges will be accompanying me on my business trip: Michelle Bailat-Jones’ ‘Fog Island Mountains’ will be coming with me to Japan, where it is set.

P1030480

 

Things to Look Forward To: Livre Sur les Quais 2015

lelivresurlesquais2014Last year I waxed lyrical about the great atmosphere of this book festival for readers and authors in Morges, on the banks of the bonny Lac L√©man. This year it’s taking place between the 5th and 7th of September and I’ll be heading there again for what promises to be a great line-up and a chance to enjoy the last days of summer in congenial surroundings. There is a giant book tent where you get a chance to buy books and get them signed by your favourite authors, as well as a number of panel discussions or Q&A sessions with authors.

From actualitte.com
From actualitte.com

This year too, you’ll find the usual suspects of Swiss and French-speaking writers, including old favourites of mine (or those I look forward to reading), such as: Metin Arditi, Joseph Incardona, Yasmina Khadra, Martin Suter, Alex Capus, Emilie de Turckheim, Tatiana de Rosnay, Alain Mabanckou, Timoth√©e de Fombelle.

From website of the festival.
From website of the festival.

They will be joined by a diverse bunch of writers who also speak English (not all of them write in English): Esther Freud, Jonathan Coe, Louis de Berni√®res, Helen Dunmore, Amanda Hodginskon, Jenny Colgan, Tessa Hadley, Elif Shafak from Turkey, Petina Gappah from Zimbabwe, Gabriel Gbadamosi from Nigeria, Frank Westerman from the Netherlands, Paul Lynch (the Irish writer rather than the Canadian filmmaker). Also present: several members of the Geneva Writers’ Group who’ve had new books out recently, writers I’m proud to also call my friends, such as Michelle Bailat-Jones, Susan Tiberghien, Patti Marxsen. The Geneva Writers’ Group will also be hosting a breakfast on the boat from Geneva to Nyon to Morges, a wonderful opportunity for readings and Q&A sessions with some of our authors.

Boat rides on Lake Geneva, www.genferseegebiet.ch
Boat rides on Lake Geneva, http://www.genferseegebiet.ch

 

This year’s guest of honour is poor, battered Greece, a reminder that art and creativity can nevertheless survive like wildflowers peeking through cracks in austere cement. Here are a few of the writers I look forward to discovering there:

  • crime writer and masterly painter of the Greek crisis,¬†Petros Markaris
  • Christos Tsiolkas – Australian of Greek origin, who needs no further introduction
  • Ersi Sotiropoulos: an¬†experimental, avant-garde writer, whose novel about four young Athenians musing about their future, Zig-Zag through the Bitter Orange Trees, has been translated into English. She is currently working on ‘Plato in New York’, described as a¬†hybrid of a novel that uses fictional narrative, dialogue, and visual poetry.
  • Yannis Kiourtsakis – suspended between France and Greece, novels exploring the heart of displacement and emigration
  • Poet Thanassis Hatzopoulous, whose wonderful words (translated by David Connolly) I leave you with:

DAEMON
The clacking of prayers persists
And the rattles of the temple where
The beauteous officiates

And yet no one
Can bear this beauty, the touch
Everything glows and fades incomprehensibly
By itself carrying so much desolation
And charm peculiar to verbs

The seasons rotate under the veil of rhythm
And the people who bear them
Return more vigorous full of freshness and breeze
Conveyed in their steps
Dripping their tracks

And whatever life gives them they return
So equally the soul’s universe is shared
Rendering in radiance whatever
In at times its own way avaricious
Nature intends

Yet beauty has no justice
All turmoil, prey to chance is meted
And finds peace.