#WITMonth: Brazilian short stories

My final take on Brazilian women writers this month falls under the approximate label ‘short stories’, although one is a collection of short stories, one is a fragment of a novel and the third is an allegory.

Clarice Lispector is an old passion of mine, but I’ve read her novels rather than her short stories. This beautiful collection of the Complete Stories is published by Penguin Modern Classics (translated by Katrina Dodson and edited by Benjamin Moser, this was well received, before the whole scandal about Benjamin Moser erupted two weeks ago, when another Lispector translator Magdalena Edwards accused him of colonising both Dodson’s prose as well as her own). It is a massive volume, so of course I didn’t try to read all of it in one go, or even read the stories chronologically. I dipped in here and there, attracted by titles or trying to find narrators (usually women) at different stages of their life.

Although precisely, exquisitely observed, there is something as ancient as the hills about the stories, a sense of inevitability. In Obsession, a married woman who has an affair with a difficult, manipulative man called Daniel, leaves her husband, moves in with her lover, finds out love is not all it’s cracked up to be, but struggles to let go of her idealised notions of him and of love.

I never smiled, I had unlearned joy. Yet I wouldn’t have removed myself from his life even to be happy. I was not, nor was I unhappy. I had so incorporate myself into the situation that I no longer received stimuli and sensations that would allow me to modify it… He needed me! I repeated a thousand times afterward, feeling that I had received a beautiful, enormous gift, too large for my arms and for my desire.

Most of the early stories are about the relationship between men and women, and at least have a semblance of a structured narrative. A young girl discovers something about male double standards in the very short story Jimmy and I, but decides not to worry about it and enjoy her life instead. In Interrupted Story a girl is attracted to a sad, self-destructive type of man and wants to rescue him… but life smacks her in the face. In Happy Birthday a family gathers around the eighty-nine-year-old matriarch, who is silently disappointed in them all, but also reminds them uncomfortably of their own mortality.

Other stories are more wilfully experimental. Horses as metaphors romp through the pages of Dry Sketch of Horses, representing ‘what is best in the human being’, still and statuesque during the day, released from burdens at night. Mysterious rituals and revels with a charismatic androgynous divine creature give way to disillusionment the next day in Where Were You at Night’. The Smallest Woman in the World is an extraordinary story of colonialism and racism (and an indictment of anthropology when it studies ‘exotic cultures’ like butterflies pinned to a table). Marcle Pretre, hunter and man of the world, comes upon a tribe of tiny pygmies in Central Congo, including the fully-grown, 18 inch pregnant woman ‘dark as a monkey’, whom he chooses to call Little Flower. She becomes a bit of a media sensation when her picture appears in the newspapers, but she remains unknowable and confuses the explorer with her laughter, her very different definition of love and her joy at not being devoured, that most perfect of feelings, the secret goal of an entire life.

Love this picture of Lispector in Bern in 1946-47

Lispector seldom gives instructions on how to read her stories. They lurch like a runaway tram between realism and the fantastical, between universal and very detailed, very particular observation. Like with Shirley Jackson, there is always something slightly off about the stories, something lurking in their depths. Nothing is as straightforward as it might appear.

The extract from the novel Perhaps an Animal by Natalia Borges Polesso (transl. Sophie Lewis) is in a way a reprise of the Lispector story Jimmy and I, with its conclusion that it’s best to live like an animal, content in what you get every day and not daring to want too much. A poor girl who has come to Sao Paolo to work but is struggling to make ends meet and resorts to eating food out of bins. She encounters a boy who wants to become a woman, who tells her earnestly:

There’re times it’s good to be an animal. I think we hang on to this idea that humans and humanity are always the best thing to be. What we’re really talking about is kindness – except it’s not always like that. Humanity is far from being a good thing. Look around. If everyone was an animal, at least no one would feel guilty, No one would be bearing grudges, no one would be judging.

Both stories are from this rather lovely volume I bought at the Hay Festival last year.

If Polesso seems to have affinity with the more realistic side of Lispector’s fiction, Mariana Torres’ Roots (transl. Lisa Dillman) hearkens more to the surreal Lispector. This is a charming, sad little allegory about displacement. The narrator was ‘born in Brazil because everything grows in that soil’. The day she is born her father plants the seeds of an apple he was eating and a tree grows in the same rhythm as the roots on the soles of the girl’s feet. When the family moves to Rio, they prune and take the tree with them; both it and the girl acclimatize to life in the city, but her body becomes covered with shoots and she can no longer go to school. So the family decides to move to the other side of the world (somewhere in Europe), again with the tree in tow. In the new city where nothing grows, where ‘the earth is brown, hard and dry, it’s impossible to plant anything’, the girl learns to fake it but ‘the truth is that at night the scars on the soles of my feet burned’.

Nominations for #WIT Top 100

Women in Translation Month is coming up very soon, and for this year, the founder and host of #WITMonth Meytal at Biblibio has decided to curate a list of the top 100 women in translation. You are all invited to take part, if you follow some basic rules:

I’ve selected ten books that instantly came to mind, without me having to go through my bookshelves in detail. I could have chosen so many more, but these are ones that have really changed my world, shaken my foundations, taught me what it means to be a woman and an artist and other such fundamental things. And, instead of telling you what the book is ‘about’, I will just give you a 3 word (or thereabouts) summary and a quote from each.

Looking at the list, I guess none of them are really cheerful, happy books, are they?

Simone de Beauvoir: Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter) – bourgeois turns bohemian

 I had wanted myself to be boundless, and I had become as shapeless as the infinite. The paradox was that I became aware of this deficiency at the very moment when I discovered my individuality; my universal aspiration had seemed to me until then to exist in its own right; but now it had become a character trait: ‘Simone is interested in everything.’ I found myself limited by my refusal to be limited.

Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, Ging, Gegangen (Go, Went, Gone) – meeting, connecting, empathy

Have the people living here under untroubled circumstances and at so great a distance from the wars of others been afflicted with a poverty of experience, a sort of emotional anemia? Must living in peace – so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world – inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?

Veronique Olmi: Bord de mer (Beside the Sea) – depressed mother, heartbreak

You force yourself to live as best you can, but everything keeps fading away. You wake up in the morning but that morning no longer exists, just like the evening preceding it, forgotten by everyone. You inch forward on a cliff edge, I’ve known that for a while. One step forward. One step in the abyss. Then you start over again. To go where? No one knows. No one cares.

Ingeborg Bachmann: Malina – victim of imagination or men?

Some people live and some people contemplate others living. I am amongst those who contemplate. And you?

Murasaki Shikibu: Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) – shining prince ages

You that in far-off countries of the sky can dwell secure, look back upon me here; for I am weary of this frail world’s decay.

Yosano Akiko: Midaregami (Tangled Hair) – poetry of female desire

A star who once

Within night’s velvet whispered

All the words of love

Is now a mortal in the world below —

Look on this untamed hair!

Clarice Lispector: Complete Short Stories – capricious, scintillating, sad

Mama, before she got married… was a firecracker, a tempestuous redhead, with thoughts of her own about liberty and equality for women. But then along came Papa, very serious and tall, with thoughts of his own too, about… liberty and equality for women. The trouble was in the coinciding subject matter.

Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu: Drumul acuns (The Hidden Way) – social critique of inter-war Romania

The snobbery of Papadat-Bengescu’s protagonists is a defining trait of the Romanian bourgeoisie, of humble and precarious origin, without any aristocratic ancestry, and therefore keen to integrate into top-tier society at any price, either by falsifying their family history or by making unjustifiable moral compromises.

Critique from Autorii.com

Gabriela Adamesteanu: Dimineata pierduta (Lost Morning) – political family saga

How little of what lies within us we are able to convey through words! And how few of those words are received by others. And yet we keep on talking, firm in the belief that the sun of rationality will light up our souls… Otherwise, what would our lives be like if we view conversations as being as complicated as blood transfusions? It’s only when we’re at our lowest ebb that we are haunted by this suspicion, but we cast this suspicion aside as soon as we possibly can.

Marina Tsvetaeva: In the Inmost Hour of the Soul (or any other of her poetry) – quirky, passionate, ruthless

I have no need of holes

for ears, nor prophetic eyes:

to your mad world there is

one answer: to refuse!

End of Summer Book Haul

When I shared my last book haul, I told you I’d already ordered some other books. Some of them have duly arrived, and then I happened to pass by Foyles bookshop in London yesterday, so I couldn’t resist a few more. I tell myself (somewhat unconvincingly) that these will be my last purchases for a while. They had better be, or I might go bankrupt!

Herta Müller

The only ‘Romanian’ author to ever have won the Nobel Prize, although she actually writes in German and is an ethnic German who happened to be born in Romania (where she was not very happy, one might say, and rather discriminated against during the Communist era). I think she has a wonderful prose style, although the topics are painful ones. I bought three of her novels:

Herztier – a group of friends who try to protest against Ceausescu’s regime in the 80s and then suffer the consequences

Atemschaukel – the fate of the ethnic Germans who were sent to Soviet labour camps after the end of the Second World War

Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger – trust and friendships are broken in the last few days of the Communist dictatorship

Clarice Lispector

My Brazilian love affair, with two books Complete Stories and her shortest, most poetic and enigmatic ‘novel’ Agua Viva.

Maggie Nelson: Bluets

Somewhat similar in subject matter to Lispector’s Agua Viva, this is a book impossible to define: somewhere on the borders of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and essay. And of course, I am mildly obsessed with the colour blue myself.

Leila Slimani: Dans le jardin de l’ogre

I’ve discovered that Foyles has a section of books in foreign languages and the prices are relatively decent (especially if you compare to the cost of buying in France and having them shipped over). So I found this book, which I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time, Slimani’s debut novel about a sexual addict, although I’m still trying to read her second book (winner of the Prix Goncourt) Chanson Douce.

 

George Szirtes: Mapping the Delta

Poems about history, dislocation, memory, forgetting and the anxiety of disaster zones. I’ve read Szirtes only sporadically before, but thought I should read more of him before next week, when I will have the pleasure of going on a writing retreat tutored by him.

 

 

Two more are ordered but not quite here yet:

Ulrike Schmitzer: Die Stille der Gletscher

Austrian writer from Salzburg, in this most recent novel she presents the story of a researcher who is investigating the melting of the glaciers and then mysteriously disappears. An eco-thriller, one might say. Some of the coolest contemporary writing in German is coming out of Austria (plus I am susceptible to books about mountains), so I could not resist after reading Austrian book blogger Mariki’s review.

Milena Michiko Flasar: I Called Him Necktie (transl. Sheila Dickie)

The relationship that develops between a young Japanese hikikomori—a shut-in who never leaves his room and has no human interaction—and a middle-aged salaryman who has lost his job but can’t bring himself to tell his wife. Written by a Japanese-German author, translated and published by New Vessel Press.

#WIT Month: Clarice Lispector

Lispector at the time of the publication of her first novel.
Lispector at the time of the publication of her first novel.

I don’t usually post something on a Saturday, but I’m so far behind in my Women in Translation Month reviewing, that I feel I have to.

As a student in my early 20s I went through a period of infatuation with Clarice Lispector. I had always admired Virginia Woolf and here was a Brazilian writer equally at ease with the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique, but upping the ante when it came to passion and candour. Being very Latin in fact, compared to Woolf’s cooler Anglo-Saxon attitudes.

I have not reread her since, but WIT Month seemed like a good time to revisit her. Near to the Wild Heart is her debut novel (translated by Alison Entrekin) but this time round it left me not quite fully satisfied.

It’s the story of Joana, an eccentric little soul growing up with a kindly but absent-minded father after the death of her mother.

The child was running wild, so thin and precocious… He sighed quickly, shaking his head. A little egg, that was it, a little live egg. What would become of Joana?

When her father dies, she goes to live with her aunt and uncle, which proves unbearable for all concerned.

‘She’s a cold viper, there’s no love or gratitude in her. There’s no point liking her, no point doing the right thing by her. I think she’s capable of killing someone…’

She is sent to boarding school, grows up, is regarded as somewhat of an enigma by those around her, marries the conceited and shifty Otavio, who continues his affair with his old lover. Joana has misgivings about marriage itself, about tying herself to any man (thoughts which would have been revolutionary in Brazil at the time the book was published in 1943)

Otavio made her into something that wasn’t her but himself… how could she tie herself to a man without allowing him to imprison her? How could she prevent him from developing his four walls over her body and sould? And was there a way to have things without those things possessing her?

Finally, Joana finds the courage and determination to strike off on her own after a period of loneliness and abjection. At first she turns to God.

My God I wait for thee… come to me… I am less than dust and I wait for you every day and every night, help me, I only have one life and this life slips through my fingers and travels to death serenely and I can do nothing and all I do is watch my depletion with each passing minute…

But then she realises that the power comes from within and the book ends on a hopeful note.

What was rising in her was not courage, she was substance alone, less than human… Throngs of warm thoughts sprouted and spread through her frightened body and what mattered about them was that they concealed a vital impulse, what mattered about them was that at the very instant of their brith there was the blind, true substance creating itself, rising up, straining at the water’s surface like an air bubble, almost breaking it…

Of course, I have simplified and tried to give the narrative shape and linearity where there is none. Rather, it’s all about ‘illuminations’, moments of consciousness in Joana’s life (and occasionally other characters). There is much of the animal nature of Jinny, the flanks breathing in and out from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a tremendous physicality.

nearwildheartYet Joana also ponders on the nature of words such as ‘never’ and ‘everything’, she is in a state of constant questioning, a swirling intensity of raw emotions, half-formulated thoughts, openness to experience but also (over)analysis of each new experience. There are some similarities to Anais Nin and Elena Ferrante, but the work this most reminded me of was the Diary of Marie Bashkirtseff. Joana has the same breathtaking belief in her own genius, shows the same inscrutable character to outsiders, is in equal measure puzzled by the slipperiness of the concept of (her own) identity and yet wields it like a blunt instrument to manipulate others.

Reading a chapter at a time, there are nuggets to treasure but it was all too much for me when reading it in one go. (Although the impressionistic technique in The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway still works well for me now.) This is something of a young person’s book. I’m glad I read it at the appropriate age but it did not resonate with me as well a couple of decades later. I guess I’ll have to go back to her other works, especially her short stories, and see whether they can rework their magic on me once more.

In the spirit of transparency: The TBR Book Tag

I came across this on the Cleopatra Loves Books blog (which is a real treat of a book blog, so do go and pay it a visit if you are not familiar with it already). Cleo was very brave to admit her bookish foibles, and a few of her readers have followed suit. So, in the interests of transparency, it seems only fair to attempt my own form of accounting. I’m sure it will help rein in my book-buying or requesting (yeah, right!). I define TBR as the books I do actually own but haven’t read, rather than my wishlist.

BookPile2HOW DO YOU KEEP TRACK OF YOUR TBR PILE?

I have’t to date, so this is my opportunity to be a star pupil now. Before, I would scroll down on my e-reader and sigh. Stare at the double or triple pile of books up on the shelves and learn to avoid them when they fall.

IS YOUR TBR MOSTLY PRINT OR E-BOOK?

Let the painful counting begin. 172 currently on my tablet, but another 10 or so in pdf or trickier formats on my laptop (I get sent a lot by author friends). Plus another 15 or so on my husband’s account on Kindle, which I conveniently forget about, books I downloaded back in the days when I had no e-reader of my own and didn’t really like those ‘dang things’. So a total of 200 or so in electronic format.

My collection of physical books is comparatively slender: only 78. Of course, I don’t include any library books in that pile.

HOW DO YOU DETERMINE WHICH BOOK FROM YOUR TBR TO READ NEXT?

As a reviewer for Crime Fiction Lover, I often have deadlines linked to the launch of a book or a broader feature such as ‘Classics in September’ or ‘New Talent November’, so those will take priority. I occasionally take part in reading challenges such as ‘German Literature Month’ or ‘Global Reading Challenge’, so that influences my choices.

Most of the time, however, I just go with my gut instinct, although I do find that one book will lead to another in a mischievous, conspiratorial way. For instance, I will find myself embarking upon a series of reads about bad mothers or male midlife crises, whether French or elsewhere. After such a bout of misery, I will then need to find something funnier, lighter to rinse out the bitter taste from my mouth.

MorgueA BOOK THAT’S BEEN ON YOUR TBR THE LONGEST?

This would be amongst the ‘forgotten pile of books’ on the Kindle. I believe it’s a tie between Jutta Profijt’s debut novel ‘Morgue Drawer Four’ (shortlisted for the Glauser Prize in Germany back in 2010 and translated by Erik J. Macki) and Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Solaris’ (I loved the Tarkovsky film, less so the more recent adaptation with George Clooney, but the author apparently didn’t think much of either of them).

A BOOK YOU RECENTLY ADDED TO YOUR TBR?

poisoningJust this morning, I made the mistake of going to Netgalley (to post a review) and lingered there… so I ended up downloading Lauren Holmes’ Barbara the Slut and Other People (who can resist a title like that, hope it will give me loads of insights into the younger generation) and Jean Teulé’s The Poisoning Angel, translated by Melanie Florence for Gallic Books. This latter is based on a true story about a 19th century female serial killer.

A BOOK ON YOUR TBR THAT YOU NEVER PLAN ON READING?

I live in hope of reading all of them… but I did discard one or two recently where I thought: ‘Was I drunk when I clicked the “buy” button?’ It’s just too easy to order things on Amazon – one more reason to avoid it.

AN UNPUBLISHED BOOK ON YOUR TBR THAT YOU’RE EXCITED FOR?

besidemyselfI’ve been an admirer of Ann Morgan’s thoughtful reading and reviewing back in the days when she completed her ‘Year of Reading the World‘ challenge. I got to chat with her via Twitter and email, and even got to meet her when she gave a TEDx talk in Geneva. So I was very excited when she told me that she has a book coming out on the 14th of January, 2016. ‘Beside Myself’ is a twisted psychological tale of identical twins who swap places for a day – but then one of them refuses to swap back. Sounds like just my cup of tea!

A BOOK ON YOUR TBR THAT EVERYONE HAS READ BUT YOU?

bookthiefOK, I’ll stop feeling ashamed and admit that I’ve not read ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak. I’ve read about it, I’ve seen the film, I’m sure it’s the kind of subject I would be interested in… but somehow I never got around to it. I bought a second-hand copy of it this summer at a friend’s house clearance sale, so I finally have a chance.

A BOOK ON YOUR TBR THAT EVERYONE RECOMMENDS TO YOU?

I’m a big Pascal Garnier fan but haven’t read ‘Moon in a Dead Eye’ yet, which is the favourite Garnier for many of my fellow book bloggers. So, if it’s as good as ‘How’s the Pain?’ (which has been my personal favourite to date), I will be delighted!

A BOOK ON YOUR TBR THAT YOU’RE DYING TO READ?

No particular book but there are certain authors whom I really look forward to reading or rereading: Eva Dolan, Clarice Lispector, Virginia Woolf, Neil Gaiman, Simenon, Stefan Zweig.

You may not think so, given that in some cases I have more than a couple of books by them on my TBR pile but haven’t dived into them yet. Life just got in the way… and it’s sometimes easier to keep those ‘sure bets’ in the background for when you need some reading/writing inspiration.

HOW MANY BOOKS ARE IN YOUR GOODREADS TBR SHELF?

Viennese tram stop.
Viennese bus stop.

785 but that’s a wishlist, so it doesn’t count. I keep adding to it as soon as I read a review of a promising book or someone mentions a new to me author or a topic I’m interested in. (Basically, anything to do with Vienna, Brazil, immigration and expats gets an automatic look-in.)

However, the most amazing fact is that before 2009 or so I did not have any TBR pile or wishlists. I would mainly borrow books from the library and only buy a few books which I read almost immediately. In 2010, however, I started writing again myself, and my reading has increased exponentially (not that I ever was a lazy reader). Plus, my husband’s misguided attempt to cure me of buying physical books by getting me an e-reader has resulted in double the number of books!