Culture Clash: The Wife Who Wasn’t by Alta Ifland

I ‘met’ the author Alta Ifland online via Twitter, both of us exchanging opinions on news items pertaining to Romania or reviews of Romanian literature. Alta left Romania in the 1990s and has lived abroad ever since, first in France, then in the US, so we clearly had many things in common. When she asked me to read and review her novel The Wife Who Wasn’t, which is coming out in the US on the 18th of May, explaining that it’s all about cross-cultural (mis)communication, I could not resist. (It is also available for pre-order in the UK, although I am not sure if it has the same publishing date.)

The story takes place in 1996-7, mostly in California, but with some trips to the Republic of Moldova. Sammy is a reasonably well-off widower living in Santa Barbara with his teenage daughter Anna. He realises that she is running a bit wild, too much of a tomboy, so he decides she needs some womanly influence and finds himself a mail-order bride from Moldova. Enter the energetic, not-all-that-young but still attractive Russian lady Tania, arriving at the airport in LA:

He recognises the woman right away (though they haven’t seen each other in over half a year), not because she is very memorable, but because there is something that makes her stand out in the crowd. It may be her hair… or her swinging hips, marking her territory as she advances like a lioness toward prey… When she is almost near him, he notices that her skin looks very young, white and plump like a baby’s, and her lips, equally plump, have the shine and luminescence of a wet, luscious grape.

But Tania is no baby – she is a born hustler, hungry for all of the advantages and luxuries that America has to offer. Her new husband seems a bit scared of her; it is true that she has been hiding the fact that she has a teenage daughter back in Moldova, whom she intends to bring over to join her in California as soon as possible. However, it’s not a straightforward case of golddigger and victim, for Sammy’s own motives for choosing a bride from the ‘Old World’ are fairly murky:

It’s not that he couldn’t have found a wife on his own; what worried him was that he’d also have to marry her family and friends. He’d labored so hard to isolate himself and Anna from the rest of the world, from the vulgarity and petty noises that often passed for communal bonding. A wife from the Old World would have the immediate advantage of being an orphan, so to speak: no family, no friends. She would be like a rescued pet, entirely dependent on him. Not to mention the supplemental advantage of a woman from a world where they still believed in taking care of the head of the family!

You just know that things are not going to go according to plan. At first, Tania is stunned by the fancy houses, the endless choice in the supermarkets and shops, the fancy lifestyle. But the hipster Californian sensibility doesn’t quite make sense. When Anna tells her that she is a vegetarian, because she believes in treating every living thing with respect, Tania muses:

Treat chicken with respect! That’s a good one. I’m telling you, this country is going to the dogs. If you start treating chickens with respect, where does it end? Besides, she doesn’t even treat me with respect!

There are many opportunities for satire in the culture clashes between the newly-capitalistic Eastern Europeans eager for domestic comforts, and the privileged Californians hankering after an idealised ‘old-fashioned, more spiritual’ lifestyle. The hypocrisy of the capitalist system is exposed through delicious comedy. For example, when Tania looks for a job in a cafe (she wants to have her own pocket money, not have to ask her husband for an allowance), she is asked why she wants to work there. She replies very frankly that it was the only place hiring, that she doesn’t really want to work but she needs the money.

After all those years under communism, when we were forced to claim that we wanted to work for the good of the country, now, in freedom, I could tell the truth: I wanted to work for the money! I didn’t give a shit about society, all I wanted was the money.

The manager tries to explain that they represent more than a workplace, that every day they cleanse themselves of negative thoughts and have a philosophy of sacred commerce. Clearly, Tania muses to herself, if the communists are failed capitalists, then the capitalists are failed ministers who feel ‘compelled to shroud their money in the sacred veil of communal wholesomeness’.

Add to the mix Tania’s unruly daughter Irina, her good-for-nothing drunkard of a brother Serioja, Sammy’s divorced neighbour Bill with his teenage son, another art-collecting neighbour Lenny – and you have quite a powder keg of personal interests, rivalries, flirtations and affairs, attempts to seduce or trick or worse.

This is not the gentle observational comedy of manners that you might expect from Barbara Pym. It is more of a return to the original comedy of manners principles of the Restoration period in England or Molière in France, with heightened – often ruthless – satire, some stock secondary characters (who represent types rather than rounded individuals), complex plotting and counter-plotting, and a lot of social commentary. It is fast, furious and occasionally infuriating, as the largely unlikable characters try to outwit each other, but you can’t help wanting to know how these moves on the chessboard will all end.

There is one part that doesn’t seem to fit in as well with the rest of the story: the painting icons section. Before leaving Moldova, Irina tries to master the skill of icon-painting from the talented Maria (who later marries Irina’s uncle). Maria takes the work very seriously, and is fully immersed in the tradition and spiritual meaning of this ancient craft, while Irina just wants to learn enough to make a quick buck in the States. I personally enjoyed the long descriptions of Maria’s art and how she came to disover it:it reminded me of the film ‘Andrei Rublev’ and I really recommend you search for the famous Voronets blue, which is my favourite shade of my favourite colour. However, it jarred slightly against the lighter-hearted comic moments or social critique in the rest of the book. I also thought the ending was a bit contrived, as if the author wanted to wrap things up quickly, although it was inspired by real-life events in the Santa Barbara area.

Despite these two slight misgivings, I have to say it is a hugely entertaining novel, a perfect change of pace from my usual fraught fare; I gulped it down in 2 days. It steers clear of the cute and fluffy, and has quite a bit to say about the contrasts between two very different societies. Please note that Alta Ifland’s other work is far more quirky and experimental. The author cites Beckett, Clarice Lispector, Paul Celan and Kafka among her influences, and you can get an idea of her style in the prose poems she uses in her biographical notes on her website.

There are glimpses of this less conventional style of storytelling in the frequent changes in point of view. We occasionally have an omiscient narrator with a wry sense of humour, but we also get to see what each character thinks of the others and how they plan to outsmart them. This is sometimes done through the letters that Tania and Irina write to each other or to the grandmother they have left back in Moldova: that is where the truth comes out in an unvarnished way, with people who truly understand your background. The humour is closer in spirit that of the Soviet satirists Ilf and Petrov, but overlaid with an easy, breezy Californian chick lit style; a more successful marriage, perhaps, than Sammy and Tania’s.

Why Writers’ Retreats Work (Mostly)

Chateau+Lavigny+016-590x393Last night I discovered one of the great treasures literary life in the Lake Geneva area.

I had the great pleasure to attend  a reading of poetry and prose at the coquette Chateau de Lavigny near Lausanne.  This beautiful manor house set amidst vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva is home to the Ledig-Rowohlt foundation and has been hosting for two decades retreats for both emerging and established writers from all over the world. Once a month in the summer, the resident writers share their thoughts and works with a small public, in both English and French – and also, very often, their native languages.

Last night’s friendly and talented group of writers included: novelist and children’s author Ousmane Diarra (from Mali); poet Janet McAdams from the United States; fiction writer and translator Alexander Markin (from Russia); novelist and essayist Tatiana Salem Levy from Brazil; writer of Gothic novels Leonora Christina Skov from Denmark.

View from the Terrace.
View from the Terrace.

The Readings

Ousmane kicked off with an extract from his novella ‘La Revelation’.  It is the story of a child who discovers that his real mother is dead. He asks the local priest what death means and is told that his mother is now with ‘le bon Dieu’ (the good Lord). From now on he will wage war with the good Lord, in an effort to gain back his mother.  With his resonant voice and brilliant insights into a child’s confused thoughts,  the author gathered us around an imaginary campfire to hear this moving, thrilling and often funny tale.

Janet’s poetry was about finding and losing one’s identity, about moving on, about moving to other countries and about being observed and scrutinised. Haunting, thought-provoking poems, which struck a deep chord in me, although she seemed to fear that she was too serious and said at one point, apologetically: ‘It doesn’t get any more cheerful.’

Alexander read fragments from his semi-fictional diaries depicting the life of an artist in present-day Russia, a mix of minute details and philosophical reflections, anecdotes about artistry and repression, acute observations of everyday absurdity and a healthy dose of satire.

Tatiana read the opening of her first novel ‘A chave de casa’, an exploration of her family’s past, from Smyrna to Rio. She was lyrical, funny, tender, with richly sensuous details and an air of sepia-coloured nostalgia.

Last but not least, Leonora very bravely read out her own translation into English from a rough draft of her current work in progress.  This is a novel inspired by Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ and is set in a writer’s colony on a lonely Danish island.  Murderous writers, tongue-in-cheek and witty style, mordant characterisations: I can hardly wait to read this!

So, as you can see, a remarkable diversity of styles and subject matters, but all equally talented and passionate about writing.  Can you just imagine the dinner table conversations there? This is one of the beauties of writers’ residencies.  While conferences within your own genre are very useful and huge fun,  the best ideas often come from this diversity of visions and ideas. It’s the difference of approaches and the cross-pollination that ultimately leads to the most interesting experiments, that will make a writer venture out of their comfort zone.

Steamboat on Lake Geneva, near Lausanne (Switz...
Steamboat on Lake Geneva, near Lausanne (Switzerland) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Availability of English Translations

Or, rather, the lack of availability. In our post-reading chat over drinks, every one of the writers (except for Janet McAdams, who writes in English, obviously) emphasised how difficult it was to get translated into English and published in either the UK or the US.  This rather reinforces the point I made earlier about reaching a wider public if you are writing in English.

Although Tatiana Salem Levy is featured in Granta 121: Best of Young Brazilian Novelists, her work is not otherwise available to the English-speaking world. How is it that her first novel has been translated into French, Italian, Romanian, Spanish and Turkish, but not in English? Alexander’s diaries are being translated into German – everyone there agreed that German publishers are so good at discovering new talent abroad, that they are the fastest with their translations.  Yet the Germans themselves are just as worried about the demise of the publishing industry as anyone else.

To my mind, Leonora Christina Skov has all of the qualities to appeal to an American or British audience: she has that sly dark humour, she writes quirky Gothic tales and she is a Scandinavian bordering on crime fiction, for heaven’s sake!  What more has that woman got to do to be noticed?  It seems to me infinitely sad that she is seriously considering switching to English in her writing.

The Future of Writer’s Colonies

I don’t think there is a writer on earth who has not dreamt of going to a writers’ colony for a month or so, in a idyllic location, and having nothing else to worry about but writing.  Not even laundry, cooking and cleaning, let alone earning a living.  Most would agree that it is very conducive to writing, even if the company you find there may be challenging at times.

Of course, as foundation pots and art funds dwindle, it’s becoming harder and harder to fund these programmes.  Last night I heard rumours about initiatives like these closing down in Spain and Greece. Smaller profit-making initiatives are springing up, offering no stipends, but instead comfortable surroundings in which a paying visitor can get away from it all and be creative.   Not quite the same, is it, if you are still worrying about money and the taxman?

The group of volunteers from the steering committee at Lavigny are worried about the future.  They can’t get any funding from the Swiss state or local canton, because they have an international rather than a local remit. Meanwhile, PEN or other international art foundations are overwhelmed with applications on a daily basis.  Above all, they are reluctant to reduce the residency programme from its current 3-4 weeks to just one week, because they feel that is too short to get the creative juices really flowing.  I do hope the magic of Lavigny will be able to exert its influence on writers worldwide for a while longer.

Nothing like an inappropriate picture to end the article!
 Typical Swiss landscape, photo credit: Wink Lorch,http://www.jurawine.co.uk