Winding Down and Wrapping Up (4)

Just when I thought the bad summer months had passed and I was about to turn things around with a quiet writing holiday at last… things continued to not work out according to hopes and plans. However, this did lead to some major reading therapy, so the year finished strong at least in that respect.

My second brush with Covid led once again to a weakened immune system, and thus infections with all the viruses life could throw at me, plus more severe symptoms as soon as I caught something for the rest of the autumn.

The week-long October holiday in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside would have been the perfect rest, combining creativity with long walks and visits to Shibden Hall and Hebden Bridge… but alas, I was plagued by a vicious migraine and nausea for most of my stay there, and could barely make it out of bed. I hobbled down to Slaithwaite one morning, and managed to translate about 3000 words, but that was all I had to show for my much longed-for writing retreat.

Things got worse when I came back home. My younger son, whose nickname used to be the Duracell Bunny for his endless energy and sunny disposition, which made him a firm favourite whenever we visited family back in Greece or Romania, suddenly admitted he was deeply depressed and expressed suicidal thoughts.

I can take any amount of bad things happening to me, but bad things happening to my loved ones are much harder to face. I’ve spent these past few months trying to reassure him, get help, keep talking to him without becoming the pushy, prying mum… Above all, find a way to kickstart his engine and reawaken his joie de vivre and natural curiosity. Although I’ve experienced similar feelings myself in the past, although I have been a trained volunteer for the Samaritans, it’s horrible to see how all that becomes inconsequential when it’s your own child. It’s like treading on eggshells all the time. I am aware that it’s not a situation that can be fixed quickly or fully, so we take each day as it comes. I also feel very alone in all of this, as he won’t allow me to mention his fears and depression to his father or brother (for good reason, I suspect, as his father was very dismissive and unhelpful when I was depressed). Luckily, his school has been very supportive and we are collaborating on this quite well. But he has his A Levels this year, so things are… complicated.

Given the emotional and physical lows of that month, my reading was very escapist and not entirely memorable. The crime book I enjoyed most was The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee, the latest book in his delectable series set in pre-independence India, and I probably related a little too much with the treacherous middle-aged academic in Vladimir by Julia May Jonas (not pictured above because I like neither the US nor the UK cover).

Winter in Sokcho and Mateiu Caragiale were perhaps rather melancholy choices for the month, but they were both beautifully written – at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum, simple and unadorned to ornate and baroque. However, I have to admit it was a struggle to read Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire during this period, because of the grim subject matter, and I might not have been able to finish it if I’d not had Daniel Hahn’s translation diary alongside it. And, much as I love Marlen Haushofer’s writing style, her novella The Loft or her biography were not exactly light reading matter either. Luckily, my other reading choices for German Literature Month were somewhat lighter: Isabel Bogdan’s The Peacock was delightfully farcical but not silly, while Franz Schuh’s Laughing and Dying may sound grim but is actually a collection of essays and anecdotes, poems and little plays exploring what it means to be Viennese (review to follow in the Austrian Riveter in early 2023).

In November, my older son came home for what was going to be a delightful week-long stay to impress us with his newfound cooking and cleaning skills. However, his sore throat and cough got worse, morphed into glandular fever and ended up requiring multiple calls to NHS 111, emergency out-of-hours service and finally the A&E at hospital. He passed on at least part of the virus to us two as well, so November passed by in an interminable blur of collective ill health.

Perhaps not the best backdrop to read challenging journeys through someone’s convoluted brain and memories, such as Solenoid by Mircea Cărtărescu or Javier Marias’ trilogy Your Face Tomorrow (which I’ve been reading at the rate of one a month, and still have to review). Even the speculative crime novel In the Blink of an Eye by Jo Callaghan, fascinating though it was as a premise (who is less biased and better able to solve a case, a live detective or an AI one?), had a theme of suicide and ill health, so was not quite as escapist as I’d hoped.

However, December dawned more hopeful: a lovely trip to Newcastle Noir with two of our Corylus authors, Tony Mott from the prettiest town in Romania, Brașov, and Óskar Guðmundsson from Iceland. In celebration, I read several good crime novels to end the year: Ian Rankin’s latest, featuring a retired but still very rebellious Rebus, Trevor Wood’s first in a trilogy featuring an ‘invisible’ homeless man solving crimes he witnesses on the streets, and Keigo Higashino’s entertaining mix of police procedural and psychological depth.

Older son recovered fully and enjoyed a ski trip in France, coming back full of nostalgic stories about French food and books, pistes we had both loved, and oodles of Swiss chocolate (he flew via Geneva). I am looking forward to some cosy film-watching with both of them (we started with Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio yesterday, on the first day of holidays), lots of reading, favourite Christmassy foods… and will ignore gas bills, ongoing concerns about family members, several substantial literary and translation rejections, or my own precarious health.

Hope really does spring eternal – and in 2023 I resolve to be more physically active, take better care of myself as well as others, and not take on too many additional projects.

I will probably post a few more book reviews between Christmas and New Year, but I will sign off for a few days (other than the usual Friday Fun post) and may your holiday period be as unstressful as possible!

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin

Although several of you raved about this novella (including two bloggers I trust and follow implicitly, Tony and Jacqui), it took me a while to get around to reading it, because I wanted to read it in the original. This is not to throw a shade on translation in general (goodness knows, I try my best to translate too!) or the translator Aneesa Abbas Higgins in particular, but whenever I hear about the ‘sparse, understated style’ in French, I shudder thinking of how easy and simple it appears to be on the page (Camus, for example) and how it can come out sounding like nothing very much at all when you try to render it into any other language.

The novella won the Robert Walser Prize in Switzerland for literary debut in 2016 and the American National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2021, so I wouldn’t say it’s passed under the radar, but it does seem to be one of those quiet books that doesn’t make a furore and appear on all the ‘Best of the Year’ lists.

The author and her book

The unnamed narrator has returned after her studies in Seoul to her hometown of Sokcho to look after her fishmonger mother (who potentially has a health issue). She somewhat languidly imagined herself continuing her studies in France, since she speaks the language and her father (who absented himself from the family before she was born) was French. Meanwhile, however, she seems stuck but not unhappy in a job as a chambermaid and cook at a small hotel, in her half-hearted, not entirely satisfactory relationship with her boyfriend who dreams of a modelling or idol career in Seoul, in her repetitive, not entirely honest conversations with her mother.

Then a mysterious stranger descends upon out-of-season Sokcho. A middle-aged French illustrator (BD creator) appears at the hotel, which is virtually closed during the winter. Sokcho in summer is quite the tourist magnet, with its beaches, hot springs, nature reserves and viewing platform of the border with North Korea, but in winter it is a ghost town. The author does a great job of conveying the cold and frozen atmosphere, the distinctive fishy smells, the wind blowing through the streets, the fading, rotten atmosphere of a former pier-side attraction.

The narrator is attracted to the visitor, yet refuses to acknowledge that she is projecting her missing father figure on him. She speaks to him in English rather than in French, for example, although neither of them is fluent in that language. She prepares all sorts of tasty Korean specialties, only to be frustrated that he refuses to partake in any of the meals and instead stuffs himself with Dunkin Donuts and other junk food in secret in his room. She insists that he allow her to do his laundry… and sneaks a look at his drawings, seeming to find much comfort in the sound of his pencil drawing on paper.

At first I expected the story to go down the age-inappropriate love affair route (how very French), but the author is far more subtle than that. The fascination between the two is also the fascination between two different cultures, between a creator and his muse, between someone who is unsure of her identity and longs for certainty and someone who appears to know their place in the world… although that proves illusory. Above all, it seems to me that the narrator wishes to be seen, and acknowledged for what she is in all her incomplete imperfection. But she would never admit it, she would never beg – she seems as restrained, as cold, as cynical as the town around her. And Kerrand the Frenchman proves to be a stubborn cultural imperialist.

This is a melancholy novel of isolation, the unbridgeable gap between people and everything that is not spoken out loud, everything that we are reluctant to admit even to ourselves. An elegant tour de force also about the borders we artificially raise between people, cultures, countries.

The French edition is published by Zoe in Geneva, while the English translation is published by Daunt Books.