January Reads

I’ve started the year in style and have done more reading than I would have thought possible. All the rain and darkness is paying off!

23 books – nearly as much as my best ever month, August 2013. Only this time I did have the children around. I must have locked them in a cupboard! (Only kidding: we often spent a cosy moment, all three of us on a sofa reading our separate books.)

Shaugnessy2 Poetry:

Brenda Shaughnessy: Our Andromeda       From playful to profound and moving, this book has it all. Additional claim to fame: had me in floods of tears while queuing at immigration counter in US.

Mahmoud Darwish: A River Dies of Thirst        More of a diary and notebook rather than finished poems, this is one to savour, full of beautiful quotes and thoughts.

Darwish(Why do I not do book reviews of poetry? And why do I read so little poetry in book form? I do read lots of it on the internet, though.)

2 Non Fiction:

Christian McEwen: World Enough and Time      On the importance of slowing down for the creative process – a must-have for my ‘Hurry Up’ and extreme multitasker personality.

Rachel Cusk: A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother      Polemical, brutally honest, perhaps limited First World and middle class experience, but eminently relate-able. And, unexpectedly, very funny!

2 in French: Andrei Makine

Claude Ragon: Du bois pour les cerceuils       To such lows do we sink when we are on holiday and have run out of books! Picked it up because it was set in the Jura mountains (where I live), but it was tedious.

1 in German: Erich Kästner

7 Translations:

Pieter Aspe: The Midas Murders

Sebastian Fitzek: Therapy

deathinthemuseumofmodernartAlma Lazarevska: Death in the Museum of Modern Art  – review forthcoming on Necessary Fiction         Stunning, very moving, economically and impeccably written.

Keigo Higashino: The Devotion of Suspect X

Ryu Murakami: Audition

Hamid Ismailov: The Dead Lake

Shuichi Yoshida: Villain

9 Others (Almost Exclusively Crime Fiction)

Peter Swanson: The Girl with a Clock for a Heart       

Alison Bruce: The Silence      Comfort reading, as I love Gary Goodhew and the Cambridge setting. A little disappointed by this one, though.

Martin Walker: Bruno, Chief of Police      Ditto as for above, except the setting is south-west of France.

Adrian Magson: The Watchman

Sarah Rayne: The Whispering

Simon Brett: The Strangling on Stage

poisonpawnPeggy Blair: The Poisoned Pawn       Review forthcoming on CFL. In one word: characters.

William McIlvaney: Laidlaw

Phil Hogan: A Pleasure and a Calling       Forthcoming. In one word: creepy.

Travelled to Boston, Bruges, the North Sea island of Sylt, Sarajevo, Tokyo, Fukuoka, Cambridge, the Dordogne, Somalia, Russia, Canada and Cuba, Kazakhstan, Glasgow, Palestine and several small fictional towns in South-East England. Oh, and the constellation of Andromeda!

Where will we go next in February? Can’t wait!

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