Reading and Watching Summary June 2022

Reading

I was not expecting to read that many books for my French in June attempt, partly because I am a much slower reader in French, and partly because I knew it was going to be a pretty busy time. However, two of the nine French books I read were in English (although I read one of them in parallel with the French edition), which helped, and most of them were quite slim, which helped even more. Here are the French authors I read (their books also fulfilled my #20Books of Summer challenge), with links to the reviews:

Five men and four women writers, but I may read a few more women for #WomeninTranslation month in August. And a triumph of no less than nine books of the eleven French titles I had selected for the #20Books of Summer challenge.

In addition to the French authors, I also read:

  • Joseph Knox: True Crime Story for our Virtual Crime Club, which I thought was very cleverly constructed and different from run-of-the-mill stories about girls who disappeared
  • Tirzah Garwood: Long Live Great Bardfield, which made me wonder just how much women artists have had to put their own career second in order to further their husband’s career (Eric Ravilious in this case)
  • Hilma Wolitzer: Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket, a collection of short stories about women’s roles as wives and mothers, dating mostly from the 1960-80s, although there are a couple more recent ones (one written after the death of her husband from Covid was particularly moving). Written with deadpan and occasionally surreal humour, borrowed from the library after listening to the author on the Lost Ladies of Lit podcast.
  • Maud Cairnes: Strange Journey, a body switch story between a middle-class housewife and an aristocratic society lady, with surprisingly sharp observations about class differences and assumptions for the time it was written (1930s)
  • Oscar Wilde: De Profundis – I had read this before, but gained so much additional insight from the Backlisted episode with Stephen Fry as a guest, that I wanted to experience it once more.

Films

You can see that my older son came home twice during this period (for a week or so each time), because I watched quite a lot of films with him around. During his exams, he went on a bit of a Disney/Pixar binge, so we watched The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, The Emperor’s New Groove and The Aristocats. We also watched films by directors that my son tends to admire: Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – I still don’t get the point of the Manson gang reference), Wes Anderson (The French Dispatch – the ultimate Anderson self-indulgence), Georges Franju (Eyes without a Face – creepy but not as atmospheric as M, for example), while I got to pick Almodovar (Volver) on my birthday. By myself, I watched the problematic but fun Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, the Shakespearean Iranian tragedy of Chess of the Wind, and the surprisingly minimalist Korean drama The Woman Who Ran.

I went to the cinema with a friend to watch Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, which made us laugh and feel good, and sigh over Daryl McCormack. It felt like a play for two people, and we agreed that Nancy (played so well by Emma Thompson) didn’t seem like the kind of person we would like as a friend in real life.

Literary Events

I attended two real-life events this month. First, the Oxford Translation Day at St Anne’s College, where I got to meet so many lovely translators, do a workshop with Jen Calleja whom I greatly admire, and hear translators talk about their translation motivation and practices. The publisher panel (represented by Heloise Press, Paper Republic and Praspar Press) made me feel better about the teething problems of Corylus – small, independent publishing of translated fiction is clearly a money-pit. As one of the panellists put it: ‘You pay for everything but you’re the last to see any money back, or everyone gets paid except for the publishers.’

The second live event was a play by a very talented young actor/writer/director from Romania (who is now living in the UK) Ioana Goga. The play was called Love (to) Bits and was performed at Baron’s Court Theatre, a small venue in the basement of the Curtains Up pub in West London. It is a highly relatable examination of love, what it is, what it could be, and where it often fails, played with aplomb and great gusto by the three young performers, Ioana Goga, Tomas Howser and Beatrice Bowden. Here is a thoughtful review of it and do check out the energetic talent of their company Eye Opening Productions.

I also ran two Romanian poetry translation workshops for the Stephen Spender Trust in a primary school in Slough – and absolutely loved working with the children. I had forgotten what fun it can be working with that age group (and how tiring).

Online, I attended a session on the recent publication of a comic book Madgermanes, about Mozambican workers who had previously been contracted out to East Germany. It was a conversation between Birgit Weyhe, a German comic book artist, and her translator and publisher Katy Derbyshire at V&Q Books.

The final events I attended were on Sunday 26th of June, two brief snippets from the ambitiously hybrid Kendal Poetry Festival – kudos to the organisers for offering both remote and in-person options, which I know from experience is double the work and the cost.

French in June and #20Books: Gael Faye and Lola Lafon

The reviews for these two books will be short, not because I didn’t enjoy the books, but because I have run out of time. The end of this month has been a particularly busy one for me. That is also the reason I am grouping them together, although the only similarity they have is that they both feature child narrators (at least partly) and are based on true stories, although they are both works of fiction.

Actually, now that I think about it, ‘enjoy’ is perhaps the wrong word to use about either of these two books, each dealing with such difficult themes. They were quite challenging to read, but I am glad I did. They both had very powerful, moving prose, although Lafon tries to be more clinical and detached.

Book 8/20: Gael Faye: Petit Pays (translated by Sarah Ardizzone as Small Country)

Gabriel is living in France as an adult, a country that is oddly familiar to him (with a French dad, and having gone to a French school all his life), but also one where he never feels he fully belongs (his mother is a Tutsi refugee from Rwanda, and he spent most of his childhood in Burundi). After a brief prologue – in which Gabriel’s father tries to explain the reasons for the civil war in Burundi and Rwanda, which the children interpret as ‘because the Hutus and the Tutsis don’t have the same type of nose’ – we see Gabriel living a very threadbare life in the Paris region but not entirely sure if he dares to return to his home country. The rest of the book describes this childhood in Burundi in 1992-94, and in particular life in his close, a relatively affluent area of Bujumbura, full of mixed-race marriages or diplomats.

One highlight is Gabriel’s eleventh birthday party, where everyone is invited, even people who are normally quite hostile to each other. Although a confrontation takes place there between two of the boys, and then there is a black-out, the party continues with live instruments and improvised music and dancing. It is the last moment of joy and insouciance for those present, for soon afterward the war erupts in Rwanda (with dire consequences for Gabriel’s relatives), and then the fragile new democracy in Burundi crumbles too. The friendship between the boys on the close unravels too.

The book is now widely taught in French schools, has become a modern classic, as well as winning the literary prize chosen by high-school students (and not just because the author is a popular rapper). It provides an eye-opening description of a certain time and place, and explains so well the reasons why people become refugees. There are some great scenes, often funny, but also moving, and there are some lyrical passages which are very well written, but there are also shocking scenes, which are not sugarcoated at all for a YA audience. Occasionally, the child’s voice slips and we are transported to the adult’s perception, but I didn’t find that annoying. The finale could be seen by some as too sentimental, but I think it struck just about the right note.

Book 9/20: Lola Lafon: Chavirer (translated by Hildegarde Serle as Reeling)

This was another hard-hitting book, quite difficult to read at times, although it was less graphic than Faye’s novel. Based on the author’s own experience of studying ballet, it is in essence the Ghislaine Maxwell/Jeffrey Epstein network transposed to a French setting. Girls as young as 13 are lured in by an elegant, well-educated and well-connected woman at the Galatea Foundation, with the promise of a scholarship that would enable them to pursue their dreams of becoming a dancer, an artist, an actress etc. Cleo is one of the girls who falls under the spell of the glamorous Cathy but soon finds herself trapped in a frightening situation that she barely understands. It gets even worse when she becomes complicit with the sinister operation, recruiting ‘promising’ girls. As Cleo grows up, and as the victims of this network start to speak out, she struggles with her own role in this pedophile ring, and that she never warned the girls of the dangers.

But it’s not just Cleo’s story. We see multiple points of view, including the discussion boards set up many years later by investigative journalists and documentary makers trying to find out what had been going on. The book shows just how difficult it is for #MeToo experiences to be taken seriously, especially in a country like France.

Those lunches, in the nineties, that brought together girls and powerful men? It was common knowledge. These are the words of the female producer of a radio show with whom Enid and Elvire are talking about their forthcoming documentary. Everyone knew about it. And if those lunches took place for so many years without anyone complaining about them, it’s proof that nothing that serious went on at them, she adds.

Although the scenes of abuse are not shown directly, and certainly not in detail, we are shown the effect it has on the girls, the temporary disassociation of body and mind that they have to enact in order to survive, but also the long-term trauma. By allowing a multiplicity of voices to be represented, Lafon makes us question ourselves and our hypocrisies, and makes us wonder to what extent we too have often been complicit in the exploitation of others.

… it’s not what we are forced to do that destroys us, but what we consent to do that chips away at us; those pricks of shame, from consenting every day to reinforce what we decry. I buy things knowing they’re made using slave labor, I go on vacation to a dictatorship with lovely sunny beaches. I got to the birthday party of a harasser who produces my films. We’re shot through with such shame, a whirlwind that, little by little, bores into us and hollows us out. Not having said anything. Or done anything. Having said yes because we didn’t know how to say no.

French in June and #20Books: Romain Gary

Romain Gary in 1956, roughly around the time he would have been writing this book – there aren’t many pictures of him looking very corporate and diplomatic.

Book 7/20: Romain Gary: L’Homme a la colombe (writing as Fosco Sinibaldi)

An unusual book for my next French in June read (which I also conveniently snuck in my #20Books of Summer pile), one that I would never have come across if it hadn’t been suggested to me by Emma, inveterate Romain Gary lover and reviewer of a wide range of literature on her always enticing Book Around the Corner blog. You can read Emma’s thoughts on this book here.

I love books about international organisations such as the UN. My father worked for the UN International Development Organisation for quite a large chunk of the 1970s and 80s, so I grew up hearing plenty about the idealism and the disappointments, the successes and the nastier politicking side of things. What is surprising, however, is that Romain Gary seems to have lost his innocence and hope for the UN quite a bit sooner than most people, for he published this hard-hitting satire about the organisation in 1958 (under a pseudonym, of course). Shirley Hazzard published her satire People in Glass Houses roughly ten years later.

The Secretary-General of the UN and his two most trusted advisors (incidentally, because of the nationalities of the people involved, it sounds a bit like the beginning of a joke: a Frenchman, an Englishman and a Persian) are worried when they find out that an outsider, a man with a dove, has managed to penetrate the heavily-guarded building and set himself up in a secret location, a room that does not appear on any architectural plan, that no one seems to know anything about.

At first no one, not even the young intruder himself, seems to know what the purpose of this ‘protest’ is. Then the young man goes on a hunger strike and they are forced to conclude that he is of that rare category, a dreamer and believer in the principles of the UN. I loved the contrast between the suave, poetical Persian Bagtir and the very pragmatic Englishman Praiseworthy (while the Frenchman burst into tears dramatically and easily):

‘Instead of hiding his presence, I would suggest, on the contrary, that you tell the press. It is very poetical. Omar Khayam says that Allah only listens to the prayers in a new mosque when a swallow has made a nest under its roof…

‘That’s all very well, but if the public opinion here in America finds out that we are spending twenty million dollars per year to shelter a swallow, that could cause great trouble. Alas, America is a very prosaic country.’

The young man, the son of a Texas millionaire, is trying to demonstrate that Americans too can be idealistic, that they can die for an idea, and not just be consumers obsessed by wealth. But he isn’t acting on his own – he has his own aiders and abetters, including con-men, gamblers, a girlfriend and a Hopi chief who has become a shoeshine boy in the building, to remind people with lofty ideas that they too have feet and need to be more down-to-earth. Things don’t quite go according to plan, however – the public seems to take the man with the dove at face value, rather than understand the profound irony, and so his behaviour becomes more and more extreme.

The story is a complete farce, absurd yet with bite. There is much to enjoy in the sarcasm with which Gary describes the UN’s high officials’ plans for how to resolve the problem – a lesson for politicians everywhere!

‘Above all, we musn’t give the impression that we are against him, that the UN refuses to provide shelter to the man with the dove. We therefore have to welcome him publicly, even formally, showing our respect for the ideal he is defending, which is after all our ideals, and then channel all that enthusiasm and sympathy towards us… you can be sure that once he enters these walls, he will cease to be a problem. He will get worn out, no longer attract attention, disappear bit by bit… What is essential is that we appropriate him. After that, we no longer need to worry – he will become an abstration. After all, that is one of the reasons for our success: we transform all problems and realities into abstractions, empty them of any real content.’

As you might imagine, Romain Gary, as a working diplomat for France at the time, had to publish this book under a pseudonym. He never acknowledged the work as his own or wished to see it reissued; however, an edited version was found among his papers after his death, so he didn’t fully abandon it either. Many of us now share his disenchantment with international organisations and national governments: although it is a slight work compared to his other, later novels, it remains a sharp yet utterly readable condemnation of politics.

French in June and #20Books: Maylis de Kerangal

Book 6/20: Maylis de Kerangal: Painting Time, transl. Jessica Moore, Maclehose Press, 2021.

I read this book in parallel in French and English, because I had such a wonderful time doing this with her previous book to be translated by Jessica Moore, Mend the Living (there is also a US translation by Sam Taylor, called The Heart). She appears to be the kind of writer who develops a passion for a niche topic of research (organ transplants, building a bridge, becoming a chef, or decorative or trompe l’oeil painting) and then makes a novel out of it. In some cases it works (I found Mend the Living very moving and lyrical), but less so in others. For me, Painting Time (Un monde à portée de main) did not quite take flight and soar.

It’s the story of Paula Karst, a young Frenchwoman, who realises she is not quite good enough to be a ‘proper’ painter, and therefore chooses to go instead to the ‘trompe l’oeil’ master class in Brussels. Here she not only immerses herself in the highly specialised art of imitating materials such as wood, marble, minerals, even animal realm, but also befriends the taciturn, somewhat mysterious Jonas, who becomes her flatmate, and the tall, stroppy former nightclub bouncer Kate from Scotland. We follow Paula’s steep learning curve, the hard work but also the unlearning that she has to do, so that she can see every object in a new light and take nothing for granted. She ends up appreciating the man-made objects more than the natural ones, because of all the effort that goes into them.

What follows then is a sort of meandering tale of Paula’s post-graduation freelance career, moving from one house-painting job to another, taking in some film sets in Cinecitta in Rome and in Moscow along the way, and then ending in Lascaux, where she is involved in the task of recreating the famous cave paintings for a new generation of tourists (without damaging the fragile precious heritage). I can see that the author draws parallels between a coming-of-age story and mastering one’s craft, that the fakery of the art Paula engages in, the ‘creating the illusion of reality’ aspect of her work, raises questions about what is ‘real’, what is ‘unreal’, about falling for appearances – and how that sometimes is a good thing. Also, about how we attribute value to things in general and art in particular.

However, I could have done without the in-between bits. The scenes in the book which really captured my imagination, and where the language really came into its own, were the ones where she is learning her craft in Brussels, especially when painting her end-of-year project, and then the final chapters at the caves of Lascaux. Everything else felt like filler and the characters never really came to life for me: her friends Kate and Jonas just seemed shadowy or flat, and so their friendship never felt entirely plausible or meaningful. She also tries to cram too much into this book: the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a bit of a rant about global nomadic freelancers, a desultory, passionless love affair.

This time the American edition kept the same translator – but what were they thinking with that cover?

I think this lack of attachment readers might feel for the characters is due in large part to de Kerangal’s idiosyncratic style, which doesn’t always translate well into English. She loves her long sentences, with endless clauses and subclauses, often zooming both in and out on a subject in the space of a single paragraph. Her long technical passages can become tedious if you are not particularly interested in the subject; not even her effort to equate it with a writer’s creative process can salvage it. At the same time, she is very deliberate in creating passages where the factual becomes poetical, where she tries to breathe lyrical life into those details, an intriguing mix of detachment and purple prose. This often happens when she describes someone talking passionately about something, for example, when Jonas finally loses his reserve and describes at length the layers of rocks and soil in a quarry. Or in the final section, when they come face to face with the real prehistoric paintings, a twenty-thousand old fish, and realise how transient human life, with all its violence and catastrophes, is on earth.

Original in FrenchTranslation
Lepoisson au-dessus de leur tête révélait la mémoire accumulée au
fond des océans, l’érosion des calcaires, le déplacement des rivières,
la migration des hommes, des durées qui coexistaient avec l’état de
choc du pays, la colère, la tristesse, les chaînes d’information
continue qui écopaient le temps à longueur de journée pendant que
les deux terroristes poursuivaient leur cavale mortifère : il connectait
l’histoire du monde et leur vie humaine.
The fish above their heads reveals the memory accumulated at the bottom of the oceans, the erosion of the limestone, the movement of the rivers, the migration of humans, these lengths of time that coexist with the state of shock their country is in now, the anger, sorrow, the twenty-four-hour news channels that bail out time all day long while the two terrorists continue on their deadly run; it connects the history of the world to their fragile human life.

I expected to like this book far more than Mend the Living (after all, I appreciate and think I understand art more than the minutiae of heart transplants), but in the end it did not quite gel for me. However, I have another of her books, an earlier one, called Corniche Kennedy, which is about a group of young friends growing up and being daredevils in Marseille. Let’s see if she manages to capture the atmosphere of that city as well as my beloved Izzo!

Coincidentally, I was concurrently reading Long Live Great Bardfield (available from Persephone Press), the autobiography of Tirzah Greenwood, Eric Ravilious’ wife and a talented artist in her own right. She too seemed to display the lack of confidence in her work and relationships that Paula has too. Tirzah was modest about her achievements, but she is a funny and keen observer of the egos and pretentions of their bohemian friends. She ended up specialising quite a bit in woodcuts and hand marbled papers, while she raised three children and tried to be modern and understanding about her husband’s affairs. Perhaps de Kerangal’s Paula is safer staying single and emotionally detached!

French in June and #20Books: Three Writers of Noir

It’s no secret that I like noir fiction, especially when it is not too macho and the (usually male) narrator reveals vulnerability. That’s why two of the authors below are firmly among my favourites, while Janis Otsiemi is new to me, but after hearing him speak in Lyon in 2016, I thought he sounded very interesting. All three of them are (or were) also quite politically engaged, and I wonder if noir is a response to a certain political frame of mind.

Book 3/20: Pascal Garnier: Nul n’est à l’abri du succès (2000) (literally: Nobody’s safe from success)

Translated as C’est la Vie (tr. Jane Aitken), Gallic Books, 2019.

This is the slim volume I was lucky enough to find signed by the author (dedicated to Marie Louise, which is ALMOST Marina Sofia, don’t you agree?) in a second-hand bookshop in Lyon. This was his sixth or seven novel for adults, although it seems to be one of the last to be translated into English. Prior to that, he had a long career as a children’s book author, and the juxtaposition of his hilarious yet slightly surreal kids’ fantasy books with his very dark and violent novels always makes me smile.

The ‘hero’ of the story (who is never a hero, if you know your Garnier) is Jeff Colombier, a has-been middle-aged writer, drinking too much, whose relationships with women have come to nothing, and whose grown-up son despises him. But then things seem to turn around for him when he wins an important literary prize. Although he makes a fool of himself on TV, he is nevertheless feted and suddenly touring all over France. He runs away from all these trappings of success to spend some time with his son (who has become a drug dealer) in an attempt to recapture his youth.

Of course things go awry, although perhaps not quite as violently as in some of the other Garnier novels. Which might be a relief for some readers, but I feel it also lacks some of the perception and depth of novels like How’s the Pain or Moon in a Dead Eye. It is in essence the dry, witty description of a man’s midlife crisis, with additional swipes at the Parisian literary world, womanising and parenting. This is his second novel featuring an author, and there possibly are some knowing autobiographical nods in this one, but I feel it was much better done in The Eskimo Solution. One for Garnier completists (and worth it for his signature alone in my case).

Book 4/20: Jean-Claude Izzo: L’aride des jours (1999) (literally: Barren/Arid Days), with photographs by Catherine-Bouretz-Izzo.

A bit of an unusual book this, a poetry collection by an author best known for his neo-noir Marseille Trilogy. Yet Izzo started out by publishing several volumes of poetry in the 1970s before switching to prose and then returned to poetry twenty years later in 1997 for the remainder of his short life. This volume is illustrated with photos by his wife, mostly close-ups of rocks and cliffs around Marseille.

In fact, you might argue that all of Izzo’s work is a love-song to the city of Marseille and the Mediterranean, without being blind to the destructive forces of either. His work has often been described as combining ‘black and blue’ – the blackest depths of noir, even the ‘blues’ (music also plays an important part in his work), but also the clear blue of the sea representing optimism, the colour of hope and dreams.

His poetry is so evocative of place, of the Mediterranean landscape in all its seasons. There is something so immediate about his descriptions, very sensual, dropping you in the middle of a grassy field, or with your fingers scrabbling in red earth, the warmth of the sun against your skin. I am afraid you will have to take my word for it, because I find it very difficult to translate poetry. It sounds rather inane when I just capture the meaning of the words but not the whole atmosphere, soundscape and colour.

No reference points around here.

Nothing but the sun.

Who says: here and now.

Our place is here, under the shoulder of the sun

on the blue stones, in the bosom of the grass,

the moan of the midi.

Izzo was a political journalist as well as a writer, but poetry seems to have been his shelter. He used to say that he loved telling stories, but that he felt most alive when writing poetry. Poetry helped keep him le plus fidèle possible à l’innocence (as close as possible to innocence).

Book 5/20: Janis Otsiemi: La vie est un sale boulot (2009) [literally: Life’s a dirty business]

This novel is a more straightforward piece of crime fiction, set in Libreville, Gabon. Chicano has just been released from prison (possibly thanks to a case of mistaken identity) after serving four years for a burglary that went wrong. He has sworn to lead a good life from now on, but easier said than done. How can you possibly hope to succeed, when you have no education, no skills, no supportive family or girlfriend, in a country where corruption reigns supreme? Needless to say, Chicano gets sucked back into his criminal gang and things go as well as might be expected.

The story is relatively simple and predictable, and it’s perhaps fair to say that it is one of the author’s earliest novels – he has written around nine of them by now, all featuring the inspectors Koumba and Owoula. But this is not really a police procedural – for the police, just like pretty much all of the public services in Gabon, are corrupt, biased and incompetent. This is not a pretty picture that Otsiemi paints of his country, but it is full of energy and wit. The noise, heat and constant movement of the city streets and marketplaces really come to life.

I also loved the examples of non-standard French being used throughout (some of them explained in footnotes, others perfectly comprehensible but making me smile in the body of the text). For example, the ‘breadwinner’ becomes the ‘manioc winner’ (gagne-pain –> gagne-manioc), underpants are ‘porte-fesses’ (buttock-carriers), the mistress is known as ‘the second office’ and so on. Despite the best efforts of the Académie française, the French language remains alive, diverse and constantly kicking!

French in June: Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir: The Woman Destroyed, transl. Patrick O’Brian.

[Also Book 1 of my #20Books of Summer – I forgot to add her to the original list. Honestly, not cheating!]

I strongly identified with Simone de Beauvoir ever since the age of ten or thereabouts – she was a powerful role model to me. Of course, upon growing up and reading more about her life, I realised that there were plenty of contradictions too. But aren’t we all flawed? Isn’t there always a gap between what we profess and the aches of our heart? Nevertheless, I still love her intellect and her writing. Above all, I love her psychological insight. She can see right through into the hearts of women, even the darkest, most secret nooks which we want to hide from others.

This book is a collection of three novellas, all featuring women at a later stage in life, all facing old age, rejection, and loss of filial or spousal love.

The Age of Discretion is the story of a mother whose son has not turned out the way she would have liked him to be. At the same time, she faces the prospect of aging, regrets, coping with obsolescence in both the personal and professional realms. At times she seems almost content with her long years of experience:

I have discovered the pleasure of having a long past behind me… a background to the diaphanous present: a background that gives its colour and its light, just as rocks or sand show through the shifting brilliance of the sea. Once I used to cherish schemes and promises for the future; now my feeling and my joys are smoothed and softened with the shadowy velvet of time past.

But she has to learn to cope with the limitations of her body, her intellect, her family, and her ability to shape people. She has to learn to not look too far ahead, to live a short-term life, to cope with loneliness in a strange world that we no longer understand and that would carry on without us.

No, he did not belong to me any more… It was I who moulded his life. Now I am watching it from outside, a remote spectator. It is the fate common to all mothers; but who has ever found comfort in saying that hers is the common fate.

Because he was very demanding I believed I was indispensable. Because he is easily influenced I imagined I had created him in my own image… I was the one who knew the real Philippe. And he has preferred to go away from me, to break our secret alliance, to throw away the life I had built for him with such pains. He will turn into a stranger.

She cold-heartedly turns him away because she feels she cannot respect his life choices anymore. He is the one who demonstrates unconditional love. It is a shocking story because of her intransigence about her son and his choices – an unfashionable attitude nowadays, but perhaps more common for that generation:

This is what her son says (quite rightly, it seems to me):

For my part I have never wondered whether I respected you or not. You could do bloody-fool things as much as ever you liked and I shouldn’t love you any the less. You think love has to be deserved… and I’ve tried hard enough not to be undeserving. Everything I ever wanted to be… they were all mere whims according to you: I sacrificed them all to please you. The first time I don’t give way, you break with me.

The Monologue, the second story in the volume, reminded me of one of Dorothy Parker’s tour de force monologues, which reveal all of the deepest fears, foibles, and insecurities of the woman speaking. In this case, we have a frankly rather unpleasant, bitter woman left all alone on New Year’s Eve, resenting her neighbours for celebrating. Her lover has abandoned her, she was estranged from her own daughter (who subsequently died), and considers herself to be wronged by all around her. A real howl of a rant, a mix of pity and disgust – but it also makes us wonder if we are judging her more harshly because she is both middle-aged and a woman. Once again, we encounter here fear of abandonment and loneliness – if the first narrator at least had a partner in old age, this one does not.

She’s dead and so all right what of it? The dead are not saints. She wouldn’t cooperate, she never confided in me at all… Blind with fury just because I was doing my duty as a mother. Me the selfish one when she ran away like that would have been in my interest to have left her with her father. Without her I still had a chance of making a new life for myself.

The third, longest story is The Woman Abandoned, describing the breakdown of a marriage in the form of a diary over the course of several months, as the narrator seeks to come to terms with her husband’s affair, to keep the marriage going, while her two grown daughters have moved away – one to the States, one in a bourgeois marriage. A woman who, while not entirely blameless or likable, is certainly more relatable. She has tried her best to be accommodating and understanding, but constantly questions herself and ends up losing everything. Her sense of desolation is so beautifully conveyed:

Every night I call him: not him – the other one, the one who loved me. And I wonder whether I should not prefer it if he were dead. I used to tell myself that death was the only irremediable misfortune and that if he were to leave me I should get over it. Death was dreadful because it was possible; a break was bearable because I could not imagine it. But now in fact I tell myself that if he were dead I should at least know whom I had lost and who I was myself. I no longer know anything. The whole of my past life has collapsed behind me, as the land does in those earthquakes where the ground consumes and destroys itself… Even if you survive there is nothing left.

I have to admit I could not help but identify with some of the dialogue in this:

The worst thing you did was to let me lull myself in a sense of false security. Here I am at forty-four, empty-handed, with no occupation, no other interest in life apart from you. If you had warned me eight years ago I should have made an independent existence for myself and now it would be easier for me to accept the situation.

‘But Monique!’ he cried, looking astonished, ‘I urged you as strongly as I possibly could to take that job as secretary of the Revue medicale seven years ago.’

This is a powerful description of her descent into depression – no longer able to distinguish between day and night, not washing, not going outside, drinking, smoking, lying in bed all day, wanting to die. Nothing escapes de Beauvoir’s unsentimental eye, for example, the limited amount of sympathy or interest that friends can conjure up for you.

They are all sick of me. Tragedies are all right for a while: you are concerned, you are curious, you feel good. And then it gets repetitive, it doesn’t advance, it grows dreadfully boring: it is so very boring, even for me.

In summary, not the cheeriest of reads, but so insightful and so well written. Simone conquers my heart all over again!

20 Books of Summer (More Like 30)

Cathy at 746 Books has been hosting this annual event for several years now: a very simple idea – to burn through your TBR pile by selecting the 20 books you plan to read over June/July/August. Summer in some parts of the world, winter in others. I usually get close to the fateful number twenty, but am easily distracted on my journey.

I have already announced that I will dedicate June to French language literature, July to Spanish language and August to Women in Translation more widely, so I have a huge pile of books to choose from. Since I never know what mood I will be in when the time comes, I am giving myself a large selection of at least ten or twelve every month in each category, so that I can choose the ones I feel most attracted to at the time.

So here goes:

June:

I’ve picked writers I know and love for my birthday month, or else books I’ve been looking forward to reading for a long, long time.

  1. Maylis de Kerangal: Painting Time
  2. Delphine de Vigan: No et moi
  3. Sophie Divry: La condition pavillonnaire
  4. Lola Lafon: Reeling
  5. Dany Laferriere: Je suis un ecrivain japonais
  6. Jean Claude Izzo: L’aride des jours
  7. Romain Gary: L’Homme a la Colombe
  8. Gael Faye: Petit Pays
  9. Pascal Garnier: Nul n’est a l’abri du succes
  10. Janis Otsiemi: La vie est un sale boulot

July:

I am far less well-read in Spanish language literature (or Portuguese – other than Brazilian), although I seem to enjoy it a lot when I do get around to reading it.

  1. Claudia Pineiro: Elena Knows
  2. Gabriela Cabezon Camara: Slum Virgin
  3. Maria Judite de Carvalho: Empty Wardrobes
  4. Rosa Maria Arquimbau: Forty Lost Years (I am including Catalan in the Spanish/Portuguese language challenge)
  5. Juan Pablo Villalobos: I don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me
  6. Enrique Vila-Matas: The Illogic of Kassel
  7. Javier Marias: Your Face Tomorrow (Vol. 1 at least)
  8. Roberto Bolano: The Skating Rink
  9. Javier Cercas: Even the Darkest Night
  10. Rafael Bernal: The Mongolian Conspiracy

August

I am being clever here, or so I think, because I can leave any unread women authors from June and July for this month. In addition to that, I m also taking a look at the rather chunky ones below:

  1. Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob
  2. Svetlana Alexievich: Second-Hand Time
  3. Esmahan Aykol: Divorce Turkish Style
  4. Magda Szabo: Iza’s Ballad
  5. Anke Stelling: Schäfchen im Trockenen (Higher Ground – because you can never get too many stories of Berlin)

Additional Random Choices:

All by and about women and all of them quite chunky:

  1. Tirzah Garwood: Long Live Great Bardfield
  2. Tessa Hadley: The Past
  3. The Letters of Shirley Jackson
  4. Stela Brinzeanu: Set in Stone
  5. Yvonne Bailey-Smith: The Day I Fell Off My Island

Which of these have you read or do you look forward to reading? Also: am I mad to choose quite a few looooooong books?

#WITMonth: The Two Violets – One Abandoned, One Success

Also my #20BooksofSummer Nos. 16 and 17. I can count the abandoned one, can’t I, since I gave up on it about two thirds of the way through? By complete coincidence, the main protagonist in each of these novels is called Violette or Violeta.

Valérie Perrin: Fresh Water for Flowers, transl. Hildegarde Serle

There was something rather endearing about the Violette in this novel, a much put-upon woman with a good-for-nothing husband, who suffers that most unbearable of losses, the death of her young daughter. With her patience and openness to helping others (even when they take advantage of her), she reminded me of Felicité in Flaubert’s Un cœur simple. Yet the author has to give the protagonist a chance at remaking her life, learning to love and live again, because the story is set in the present-day (or thereabouts – with talk of the automation of the barrier at the train crossing, which Violette was originally operating).

This is the second book about a cemetery that I’ve read in the last year, after The Field by Robert Seethaler. Although I complained that one was a little overlong, it was certainly more interesting in format, with the voices of the dead speaking to us directly. Here, the story is resolutely Violette’s, although we do get the occasional chapter from the perspective of some of the people around her.

Although I enjoyed parts of the book, I simply did not feel the urge to pick it up, and really struggled to read more than a few pages at a time. It felt predictable, the characters simply refused to come to life for me (with the exception of Violette herself) and the little philosophical observations often felt trite. I had read so many good reviews from bloggers I love that I probably stuck with it for far longer than I should have, and it impinged upon my ability to read and enjoy other books for about a week. I felt relieved when I finally gave myself permission to leave it behind.

Dulce Maria Cardoso: Violeta Among the Stars, transl. Ángel Gurría Quintan

This is more familiar territory for me: a dark, sardonic, unlikeable main character, an uncompromising experimental style that pulls you right in if you are in the right mood. I guess I just don’t do well as a reader on the more ‘charming’ side of the spectrum!

Much has been made of this being yet another example of a novel in one sentence… except that there is a reason for it in this case , for these are the jumbled up thoughts of Violeta, who has just overturned her car in an accident and sees her life flash before her eyes. Trains of thoughts come and stop abruptly, going nowhere; there are certain verbal tics and repetitions; we circle further and further back to unpick Violeta’s past and how she ended up driving so fast and recklessly. We discover that recklessness is part of Violeta’s nature, as if to counteract the image people might have of her as an overweight, plain, middle-aged woman. She is a travelling saleswoman, hawking all sorts of depilatory waxes to beauty salons (nobody wants to buy the much more expensive eco-friendly brand). She gets her kicks with lorry drivers or other strangers in the service station car parks or toilets. She is bored to death of Angelo, her dull husband ‘who never did anything exciting in his life’; she has a fiery relationship with her daughter Dora who doesn’t seem to want anything that her mother wants for her.

Alcohol and preying on strangers dull her pain momentarily, but she is all too soon brought back to earth by the disdain of others. She is regarded as a freak, but it’s not the laughter of strangers that fills her with self-revulsion and hatred of others. As we delve deeper into her family history, we find a troubled relationship with her own mother, the dreams she had to compromise early on in life, the patterns of abuse that she herself perpetuates. And throughout it all, we have Violeta, larger than life in all sense of the word, with her refusal to apologise for her sexual appetites, her relentless candour, her inability to sugarcoat anything. Yet, if we listen closely, beneath her justifications and patter, we discover all the things she is not telling us – the things she refuses to acknowledge even to herself.

There are references too to revolution and changes in the social order, as well as children out of wedlock with black men. This refers to Portugal’s not that distant past, when Angola was a Portuguese colony (until 1975) and Portugal itself was in the grip of the Estado Novo dictatorship of Salazar and his followers (which collapsed in 1974).

A breathless tour de force, which must have posed serious translation challenges. This book won’t be to everyone’s taste, but to this particular fan of dysunctional mother/daughter relationships, it rang very true.

There Are Bored Foreign Teenagers Too!

I recently came across this feature in The Guardian about bored teenagers in literature as selected by John Patrick McHugh – and really liked many of the titles listed, some of which deserve to be better known. However, we come up against this problem over and over again in the Anglo-Saxon world: very little awareness of literature that is not written in English.

Much as I love the ‘Write Around the World’ literary travels with Richard E. Grant currently showing on BBC4, and much as I appreciate F. Scott Fitzgerald and Patricia Highsmith to have only two foreign writers out of seven in both the episode on Italy and the one on the South of France feels rather… provincial. My blogger friend Emma in France is always puzzled why there is such reluctance to read books in translation in the Anglocentric world and has a Translation Tragedy category on her blog. (This applies also to English books that haven’t been translated into French, but more often books in other languages that haven’t been translated into English).

Anyway, back to stroppy teenagers (a subject which has somewhat incensed me this week, I have to admit). There are so many superb books about teenagers in world literature – and a few of those have made it into the English-speaking world too. So here is my correction to that Guardian list. Quite a few of these titles also fit into the #WITMonth project, if you are looking for inspiration.

Françoise Sagan: Bonjour Tristesse, transl. Heather Lloyd, Penguin Modern Classics

The quintessential story of a bored wealthy teenager who cannot resist manipulating all the people around her, especially the women who seem to be gravitating around her father. Written when the author was still in her teens herself, this short book scandalised French society at the time (1950s) and led to a life of success and excess for Sagan. (This would also have fit in perfectly with the Write Around Episode set in France and has had a Hollywood adaptation).

Jean Seberg giving the evil eye to David Niven and Deborah Kerr in the 1958 film directed by Otto Preminger.

Trifonia Melibenia Obono: La Bastarda, transl. Lawrence Schimel, The Feminist Press at CUNY

The teenage protagonist here is anything but privileged: Okomo is an orphan, raised by her grandmother in Equatorial Guinea. She longs to find her father and in doing so gets involved with the illicit gay subculture in her country, which she finds far more welcoming than her own mainstream culture. It is also the first novel from that country to be translated into English.

Faiza Guene: Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, transl. Sarah Adams, Harvest Original/Harcourt.

Again, a marked contrast to the genteel, wealthy French teen described by Sagan: this is the France of the banlieue, those ghetto-like suburbs of Paris. The heroine Doria is determined to prove that not all that comes out of these estates is crime and rap although all the odds seem stacked against her: her father has abandoned the family, her mother has to do cleaning jobs to make ends meet, the boy she loves doesn’t seem to notice her, and she has just about had enough of school…

Janne Teller: Nothing, transl. Martin Aitken, Strident Publishing.

Denmark may often be touted as the happiest country in the world, but for Pierre Anthon, the teenager at the heart of this book, it is most certainly not the case. One day, he has an existential crisis ‘he realized that nothing was worth doing, because nothing meant anything anyway’ and climbs up a tree. Nothing that his classmates say or do can convince him to come down again. Philosophy is clearly important to Scandinavian teenagers (remember ‘Sophie’s World’ by Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder), and this is a very interesting attempt to counteract teen nihilism.

Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis, Jonathan Cape (no named translator!)

At the start of this autobiographical graphic novel, the authors is a child, but in the subsequent volumes she grows up and describes both her daily life in Iran in a time of Islamic revolution and war with Iraq, as well as her difficulties in adapting to life in exile.

Giorgio Bassani: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, transl. Jamie McKendrick, Penguin Modern Classics

A will-they, won’t-they teenage love story set in 1930s Italy, when the anti-semitic laws introduced by Mussolini means that the young narrator of the story is kicked out of the local tennis club in Ferrara and is invited to play tennis in the private garden of the wealthy Finzi-Continis. Elegy for a lost world, with the author telling us early on in the book that the glamorous family he so admired were deported and killed in concentration camps during the war.

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Tschick, transl. as ‘Why We Took the Car’ by Tim Mohr, Scholastic

Mike and Tschick are two German teenage boys – or rather, Tschick is the nickname of a Russian immigrant boy, whose surname is too complicated for anyone to even attempt to pronounce. They feel like outsiders, never get invited to any of the cool parties and during the summer holidays, they take an ancient Lada for a spin and end up making a road trip out of it.

Tschick has also been adapted for film as ‘Goodbye, Berlin’ directed by Fatih Akin.

Makoto Shinkai: Your Name, Yen Press.

This YA novel was released around the same time as the animated film directed by Shinkai, describing two teenagers, a boy and a girl, bored of their daily routines in the city and the countryside respectively, who end up switching bodies periodically. They communicate through notes and text messages on their phones, but when the boy makes an attempt to visit the girl in the countryside, he discovers that her village has been obliterated by a falling comet.

Tsugumi Oba & Takeshi Obata: Death Note, Shonen Jump.

I cannot avoid mentioning Death Note when I talk about Japanese teenagers: this is a very different kettle of fish than the romantic and sweet Your Name. It is a manga that became an hugely successful anime series and a (somewhat less superlative) film. It’s the story of cocky teenager Light Yagami who finds a mysterious, dark notebook, which confers the ability upon the owner to kill anyone whose name is written within its pages. And so Light becomes a vigilante, initially planning to create a more just world by killing all criminals, until the power goes to his head…

Mircea Eliade: Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent, transl. Christopher Moncrieff & Christopher Bartholomew, Istros Books.

Mircea Eliade became a revered (although controversial) professor of world religions, but this is a fairly autobiographical novel that he wrote as a teen and never published in his lifetime. Although it takes place in Bucharest a hundred years ago, it is a universal story of the monumental egoism but also lack of confidence, search for identity and everyday failure of teenagers everywhere. Although there are shades of the insufferable Holden Caulfield here, this book doesn’t try too hard to be clever. The strength of the book lies in precisely those passages where the narrator unwittingly reveals all of his adolescent naiveté and doubts which are both funny and touching.

I could have made a much longer list, but the original had ten, so these ten will do for starters. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention the recent French novella that we published at Corylus Books Little Rebel by Jérôme Leroy, transl. Graham Roberts, in which we spend some rather tense time with disaffected teenagers in a run-down school and a French literature class. A guest author is visiting, the ineffectual teacher is ogling at her much to the amusement of his pupils, and then the school enters lockdown because of a potential terrorist attack…

Very good timing to talk about teenagers in literature: wishing you success to all the UK students getting their GCSE results today!

Two Tough Reads: Endless and Very Much Numbered Days

I’m not sure how wise it was to read these two books over the past week or so, as they were both quite harrowing in terms of subject matter. Luckily, both of them were well written and very much worth my while… but I think I will be relaxing now with some less demanding, frivolous reads.

Claire Fuller: Our Endless Numbered Days #20BooksofSummer No. 8

This is probably the oldest book I have on my Netgalley shelf (2015). It was Claire Fuller’s debut novel and in the meantime she has published three others (of which I read one, Bitter Orange) and her latest, Unsettled Ground, is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

It is the story of Peggy, an eight-year-old only child of eccentric parents – a concert pianist German mother and a survivalist English father – who is abducted by her father after a family quarrel and taken to a remote cabin in the German woods. For the next nine years, her father manages to convince her that the world has ended and all the people they know have died. They have to fend for themselves – and those descriptions of the seasons and living that close to nature, with no back-up whatsoever, is miles removed from the lyrical nature writing we might have come across in recent years. This is nature at its harshest – and Peggy is completely at the mercy of her tyrannical father, whom she adores… but very gradually starts to question.

The narrative switches between two time frames. We start with the present-day, when seventeen-year-old Peggy tries to reintegrate into society and re-establish a connection with her mother and the younger brother born after she disappeared. Then we move to the child’s view of the world, the limited understanding and naivety of eight-year-old Peggy. There are hints of the shocking denouement of the novel throughout, but – call me a far too trusting reader, or else wanting to believe the best of everyone – I was completely misled by the author, believed everything she was saying, and was caught by surprise at the ending. Yet, unlike so many recent psychological thrillers that deliberately withhold information, simply to create that much-publicised ‘twist’, it felt very organic in this case and central to the story. Peggy is not an unreliable narrator because she wants to mislead us or justify her bad actions or run away from the police (as would be typical in crime fiction). It feels psychologically spot on: she is disassociating from her own experiences and still trying to figure out her own past and how she feels about it.

Quite a tour de force for a debut, and an uncompromising tale. Brutal at times, yet also hinting that so much more could have been said, that whole swathes of story or characterisation have been left out, that each character has a shady hinterland (yes, even the nine-year-old brother).

Hervé Le Corre: In the Shadow of the Fire, transl. Tina Kover

Long-time readers of the blog will know that I remain fascinated by the Paris Commune and its failures, and have read a whole array of books, both fictional and non-fictional treatments of those few months in the spring of 1871. Le Corre’s ambitious (and lengthy – 509 pages) account of the last ten days of the Commune, the so-called Bloody Week at the end of May, is soaked in blood, sweat and despair, a gruelling continuation of Zola’s Debacle, picking up just where Zola’s work tapers off.

There are so many deaths in this book, so many relentless descriptions of poverty, hunger, exploitation and killing that you need to stop every now and then and catch your breath. I admire translator Tina Kover for being able to stomach it and render Le Corre’s dense prose and vast cast of characters into something coherent. I am also really grateful that I could read it in translation, as reading it in the original French would probably have taken me a couple of months (like the Zola did).

Some of the individual stories worked better than others – the enigmatic Clovis, who has lost all belief in society and people; the loyal lovers Nicolas and Caroline who spend most of the book undergoing horrific experiences but never giving up hope that they might find each other; the brotherhood between the three comrades-in-arms Nicolas, Red and Adrien. However, that whole thread about the photographer of pornographic images and girls being kidnapped by a man with a half-destroyed face (very Phantom of the Opera, that!) felt a bit gratuitous. I suppose the intention was to add a criminal investigation to a narrative that would otherwise have been extremely depressing and predictable: we all know that the Communards got thoroughly thrashed and killed en masse (or else imprisoned and sent into exile).

Although I love crime fiction in general, I didn’t really need that particular strand in this book, as I was quite happy to read about all of the other personal and collective stories. And yet the author clearly knows what he’s doing, because in many ways, Antoine Roques, the investigator, is the most interesting character of them all.

They put the sash on him before he left the police station, assuring him that his way, his authority, conferred by the people, would be clear to all… Elected police delegate to the Sûreté only a month ago. A bookbinder by trade. He hadn’t wanted the job, given his longstanding, deep-seated loathing of anything to do with the police. But the assemly had judged him the most sensible, the most astute.

Yet this accidental policeman becomes devoted to the idea of justice and saving people, even in the mess and confusion of the last few days of the Commune. When he hears about the abducted woman, the latest in a series to disappear from the streets of Paris, he makes it his mission to find her. What does one more dead woman matter in a landscape littered with corpses and dying ideals? That is perhaps the whole crux of the story – that kindness and respect for the individual has to matter, even in the new revolutionary world order.

Although we see events almost exclusively through the eyes of those fighting for the Commune, the author does not idealise the revolutionaries. There are profiteers and opportunistis on both sides, cowards and empty idealists as well, and we get to hear different points of view from secondary characters who have become disenchanted with the whole process. In the words of a doctor trying to deal with vast numbers of fatal injuries:

I’m afraid we’ve proclaimed a republic of words that will soon be a repbulic of he dead… It’s a bit like we doctors tried to heal injuries simply by shouting obscenities, or to cure disease using magic spells. They talk and talk at the Hotel de Ville, they gossip on the barricades; they hem and haw about what reinforcements to send against Versailles, and in the mentime Monsieur Thiers is planning his onslaught… Perhaps that’s why I’ve taken more care of the dead than the living, because at least I don’t have to lie to them about what’s coming and my inability to stop it.

The research that Le Corre has done for his book is fantastic; having myself read several history books about the Commune, I am impressed with how effortlessly he blends all that (and more) into an exciting narrative. The individual stories are less important than the vast fresco of a city in turmoil. The crowds are unruly, not everyone is truly committed to the cause, there are far too many people willing to betray them, but there are also others who put their own lives at risk to help them.

At times, some of the passages and speeches verge onto the unrealistic and didactic, but there are others where the character’s idealism and courage even in the face of defeat shines through as rather beautiful and inspiring. Here is Roques wondering if he should sneak off, leave Paris behind and join his wife and children in the countryside:

He knows the insurrection will be crushed, that this undreamt-of moment will soon come to an end. Still… This city has a unique genius for revolt and revolution. It has been starved, bombarded, humiliated, and when the powerful ones thought it was dead, it rose up, rebellious and generous, defying the old world and calling, beyond the besieged ramparts, for public well-being and a universal republic… There’s no question of leaving this city of infinite tomorrows, especially now… Paris, teh city-world where anything will always be possible.

The book is at once a eulogy to ideals whose time had not yet come, and a love story to the city of Paris, a mistress who may be old and wrinkled, full of dirt, blood and grime, but remains defiant and unbowed. Impossible to tame permanently, even if you can defeat her temporarily.