After the physical and emotional turmoil of August, September has continued somewhat in the same vein, the only highlight being the couple of days I got to spend at Bloody Scotland. My reading, therefore, continued to be a mix of translations (four out of eleven books), escapism (two uplifting books) and grit (six crime stories).
Paul Gallico’s Jennie was just what I wanted to cope with Zoe’s loss, while Lolly Willowes was witty and liberating, although I perhaps stretched things too much in comparing it with Tomb of Sand. I was sympathetic to but more ambivalent about the female rage displayed by Mareike Fallwickl and Anke Stelling – I could see what both books were trying to achieve (I think), but feel they might have fallen a little short of their ambitions. HIgashino’s Malice was a clever manipulation of the reader and a psychological study of envy and bullying. You can see what our Crime Book Club thought about it here, thanks to Rebecca Bradley’s recording.
Five more crime books in quick succession on my journey to Scotland and then after I fell ill with Covid: Danuta Kot for the realistic depictions of gangland warfare and poverty in the north-east of England, Lisa Unger for sheer page-turnability about the horrors of online dating, Jane Casey for posing questions about the justice system vs. personal morality, Elizabeth George perorating at some length about FGM, and Emma Styles for a refreshingly accurate rendition of Australian teenage girls’ voices, from very different strata of society.
But the best read of the month was made up of Javier Marias’ loopy sentences and tangential observations about everything under the sun in the first volume of his trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. I have underlined the book liberally (yes, shock, horror!) but will review it when I complete the entire trilogy.
For October, I am keeping any reading plans very flexible, as my mind is flitting about too much at the moment (plus, I will be translating extensively, which always makes me want to seek out different things than I might normally choose). I have read a lot of books that are suitable for the 1929 Book Club, but am not sure if I will read a new one for the occasion. I might reread the quintessential example of Balkanic decadence and nostalgia by Mateiu Caragiale Craii de Curtea-Veche (Rakes of the Old Court).
Mareike Fallwickl: Die Wut, die bleibt(The Lasting Rage)
Anke Stelling: Schäfchen im Trockenen (Keeping Your Sheep Safe – translated as ‘Higher Ground’ by Lucy Jones, Scribe)
Back in 2014, I read Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs and encountered a woman’s raw, unfiltered anger for the first time. I loved it, although it divided readers and led to an upsurge in debate about ‘unlikeable’ characters (which seems to be even more of a no-no when it comes to female characters). There have been other books since which explore what might happen when women refuse to go along with the script handed to them, live up to people’s expectations, be meek, silent people-pleasers: Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. Generally, these women are condemned, viewed as unnatural, earn a bad reputation that lingers on for centuries (Medea, anyone?). No one likes a loud shriek of rage, too shrill, too hysterical, right?
Yet I can’t help but be fascinated by these books, where women are suddenly allowed to enact those fantasies of verbal (and in some cases physical) revenge that we daren’t let ourselves think about. I think I have a natural predisposition to be very gentle and kind, but I occasionally wonder if my tendency to be so forgiving is merely cowardice and conflict avoidance.
The two German-language novels I recently read both start with women being perceived as victims and then transform into women as avenging creatures (angels or demons? up to you to decide). Both Germany and Austria are more conservative when it comes to women’s place in society, so it is refreshing to see that this literary trend is making its way there too.
Austrian writer Fallwickl’s novel is set in Salzburg and at the very start, Helene, a mother overwhelmed by family demands during Covid lockdown, commits suicide by jumping from the balcony while the family is having dinner. Her best friend Sarah, a childless writer, used to slightly envy but mostly pity Helene, but she steps in to help out with the children, thereby making the widower’s life far too easy, as Helene’s teenage feminist daughter Lola keeps scolding her. Lola and her friend are assaulted by some boys at the skatepark and the two girls resolve to learn how to fight to protect themselves… and soon become part of a group who call themselves #WeAreKarma, taking revenge on the men who have wronged women. It’s an interesting glance at generational differences in interpretation of feminism, and how the desire for stability or family makes us compromise our most treasured principles and values as we grow older.
Unlike Lola, who seems more concerned with the wider social oppression of women, from domestic violence issues to abuse of minors, from body shaming to gender fluidity, Sarah is discovering how motherhood in a society where the political and domestic issues mirror each other, and that doesn’t offer much support for mothers, often spells the end of self-realisation:
‘You can’t imagine how bitter you can become about the father of your children… motherhood is a ship and at some point you realise that you are sitting in it all on your own. You are surrounded by dark currents, you have no oars, no compass.’
‘But who is steering the ship?’ asks Sarah.
‘You realise that only later,’ replies Helene, ‘It’s the men. The politicians, society. We mothers have no power. We have the entire burden, but no power.’
The moment of awakening, when Sarah chooses to replace the rhetoric of self-pity and doubts with a fighting spirit, comes when she is called into school because Lola pushed her PE teacher, who was insulting her and another classmate about their body weight. Sarah’s initial reaction is to apologise, to smooth things over, but suddenly the resentment that has been building up over the years spills out of her and she stands up for Lola, even threatens to create a scandal for the school.
When they were told back then that it wouldn’t hurt to give in, to apologise, to not kick up a fuss, to keep your head down, how did they know that it wouldn’t hurt? Maybe it did hurt them. Maybe it hurt them greatly.
German writer Stelling’s novel is set in Berlin, against the backdrop of the city’s increasingly problematic housing situation but has some similarities with Fallwickl’s story: an angry woman in her forties trying to explain things to a teenage daughter – except in Stelling’s case we don’t get to hear much of the daughter talking back and educating the mother.
Resi is an author, married to an artist; they have four children but not all that much disposable income, and are subletting from one of Resi’s old schoolfriends. However, Resi’s latest book took a swipe at her friends, for their bourgeois attitudes and love of material comforts, upon which she is served an eviction notice and, unsurprisingly, her friendships unravel. The novel is in fact the narrative she writes for her teenage daughter, reminiscing about the past, how she always felt less accepted by the group because of her social background. It is a howl of disappointment, self-justification and social critique, entertaining, relatable, but also quite revealing of a stubborn character with a chip on her shoulder, keen to emphasise her ‘higher moral ground’.
Just like in Fallwickl’s novel, we can understand the frustrations of the character up to a certain point, but we might question some of her choices or her interpretation of events. Resi recognises that she has fallen victim to society’s expectations of what a happy family should look like and what they should do, but she cannot help building up her expectations every weekend, and then being bitterly disappointed. The description of the Saturday breakfast is funny – but the laughter is painful, because so recognisable. Nobody wants to come to the table, nobody cares about the fresh pastries from the bakery, they sit silently and glumly, or complain about the food, or they make noises while eating.
I’ve fallen for the Weekend Lie again: the one that says it’s nice to have breakfast together on Saturday, when no one has to rush off anywhere, with fresh pastries and smiling faces, with Nutella and love and fruit…
The Weekend Lie is powerful indeed.
It operates on the basis of a ruthless causality: If I’m not sitting with you, it means I don’t like you.
It operates on the basis of simple contrasts: If it’s stressful during the week, the weekend will be blissful at last.
It operates with dogged obstinancy: reappears every five days, all year round, come sun, come rain.
Two interesting though problematic books, with flawed characters but relatable rants. I’ve seen some readers say that these women are speaking from a position of privilege and entitlement that they don’t even recognise – and it is true that compared to women in other parts of the world (or in other generations), their lives are not that hard. But they are, quite rightly, comparing themselves to others closer to them in their own society: rich or childless women, or simply men. Perhaps they also feel a sense of betrayal that earlier feminists told them that once they were working, earning their own money, once employment legislation stopped discriminating against them, they would have it all and be able to do it all. If only they would lean in more… Meanwhile, they’ve leaned in so far that they are toppling off balconies, yet structural problems in society and other people’s attitudes are still not changing enough.
Coincidentally, some of the themes also resonated with a film I’ve recently watched Everything Everywhere All at Once: what happens once women stop being overwhelmed victims or hankering after lost, often illusory possibilities? Can anger be used in constructive as well as destructive ways? I enjoyed the chaotic energy and genre mash-up of the film, as described by the title. This sense of overwhelm and general assault on the senses, thoughts, feelings, memories is what we are all perhaps feeling at the moment, although the film’s resolution was understandably (for we all desire some clarity and simplification) a little too pat. In real life, there are far too many people, including mothers, who never achieve any insight into themselves, and never have a fully-developed character arc. As for using rage constructively, well… we’ve seen how bad we humans tend to be at that.
I’ve read 160 books this year, so it’s impossible to stick to a list of a mere ten top favourites. So instead I’ve organised things by categories. Don’t worry, I won’t quite name 160 books! After a stint of rereading and a look at modern classics from the first half of the 20th century, I am now becoming more contemporary and looking at this year’s releases. This used to form the bulk of my reading back in 2013-2016 when I was doing a lot of crime fiction reviewing, but I have been much slower to read them these past 2-3 years. I now much prefer for the buzz to die down. The buzz for the titles below is more than justified, though!
This book meant so much to me personally, both as a budding translator and as someone who studied Japanese, lived briefly in Japan and worked for Japanese organisations in the past. It is also written in such an interesting way: not just a memoir, not just an essay about translation or cultural encounters, and also a Bildungsroman, cutting a young person’s ego and certainties down to size (in painful ways, occasionally). Unashamedly subjective and yet universal.
…if language learning is anything, it is the always-bruised but ever-renewing desire to draw close: to a person, a territory, a culture, an idea, an indefinable feeling’
I was utterly smitten with the beautiful, sensous, rhythmic prose of this one, a real prose poem, and for once the use of the second person felt completely justified. It also made me feel about nineteen-twenty again!
A short novel, more like a novella, that is a love song in more ways than one: a love story of boy meets girl which on the surface seems conventional enough; a loving description of London and its black communities; a celebration of what it means to be young and hopeful, but also wounded and fearful.
The author captures the humdrum of the everyday but also the numinous moments of awareness, of things that occasionally make us change (but most frequently don’t). Understated yet so powerful – a voice that grows and grows on you at each reading.
We think the test will come on the days we’re ready for them, braced and prepared, but they don’t: the come to us unheralded, unexpected, in disguise, the ordinariest of moments. I wish I could tell you my struggles in a way that would be meaningful or even of some practical use. But the secret, most important battles we fight are almost untranslatable to anyone else; and besides, you’ll have your own seething weirs of tigerish waters to cross.
Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz:The Passenger, transl. Philip Boehm,Pushkin Press.
No other book conveys the plight of refugees so accurately, without being about refugees explicitly. In this portrayal of a privileged German Jew who suddenly finds himself on the run after Kristallnacht, the sense of hopelessness, of feeling hunted and unwanted, of casual and deliberate racism, the bureaucratic hurdles that make it nearly impossible to escape still feel extremely topical.
The dark heart of the story is perfectly mirrored in its noir apparel and style, which I suspect the author derived from the German and American cinema of the time. Imagine the absurd situations of a character from a Kafka novella, combined with the sharp social critique of Joseph Roth, and the poignant, yet somewhat deadpan delivery of Hans Fallada, married to the frenetic and clumsy action of the narrator from Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer.
The first book in a very promising new series featuring retro-detective Zaitsev, set in 1930s St Petersburg, with the Stalinist oppression never far from the surface. There is a real sense of menace behind the perky crime fiction conventions which keep the story zipping along at a good pace, and a complicated story featuring serial killers, political machinations and priceless stolen treasure. In equal measure entertaining and educational, but we are never allowed to forget just how dangerous those times were.
If you haven’t found your favourite book of 2021 in the brief list above, there is still a chance they made my ‘Sheer Entertainment’ category, which will follow shortly, or else in my New Discoveries and Deeper Dives section.
Irmgard Keun: Child of All Nations, transl. Michael Hofmann
I had read about Irmgard Keun in the really quite wonderful book about women under the national socialist regime in Germany by Edda Ziegler, but I hadn’t actually read anything by her. However, a lot of my bookblogging friends seemed to really enjoy her work. This one caught my eye in the bookshop and, as a child of all nations myself (raising even more international children), I couldn’t resist it, even though I prefer reading German books in the original if I possibly can.
After reading The Passenger so recently, it struck me how similar the subject matter is, but seen from a child’s perspective. Written in 1938, before the full horrors of the war would grip all of Europe, it is prescient and claustrophobic, just like The Passenger, but because it is told by a child narrator, it does not quite have the despair and airless sensation of Anna Segher’s Transit – nor its power, I thought.
Child narrators are notoriously difficult to pull off. Ten-year-old Kully is a curious mix of naivety and street smarts. Shunted from country to country, learning to beg and trick and bribe while living in a constant fear of being kicked out of hotels and friends’ houses, she has had to grow up far beyond her years. School is too dull for her, because she already knows far more of real life, geography and languages than what she is taught there., ‘all the things she needed to know in her life, there was not one she had learned at school.’ But at other times she comes out with startling statements about the relationship between men and women in particular which sound far too childish – or perhaps show that she has not spent enough time with both parents to have this kind of conversations with them:
It seems a Maharaha has several wives, which I think is a good thing. That way when he has to leave, I won’t be alone but will be able to turn to the other wives for comfort. I don’t know whether it’s allowed to marry several Maharajas. Obviously that would be the best. Then, if a couple of them had to travel to Poland, I’d still have a few more to hand. My mother is a great example of how diffiult it is for a woman who has to get by on just one man.
Some of the smart-aleck observations are more successful than others, and often Kully has too advanced overtly political thoughts (although they are often quoted as her father’s thoughts):
Everything that’s wrong with the world begins with fear… All that mess in Germany could only result because the people there have lived in fear for ever…. the people are so crippled and warped by fear that they elect a government that they can serve in fear. Not content with that, when they see other people who are not set on living in fear, they get angry, and try in their turn to make them afraid.
The bills mount up, the father keeps travelling around trying to sell his writing, while Kully and her mother have to deal with the fallout. Along the way, she encounters (even if she doesn’t always understand it) mental breakdown, infidelity, rejection, suicide, death and alcohol. She often has to be more of a grown-up, more sensible than her parents. She is, in essence, robbed of a proper, carefree childhood, even when she plays with other children, she is cynically copying their gestures and manipulating things so she can fit in.
There is a brief moment of joy in the milder climes of Italy with her mother and grandmother, as well as an interlude of hope when she and her father make it out on the ship to America. But Italy has its own dictator, and the promised land across the ocean does not offer as much of a welcome as they were hoping for, plus their mother got left behind in Europe by accident. So Kully returns to Europe, just as Keun herself almost inexplicably did in 1938, condemning herself to inner exile, anonymity, living under a false name and losing her voice.
I can’t quite put my finger on why I didn’t quite enjoy the book as much as I expected to: maybe the rumours that the difficult, somewhat feckless father is modelled on Joseph Roth, maybe the inconsistent child narrator voice, maybe the rather unbelievable ‘temporarily happy’ ending (of course we know that any happiness or togetherness was bound to be short-lived in Amsterdam at the time). I think her earlier, more optimistic novels such as Gilgi or The Artificial Silk Girl, with indomitable, independent, fearless young women trying to make their way in the world, might have been a better place to start. In this book, I could detect the bitterness of defeat.
Nevertheless, I am glad I managed to sneak this one into my German Literature Month reviews and Novellas in November. It has been a fantastic month of reading – novellas really are often more powerful than novels, perhaps because they have to convey so much in so little space!
Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz: The Passenger (transl. Philip Boehm)
Cannot believe that German Literature Month is now in its eleventh year! I have taken part in this ever since I became aware of it (I think in 2012 or 2013), and, having spent my childhood in Austria, and then quite a few years recently on the Franco-Swiss border, I have the chip on my shoulder of the smaller cultures dominated by the overwhelming Piefkes (slang word for Germans in Austria). So I tend to choose mostly Austrian and Swiss writers, and will do so again this year. However, I start off with a book by a German Jewish writer, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, because this is a book with a very interesting history. You can read more about the young author hounded out of Germany and moving from country to country during WW2, dying at the age of twenty-seven, before he got a chance to properly edit this novel. I for one could not resist its back story, nor its black/white/red cover (very well played, Pushkin Press, the colours of Nazi Germany).
The subject matter of course is very moving: a rather smug Jewish businessman who suddenly finds all his certainties and protected bubble of a world crumble after Kristallnacht in Berlin in November 1938. His house is ransacked, his family and friends abandon him, his business partners try to rip him off, the Gestapo are after him, and he is stuck in a nightmare of boarding first one train, then another, in an effort to escape across the border. And, although some might say that the story doesn’t have a satisfying conclusion, that is the only possible outcome: the nightmare of no way out. The dark heart of the story is perfectly mirrored in its noir apparel and style, which I suspect the author derived from the German and American cinema of the time. Imagine the absurd situations of a character from a Kafka novella, combined with the sharp social critique of Joseph Roth, and the poignant, yet somewhat deadpan delivery of Hans Fallada, married to the frenetic and clumsy action of the narrator from Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer.
Otto Silbermann has managed to navigate his way through the increasingly difficult waters of Nazi Germany: his appearance is not typically Jewish, his wife is a good German Christian, and his business has been doing well enough for him to be able to help out others. He is stunned to realise that all this can change in a second:
Ten minutes ago, it was my house that was at stake, my property. Now it’s my neck. Everything’s happening so quickly. They have declared war on me, on me personally… and right now I’m completely on my own – in enemy territory.
As he switches from train to train, from first class to second and third, he encounters a cross-section of the German population, including fellow Jews desperate to escape, vocal anti-semites, indifferent but not really friendly average people, even some well-meant encouragement (albeit always with a sting in its tail). Above all, he has to admit that he no longer recognises the country, his neighbours, the people he once trusted, even his business partner with whom he went through the war together.
[this is spoken by another character, but describes the general situation]
I had to sit in my shop and watch them march past, with flags and music. At times I could practically scream, let me tell you. They were all people I knew. The veteran’s association, teh skat club, the guild. All former friends, and suddenly you’re sitting there completely alone. No one wants to have anything more to do with you, and if they do happen to run into you, then you wind up being the one who looks away just so you don’t have to see them doing it… This person was in your class at school, that person trained alongisde you or was one of the regular at your table in the pub. And now? Now you’re just air, and bad air at that!
Gradually, and this is perhaps the most painful moment of insight, Silbermann discovers that he is as cowardly, as self-interested, as quick to disassociate himself from ‘the Jews’ as the Germans around him.
There are too many Jews on the train… and that puts every one of us in danger…If it weren’t for you, they wouldn’t be persecuting me. I could remain a normal citizen. But because you exist, I will be annihilated along with you…
He considered such thoughts undignified but couldn’t help thinking them. If people are constantly saying: You’re a good man, but your family is completely worthless. Or: You’re nothing at all like your cousins, they really are a nasty lot – then it’s easy to get infected with the general opinion.
There are a few moments when the reader’s hopes are raised: a few people willing to help him, or the moment he walks across the Belgian border. But surely it’s not a spoiler to say that all his attempts to escape are thwarted, and that he ends up in a downward spiral of aimless wandering – self-destruction you might say… except that there was nothing much else that he could do. The destruction was forced upon him.
A compelling read and depiction of both individual and general suffering. A shattering reminder of a dark period of history and an entreaty for us to learn and do better in the future. So many sentences that should jump out at us as warnings not to dehumanise any group of people: ‘my character and my qualities are entirely unimportant… the headline decides. The content doesn’t matter.’
I am really enjoying my aimless September wanderings of reading without a purpose and often with no intention to review. It provides a much-needed break and gives me the time and leisure to immerse myself in the rapidly-changing world of 1930s and 40s Britain, the world of the Cazalets. Although I will be wary of overburdening myself with obligations in the future, I do like to have a bit of a plan for my autumn and winter reading. So here are my current plans (as always, they are subject to change, depending on internal whims and external events).
October: Romanian Fun Reads
Family sagas have not been my cup of tea, generally, but now that I’ve succumbed to the charm of the Cazalets, I was thinking of rereading one of my favourite series of books when I was growing up – the three volume (sometimes published as four volumes) saga At Medeleni (that being the name of a country home in the Moldova region of Romania). I might not have time to sink completely into it, but I could try the first volume, when the main protagonists are children, and compare it with the Cazalets or with the Palace Walk trilogy by Mahfouz, which I also need to finish at some point.
Then I thought I might as well make it a fun month of reading Romanian literature – as in, reading without a professional editorial eye, wondering whether it would be worth translating or not, whether for Corylus or someone else. Here are the books I’ll be contemplating:
Ionel Teodoreanu: La Medeleni, Vol. 1 – The Unsteady Border.
Doina Ruști: Mâța Vinerii (The Book of Perilous Dishes) – YA novel set in 1798 Bucharest, a fantastical tale about a magic recipe book. The blurb says: ‘Merchants, sorcerers, spiritists, cooks of the Princely Court, lovers, haughty young ladies, ambassadors from diverse lands, mercenaries, officials of the Sublime Porte, princes in exile and princes newly enthroned, schemers of all sorts, revolutionaries, Bonapartists, tricksters, and envoys of Sator populate the carnivalesque space of this novel of fantasy, whose deeper levels lead far into the distance, towards worlds we could scarcely imagine.’ The book has received a translation grant and will be published by Book Island in the near future.
Ioana Pârvulescu: Life Begins on Friday – this historical time-travelling crime but literary novel won the European Union Literature Prize in 2013 and has been translated into English.
Bogdan Suceavă: Grandpa Returns to French (my own translation of the title – untranslated collection of short stories). I know the author slightly, worked with him briefly on the same literary journal, plus he was born in the town where my parents live now in Romania. He is a Mathematics Professor at a university in California, but is a highly skilled prose writer.
Radu Pavel Gheo: Good Night, Children! The story of four childhood friends, growing up in Communist Romania, who all dreamt of emigrating to the ‘promised land’ and return to their home country and their friendship in their thirties; older but are they any the wiser? The story of my generation, I suppose.
November: German Literature Month and Novella in November
I’ve always taken part in the German Lit Month and want to take part in the Novellas in November one too this year, since both of these initiatives are hosted by some of my favourite bookish bloggers. (Novellas in November is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of BookishBeck and I believe their definition of novella is any work under 200 pages). So I’ve found a way to combine these two themes by choosing to read German-language novellas. Or, very short novels in some but not all cases. If you’ve read the original announcements for German Lit Month on Lizzy’s and Caroline’s blogs, you’ll have seen that the plan is to read:
Books from Austria 1-7 Nov: I have a collection of short stories by Marlen Haushofer, which includes the novella-length We Kill Stella.
Books from Germany 9-14 Nov: Irmgard Keun: Child of All Nations, transl. Michael Hoffmann (almost a novella, only 180 pages long)
Books from Switzerland 15-21 Nov: Friedrich Glauser: The Spoke (again, novella-length – only 130 pages)
Books from Elsewhere 22-28 Nov: Mrs Mohr Goes Missing, a crime novel set in Krakow in 1893, when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, written by a dynamic Polish writing duo publishing under the pen-name Maryla Szymiczkowa, transl. Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Here, There and Everywhere 29-30: Dana Grigorcea: The Undying. This sounds like an utter wild card, a vampire crime novel that isn’t really about vampires by a Romanian author writing in German and living in Switzerland.
December: Russians in the Snow
Under Karen’s (aka Kaggsy59) nefarious influence, I have been steadily adding to my pile of Russian books, and it always feels most suitable to read them when curled up inside with the wind blowing a blizzard outdoors. Even if they are set during the hot summer months spent in the countryside. Last year I managed to read The Karamazovs and was planning to reread The Idiot this year, but the book (in the translation I really like from the Raduga Publishing House in Moscow) is at my parents’ house in Romania, and I am not sure I will get a chance to pick it up before then. Therefore, I am wisely selecting quite short works this time, allowing myself room for sudden lurches in mood.
Bulgakov: Diaboliad, transl. Hugh Aplin – satire about Soviet bureaucracy
Victor Pelevin: Omon Ra, transl. Andrew Bromfield – a satire about Soviet space race
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, transl. Anna Summers – There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In – well, it will be the month when my older son comes back from his first term at university!
Marina Tsvetaeva: Poems (maybe comparing different translations, although of course I can’t read the original Russian)
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).
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.
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 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!
After Greenlandic youth culture and middle-school Japan, we move to a more mature milieu and slightly more touristy destination. This is also #20BooksofSummer no. 15.
Daniela Krien: Love in Five Acts (Die Liebeim Ernstfall), transl. JamieBulloch
Five women in their forties in post-reunification Leipzig muse about their lives and choices, and learn how to face their future in a series of linked stories.
Paula is friends with Judith, Brida is Judith’s patient, Malika is the ex-girlfriend of Brida’s ex-husband, and Jorinde is Malika’s sister. Their stories are full of the difficulties and sorrows that many women experience in their lives. They soldier on, because what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?
Paula is mourning the death of one of her children, her marriage has broken down as a result, and she hardly dares to allow herself to be happy again. Judith distrusts men and makes fun of those she meets via online dating. She pities her friends who have to put up with disobliging husbands:
Unhappiness makes you ill, it’s as simple as that. Sometimes she’s flabbergasted by the generosity of other women. How mild they are in their judgements, how gently they devote themselves to their husbands, how magnanimously they accept and overlook their weaknesses.
And yet she has moments when she realises it is difficult to be alone and regrets her decision not to have any children.
Meanwhile, Brida rather regrets her decision to have children, because she is a writer and struggles to combine motherhood with her art. She has left her husband, but still is sexually attracted to him and suffers pangs of jealousy seeing him with his new partner. She also discovers that it’s not just the children who are affecting her creativity and this passage in particular resonated with me:
Write in peace. For years that was all she wanted. Now that she has the children only half the time, only gets half of the children’s lives, half of their joys, half of their worries, the words won’t flow. Now that joint custody… has given her the freedom to work undisturbed, the source has dried up.
Malika still mourns the end of her relationship, and feels she would have been a much more suitable wife to Brida’s ex – and a better mother. She cannot help feeling second-best in everyone’s affections, and that includes her parents, who always seem to prefer her sister Jorinde to herself. However, Jorinde, who had moved to Berlin to pursue an acting career, is far from being as successful or happy as she seems.
In the hands of a less skilled writer, this could quite easily have descended into a bit of a soap opera – and in fact, I have read novels where this is precisely what happened (e.g., Katherine Pancol may be a huge bestseller in France but I just could not get on with her work at all). However, Daniela Krien has a sober, restrained way with words and, although these are all women of similar age and background, they were very different in character and voice. You may be incensed at the ‘drippiness’ or ‘stroppiness’ of some of the women or roll your eyes at their bad choices, but this is not high melodrama or cloying sentimentality.
What this book: one that a whole swathe of readers will dismiss as ‘not interesting or relatable’, because it is about middle-aged women and mostly mothers (or those who wish to become mothers). However, we’ve been led to believe that men’s middle-aged crises are riveting to read about or watch on film. I am sure we can endure a little bit of a female perspective on that. I think it presents quite a kaleidoscope of female experience, and demonstrates that even in recent years and in developed countries, women’s choices are still not as easy or as wide-ranging as one might believe, even when they think they’ve made them of their own free will.
Her freedom had only ever been imaginary, time-restricted. Lke a sweet she was permitted to taste before it was taken away from her for good. For generations of women before her, life paths had been narrower, more fixed. Suddenly Brida imagined these women must have been happier, as they would never have lived under the illusion that they could shape their own lives, never felt the disappointment when all the open doors slammed shut at once. None of the constraints on their lives were their own responsibility. The circumstances hadn’t allowed for anything different. Brida, however, had made the choices herself.
The book not only looks at the gap between expectation and reality in the case of women’s lives, but there is also an undercurrent of the gap between hopes/promises and reality regarding the reunification of Germany. Did all the possibilities open up for those women in the new Germany? Not sure. This disenchantment is sometimes expressed in the conflict between the older and younger generation (for instance, between Malika and Jorinde and their parents) or between spouses, with Wessi husbands expecting housewives and stay-at-home-mothers far more than their Ossi wives.
A solid, interesting read. It didn’t quite wow the socks off me, like Julia Franck or Jenny Erpenback (or even Judith Schalansky), but it had depth beneath its easy reading surface.
P.S. The translation of the title is a bit unimaginative but does the job. The literal translation would be something like: ‘Love, Seriously’ or ‘Love in Case of Emergency’ – and ‘fall’ of course, although it means ‘case’, can also mean ‘fall’ (which explains the diver on the cover far better, since swimming features far less in the book than horseriding).
Yesterday, 10th of May, was the birthday of that wonderful translator and champion of German and French literature, Anthea Bell. After her death in 2018, Roland Glasser, himself a translator from French, had the following brainwave:
I realized that she was one of those people who had almost an immortal presence, like Bowie or Dylan, and was the nearest thing we translators had to a contemporary icon! Her reputation was on a whole other level. And in contrast to St Jerome [patron saint of translators], she was a contemporary woman translating secular texts and thus, in many ways, more relevant to many of us. I had visions of translators parading through the streets carrying her effigy (yes, I know that goes against the whole “secular” thing!). And so the idea for #AntheaBellDay was born. Last year, the inaugural day coincided both with the AGM of the Conseil Européen des Associations de Traducteurs Littéraires // European Council of Literary Translators’ Associations at the Writers’ Centre in Norwichand an exhibition of Sebald’s photgraphs at the @SainsburyCentre at the University of East Anglia. It seemed most auspicious!
Every translator and every writer who has ever worked with Anthea Bell has expressed their profound admiration not only for her skills, but for her generosity of spirit and championing of her colleagues. Sadly, I never got to see or hear her in person, but she has nevertheless had a profound personal impact upon me.
As a child I discovered her translations of Asterix long before I got to know the name of the translator. I collected and read the Asterix and Obelix books in three languages: French, German and English. Even at the age of 7-8, I realised that the German language editions were OK but nothing to write home about, while the English language editions at times surpassed the original. My favourite examples are Getafix for the druid (so much wittier than Panoramix) and Dogmatix for Obelix’s little canine friend (which translates the spirit of Idéfix perfectly, but with additional humour).
Later, I became obsessed for a while with all things Sebald and this was where Anthea’s translations helped me most. I tend to read books in German and French in the original, because I was fortunate enough to grow up in a multilingual environment. In my late teens/early twenties I was just a tad fanatical about it: poo-poohing reading in translation as ‘taking the easy way out’. Which was ironic, given that I was studying modern languages and training to become a translator and interpreter myself. However, when I read Anthea Bell’s translations, particularly of Sebald’s Austerlitz, for example, I discover something new, an additional nuance that I’d missed in the original.
At a recent literary event, Julia Franck spoke about the joyous experience of being translated by Anthea Bell, and how difficult it was losing her. Anthea, Franck said, had an intuitive feel for the language and how to make it work in English, how to keep its melody and rhythm, while conveying several layers of meaning.
When I was reviewing for Crime Fiction Lover, I read quite a few of Anthea’s translations of crime novels, such as those by Ferdinand von Schirach. Now, you know I love my crime fiction, but occasionally the style can suffer a little at the expense of the plot. Not so with Anthea’s translations – I remember a particularly beautiful description of a landscape which was much more eloquent in Anthea’s rendering of it than in the original text (of an author who shall remain nameless here). Anthea was no literary snob – she translated widely, across all genres (I am particularly fond of her children’s literature), always to the best of her abilities, rather than solely to a deadline or a pay cheque.
Below are a few of my treasured Anthea Bell translations. I do hope that this commemoration of her life and work will continue for many years to come. And I still aspire to translate maybe a third as well and as broadly as she did!
Or, to be precise, two riveting Germans and an equally riveting Georgian now living in Germany!
With impeccable timing, the day I posted my review of Julia Franck’s Die Mittagsfrau, I got to see the author at the British Library, in an event organised by the European Literature Network (headed by Rosie Goldsmith). She was joined on stage by poet and essayist Durs Grünbein and playwright and novelist Nino Haratischwili (or should that be ‘shvili’ for English readers rather than ‘schwili’ for German ones?), whose monumental work The Eighth Life (for Brilka) has just been published in English by Scribe. The translators Charlotte Collins, Ruth Martin and Karen Leeder were also there and read the English version of extracts from the authors’ work.
There was a lot of ground covered in the nearly 90 minutes of discussions and readings, but what particularly stuck in my mind:
Julia Franck and her identical twin sister wrote and enacted fantasy stories together as they were growing up, a bit like the Brontës. She mentioned her Communist grandmother, who was so reluctant to give up her dream of an alternative, better Germany even after the fall of the Wall. She also spoke about the humiliation and cruelty of life as a refugee, the contrast between the utopia you are chasing and the reality of what you find (especially when you are not allowed to integrate into the host society), and why in her book West, the refugee camp itself is a main protagonist. When Rosie Goldsmith asked her why there were so many cruel or cold women in her books (or women who could be interpreted as such), she replied:
Women are not necessarily the better people. I have experienced cruel women in my life… But also what we expect from mothers nowadays is so different from what it was 50-100 years ago. In those days women tried to be strong, to survive, to solve problems, they had no time to be helicopter parents, so they might come across as cold and neglectful.
Durs Grünbein admitting that their generation of German writers were privileged to have the material (of the division and then reunification) to write about. Also, why he prefers poetry: it is easier to swerve from past to present, to be in both time frames and in many different places simultaneously. I loved one particular phrase from one of his poems:
Ist der Sand enttäuscht wenn die Dämmerung fällt?
Is the sand disappointed when evening falls?
Meanwhile, Nino Haratischwili claims she had no intention of writing such an epic novel, and that if she had realised from the outset that it would take four years and 1200 pages to write, she might have abandoned the project before she even started. She was focusing initially only on Georgia in the 1990s, a messy, confused period with the fall of the Soviet Empire and lots of infighting. She was trying to answer her own questions about Georgia’s history and why her country keeps on repeating the same old mistakes, but found that it took her earlier and earlier in time. She also said she wrote in German out of laziness (because she would have had to translate it from Georgian later on), but also because writing in her second language gave her a freedom and a sense of adventure and playfulness.
In your mother tongue you use words and expressions more automatically, but in another language you question things more and have more freedom to experiment. I still have this feeling of discovery in German.
The evening was also an opportunity to launch the newly published German Riveter magazine, with illustrations by the wonderful Axel Scheffler. Containing exclusive extracts and reviews of many new German authors, it also contains an article about German crime fiction written by Kat Hall (mainly) and yours truly (very tangentially).
All in all, a brilliant evening which I’d been looking forward to for months, well worth the logistical acrobatics of arranging for alternative pick-up of the French exchange student.