December Diva: Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias

Javier Marias: Your Face Tomorrow (Fever and Spear, Dance and Dream, Poison, Shadow and Farewell), transl. Margaret Jull Costa, Vintage Books.

I spent most of November reading Solenoid, which I then somewhat laughingly called my December Diva, but I have also spent the past three months reading Javier Marias’ trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, roughly one volume per month, and even before finishing the last volume, I had decided this was going to make my ‘best of the year’ list. Yet it was tough getting going with it.

I had attempted the first volume once before, about a year or two ago, and abandoned it. After the death of Marias, I decided to give it another go, especially since Jacqui warned in her review that it started slowly. I believe the only way to enjoy Marias’ notoriously long sentences and repetitions is to submerge yourself in the text like plunging into the sea, allow the waves of his thoughts and prose to wash over you. But you have to be in the mood for this. Luckily, this time round I was, and volumes 2 and 3 got better and better, as you can see from the number of little post-its I used.

The first-person narrator is Jacques Deza, who is separated from his wife and children, living in England while they are back in his native Madrid. The rather shady Bertram Tupra approaches him and convinces him to work for a mysterious organisation, since he appears to have a particular talent for examining people’s faces and behaviours, understanding an individual’s true nature and predicting what they might be capable of in the future. That is basically the entire story arc of the trilogy, but there are numerous incidents and complications along the way, Jacques starts to question just what is required of him and why, but gradually succumbs to the ideology of ‘pre-emptive strike’, and ends up applying it in his personal life, with all that it entails: surveillance, lies, manipulation, aggression and torture.

The build-up is so gradual, each incident is described in such detail (not forgetting the endless divagations and spirally returns to a scene – each time with an additional piece of information), that when we get those moments when the underlying menace suddenly burst out as real violence, for example when Tupra threatens to cut someone’s head off with a sword, it is profoundly shocking. The hypnotic long sentences, the descriptions of paintings, James Bond books and Hollywood stars, the references to the Spanish Civil War all lull us into a false sense of security: this is a civilised world, a world of Oxford academics and cocktail parties and absurd, conceited little diplomats. Yet all that multilingual politeness is but a thin veneer, and there is an abyss of vindictive or, even worse, indifferent cruelty just below that.

We discover all this at the same pace as Jacques, a slow pace, since he tends to overthink every little gesture, word or happening. How reliable a narrator is he really? Does it matter? The author sets out his stall quite quite early on:

A very thin line separates facts from imaginings, even desires from their fulfilment, and the fictitious from what actually happened, because imaginings are already facts, and desires are their own fulfilment, and the fictitious does happen, although not in the eyes of commons sense and of the law… But consciousness knows nothing of the law and common sense neither interests nor concerns it, each consciousness has its own sense, and that very thin line is, in my experience, often blurred and, once it has disappeared, separates nothing, which is why I have learned to fear anything that passes through the mind and even what the mind does not as yet know…’

It’s this intimate understanding of even the most tentative and secret impulses of human nature which fascinate me so much about Javier Marias. Just like Cărtărescu does in Solenoid, Marias cannot resist chasing down rabbit holes, bringing in so many apparently tangential topics, ruminating or speculating about human nature so broadly, that we wonder what on earth will finally get the story to move on. Yet, although we can hardly call this propulsive forward motion, I have the feeling that each parenthesis does have its purpose and evidences something deeper about the characters and situations.

Or perhaps I simply do not care how much he deviates from the main subject, as long as he can come up with perfectly-formed aphorisms such as these (almost Cioran-like):

There is nothing worse than looking for meaning or believeing there is one. Or if there is one… believing that the meaning of something… could depend on us and on our actions, on our intention or our function…

There are, as you know, always reasons a posteriori for any action, even for the most gratutious and most unspeakable actions, reasons can always be found, ridiculous, improbable and ill-founded sometimes and which deceive no on or only the person who invents them. But you can always find a reason.

In another language you cannot help but feel that you are always acting or even translating (however well you know the language), as if the words you pronounce and hear belonged to some absent person…

It’s always safer to betray an individual… than some vague, abstract idea that anyone can claim to represent… that’s the bad thing about ideas, their self-declared representatives keep crawling out of the woodwork, and anyone can take up an idea to suit their needs or interests and proclaim that they’ll defend it by whatever means necessary, bayonet or betrayal, persecution or tank…

This is the kind of profoundly unsettling work that leaves you with more questions than answers, where whole paragraphs or concepts will burrow themselves under your skin, and you will want to go back and read in smaller gulps again and again. Marias is an author who is not afraid to tackle big subjects, who manages to effortlessly weave cultural specificity (and occasionally mischievous observations about other cultures) with universal fears about baser human instincts. I

It’s dreadful to have ideas put in your head, however unlikely or ridiculous and however unsustainable and improbable…any scrap of information registered by the brain stays there until it achieves oblivion… and however much you clean and scrub and erase, that rim is the kind that will never come out; it’s understandable really that people should hate knowledge and deny what is there before their eyes and prefer to know nothing, and to repudiate the facts…

This describes what Marias does to me, but I will always prefer to know and to explore, which is possibly why I find him quite addictive. If some of our Book Club members said that there were whole passages of Tomb of Sand where they felt they did not understand what was going on, and could not follow the flow of the sentences, and if I occasionally considered Solenoid too meandering and self-indulgent, I was never bored with this trilogy, especially in volumes 2 and 3. I almost wanted more of it (and luckily have a few more books by Marias on my shelves).

Of course, this is in no small part thanks to Margaret Jull Costa’s impeccable translation: she seems to understand Marias better than anyone else (although she has admitted that he was not always easy to work with) and has managed to capture that Latin flow in the sentences, while remaining clear and precise in English.

Winding Down and Wrapping Up (4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Glimpses of Reading

There just aren’t enough hours in the week to review all the books I read, and some of them I don’t even feel compelled to review. This weekend I also had two DNF experiences one after the other! However, the ones below fall into the interesting category, so I will share some snippets from them to give you flavour.

Jane Campbell: Cat Brushing

This collection of short stories has a viewpoint that is seldom seen in Western literature: the desires of older women. In the title story, the narrator finds similarities with the once-beautiful, now elderly cat that she brushes, reflecting upon her own sensuous past and how both of them are now unnecessary and ‘on sufferance’ in her son’s household. Several of the stories reflecting on past loves and missed opportunities, but some are also about making the most of the present, even if you are in a care home.

‘All the old people here have exercises recommended for them by our inhouse staff.’

A great wave of hatred surged through me. Was I, having struggled over long years through the heartbreak of lovers deserting me, good fortune eluding me, children disappearing, money slipping from my grasp, of having survived all the random acts of cruelty that life can inflict upon an ordinary person, was I to be denied the luxury of wallowing in a bit of giref and sadness and melancholy if I wanted to?

Aristophanes: Lysistrata, transl. Patric Dickinson

A classic Ancient Greek comedy, and an anti-war pamphlet too. The women of Athens and Sparta (and other Greek cities) resolve to deny their men any sexual fulfillment until they put an end to the civil war ravaging the country. All the more remarkable for the portrayal of militant women, when we know that their status in Ancient Greece was very low, they were not considered full citizens. Amazing also, how current the political statements still are!

Like the raw fleece in the wash tub, first

you must cleanse the city of dirt.

As we beat out the muck and pick out the burrs,

you must pluck out the pace-seekers, sack the spongers

out of their sinecure offices, rip off their heads –

then the common skein of good sense:

blend the good aliens, the allies, the strangers,

even the debtors, into one ball;

consider the colonies scattered threads,

pick up their ends and gather them quick,

make one magnificent bobbin and weave

a garment of government fit for the people!

Javier Marias: Your Face Tomorrow, 2: Dance and Dream, transl. Margaret Jull Costa.

I will almost certainly review the entire trilogy once I finish it, but I’m taking my time to savour reading this. There are so many times that I nod along in recognition when I read those hypnotic, spiralling sentences. He really does get me, this author, and it would be a shame not share at least a fragment of one of those endless sentences as I go along.

No, you are never what you are – not entirely, not exactly – when you’re alone and living abroad and ceaselessly speaking a language not your own or not your first language… the word ‘absence’ loses meaning, depth and force with each hour that passes and that you pass far away from home – and then the expression ‘far away’ also loses meaning, depth and force – the time of our absence accumulates gradually like a strange parenthesis that does not really count and which shelters us only as it might commutable, insubstantial ghosts, and for which, thereferoe, we need render an account to no one, not even to ourselves…

On Pause Again – and More Books!

Sadly, I didn’t just bring back good memories and new friendships from Bloody Scotland, but also Covid. I started feeling a bit fluey on Tuesday/Wednesday, but thought I had caught a cold from my younger son. However, it appears that his cold is independent, and on Friday I tested positive, after several people who had attended Bloody Scotland had already announced they had fallen ill. It is optimistic to think that we can go back to a normal life in closed venues – it is, in fact, a lottery, and although I wear masks on public transport, I have to admit I did not wear one in the venues and probably not everyone tested for Covid before they attended the event.

So I just had quite a horrible weekend, and am not up to anything more intellectual than showing you pictures of the books I have acquired this month.

First of all, thank you to Stela Brinzeanu and her publisher Legend Press for the beautiful little parcel that arrived with the proper edition of the book Set in Stone (I previously read the ARC), a tote bag and a small jar of honey from Moldova.

I splashed out on quite a few books, although only two at Bloody Scotland (I did not have much room in my luggage and also my broken arm struggled with the tiny suitcase I did have).

The two I bought in Stirling were Last Girl Ghosted by Lisa Unger and The Killing Kind by Jane Casey, after attending their panel. I read them both half in Stirling and half on the train journey home, they were proper page-turners!

After the death of Javier Marias, I felt I wanted to acquire a few of his translated novels which I didn’t have, although for the time being I am reading the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, which was already on my shelves but which I had never quite started properly. I have already read and loved Lolly Willowes, and I borrowed Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin in the original French from my university library. I bought the collection of sci-fi-tinged stories Terminal Boredom after reading a couple of blog reviews, and I got two Tim Winton books after several of you started raving about him on Twitter following an article featuring an interview with him. As you can see, I am so easily led down the book-buying path…

I borrowed the Elizabeth George from the library on Tuesday and thought it would be just the thing for a Covid-stricken brain, but alas, her novels have been getting longer and longer, without any justification, so I very nearly abandoned it. Fish Soup is a Charco Press book that I did not have, but we’ll be reading it for our London Reads the World Book club, and I’ve liked the other Margarita Garcia Robayo book that I read, Holiday Heart. I didn’t get to hear Emma Styles at Bloody Scotland, but I sat next to her on the train back to London and when she described her debut novel set in Australia, No Country for Girls, I knew I had to get it. Think teenage Thelma and Louise in the outback!

Last but not least, the British Library has produced a beautiful illustrated volume of Poems in Progress, showing early drafts and manuscripts of famous poems by poets ancient through to contemporary. I saw my poetry mentor Rebecca Goss tweet that she was in it, and I didn’t need a second invitation.

There is one final purchase for this month (she said optimistically), which hasn’t arrived yet: Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black. I have to admit that I have never been able to get through the Wolf Hall trilogy, although I have much admired Mantel’s earlier novels, but did not own any of them.

Best of the Year: Delving Deeper

I just can’t seem to stop reading this year – more than 160 books this year! So obviously, a simple Top Ten List won’t do for me. This is yet another of my posts by categories, this time of authors that I have enjoyed in the past and finally got a chance to read more.

Yuko Tsushima: The Shooting Gallery and Of Dogs and Walls, transl. Geraldine Harcourt

Not just the daughter of my favourite Japanese writer, but an astounding writer in her own right. It’s a puzzle to me why she is not better known in the English-speaking world, even though she had been translated in the 1980s, but wondered if it was…

 … perhaps she did not fit in well with the narrative of the Japanese economic miracle and boom years. She was not ‘exotic’ enough, not ‘other’ enough. She was not writing about cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums (although she does write about a chrysanthemum beetle). Her protagonists were usually single mothers, struggling to bring up children in a society that was often belittling and marginalising them. Perhaps too relatable the world over… although with additional pressures in Japan.

I was very moved to read her rather personal stories (or are they really all that autobiographical?) about her own family, which are especially poignant in the two stories Of Dogs and Walls.

A mother who hated and feared the outside world as she held her children tight, and who faced that world with disdain, adamant that no one was going to look down on her: that’s who raised me. I grew up tutored in what happened if you trusted outsiders, taught that solitude was the only weapon of defence.

Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman

One of my absolute favourite writers. I have all her books on my bedside table, but there are still one or two of her novels that I haven’t read (because they were out of print for a long while). Now, thanks to the Penguin Classic reprint, I had the opportunity to read this tale of claustrophobia and manipulation, of growing up and trying to fit in.

I remain constantly stunned by how much Shirley Jackson was ‘of her time’, describing the claustrophobic environment for housewives and the limited possibilities for women in the 1950s, and yet how utterly contemporary she still feels in style, at once sly and sinister, detached yet capable of getting fully under your skin and never quite letting you go.

Marlen Haushofer: We Kill Stella

Despite my love of Austrian literature, I only discovered Haushofer last year, when The Wall seemed the perfect companion piece to a pandemic. I have since made an effort to acquire most of her work in German and this novella bears all the hallmarks of her disquieting style, a quietly simmering surface hiding real horrors beneath.

It is incredible how much the author manages to fit into very few pages, how complex the thought processes are, and how much there is to read between the lines. Every word counts with Marlen Haushofer. This is tightrope walking on the very edge of the precipice (or the verge of a mental breakdown) and you keep reading to see just how the narrator can pull it off.

Javier Marias: The Infatuations, transl. Margaret Jull Costa

Another author whose books I instantly acquired upon first discovering him, but never quite got around to reading more. This year I finally cracked open the less intimidating standalone The Infatuations and once more allowed myself to be lulled by that apparently meandering, baroque style.

Marias is a master at playing with the readers, misleading them and then pulling the rug from under their feet. Yet, underneath all that mischief and apparently aimlessly meandering style, there are some very serious questions being asked (and no clear answers being given) about what sort of world we live in – where the strongest and most ruthless seem destined to win – and whether the truth will indeed set us free.

David Peace: Tokyo Redux

The final part in the Tokyo trilogy has been a long time coming, so I simply had to get hold of it as soon as it came out this year. David Peace is a bit of a marmite author – and I have to admit that his style can get occasionally grating at times, with its excessive use of repetitions and oral effects. However, this book is a triumph, striking just the right balance of mystery and self-unravelling, of conspiracy and societal transformation.

You can see how easy it is to mock this style or the solemnity of the author. But he manages to convey a sense of the melancholy complexity and unresolvedness of life which always grips and fascinates me. This is Tokyo in black-and-white film setting, a Kurosawa film with a jazz improv soundtrack, a world-weary Cowboy Bebop space cowboy vibe (it’s hard to believe that David Peace won’t have been influenced by that classic anime), and I have to admit I rather love it and admire his willingness to experiment and go his own path.

Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude, transl. Michael Henry Heim

A slim volume, but containing so many layers, so many ideas that I will no doubt have to reread it many times to fully grasp it. Quite unforgettable, this story of a humble paper-compactor who has learnt so much from the books he is pulping, and whose work is about to become automated.

Much of the action takes place in cellars, underground, there is a lot of dirt and danger, there is even sacrifice, for example the small mice that regularly get compacted together with the paper. But there is also indifference to that sacrifice. The author repeatedly refers to the sewers of Prague, the scene of a senseless war between two armies of rats. He often shows university-educated men who are doing back-breaking manual labour, even refers to them as ‘Prague’s fallen angels… who have lost a battle they never fought’

Now that I see all my favourites in this category listed together, I realise they all have the common theme of the solitary protagonist, often an outsider, a person who is a little uncomfortable with society as it is, who questions things, who is often crushed, but very, very occasionally might rise – maybe not triumphant, but at least surviving.

#SpanishLitMonth (plus): Javier Marias

I’m trying to sneak in a quick non-Women in Translation review, a remnant of the Stu Jallen’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month (which he has very graciously extended to August for latecomers like me).

I discovered Javier Marias and his trademark long, baroque sentences in 2016 or thereabouts, after seeing so many blogger friends praising him. I had also heard Margaret Jull Costa talk about the challenges of translating his prose (a difficulty compounded by the fact that Marias himself translates from English into Spanish). I absolutely loved A Heart So White and instantly bought several other books by him, but I stalled while reading the first part of the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. So it was with some trepidation that I rediscovered him – and the hypnotic joy of reading his circuitous prose – with the novel The Infatuations.

Like many of his novels, The Infatuations has a mystery at its core, but completely and utterly pulversises any expectations we might have for crime fiction. The narrator, Maria (aka the Prudent Young Woman), has been quietly admiring an attractive couple who have breakfast every morning at the cafe where she likes to go before work. She idealises them, invents a back story for them – just like any one of us would (or perhaps just those of us who are writers).

The nicest thing about them was seeing how much they enjoyed each other’s company. At an hour when almost no one is in the mood for anything, still less for fun and games, they talked non-stop, laughing and joking, as if they had only just met or met for the very first time, and not as if they had left the house together, dropped the kids off at school, having first got washed and dressed at the same time – perhaps in the same bathroom – and woken up in the same bed, nor as if the first thing they’d seen had been the inevitable face of their spouse, and so on and on, day after day, for a fair number of years… There was a camaraderie between them and, above all, a certainty.

Well, isn’t that something to aspire to? Especially if you are a woman who does not have much of a social or love life, and who is not entirely satisfied with her publishing job and demanding, egotistic authors. No wonder Maria feels bereft when her favourite couple abruptly stop coming there for several weeks. At first she thinks they might have gone on holiday, but she then discovers that the man was killed in the street on his birthday.

Shocked out of her customary reserve, Maria decides to go up to Luisa, the grieving widow, when she sees her months later at the cafe with her daughter. To her surprise, Luisa seems eager to speak to her – perhaps as a reminder of happier times, or because she has exhausted the patience of her close friends in talking about her sorrow.

That’s another of the problems when one suffers a misfortune: the effects on the victim far outlast the patience of those prepared to listen and accompany her, unconditional support never lasts very long once it has become tinged with monotony. And so, sooner or later, the grieving person is left alone when she has still not finished grieving or when she’s no longer allowed to talk about what remains her only world, because other people find that world of grief unbearable, repellant… Perhaps Luisa clung to me that afternoon because with me she could be what she still was, with no need for subterfuge: the inconsolable widow, to use the usual phrase. Obsessed, boring, grief-stricken.

While visiting Luisa, Maria meets a friend of the couple, the handsome Javier Diaz-Varela, and starts a somewhat desultory affair with him. Or at least, she suspects that the affair is meaningless for him, because the one person he seems to be most concerned about is Luisa. She soon decides that he is waiting in the wings to emerge as the widow’s saviour, but she cannot help hoping that at some point he will realise that he will never win the woman of his dreams and might stay with Maria ‘out of pure inertia’.

The authors cleverly surfs between the real-life conversations that Diaz-Varela and Maria have (about characters from Balzac and Dumas, of all things!) and through the words that Maria feels he implies through his gestures, until we are no longer quite sure what is real and what is imagined. And then Maria overhears a secret conversation which makes her very suspicious indeed… a melodramatic plot twist that, interestingly, also appeared in the very next book I picked up (56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard). Needless to say, this leads to quite a dilemma, with Maria seriously grappling with issues such as truth and guilt, loyalty and love, and what constitutes justice.

A thief can give back the thing he stole, a slanderer can acknowledge his calumny. The trouble with murder is that it’s always too late and you cannot restore to the world the person you killed.

Marias is a master at playing with the readers, misleading them and then pulling the rug from under their feet. Yet, underneath all that mischief and apparently aimlessly meandering style, there are some very serious questions being asked (and no clear answers being given) about what sort of world we live in – where the strongest and most ruthless seem destined to win – and whether the truth will indeed set us free.

My Most-Owned Authors Book Tag

Susana at A Bag Full of Stories always prods me to join some fun blog posts about my reading habits. When I read her Favourite Books by Most-Owned Authors blog post, I was inspired to examine my own bookshelves. Some of the results might surprise you, they certainly surprised me!

But first: what constitutes a lot? I have very many authors with 3-4 books on my bookshelf. In some cases they died too soon (Sylvia Plath) or they haven’t written more (yet – I’m waiting impatiently, Eva Dolan). In other cases, the rest of their works might still be at my parents’ house (Barbara Pym, Penelope Fitzgerald, Colette, Rilke, Liviu Rebreanu and Arthur Schnitzler take a bow!).

If endless editions of the same book count, then Murasaki Shikibu is also abundant on my bookshelf, with 5 different translations of Genji Monogatari, as is Cavafy with several editions (some electronic) of his poems in translation, including a bilingual one in Greek and English.

So here are the remaining authors who are present with five or more books on my current bookshelves (some of them in e-book form but only where I couldn’t easily access physical volumes).

Old Favourites I Cannot Live Without

Virginia Woolf – When it comes to Virginia, I am a bit of a completist, so although some of her books are still in my parents’s house, I nevertheless have her complete diaries, some of my favourite novels and quite a few of her essays on my bedside table.

Franz Kafka – the plain white Fischer Verlag editions of all of Kafka’s novels, stories, letters and diaries which I bought when I was 13-14 have accompanied me wherever I lived in the world ever since.

Tove Jansson – As with Virginia, I am a completist when it comes to Tove and my latest purchase is a volume of her letters. If I include her biography and all the Moomin cartoons (collected editions) as well as the Moomin books which are currently on my sons’ bookshelves, she is probably the most omnipresent author in my house.

Jane Austen – All her novels, including her juvenilia and the unfinished ones, plus her collected letters

Jean Rhys – not quite as complete as she deserves – four of her novels, a collection of short stories, her autobiography, her letters and a biography by Lilian Pizzichini.

Murakami Haruki – well, he reminds me of my student days. I prefer his earlier work and have pretty much stopped reading him since Kafka on the Shore (although, admittedly, I did fall for the Killing Commendatore hype and pre-ordered it).

Marin Preda – one of the most famous Romanian writers of the post-war period, he became a bit of a national hero when he published his last novel The Most Beloved Human. It was almost instantly withdrawn from sale, when readers interpreted it as a virulent critique against the communist regime. A few weeks later, he died under mysterious circumstances – some say possibly related to this book. I have it in three volumes, but also other novels, including the one we all had to read in school, about the destruction of village life before, during and after WW2, Morometii. I’d kind of forgotten he was so prominent on my bookshelf though…

Serendipitous Purchases

Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö – the whole Martin Beck series, so ten books – bought as a job lot on Book People for a very low price, one of the best purchases I ever made. I absolutely devoured the whole lot in about 1 month and return periodically to them. The parents of the whole Nordic noir genre.

Muriel Spark – Another job lot from the Book People, which includes many of my favourites (Loitering with Intent, A Far Cry from Kensington, Girls of Slender Means). However, it doesn’t have some of her more challenging works (The Mandelbaum Gate or The Abbess of Crewe). So I may have to invest at some point in buying some more (although I’ve borrowed most of them over the course of the years from the library).

More Recent Discoveries

Below are all authors that I’ve discovered in the past 6-7 years (in some cases, even more recently) and have taken into my heart – or at least could not resist buying more of them.

Pascal Garnier – It all started with a request in 2012 to review one of his first books to be translated into English (by Emily Boyce and published by Gallic Books) for Crime Fiction Lover. This was the book How’s the Pain? and I was smitten. I have since reviewed pretty much all of the books that have been translated, as well as hunted him down in French libraries and second-hand bookshops. I even am the proud owner of a book signed by him to a certain Marie Louise (I think Marina Sofia is close enough, don’t you?)

Kathleen Jamie – initially I bought and read her poetry books, because she was doing a poetry masterclass with us back in my Geneva Writers’ Group days, but I soon fell in love with her insightful essays and strong sense of place as well.

Sarah Moss – I’d read a shopping list written by Sarah Moss: I admire the way her mind works. I either own or have borrowed all of her books, but my favourite book might not be the one most people like – it’s Night Waking, because it captures so well the challenges of being a mother and scholar.

Javier Marias – I read A Heart So White in 2016 and was so impressed that I hastily bought several more of his books, including the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow but I haven’t actually gotten around to reading any of them.

Antti Tuomainen – an author I discovered a few books in, once he got published by Orenda, but I’ve bought his (much grimmer) back catalogue since and have particularly enjoyed his recent forays into black comedy.

Old Passions Reignited

Shirley Jackson – an author I’ve always admired but only been able to find in libraries rather than bookshops, at least until recently. Luckily, her books are now back in print courtesy of Penguin Modern Classics, so I have availed myself of several of those, as well as The Library of America collection of her most famous novels and stories. I also have the illuminating biography by Ruth Franklin, and even her stories of the chaos of family life.

Mihail Sebastian – I’d always admired him as a playwright and was particularly fond of his novel The Accident, because so much of it was set in the mountains and referred to skiing. But this past year I’ve read his diaries and much less sentimental, more polemical novel For Two Thousand Years and I fell in love even more with his voice and clear-sightedness.

Jean-Patrick Manchette and Georges Simenon – actually, both of them are present with just 2-3 books each, but in each case one volume contain about 11-12 novels (I’ve gone for Simenon’s ‘romans durs’, although I have a few Maigret volumes as well).

Now all I have to do is to actually work my way through all of these, since not all of them have been read. Plus, I’d quite like to reread many of them!

What I Really Read on the Beach – Summer Reads

There was quite a bit of uproar on Twitter about the extremely worthy and ever-so-slightly pretentious beach reading promoted by The Guardian. Why can’t people admit that they crave chick lit or the latest Harlan Coben instead? They don’t have to be trashy airport novels (although most recently I’ve noticed a vast improvement in terms of variety being offered at airports), but they have to be able to withstand great heat, sun cream, the odd splash of water, and fried holiday brain. Can your expensive hardback of Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, written by John Banville, with beautiful photography by Paul Joyce, withstand that? Perhaps one to buy and keep at home as a coffee table book, rather than shlepp to distant beaches…

Of course, I won’t actually be going to any beach this summer, but I hope to get a few nice days of sitting in my deck chair in the garden and worrying about nothing else but reading. And I readily admit that I look forward to a nice dose of escapism to mix in with my literary education. So this is what I would really read if I were on a Greek beach.

Image from olimpia.rs

Crime

Michael Stanley: Dying to Live

I’m a great fan of the Detective ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, and the Kalahari Desert setting fits in perfectly with the beach. Also, it’s a really intriguing tale about the death of a Bushman, who appears to be very old, but his internal organs are puzzlingly young. Could a witch doctor be involved?

Linwood Barclay: Too Close to Home

Another author that I would rather read on the beach than alone at night in a large house, as his nerve-wracking twists are prone to making me jump. The strapline on this one goes: What’s more frightening than your next-door neighbours being murdered? Finding out the killers went to the wrong house…

Helen Cadbury: Bones in the Nest

Like many other crime readers, I was very saddened to hear about the recent death of Helen Cadbury. I had read her debut novel in the Sean Denton series reviewed and marked her out as a talent to watch in 2014 on Crime Fiction Lover. This is the second in a series set in Doncaster, which unfortunately never had the chance to grow to its full potential.

Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy of a Scandal

The perfect novel for those who can’t quite take a break from politics: this is the story of an MP whose affair is made public, his wife who tries to stand by him in spite of her doubts, and the barrister who believes he has been guilty of rape. A searing look at privilege, hypocrisy and the social justice system.

YA literature

Not my usual kind of reading at all, but I like to keep abreast of what my children are reading.

G.P. Taylor: Mariah Mundi – The Midas Box

Mariah is a young orphan, fresh out of school, who is employed to work as an assistant to a magician living in the luxurious Prince Regent Hotel. But the slimy, dripping basement of the hotel hides a dark secret. I’ve heard of the author’s Shadowmancer series, but never read anything by him. Described as the next Harry Potter, this book promises to take the reader into a world of magic and fun.

Paul Gallico: Jennie

Peter wakes up from a serious accident and finds himself transformed into a cat. Life as a street cat is tough and he struggle to survive, but luckily stumbles across the scrawny but kindly tabby cat Jennie, who helps him out. Together they embark on a bit of an adventure.

#EU27Project

This is not only worthy reading, but highly enjoyable into the bargain! Although seeking out translations from some of the countries on the list is not that easy or cheap.

Hungary – Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (transl. Patrick Thursdfiel and Katalin Banffy-Jelen)

Satisfies any cravings for family saga and historical romance, as well as looking at a part of the world which is very close to me (Transylvania). Plus a society bent on self-destruction – what more could one want?

Romania – Ileana Vulpescu: Arta Compromisului (The Art of Compromise)

This author’s earlier book The Art of Conversation was an amazing bestseller in the early 1980s in Romania, partly because it went against all the expectations of ‘socialist realism’ of the time and was quite critical of socialist politics (of an earlier period, admittedly). This book, published in 2009, continues the story of the main character, but this time set in the period after the fall of Communism in 1989. Critics have called it a bit of a soap opera, but at the same time an excellent snapshot of contemporary society. Sounds like delightful light reading, with a social critique, perfect for reconnecting with my native tongue.

Spain – Javier Marias: The Infatuations (transl. Margaret Jull Costa)

Another story with a murderous aside by an author I’ve only recently discovered and whose baroque sentences mesmerise me… Every day, María Dolz stops for breakfast at the same café. And every day she enjoys watching a handsome couple who follow the same routine. Then one day they aren’t there, and she feels obscurely bereft. She discovers that the man was murdered in the street – and Maria gets entangled in a very odd relationship with the widow.

Women in Translation Month

Another project which has the merit of being both worthy and great fun. I plan to read several of the Keshiki project of Strangers Press – beautifully produced slim translations of Japanese short stories and novellas. There are plenty of women writers represented: Misumi Kubo, Yoko Tawada, Kyoko Yoshida, Aoko Matsuda and the improbably named Nao-Cola Yamazaki. I expect the strange, unsettling, disquieting and sexually heated… Phew!

 

 

 

Javier Marias: A Heart so White (transl. Margaret Jull Costa)

heartsowhiteIt doesn’t surprise me to learn that Javier Marias has translated Tristram Shandy into Spanish. In both Marias and Sterne we find something of the same obsession with the seemingly irrelevant detail which grows and grows in importance as time goes by, the lack of concern for narrative linearity and the love of going off on a tangent. I have not heard him compared to Karl Ove Knausgård, but this was the author I was reminded of as I read this, my first book by Marias (but certainly not my last). The same fascination with the fluidity of margins between fact and fiction, the same ability to take the most mundane little detail and philosophise about it endlessly, the same long, meandering sentences… which must be contagious, as I find my own sentences growing longer and longer as I attempt to review this book.

If that sounds like I am trying to put you off Marias, you couldn’t be more wrong. In theory, he is everything that writing craft workshops warn us against; he breaks all the rules and gets away with it. He moves from a personal point of view to a generalisation or something abstract within the same sentence, separated by nothing but a fragile comma. His characters are slippery and unknowable, enigmas to themselves and others. He has sentences that run on into whole paragraphs, half a page or more. He often repeats himself (or his characters do). And yet, somehow it all works (thanks also, no doubt, to Jull Costa’s outstanding translation). He is compulsively readable and this was the book which got me out of my reading slump back in December.

There is a mystery at the heart of the book: Juan discovers that his father’s first wife, his aunt Teresa, shot herself in the heart in the bathroom in the middle of a family lunch shortly after they had come back from their honeymoon. As Juan is about to get married himself, he starts wondering why this happened and discovers that his father had another wife even before Teresa. So, at the most basic level, this could be called a ‘whydunit’, but of course it is a lot more complex than that. The protagonist and author question our ability to cope with full disclosure and the past, ponder on just how reliable our perceptions are, how we create stories that we can live with. Above all, it is a poignant meditation on what it means to love and be loved, and how (whether?) that fits in with marriage.

Author picture, from his blog on WordPress.
Author picture, from his blog on WordPress.

If you’re still not convinced, I probably won’t help matters by saying that the first few pages can seem like hard work, until you get used to the cadence and tumultuous flow of the Marias river of prose. However, if you stop resisting, if you surrender to the hypnotism of his sentences, there is so much to love here! And it’s not all doom and gloom; there are many funny moments too. The author is a sarcastic observer of the foibles of simultaneous interpreters and speakers at international conferences and there is a particularly enjoyable scene where Juan decides to ‘pep up’ a dull conversation between two senior politicians by mistranslating.

So I urge you to give him a go if you haven’t made his acquaintance already and I certainly want to read more by him. What would you recommend I read next?

Books of the Year 2015

These are not necessarily books published in 2015, but the books I’ve read and enjoyed this year, which is why I’ve held off with this post till long after all the ‘best of’ lists have appeared. I’ve read 170 books this year, so you can imagine that whittling it all down to just 10 favourites is an impossible task. So instead, here are the books that spoke to me most at various points throughout the year.

DSCN6654Best Winter Chill

Not necessarily books set in winter, but which bring a ‘frisson’ or shudder to your soul.

Emmanuel Carrère: L’Adversaire

Gohril Gabrielsen: The Looking Glass Sisters

Leaves You Breathless

Perfect for a holiday escapade, a long flight or train journey, to keep you turning pages until late into the night.

Virginie Despente: Apocalypse Bébé

Jean-Patrick Manchette: Fatale

Tom Rob Smith: Child 44

Best for Cheering Up

Because we all need a little satire and humour in our lives.

Shirley Hazzard: People in Glass Houses

Fouad Laroui: L’étrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine

MontmartreStreetShould Be Dark But Are Really Inspirational

From darkness a light shall spring – and hope.

Sherman Alexie: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Vincent Van Gogh: Letters

Best Criminal Intent

I’m cheating a little bit in this category, as I already have a list of Top Five Crime Reads on the Crime Fiction Lover website, so these are just a few additional books I really wanted to include but did not have place for:

Jakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord

Jari Jarvela: The Girl and the Bomb – will review it in January

P1000921Most Beautiful Style

Prose that sings, to read again and again.

Michelle Bailat-Jones: Fog Island Mountains

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver

Most Interesting Concept

Experimental, unreliable, not sure what is going on but expanding me as a reader in all directions.

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd

Laura Kasischke: Mind of Winter

When I Grow Up, I Want to Be…

Not to copy their style, but to capture something of their fearlessness.

Elena Ferrante: The Days of Abandonment – I probably will have to read more of her at some point, although I’ve resisted the Neapolitan tetralogy so far (because of the hype)

Eva Dolan – I’ve loved all three of her books to date and admire her productivity

P1020030Grim Yet Powerful

Because I’m still naturally drawn to dark themes and underdogs.

Julia Franck: West

Richard Yates: Disturbing the Peace

Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts

Leave Me Unsettled and Thoughtful

Unsure what to think about these – but they certainly will stay with me for quite some time.

Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life

Heather O’Neill: Lullabies for Little Criminals

Challenges Completed:

With creaking bones and feverish mind, I just about completed some challenges – or rather, I did better in terms of reading than reviewing. The Global Reading Challenge saw me hopping across 7 continents (2 options for each one). I failed the TBR Double Dare for the first three months of 2015, but caught up later with a #TBR20 to whittle down my endless To Be Read lists. In January I only read one book for January in Japan – Kanae Minato’s sinister ‘Confessions’. In March I read two books for Stu’s Eastern European challenge, one set in Moldova, the other in Georgia. I took part in a Tale of Genji readalong (my longest book of the year by quite a margin) in April/May/June. I participated in Women in Translation month in August, German Literature Month in November and #DiverseDecember (which speaks for itself). I even managed to reread some old favourites: Tender Is the Night, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys and Tillie Olsen. But the hardest challenge was the Netgalley Reduction one: I managed to read about 9 from my Netgalley shelves between October and December, but promptly replaced them with other books. So I still lag behind at only 61% review rate.

heartsowhiteMy book of the year? So hard to select one, especially one I haven’t reviewed yet.  Books fit in with moods and seasons, with personal experiences and the order you read them in. However, bless the book which got me out of a reading slump – and a new author to discover and devour! Javier Marias’ A Heart So White (translated by Margaret Jull Costa). I will write a full review in the new year, but this book is one to savour in small portions at a time (and not when you have a bad migraine). Just allow yourself to be carried away by his apparently rambling but ultimately very moving, incantatory style.