February Summary of Literary Things

With all of the bad news coming out of Ukraine (with whom Romania shares a considerable land border), plus the usual workplace stresses and household breakages, I have been in a bit of an anxious state this month, so I am simply plodding along, taking it one day at a time. As usual, books have provided me with much-needed distraction, beauty, connection and escapism.

It’s more than just reading, it’s also attending various literary events or writing or film watching – all the things that make my life worthwhile (it has all been virtual this month – and, to be honest, if all Covid protections are completely removed, I’m not sure I’ll venture out much in the future, except for unavoidable things like work and my much-postponed but hopefully still viable trip to Romania).

Reading

I read eleven books, including two chunksters (Frank Moorhouse and Christina Stead). Two were re-reads (Mihail Sebastian for my London Reads the World Book Club on 7th of March, and Maus because of all the uproar about it being banned in certain US schools). Seven were by women authors, one non-binary and only three male authors. One non-fiction (Josie George), one collection of short stories or vignettes (Wilder Winds), one graphic novel, two crime novels (just about) and the rest novels.

I declared this an Oz Feb month, to make up for my embarrassing ignorance regarding Australian literature, but relied on books that I already had on my bookshelves. I managed to read and review five of these. Naturally, this means that my proportion of works in other languages or in translation was lower: only three books.

In retrospect, there were perhaps some better choices I could have made for the Australian authors (I also had Elizabeth Harrower and Gerald Murnane on my shelves), but if I could draw any conclusions based on the diverse writers I did read, it’s that Australian authors seem to be much more frank and direct than their English cousins, they don’t shy away from difficult subjects, their opinions can be quite unvarnished, and there is far less squeamishness about physicality: sex or the body and its biological functions.

  • Shirley Hazzard: The Evening of the Holiday – elegant and understated, she is the most similar to an English author, but with a far more international outlook
  • Miles Franklin: My Brilliant Career – irrepressible, energetic, ahead of its time
  • Christina Stead: The Man Who Loved Children – unique baroque style, striking observations, but relentless subject matter
  • Frank Moorhouse: Grand Days – great combination of the personal and historical
  • Romy Ash: Floundering – a less unique but quite visceral account of deprived childhood and bad parenting, and also my only full contribution to #ReadIndies

Although I love Louise Penny and her Armand Gamache series, this particular one was not one of her best. It was almost too topical (and slightly optimistic about the end of the pandemic), especially in regards to the ‘who should die’ debate. I also felt somewhat manipulated by the author, trying to stretch out the drip-feeding of the information very, very slowly to increase the tension.

Bel Olid’s Wilder Winds from the fantastic Fum D’Estampa Press is one of my contributions to #ReadIndies (although I don’t have time for a full review). This translation from the Catalan proves that a slim volume of very brief, almost lightning flash stories can be more powerful than many a lengthy tome. Every word, every image is packed with meaning, and there are a great variety of voices: a young girl in a refugee camp, women of all ages, coming of age, migrants, revolutionaries, workers, mothers, voyeurs, women being catcalled on the street and more. I particularly enjoyed hearing the author and translator Laura McGloughlin talk about their collaboration at the Borderless Book Club, saying these are dark tales but with a tiny glimmer of hope. Extremely poetic and thought-provoking.

Another very brief review for my final #ReadIndie contender: The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-Mo, transl. Chi-Young Kim, published by Edinburgh-based Canongate. Ostensibly the story of Hornclaw, an ageing female assassin (or ‘disease control specialist’, as she calls herself) stalked by a colleague who is out for revenge, it is in fact an unexpectedly moving story of loneliness, tenderness and regrets about past life choices. With a descent into a bloodbath at one point that I am beginning to expect after watching Korean films and TV series, the story is nevertheless more subtle than it might appear at first, and the characterisation of the contrary, stubborn, occasionally baffled Hornclaw, who can fool everyone, including herself, is spot on.

Events

Aside from the Borderless Book Club event, I also attended a panel discussion organised by the German House in New York around the anthology Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum / Your Homeland Is Our Nightmare, with authors representing various ‘minorities’ and marginalised groups in present-day Germany, as a response to the creation of a Ministry of ‘Heimat’. Let’s face it, vast swathes of Germany are very traditionalist, and one quote that really made me laugh was: ‘But how can we Germans be homophobic? We’ve got Berlin!’ The translators of the anthology explain things far better than me:

Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum [Your Homeland is our Nightmare] is the title of our collective work: essays by fourteen German-language authors, framed at the beginning of 2019 as a sort of answer to these developments. Because as one can imagine, this concept of homeland is a nightmare for marginalized groups in our society. But not just for them. That’s the reason why two words on the original cover of the book (Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum) are colored the same shade of purple as the book cover itself. Because it is not the editors and authors of this book who decide where “we” ends and “you” begins. Every reader decides this for themselves: Do I want to live in a society oriented around völkisch, racist, antisemitic, sexist, heteronormative, and trans-antagonistic structures? Or would I rather be a part of a society in which every individual—whether black and/or Jewish and/or Muslim and/or woman and/or queer and/or non-binary and/or poor and/or differently abled—is treated equally?

I also attended a couple of translation events organised by the Society of Authors, including the 2021 Translation Prizes and social, all of which finally gave me the push to join the society. Having translated 271, 340 words over the past two years, more than half of which have been published, it would be nice to think that at some point I might actually get paid for translating, even if not for the writing!

I also watched the NT Live showing of Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard at the local arts centre, not only because one of the performers was the son of a friend, but also because it shows both the charm and rot of Vienna and its persistent anti-semitism over the first half of the 20th century through the story of one extended family. Brilliantly acted throughout, it manages to be both tragic and humorous, surprising despite its predictable, all too well-known story, and posing uncomfortable questions for present-day audiences.

Films

I tend to watch more films either when Younger Son is with his father (he prefers to watch either The Apprentice or anime with me) or when Older Son the film fanatic is around. Well, this month both of these conditions were met: YS stayed for longer than expected with his father, who tested positive for Covid while he was there for the weekend (it was a mild form and YS did not catch it), while OS came back home from university for just over a week, while his lecturers were on strike. So I had a very good month of films, not a lemon among all of these. The one thing I would NOT recommend is the TV series Kitz on Netflix, which I idly watched for two episodes in the hope that it would feature mountains, snow and skiing for some restful escapism after long working days. It was all about partying, drug-taking, sexual exploits and spoilt rich kids, with clunky dialogue, exaggerated and implausible scenario, I just couldn’t bear it.

It was funny how the films seemed to come in contrasting pairs. Olivier Assayas was the director for both the light-hearted satire of Non-Fiction and the pain of grief and inability to let go of the past in Personal Shopper. The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson was at the ornate, highly stylised end of the cinematography and storytelling spectrum, while Petite Maman by Celine Sciamma was simple, almost simplistic, pared down to the bone. Both A Cat in Paris and The House were unconventional and beautiful examples of animation art, as far removed from Disney as one might imagine, but the former was an adventure story with a heart-warming ending, while the latter was a descent into the horror of house building, maintenance and ownership in Britain. The third animated film was The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s final film for Ghibli (allegedly), and I felt more ambiguous about that: although the artwork is beautiful as always, there is perhaps a bit too much whitewashing of the life of aviation engineer Horikoshi Jiro, creator of the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighter planes used by the Kamikaze pilots in the final part of WW2. He must have known what his military planes were going to be used for, yet he seems to have suffered no remorse after the war and retired as a highly-awarded professor at Tokyo University, justifying himself by saying: ‘All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful’. The final two films were both melancholy depictions of migration, loss and identity: the Quebecois Monsieur Lazhar directed by Philippe Falardeau is about an Algerian refugee teaching a class of ten-year-olds whose teacher committed suicide; while Preparations to be Together… directed by Lili Horvát is about an eminent female neurosurgeon returning to her native Hungary for the love of another doctor she met briefly at a congress in the States. A haunting story of self-delusion and hope, becoming a victim of your own dreams vs. the power of yearnings.

Writing and Translating

I have nearly finished the first draft of translation of a very long Romanian crime novel, and continued pitching another novel (by Lavinia Braniște) to publishers. You can catch me reading a small fragment from it on the Translators Aloud YouTube channel. I also entered an extract of my translation of the play The Holiday Game by Mihail Sebastian for a competition, so fingers crossed. And I have submitted my own writing as well several times this month.

I am also working hard behind the scenes of Corylus Books: launching a monthly newsletter, editing current translations in progress and considering possible future acquisitions, applying for funding, trying to find someone who can teach us how to use Amazon Ads wisely (apparently they are becoming more and more cut-throat, leading to bidding wars). I am probably neglecting my own son and health, and certainly my house, in the process – and occasionally that springs up to bite me! I sometimes wonder whether there is any point in continuing to write, translate, publish, when the world seems intent on destroying itself.

Still, I can’t help but remind myself how lucky I am, every morning when I wake up to a cold but safe house, when I switch the heating on (even if I can’t afford to heat it as much or as often as I’d like), when I sit down free to explore the internet at leisure, have access to any source of information. As the Romanian expression goes: ‘Let’s not anger God by taking this for granted!’

I’d like to conclude with a quote from Ukrainian author Andrei Kurkov. The whole lecture that he gave in 2018 in Hong Kong is worth reading (and available for free now), but this particularly stuck with me.

Even if you were born in a civilised European or other state to take your rights for granted is dangerous. We do not pay attention to the air that we breath until it becomes unsuitable for breathing due to pollution. We do not pay attention to our body while it is healthy, but we are frightened as soon as we face the first serious problems with our heart or lungs. Our rights are not violated only if we understand them and make sure that they are not violated. Forget about them, and the consequences can be most deplorable.

Weekly Summary – Just Bookish This Time!

No events this past week – well, no cultural ones at any rate. Can you tell that the boys are back from their holidays? So our ‘trips’ have been more along the lines of dentist, haircut and swimming pool. We attempted to go see The Incredibles 2 but I got the time and date wrong (embarrassing, I know). We’ll attempt it again later on today.

On the upside, other than being reunited with my little ones (who now tower above me – and I am not short!), quite a few books have been incoming this week. Let’s start with the one that got delivered today, on a Sunday, by a courier, which made it feel very special. Infernus: The Power of the Goddess by Jo Hogan. And indeed it is! I’ve known Jo for a while now via Twitter. She has been a source of inspiration for me, for her perseverance with writing and creating a happy family life in the most difficult of circumstances. Her debut novel was turned down by British publishers, because apparently it is too much of a mixed genre. A German publishing house Oetinger was so enthusiastic about it, however, that they had it translated and it has just come out, so I had to pre-order it. I’ll tell you all about it soon – and maybe some day it might be published in the original language too.

Jo describes it as bonkers, but I think it sounds rather intriguing (and I’m sure it’s better written than Dan Brown). Here is my translation of the blurb from German:

Maria’s mother went mad and killed herself. That was what Maria was certain of, as she was growing up. Suddenly her father is found dead as well, after touching a legendary amulet. Just the cruel hand of fate, or is there something more behind that? Maria herself starts having increasingly frequent nightmares about a Hand of Evil trying to grab her. She starts looking for answers in mysterious and mystical corners of the world…

I told you last week that I had finally succumbed to peer pressure (thank you Melissa and Tony!) and decided to make another attempt at reading The Brothers Karamazov. So I got myself a different translation by Ignat Avsey, dating from 1994. As I was ordering this off Abe Books, however, I came across some other Russian books and just couldn’t resist.

Olesha’s Envy is a small miracle: a slapstick satire of the model Soviet citizen published in one of the most difficult periods of the Soviet empire (late 1920s). Olga Grushin’s novel is about the end of the Soviet empire, everyday life in Russia during that massive period of change in the mid 1980s-1990s. (Perfect for #WITMonth, I may try to squeeze it in.) And Victor Pelevin’s Omon Ra achieves the rare feat of being historical, satirical and science fiction all rolled into one (it was published in 1992 in Russia, when it was acceptable to be critical of the Soviet space programme).

Who can resist a book sale? When I heard that Fitzcarraldo are having a fourth anniversary sale with 20% off everything, I bought myself two of their books I’ve been salivating over (not literally, obviously) for a long time. Svetlana Alexievich brings a collage of voices talking about the collapse of the Soviet Union, so will tie in neatly with Grushin’s fictional voice. Meanwhile, Esther Kinsky uses her solitary walks along the River Lea to meditate about the past, nature, transience, migration and life in general.

The last two books I got were also as a result of spending far too much time on Twitter and on reading other blogs. Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s La Femme de Gilles has been reviewed by quite a few of you, and I always thought I would like a stab at it, but not in English. The final book is to fill a massive gap in my literary geography: I have read next to nothing by Korean women writers, yet I’ve heard they are currently producing some of the most interesting work in the Far East.

Now all I need to do is figure out a way in which to sit at home and read all day, while still having an income stream and happy, well-adjusted children…