Most Obscure on My Shelves – the Far East

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I wish I could say I had a large selection of Chinese, Korean and other literature, but who am I kidding? My main contact with the ‘Orient’ has been via Japan. I’ve tried to stay away from my obvious favourite fiction, however, like Dazai Osamu or Genji Monogatari or Mishima Yukio. None of those are obscure enough…

Charles A. Moore (ed.): The Japanese Mind

I was rather smitten with this when I first started studying Japanese, but in the meantime I’ve recognised it for what it is: another brick in the wall of the myth of Japanese uniqueness. This – in a simplistic nutshell – is the propensity for both Western and Japanese historians, anthropologists, literary critics, philosophers and social scientists to claim that Japanese culture is so different from anything else that it is impossible for anyone outside Japan to truly understand it (or make any valid critical study of it). The words ‘enigmatic’ and ‘paradoxical’ appear so many times throughout this book. While I agree that Japan can seem quite alien to those who have grown up in the Western canon, there are so many Korean and Chinese influences, Buddhist influences and similarities of Shintoism to other pagan religions. Besides, can it not be said of any culture that it is quite unique (especially in the way it mixes and matches and borrows from others)?

This is not the cover page of the edition I have, because that one is white and does not come out well against the background.

Fujiwara Teika (ed.): Hyakunin Isshu – transl. and annotated by Iulia Waniek

A Hundred Poets with One Poem Each (the literal translation of the title) is a Japanese anthology of poetry from the early 13th century. Many of the poems, however, are much older, going back to the 7th century, and the reason why we still have them today is thanks to Fujiwara’s tireless enthusiasm in collecting them. It remains to this day one of the most popular poetry  books in Japan – there is even a New Year’s card game based on intimate knowledge of the poems. The edition I own has each poem in Japanese plus translation, and a bit of commentary/history alongside each one. The poems were translated into Romanian by my former sensei at university, a talented Japanologist and now a good friend. For those of you who are not fluent in Romanian – really, how can you NOT be? – you can read the poems in English, with lovely illustrations and explanations on this site.

Theatre performance

Ruxandra Marginean Kohno: The Creative Tradition of Nō Theatre

I can’t resist boasting about another of my talented friends – a former classmate at university, who went on to complete her Ph.D. on the Nō Theatre in Japan, at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo. Proving, once and for all, that Japanese culture can be understood and interpreted in a fascinating way by a Western scholar. The author goes beyond the ‘obvious suspect’ which is Zeami (one of the greatest actors and creators of Nō), looking especially at ways in which this type of theatre has been adapted and modernised following the massive cultural changes of the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan opened up to the Western world. Ruxandra has a special affinity with theatre, since both of her parents are actors, and she effortlessly weaves in references to Eric Hobsbawm, Umberto Eco, Foucault and Gadamer. This is a revised, bilingual version of her Ph.D. thesis (Japanese/Romanian), published in Romania in 2009.

 

 

Six Degrees of Separation: From The Slap to…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

The starting point for May is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. A controversial and marmite book when it first appeared in 2008, it certainly established Tsiolkas’ reputation as a frank and uncompromising critic of Australian society beneath the easy-going, laid-back surface.

I haven’t read The Slap, but I was utterly charmed by Christos when I met him at the Livres sur le quai festival in Morges in 2015. I have read other novels by him and I am linking up to Barracuda, the story of a working-class lad trying to escape his upbringing through his talents as a swimmer. Shockingly frank and unsentimental look at Australia’s so-called ‘classless’ society.

Another book which explores notions of class and takes place in a school (as large chunks of Barracuda does) is Different Class by Joanne Harris. Set in St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys, it returns to the fate of eccentric Latin master Roy Straitley who was persuaded to delay his retirement for a year – but begins to regret his decision with the appointment of a fashionable new Head, who was one of his nightmareish former pupils.

Joanne Harris is of course most famous for her book Chocolat, and another book with a strong link to chocolate is Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, which is a love story underlining the strong sensuous link between cooking and lust (or perhaps cooking as a sublimation of passion), and the prevalence of chocolate in Mexican cuisine.

Another Mexican writer I have discovered more recently is Valeria Luiselli. Her Faces in the Crowd is the story of an obsession, as the narrator, a somewhat harassed mother and writer in Mexico City, tries to remember her life in New York and her growing fascination with the life and poetry of Gilberto Owen (who was a real historical figure).

The title of the book above refers to an Ezra Pound poem, so my next link is to his volume of Cantos, which influenced me profoundly in my love for poetry and for exploring other cultures, despite what I later came to find out about his anti-semitism and collaboration with the Fascists.

Perhaps another reason why I liked Pound when I was younger was for his stylish and unconventional translations of Chinese poetry, so my last link is to one of the Chinese classics which we all had to read when I studied Japanese at university, Dream of the Red Chamber, written in the mid 18th century during the Qing dynasty. The opening poem of this epic family saga says all there is to say about the fine line between fiction and reality:

Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.

So that was a whirlwind world tour – from Australia to the United Kingdom to Mexico to New York City to China. Where do your literary connections take you?

More Shelving Dilemmas

Having somewhat haphazardly flung my books out of boxes and onto shelves, I discovered I couldn’t find anything anymore. So I’ve tried to rearrange my shelves according to countries and subject matter. Here is what I’ve been able to do so far.

The French Corner. This is a narrow bookcase at the very edge of the room, which has books (some in French, some in translation) by and about French authors or about France (but not the dictionaries or French culture guides, which are housed with the reference books). Unsurprisingly, this section of my library has grown exponentially during my 5 years in that part of the world.

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Non-fiction is relatively modest and housed just below the French section. (But there is an additional overly large academic and business books section, see below.)

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A whole shelf is dedicated to books on the writing craft and literary criticism – and includes the complete diaries of Virginia Woolf (my favourite writing book), while another shelf is all about poetry. Alas, I’ll soon be running out of space on this latter one.

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I’m pretty sure I’ve got more German books stashed away in the loft, but for the time being there is sufficient space on these two shelves to house Scandinavian fiction and Peirene Press as well. [Update: just went up to the loft this morning and can tell you there is no more space to house anything. See the picture below this one.]

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Japanese literature is housed next to books on Japanese society, culture and religions (which might help you guess what the subject of my Ph.D. was). Once again, I am convinced I have far, far more Japanese books up in the loft (or at my parents’ house in Romania).

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As for Romanian books – I had to set up an additional bit of foldable shelving to do it justice, although I also added some authors loosely categorised as ‘East European’ – Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima, Kieslowski (the film director) and Andrzej Stasiuk. The Russians are on the bottom shelf as well, although I am confident there are more of them lurking up in the attic. Apologies for the darkness of the shot, but light conditions were against me.

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Then we have the mish-mash shelf: Spanish, South American and some non-Japanese Asians.

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After setting up all of these shelves beautifully, I then realised that I don’t  have much space left for the English language fiction, which represents by far the greatest proportion of my books. Sigh! I think I may have too many ‘professional’ books. I love my anthropology books, but I may need another office for the more business-like stuff, so that I can leave this one free for creative pursuits.

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There is one more segment of wall against which I could put up additional shelves, but the study will also have to accommodate an armchair-bed for visitors, so I doubt there will be any room left over. If the alternative is no more shelves, then I may have to give visitors my bed and sleep on a mattress in my beloved library.

Or maybe I should copy this brilliant idea of ‘book-hunting’ from Belgium?

Bilingualism and Other Passionate Diseases

MizubayashiAkira Mizubayashi: Une langue venue d’ailleurs (A Language From Somewhere Else)

‘This is too semblant to others.’ ‘There is no good explication for that.’ ‘I got 19 on 20 for my French test, I’m such an intello!’ are sentences my children regularly come up with, while I patiently try to correct their English. (I’ve given up – temporarily – on improving their Romanian.) But I remember I used to speak a mix of languages (within the same sentence) when I was a child. It hasn’t stopped me from being able to enjoy watching films, reading, conversing in each of those languages (separately) as a grown-up.

Besides, languages are much more than a practical tool. They represent the gateway to a different culture and mindset. Which has always been one of the most enticing things in the universe to me: learning how others think, why they behave in a certain way, what they believe, what they hold dear… How can it get any more interesting than that?

Japanese writer and professor of French Akira Mizubayashi seems to share my fascination with language as an entrance point to a whole new culture. Except, in his case, he accessed it of his own free will at the age of 19 – thanks to a passion for Rousseau and Mozart’s Susanna in the Marriage of Figaro. Much more admirable than all those multilingual children out there, as it’s so much harder to learn a new language at an advanced age.

This book documents his journey into French culture: his years spent recording French lessons on the radio and playing them over and over, imitating the accent and tonality; his first study trip abroad in Montpellier and his awkward attempts at making polite conversation; meeting his French wife; attempting to raise their own daughter with both languages. But it’s much more than an autobiography. It is a declaration of love to the French language and a fond remembrance of some of his favourite teachers. It is also a highly readable, personal way of presenting the rather dry subject we had to study at university: theory of linguistics. Thirdly, it is also an elegant meditation on language and identity, with the author finally admitting that he is both at home and yet a stranger in both languages.

From frenchculture.org
From frenchculture.org

However, what I enjoyed most were those little nuggets of insight which made me smile. For instance, Mizubayashi remarks how much French conversation relies on vocative appellative expressions, i.e. ‘mon petit chou’, ‘mon poussin’, ‘ma poule’, mon grand’, ‘mon vieux’ and all of those other terms of endearment sprinkled liberally in a conversation with friends. I might add that even in formal contexts, on the radio, I hear this direct address: ‘Sachez que…. mesdames – messieurs’. It’s also considered somewhat abrupt and rude to enter a boulangerie or post office and just say ‘Bonjour’ instead of ‘Bonjour, madame or monsieur’. The author contrasts that with the Japanese language, where you almost avoid naming the other person, by deleting the ‘I’ or ‘you’ from the dialogue (it is implied in the verb forms). The relationship between two speakers in Japanese strikes him as two beings who sit side by side and look at a landscape together, while in France they would sit in front of each other and address each other.

This book managed to sneak into my TBR pile but I am so glad it did. Mizubayashi writes like a Frenchman, but he observes like an outsider. An anthropological and linguistic treat, a must for anyone struggling with bilingualism, as well as a fun memoir!

 

 

It’s All About the Voice

UntetheredYesterday I read my first official YA novel – because I am of that generation that didn’t have literature aimed specifically at my age-group, or paternalistic age-banding on books.  By the time YA literature made its official appearance, I had grown up and preferred to go back to my childhood favourites when I was in a nostalgic mood (Swallows and Amazons, Treasure Island, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or Ballet Shoes). I had no desire to relive my late teens, when back in high school all I wanted to do was be as pretentiously grown-up as possible.

But for a friend and fellow member of the Geneva Writers’ Group (who moreover shares my love of popcorn!), the one-woman dynamo that is Katie Hayoz, I decided to forsake my stupid genre scepticism.  I find genre such a meaningless category anyway. Her book ‘Untethered’ is labelled YA fiction, as the protagonist is a teenage girl. (But then, The Lovely Bones, Catcher in the Rye and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter should all be categorised as teen fiction.) It’s also labelled a paranormal novel, which is more than a little misleading, although it does deal with astral projection.

However, this is not a post about genre fiction, fascinating though that subject may be. Instead, it is about the importance of narrative voice. The narrator of ‘Untethered’ has a remarkably clear voice of her own: self-absorbed and whiny at times, self-justifying and pretentious at others, but also sharply observant, funny and poignant. Unique and yet representative of teenagers everywhere. Or the teenager we think we remember we were.

This is the one thing that literary agents say over and over again about submissions: what makes them instantly prick up their ears and read on is this strong individual voice.  Yet it is far rarer than you might think.  I read so many books this year (140 at last count) and only a handful or two of those have that truly unique voice. Confidence, an above-average plot and a polished style: yes, there are dozens like that and I rank many of my favourite authors amongst these. But a voice that grabs you (even when you don’t much like it) and takes you into their world (however unfamiliar)… it is an exhilarating experience when that happens.  I’ve felt that this year with Katie Hayoz’s Sylvie, Denise Mina’s Garnethill, John Burdett’s Bangkok Eight, Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy. All very different voices, but all whispering (sometimes shouting) potently in my ear.

Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin

Then I realised that it’s not just in literature, but also in music that I am bowled over by unique, strong, perhaps even unfashionable or unlikable voices. What I call ‘lived-in’ voices – people who have experienced much, suffered and not always overcome. Voices of experience, voices on the edge. Voices that you wouldn’t want to hear on your children, but in which you perhaps recognise just a little bit of yourself. Yes, I admire the perfect pitch, poise and modulations of great singers, but it’s these ‘broken’ voices, simultaneously world-weary and world-hungry, that make my heart do a double turn.

Good morning heartache, good morning Billie Holiday, Jim Morrison,

www.jimmorrissonline.com
http://www.jimmorrissonline.com

David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Maria Callas…

last.fm

Bumper Crop of August Reading

SayersLargeCrime Fiction, including some re-reads for Crime Fiction Lover’s feature special on Dorothy Sayers in Classics in September:

  1. Lynn Shepherd: A Treacherous Likeness
  2. Dorothy L. Sayers: Murder Must Advertise
  3. Dorothy L. Sayers: Have His Carcase
  4. Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night
  5. Philippe Georget: Summertime All The Cats Are Bored
  6. P.D. James: Shroud for a Nightingale
  7. Jean-François Parot: The Chatelet Apprentice – first in the Nicolas Le Floch series, read it here in English for the first time
  8. Helen Smith: Invitation to Die – more than a cosy crime novel, this is a witty satire about book blogging, wannabe writers and the rivalries and egos of the publishing industry
  9. Seth Lynch: Salazar
  10. John Burdett: Bangkok Eight – very distinctive voice, scenes that fascinate and repel in equal measure, quite hard to bear in some ways
  11. Camilla Ceder: Babylon
  12. Alan Bradley: I am Half-Sick of Shadows
  13. Jakob Arjouni: Happy Birthday, Tűrke! – in German, the first in the renowned Kayankala series
  14. Elly Griffiths: The Crossing Places
  15. Julie Smith: Mean Woman Blues – America, New Orleans
  16. John Enright: Pago Pago Tango – Australasia/Oceania
  17. Gail Bowen: A Killing Spring – Canadian academic crime fiction
  18. Alison Bruce: The Calling – third in DC Goodhew series, set in Cambridge, this was the first one the author wrote
  19. Stav Sherez: Eleven Days – second in the Carrigan & Miller series. The first one, ‘A Dark Redemption’ was one of my favourite crime reads of 2012. Tthis time the links are to South America, liberation theology, human trafficking and Albanian crime lords. Perhaps not quite as compelling as the previous book, but an excellent read nonetheless, and an inventive, poetic use of language.
  20. David Wagner: Cold Tuscan Stone – art smuggling in Italy, rather obvious tourist fare
  21. Kerry Greenwood: Flying Too High (Phryne Fisher) – delectable and frothy

2 in French which deserve to be better known

  1. André Héléna: Les Voyageurs du vendredi
  2. Sébastien Japrisot : Un long dimanche de fiançailles

Escapist Capers

  1. C.L. Konigsburg: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler – old childhood favourite that I had lost track of because of the impossible title
  2. Adharanand Finn: Running with the Kenyans
  3. Hatice Akyűn: Einmal Hans mit scharfer Soße – witty depiction of life as a 2nd generation Turk growing up in Germany
  4. Writers Abroad: Foreign Encounters – collection of poetry, creative non-fiction and short stories about the expat experience and cross-cultural encounters

Total read: 27; Abandoned 2 (not mentioned here).  

11DaysMy own internal rules dictate that I cannot count my reread novels towards my favourites this month, so my top crime pick of the month: Stav Sherez–Eleven Days.

Reread 5 books.

11 e-book format

2 in French, 2 in German, the rest in English (but 3 in translation)

2 non-fiction, 1 collection of poetry/prose, the rest novels.

Finished 108 of my proposed 120 books reading challenge for this year, which probably means I have set my bar too low.  Then again, from September onwards, I’ll probably struggle to read more than one book a week.

So what have you read this month? Anything you particularly remember or recommend?

 

Why Writers’ Retreats Work (Mostly)

Chateau+Lavigny+016-590x393Last night I discovered one of the great treasures literary life in the Lake Geneva area.

I had the great pleasure to attend  a reading of poetry and prose at the coquette Chateau de Lavigny near Lausanne.  This beautiful manor house set amidst vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva is home to the Ledig-Rowohlt foundation and has been hosting for two decades retreats for both emerging and established writers from all over the world. Once a month in the summer, the resident writers share their thoughts and works with a small public, in both English and French – and also, very often, their native languages.

Last night’s friendly and talented group of writers included: novelist and children’s author Ousmane Diarra (from Mali); poet Janet McAdams from the United States; fiction writer and translator Alexander Markin (from Russia); novelist and essayist Tatiana Salem Levy from Brazil; writer of Gothic novels Leonora Christina Skov from Denmark.

View from the Terrace.
View from the Terrace.

The Readings

Ousmane kicked off with an extract from his novella ‘La Revelation’.  It is the story of a child who discovers that his real mother is dead. He asks the local priest what death means and is told that his mother is now with ‘le bon Dieu’ (the good Lord). From now on he will wage war with the good Lord, in an effort to gain back his mother.  With his resonant voice and brilliant insights into a child’s confused thoughts,  the author gathered us around an imaginary campfire to hear this moving, thrilling and often funny tale.

Janet’s poetry was about finding and losing one’s identity, about moving on, about moving to other countries and about being observed and scrutinised. Haunting, thought-provoking poems, which struck a deep chord in me, although she seemed to fear that she was too serious and said at one point, apologetically: ‘It doesn’t get any more cheerful.’

Alexander read fragments from his semi-fictional diaries depicting the life of an artist in present-day Russia, a mix of minute details and philosophical reflections, anecdotes about artistry and repression, acute observations of everyday absurdity and a healthy dose of satire.

Tatiana read the opening of her first novel ‘A chave de casa’, an exploration of her family’s past, from Smyrna to Rio. She was lyrical, funny, tender, with richly sensuous details and an air of sepia-coloured nostalgia.

Last but not least, Leonora very bravely read out her own translation into English from a rough draft of her current work in progress.  This is a novel inspired by Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ and is set in a writer’s colony on a lonely Danish island.  Murderous writers, tongue-in-cheek and witty style, mordant characterisations: I can hardly wait to read this!

So, as you can see, a remarkable diversity of styles and subject matters, but all equally talented and passionate about writing.  Can you just imagine the dinner table conversations there? This is one of the beauties of writers’ residencies.  While conferences within your own genre are very useful and huge fun,  the best ideas often come from this diversity of visions and ideas. It’s the difference of approaches and the cross-pollination that ultimately leads to the most interesting experiments, that will make a writer venture out of their comfort zone.

Steamboat on Lake Geneva, near Lausanne (Switz...
Steamboat on Lake Geneva, near Lausanne (Switzerland) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Availability of English Translations

Or, rather, the lack of availability. In our post-reading chat over drinks, every one of the writers (except for Janet McAdams, who writes in English, obviously) emphasised how difficult it was to get translated into English and published in either the UK or the US.  This rather reinforces the point I made earlier about reaching a wider public if you are writing in English.

Although Tatiana Salem Levy is featured in Granta 121: Best of Young Brazilian Novelists, her work is not otherwise available to the English-speaking world. How is it that her first novel has been translated into French, Italian, Romanian, Spanish and Turkish, but not in English? Alexander’s diaries are being translated into German – everyone there agreed that German publishers are so good at discovering new talent abroad, that they are the fastest with their translations.  Yet the Germans themselves are just as worried about the demise of the publishing industry as anyone else.

To my mind, Leonora Christina Skov has all of the qualities to appeal to an American or British audience: she has that sly dark humour, she writes quirky Gothic tales and she is a Scandinavian bordering on crime fiction, for heaven’s sake!  What more has that woman got to do to be noticed?  It seems to me infinitely sad that she is seriously considering switching to English in her writing.

The Future of Writer’s Colonies

I don’t think there is a writer on earth who has not dreamt of going to a writers’ colony for a month or so, in a idyllic location, and having nothing else to worry about but writing.  Not even laundry, cooking and cleaning, let alone earning a living.  Most would agree that it is very conducive to writing, even if the company you find there may be challenging at times.

Of course, as foundation pots and art funds dwindle, it’s becoming harder and harder to fund these programmes.  Last night I heard rumours about initiatives like these closing down in Spain and Greece. Smaller profit-making initiatives are springing up, offering no stipends, but instead comfortable surroundings in which a paying visitor can get away from it all and be creative.   Not quite the same, is it, if you are still worrying about money and the taxman?

The group of volunteers from the steering committee at Lavigny are worried about the future.  They can’t get any funding from the Swiss state or local canton, because they have an international rather than a local remit. Meanwhile, PEN or other international art foundations are overwhelmed with applications on a daily basis.  Above all, they are reluctant to reduce the residency programme from its current 3-4 weeks to just one week, because they feel that is too short to get the creative juices really flowing.  I do hope the magic of Lavigny will be able to exert its influence on writers worldwide for a while longer.

Nothing like an inappropriate picture to end the article!
 Typical Swiss landscape, photo credit: Wink Lorch,http://www.jurawine.co.uk