December Diva: Solenoid by Mircea Cărtărescu

I was looking for a good alliteration for December with the meaning of ‘chunky’, ‘lengthy’ read, but all I could find was ‘drawn-out’, which doesn’t sound very complimentary. Not sure that Diva sounds very flattering either, but at least it promises something dramatic, exciting, with flair… Besides, it’s all nonsense about creating a memorable alliteration with ‘D’, since in truth I read Solenoid in November, thanks to the wonderful Reem and her read-along. Deep Vellum recently released Sean Cotter’s translation of this book, often considered Cărtărescu’s masterpiece, but I read it in the original, having bought the book back in 2019 on my last visit to Bucharest before the pandemic.

I am familiar with much of Cărtărescu’s work, and even went a couple of times to the writing circle he organised for students (one of my friends was a devoted Cărtărescu acolyte and took me along). At the time, I liked his poetry more than his prose, but since then I have enjoyed his diaries (which show him to be quite an insecure person, like many other writers, despite his considerable national and international success), was not overly impressed with his short stories, really liked Nostalgia and Blinding, so was curious to see how I would feel about Solenoid.

Perhaps I should state upfront that I don’t think it’s his best work.

It treads over much of the same ground that he covered with more brilliance and gusto in the trilogy Blinding (although here it covers mostly the 1960s and 70s, while in Blinding there is a much longer time span from the 1950s to 1989 and the fall of Communism): his childhood experiences of health scares, his extensive reading, Bucharest as a city in decay, the shape of an individual life and how it comes to represent any life, the fallibility of memory. Autobiographical elements combined with surrealist flights of fantasy. Solenoid is more rambling, less inventive and surprising than Nostalgia. The problem is that Nostalgia is not translated particularly well in English by Iulian Semilian, so it doesn’t do justice to Cărtărescu’s style, while Sean Cotter does a much better job with the first volume of Blinding, but volumes 2 and 3 never made it into English.

However, Solenoid is a good compromise if you want to discover the work of this Romanian writer who has been occasionally tipped for the Nobel Prize. I found myself enjoying it quite a bit, in spite of my reservations. There is much more humour and self-deprecation than I expected, for example, when the narrator describes the ambitious epic poem about everything which he wrote at the age of 17, which is openly derided at the writing circle, thus making him renounce his literary ambitions and go into teaching, a job he despises and only does half-heartedly.

Bottomless ambition made the poem ridiculous. You have to learn to walk first before running. The poet who read tonight was like a child in a baby walker who wants to take part in a marathon and even win it.

[About teaching] It’s only for a year, till I get taken on at a publisher or literary magazine… [then he stayed on] 40 more years and I’ll retire from here. It hasn’t been that bad. I even had some lice-free periods!

I think it excels particularly in the realistic details of life in 1970s Romania which sound so absurd that they almost become surreal (and therefore are a good match for the magical and surrealist elements the author introduces into the story). Oone memorable scene is about the spitting on icons competition in the classroom, to determine who is the best atheist.

We’d go early in the morning, sometimes before it even got light, to queue up in the freezing cold, like a herd of animals, for a chicken carcase or a bottle of milk diluted with water.

The only thing the children learn from weekly Constitution class is the name of the person whose portrait hangs above the blackboard in every class. This person, who appears on TV frequently, speaking some strange language, is someone about whom we can’t tell jokes.

There are also some beautiful phrases and memorable passages, some of which remind me of scenes from Tarkovsky films and which will stay with me forever: the abandoned factory where the narrator and another schoolteacher go to search for their older pupils; the nameless fear that the narrator experiences as a child when he leaves his aunt’s house on the outskirts of town one night with his mother and they see a heavily starlit sky; the gathering of the Picketer protestors in something resembling Dante’s circles of Inferno.

Above all, I enjoyed the author’s riffs on reality and whether the human mind has the capacity to transcend it. Dreams appear to be the only means of escape from a grim and grey world (and yet I found the long descriptions of dreams quite repetitive and wearisome).

We search foolishly, in places where it’s impossible to find anything, like spiders weaving webs in bathrooms where no fly or mosquito will ever get in. We shrivel up in our webs, but we never lose our need for truth.

But the enormous, real world around us cannot be described by the senses, even if we had a million of them like a sea anemone swaying in the ocean current. The world is all around us, crushing us in its embrace, bone by bone.

The old man was clearly delusional, but I knew better than anyone that delusions are not the waste byproduct of reality, but form part of it, indeed are sometimes the most precious part of reality.

Maybe I’m the last human left on earth, maybe this labyrinth I am entering is being generated moment after moment just for me, maybe my conscience itself is a mere projection of a mind far greater than my own…

There were many erudite asides and mini-biographies of real life characters to explore along the way. While most of them were fun to google (the Voynich manuscript and the novel The Gadfly by Ethel Lilian Voynich), not all of them were strictly necessary, some of them felt self-indulgent. There is no excuse really for 11 pages (in my edition) of the word ‘Help’ repeated over and over again. A couple of pages would have been just as effective. But I suppose no one dares to edit the demi-god of contemporary Romanian letters.

The six solenoids that lie buried at different points under the ugly city of Bucharest are an attempt to link together the disparate stories of an author who never knowingly avoids a tangential thought or an opportunity to show off a bit of research. I suppose the author himself and many of his dedicated readers will say that each anecdote fully deserves its place and adds something to the book, but many of them felt like red herrings to me.

The Uranus neighbourhood was entirely demolished to make room for the building of Ceausescu’s House of the People. The author repeatedly refers to lost/demolished areas.

And yet there was a lot that I loved about the book. The atmosphere of a city in an advanced state of decay (and yet a strange kind of love for this city) reminded me of the descriptions in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. The self-critical humour about the budding writer and his lack of skills, combined with a huge ego and a streak of cruelty towards others (especially about their appearance or intelligence – many of the female teachers feel like caricatures, for example) reminded me of Karl Ove Knausgård. The hallucinatory long sentences, with an incantatory quality and spot-on satirical observations (plus sudden bursts of violence) were reminiscent of Javier Marias. I know that Cărtărescu greatly admires Kafka, but although the sense of absurdity and anxiety might be similar, Kafka’s style is far more concise and minimalist, so it’s not a comparison that would naturally come to mind. However, as Andrei from The Untranslated blog said about the book when he read it in Spanish long before it was translated into English, it is an excellent addition to and perhaps a crowning of the surrealist canon: unashamedly ambitious and what some may even call ‘elitist’.

But I still think I prefer my masterpieces to be more concise and allow me to do most of the thought-provoking.

Heavy Weather: Overthinking Translation

This post is probably going to annoy a lot of translators, academics, publishers and critics – so it’s just as well that not many of them read my blog. I’ve recently read two books which made me wonder if some people consider learning a new language or translating literary fiction to be an opportunity to show off.

Maybe I am not the right person to be criticising this approach, since I was fortunate enough to grow up trilingual and therefore never had to work hard at languages or think of them as something to boast about. I hasten to add that I will always, always admire people who make themselves vulnerable by learning a new language, and that I am endlessly grateful to translators for making so much wonderful work available to us readers. I can also spend hours or even days debating punctuation marks or a particular word when translating a text – a pleasure-challenge-despair that only other translators will understand, while normal people will say ‘Get over yourselves!’ However, at times, it feels like a performance sport: who can be most opaque, most complicated, most scholarly – and thus most ‘valuable’ as a language expert and translator? Under the guise of being most ‘congruent with the original’, I find tortuous language patterns and syntax in the English translations which occasionally might give me a small flavour of the original, but usually end up putting me off that particular author.

I am by no means a proponent of smoothing things so much for readers that they feel they are reading an English book (someone commented recently on my blog that they translated Reichsmark currency in Emil and the Detectives as pounds in a recent edition!!!). Yet overcomplicating things simply to show off your erudition also feels like a disservice to readers – and ultimately to the authors themselves. This tends to happen less with the major languages (French, German, Spanish), where you have professional translators who are extremely good at capturing the right tone. But publishers of translations from ‘small’ languages tend to prefer academics to do the translation – probably as a quality assurance tool – and the result can be deplorable.

Take for example Nostalgia by Mircea Cărtărescu. It is one of his best and most accessible ‘novels’ if we can call it that (it is a loosely-linked set of novellas), but the translation by Julian Semilian feels heavy-handed and verbose. I am not saying that the author is not verbose in the original, but he is limber and lithe, playful with language, skipping through metaphors, slippery yet hypnotic – everything that Javier Marias is, but which is rendered so elegantly and easily into English by Margaret Jull Costa.

Meanwhile, Nostalgia is anything but effortless. Whole paragraphs seem lumbersome and clumsy, but there are certain phrases which simply sound wrong in English.

Suddenly the animation of the ‘stockholders’ – as I was to find out was the name given to those who bet on this game – abated.

I claim no merit for knowing him or that I can write about him.

For better than ten years’ time…

While I wrote these lines, my room, my tomb, has whirled so quickly through the black fog outside that I got sick.

Of course, there is an additional element to that confusion and I’ve ranted about it before. When you only get a few translated titles from Eastern Europe every year, publishers tend to prefer those that fit in with their preconceptions of what that should look like (and what they think readers expect): difficult, worthy, filled with trauma, mainly about the disaster of Communism (if you aim to sell more than a few copies) or post-modernistically dense (if you wish to appeal to a niche audience and get reviewed in academic journals). And yet Ottilie Mulzet’s translation of László Krasznahorkai (who is all of the above) seems capable of conveying the endless sentences and breathless narrator voice without making them too impenetrable and off-putting.

I look forward to reading Sean Cotter’s translation of Solenoid when it comes out and seeing what he makes of Cărtărescu’s later style (although I think it is a weaker work in the original). I would certainly recommend Cotter’s translation of Vol. 1 of the Blinding trilogy, if you want a better introduction to Cărtărescu’s work (I do have quite a lot of issues with the way he portrays women in his work though – very typical of Romanian male writers or perhaps Murakami Haruki). See what Tony Malone thought of that book.

If you feel I’ve been too harsh with Julian Semilian, I should say that on paper he seemed to be an excellent translator for this particular author: they are of roughly the same age, Semilian was born in Romania but soon moved to the States, where he had a successful career as a Hollywood film editor, and more recently as a writer and documentary filmmaker. He corresponded with the author during the translation process and I can imagine they became friends. But I couldn’t help feeling that Julian is not immersed in the Romanian language and culture, especially not in the way it has evolved since he left the country – it does not come as naturally as breathing to him, so he overthinks it. [Or maybe he is just too much of an academic now.]

This ‘immersion’ is precisely the subject of the second book that made me ponder on linguistic expertise recently: Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words. I read the bilingual version, with the Italian on the left-hand side and the English on the right, and was surprised to discover I could understand quite a bit of the Italian – which Italian speakers have told me is partly because the author starts out with quite simple, basic Italian, but that it gets more sophisticated as it goes along. I enjoyed this book and found the passages about growing up bilingual but with very different approaches to the two languages extremely relatable. However, it seemed more self-absorbed and far less interesting than Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds, which is also about falling in love with a language and a culture.

I too have recently started learning Italian for no other reason other than that I love the language and the culture – but I did not feel that I was getting a full sense of the beauty, charm, history of the place and its people in this book. For something that has been labelled ‘a love story’, there was little attempt to capture just what made the object of one’s love so irresistible. I admired the hard work and determination in learning the language, and I could understand the temptation of starting afresh in a new language, the freedom of being allowed to be imperfect. But at times she does make things needlessly complicated and repetitive, and I feel like saying: ‘Get over yourself!’ Still, I was relieved to discover this was not Eat Pray Love with a lexicon attached. Despite its simplistic style (a style that is neither English nor Italian, I feel, but hovers somewhere in the middle), there are moments of true insight, beautifully expressed.

Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realize that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.

In conclusion, I suppose what I am trying to say is that I am glad that translators are gaining more visibility and sharing their thoughts on the challenges of moving between languages and cultures. I greatly enjoyed Daniel Hahn’s translation diary, for example, and found much food for thought there. I am pleased that language learning and translation are viewed as serious and praiseworthy undertakings. But, just like in ballet I admire something that seems effortless even though I know the huge amount of effort that goes into it, I prefer translations to feel as natural as leaves on a tree, not to poke my eyes out with their branches.

#6Degrees of Separation: From Judy Blume to…

I was too busy to take part in this favourite bookish thread last month but am delighted to be back now. Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best nudges us into position every month with a ‘starter book for ten’ and we link it one by one to another six books. Everyone’s chain is very different, and I think it’s fascinating to see how our minds work!

This month’s starter is Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, an author whose books we would surreptitiously pass from one girl to another under the desks in class, while we were supposed to be reading A Tale of Two Cities or something equally respectable. We were a British international school, as opposed to the American International school that was our main rival in town. But we did have quite a few American pupils and they introduced us to Judy Blume.

Another book that I distinctly remember discovering at that school, although this time it was officially part of the curriculum in our German class, was a short story collection by Swiss writer Peter Bichsel. The poignant, surreal story A Table Is a Table impressed me so much that I have never forgotten it. It’s all about loneliness, being misunderstood, not finding a common language to communicate, or dementia, or all sorts of things that children may not really understand at a conscious level, but instinctively grasp with their heart. You can read it here in Lydia Davis’ translation.

I have to admit to my shame that for the longest time I mixed up Lydia Davis with Lindsey Davis, whose novels of crime and mayhem set in Imperial Rome and featuring informer Marcus Didius Falco I discovered and loved so much in my early twenties. I chanced upon them in my library, so The Iron Hand of Mars was the first one I read, although it is the fourth or fifth in the series chronologically.

Mars is the link to the next book, namely Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Again, a book I devoured in my youth – with the Cold War at its demented peak, it all seemed more than a little plausible at the time.

Of course, the most obvious author describing the Cold War period is John Le Carré and I’m particularly fond of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, which captures perfectly the constant paranoia, distrust and sheer danger of East Germany and the world of espionage during the period just after the Berlin Wall went up.

A book set in Berlin (but at a very different point in time – party town Berlin in 2008) sits patiently waiting on my shelves to be read: French writer Oscar Coop-Phane’s Tomorrow Berlin, transl. George Miller.

Of course, if I were to make the last link in the chain any one of the hundreds of unread books in my library, that would be far too open a field. So instead I will focus on another book that I have in English rather than in the original language, although I can read the original language. It is Nostalgia by Mircea Cartarescu, transl. Julian Semilian, which will be published by Penguin Classics in 2021 (and who kindly sent me an ARC).

So quite a variety of genres and locations this month: YA set in the US, Swiss short stories, historical crime fiction in Ancient Rome, science fiction on Mars, spy thriller in Berlin and London, youth drug and club culture in Berlin and Paris, and experimental literary fiction set in Romania.

Where will your literary connections take you this month?

#6Degrees for September 2020: From Rodham to…

Another month, another Six Degrees of Separation 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. This month the starting point is Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld, an alternative history of Hillary Clinton, a book that I haven’t read and have no intention of reading.

I’m not a huge fan of fictional biographies (even ‘alternative’ ones), but one book that I do have on my shelves and am thinking of reading is The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It’s the story of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, and the early years of his writing career and his Paris lifestyle. I don’t have a very high opinion of Hemingway as a man and husband, so this book is likely to reinforce this view.

It might be an obvious link, but my next choice of book is one set in Paris, namely Paris Nocturne by Patrick Modiano. Modiano is a fine writer, although his low-key, unshowy prose often translates as rather flat in English, but he was a bit of a surprise Nobel Prize winner. I find he does tend to address the same themes over and over again, which can get wearisome. However, this is one of his best, most slippery and mysterious books about accidents, mistakes and unreliable memories, with the streets of Paris coming to melancholy life here.

From one Nobel Prize winner to a wannabe one. According to Mircea Cartarescu’s Journal (III – aka Zen), which I read a few years back, he is disappointed every year that he hasn’t won it. Maybe it will be his year this year? This is a very personal and surprisingly candid diary, and this third volume (from 2004-2010) deals with suffering from writer’s block, going on a lot of writing retreats, keeping his family at arm’s length and learning to live with fame and freedom. I love some of his work, but this diary is a little bit too much like Karl Ove Knausgård for me.

Which brings me to the next obvious link, Knausgård himself. I only read three of the Norwegian writer’s six volume memoir and my favourite was Part 2, A Man in Love, which is more than a little self-indulgent (a man in love with himself?) but entertaining to see a man struggling to combine parenthood with writing, for once.

But enough of male writers drunk on their own ego, let’s look at a woman writer who was a star in her own time, namely Fanny Burney and her first novel Evelina was written in secret and published anonymously, because her father did not approve of her scribbles. She had a wicked satirical pen and cynical view of high society (perhaps informed by her stint as a lady-in-waiting at the Royal Court). She is also famous for her diaries, which she kept over a period of no less than 72 years – and she was probably the first person to describe a mastectomy performed on her without anaesthetic.

Although she didn’t write about mastectomies, Virginia Woolf’s Diaries do tell us about her fear of succumbing to her mental illness once more, and how much of an effort it was for her to socialise and be creative at times. Nevertheless, it also give us an entertaining insight into the gossip of the Bloomsbury Group, as well as her thoughts about her reading and the seedlings of ideas from which her novels grew.

Not that much travel this month – only Paris, Romania, Norway and England. But where will your links take you?



In the meantime, something’s growing in the jungle…

… while I’ve been busy deciding upon my #TBR20 darlings, sneaky old book orders I’d nearly forgotten about, new review copies and well-intentioned parents have added to my TBR pile. I will pretend I don’t have them and won’t dive into them yet, but I thought it might be fun to have a quick peek in the undergrowth…
Picture from No, my own TBR pile doesn’t look quite that bad yet!

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver [Oh, all right then, also the only two Moomin books still missing from our collection – Moominvalley in November – which always makes me cry – and The Exploits of Moominpappa – which always makes me laugh, but these all count as re-reads and it’s just to complete my Jansson collection]

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd – recommended by so many of my fellow book bloggers: Tony Malone, Stu Jallen, Caroline at Beauty is a sleeping cat, to name just a few.

Anya Lipska: A Devil Under the Skin – because I love Anya’s writing and her East European connection… and she knows it!

Gunnar Staalesen: We Shall Inherit the Wind – because Orenda Books knows I can never resist a Scandinavian author

Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star – because Naomi Frisby was so enthusiastic about it, she sent it to me, bless her!

A few imports from Romania:

Mircea Cartarescu: Fata de la marginea vietii (The Girl from the Edge of Life) – a short story collection from one of the best-known (though difficult) contemporary Romanian writers

Adina Rosetti: De zece ori pe buze (Ten Times on the Lips) – short story collection from a former journalist for Time Out and Elle in Romania, now turned fiction author

Alex Stefanescu: Barbat adormit in fotoliu (Man, Sleeping in an Armchair) – essay collection from this essayist, editor and literary critic

Rodica Ojog-Brasoveanu (1939-2002):  three novels by the grande dame of Romanian crime fiction. I’ve never tried her before and am curious to see if the comparisons to Agatha Christie are justified…

The good news is, I’m still on track with my TBR20 challenge. I’m on book no. 8 from that pile now. So I won’t get started with the above-mentioned ones immediately…