Reading and Watching Summary June 2022

Reading

I was not expecting to read that many books for my French in June attempt, partly because I am a much slower reader in French, and partly because I knew it was going to be a pretty busy time. However, two of the nine French books I read were in English (although I read one of them in parallel with the French edition), which helped, and most of them were quite slim, which helped even more. Here are the French authors I read (their books also fulfilled my #20Books of Summer challenge), with links to the reviews:

Five men and four women writers, but I may read a few more women for #WomeninTranslation month in August. And a triumph of no less than nine books of the eleven French titles I had selected for the #20Books of Summer challenge.

In addition to the French authors, I also read:

  • Joseph Knox: True Crime Story for our Virtual Crime Club, which I thought was very cleverly constructed and different from run-of-the-mill stories about girls who disappeared
  • Tirzah Garwood: Long Live Great Bardfield, which made me wonder just how much women artists have had to put their own career second in order to further their husband’s career (Eric Ravilious in this case)
  • Hilma Wolitzer: Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket, a collection of short stories about women’s roles as wives and mothers, dating mostly from the 1960-80s, although there are a couple more recent ones (one written after the death of her husband from Covid was particularly moving). Written with deadpan and occasionally surreal humour, borrowed from the library after listening to the author on the Lost Ladies of Lit podcast.
  • Maud Cairnes: Strange Journey, a body switch story between a middle-class housewife and an aristocratic society lady, with surprisingly sharp observations about class differences and assumptions for the time it was written (1930s)
  • Oscar Wilde: De Profundis – I had read this before, but gained so much additional insight from the Backlisted episode with Stephen Fry as a guest, that I wanted to experience it once more.

Films

You can see that my older son came home twice during this period (for a week or so each time), because I watched quite a lot of films with him around. During his exams, he went on a bit of a Disney/Pixar binge, so we watched The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, The Emperor’s New Groove and The Aristocats. We also watched films by directors that my son tends to admire: Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – I still don’t get the point of the Manson gang reference), Wes Anderson (The French Dispatch – the ultimate Anderson self-indulgence), Georges Franju (Eyes without a Face – creepy but not as atmospheric as M, for example), while I got to pick Almodovar (Volver) on my birthday. By myself, I watched the problematic but fun Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, the Shakespearean Iranian tragedy of Chess of the Wind, and the surprisingly minimalist Korean drama The Woman Who Ran.

I went to the cinema with a friend to watch Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, which made us laugh and feel good, and sigh over Daryl McCormack. It felt like a play for two people, and we agreed that Nancy (played so well by Emma Thompson) didn’t seem like the kind of person we would like as a friend in real life.

Literary Events

I attended two real-life events this month. First, the Oxford Translation Day at St Anne’s College, where I got to meet so many lovely translators, do a workshop with Jen Calleja whom I greatly admire, and hear translators talk about their translation motivation and practices. The publisher panel (represented by Heloise Press, Paper Republic and Praspar Press) made me feel better about the teething problems of Corylus – small, independent publishing of translated fiction is clearly a money-pit. As one of the panellists put it: ‘You pay for everything but you’re the last to see any money back, or everyone gets paid except for the publishers.’

The second live event was a play by a very talented young actor/writer/director from Romania (who is now living in the UK) Ioana Goga. The play was called Love (to) Bits and was performed at Baron’s Court Theatre, a small venue in the basement of the Curtains Up pub in West London. It is a highly relatable examination of love, what it is, what it could be, and where it often fails, played with aplomb and great gusto by the three young performers, Ioana Goga, Tomas Howser and Beatrice Bowden. Here is a thoughtful review of it and do check out the energetic talent of their company Eye Opening Productions.

I also ran two Romanian poetry translation workshops for the Stephen Spender Trust in a primary school in Slough – and absolutely loved working with the children. I had forgotten what fun it can be working with that age group (and how tiring).

Online, I attended a session on the recent publication of a comic book Madgermanes, about Mozambican workers who had previously been contracted out to East Germany. It was a conversation between Birgit Weyhe, a German comic book artist, and her translator and publisher Katy Derbyshire at V&Q Books.

The final events I attended were on Sunday 26th of June, two brief snippets from the ambitiously hybrid Kendal Poetry Festival – kudos to the organisers for offering both remote and in-person options, which I know from experience is double the work and the cost.

Academia or Life? Joanna Cannan’s High Table

Joanna Cannan, Persephone Books

I’d never heard of Joanna Cannan until I saw her in the Persephone catalogue, but she was the mother of the Pullein-Thompson sisters and almost single-handedly invented the pony books genre which I devoured as a youngster. She is also a typical example of what has been called the ‘furrowed middle-brow’ type of literature which was so popular (and so well written) back in the 1920s and 30s.

My librarian thought I meant Joanna Cannon, whose books were readily available, but we finally managed to find one of her books in the deepest recesses of the cellar. The book is High Table, which is predictably about the Warden of a fictional Oxford college. Joanna Cannan herself was the daughter of an Oxford warden, so she knows her stuff.

Theodore Fletcher is the (anti?)hero of this book. A wimpy, self-conscious, anxious little boy of the late Victorian age – clever but not exactly brilliant at school, not any trouble either.

…his accuracy, his copperplate memory and lack of intellectual imagination were admirably suited to the precise demands of schoolwork. He was popular with his masters, for he gave them no trouble and looked like doing them credit, and the worship of the athlete had not then reached the later disproportionate stage.

He is of course the perfect target for bullies – not so much at school, but with the landed gentry in the village where his father is the rector. He is constantly reminded that of his inferiority in social status, social and physical skills, even looks. Luckily, he has the world of books as his refuge and I’m sure many of us earnest and bookish children labelled as ‘swots’ in our youth can relate to that:

All around the room in the shelves stood the books, waiting for you, not criticising you, you needn’t wonder or worry over what they were thinking, they didn’t care if you lost races or cheated at games, they didn’t whisper that you were short for your age or snigger at your spectacles; quiet and brown and learned… they waited for you, and you only had to open them and they’d each a world to give you, not a hot, hurrying, jeering world full of races you couldn’t win and balls you couldn’t catch and trees you couldn’t bear to climb, but the cool, slow, smooth world of the mind…

He goes to study at Oxford, but a holiday fling with a girl socially his inferior (but whose mind he would like to improve) results in a pregnancy. Horrified by what he has done, he shirks responsibility. The girl gets married to a farmer and moves away from the home village, while Theodore continues his academic pursuits in Oxford. On the eve of the First World War, he becomes the Warden of his college. The great pride he feels in his appointment is considerably diminished when he realises that he was in fact the compromise candidate, despised by his fellows but designed to keep other, more controversial although brilliant candidates out:

And now there’s nothing to come, nothing to hope for. I’ve got years and years before me… of being Warden and keeping Haughton out, and all of it to be spent with these men who’ve used me, who put me in this place when they had to find someone for it, because they thought, we’ll be able to manage Fletcher; he’s as weak as water’ he’ll be wax in our hands.

Bitterly disappointed, he then faces another challenge: seeing his beloved college and Oxford itself decimated by the war – or rather its young men disappearing. Gradually, he starts questioning the superiority of intellectual life, which has become meaningless in a world at war:

We’re not waiting. We’re left behind. Oxford’s no use in this, any more than scholarship or literature; a heap of earth out there that a man can take cover behind is of more use than the loveliest of our buildings… this ghastly feeling that your world had been nothing all along but an illusion, that everything you had lived for had been useless, impotent all this time?

Just about at this stage in his disillusionment, fate brings Lennie into his life, the eldest son of his former love, the result of his only amorous adventure. Suddenly, he feels he has been given a second chance to reconnect with life, real life.

I won’t spoil the rest of the story for you, but it is charmingly written, with many astute observations which keep it just this side of sentimentality. And, for all its Oxford setting, it is not strictly speaking a campus novel, although it shows quite clearly the disconnect between Oxbridge and real life. You cannot help but feel sorry for poor Theodore, infuriating though he undoubtedly is – the very illustration of ‘old fogey’. Overall, an enjoyable read but one which also raises questions about ivory towers and just how much we can bear to engage with the mess of the real world.