Culture Clash: The Wife Who Wasn’t by Alta Ifland

I ‘met’ the author Alta Ifland online via Twitter, both of us exchanging opinions on news items pertaining to Romania or reviews of Romanian literature. Alta left Romania in the 1990s and has lived abroad ever since, first in France, then in the US, so we clearly had many things in common. When she asked me to read and review her novel The Wife Who Wasn’t, which is coming out in the US on the 18th of May, explaining that it’s all about cross-cultural (mis)communication, I could not resist. (It is also available for pre-order in the UK, although I am not sure if it has the same publishing date.)

The story takes place in 1996-7, mostly in California, but with some trips to the Republic of Moldova. Sammy is a reasonably well-off widower living in Santa Barbara with his teenage daughter Anna. He realises that she is running a bit wild, too much of a tomboy, so he decides she needs some womanly influence and finds himself a mail-order bride from Moldova. Enter the energetic, not-all-that-young but still attractive Russian lady Tania, arriving at the airport in LA:

He recognises the woman right away (though they haven’t seen each other in over half a year), not because she is very memorable, but because there is something that makes her stand out in the crowd. It may be her hair… or her swinging hips, marking her territory as she advances like a lioness toward prey… When she is almost near him, he notices that her skin looks very young, white and plump like a baby’s, and her lips, equally plump, have the shine and luminescence of a wet, luscious grape.

But Tania is no baby – she is a born hustler, hungry for all of the advantages and luxuries that America has to offer. Her new husband seems a bit scared of her; it is true that she has been hiding the fact that she has a teenage daughter back in Moldova, whom she intends to bring over to join her in California as soon as possible. However, it’s not a straightforward case of golddigger and victim, for Sammy’s own motives for choosing a bride from the ‘Old World’ are fairly murky:

It’s not that he couldn’t have found a wife on his own; what worried him was that he’d also have to marry her family and friends. He’d labored so hard to isolate himself and Anna from the rest of the world, from the vulgarity and petty noises that often passed for communal bonding. A wife from the Old World would have the immediate advantage of being an orphan, so to speak: no family, no friends. She would be like a rescued pet, entirely dependent on him. Not to mention the supplemental advantage of a woman from a world where they still believed in taking care of the head of the family!

You just know that things are not going to go according to plan. At first, Tania is stunned by the fancy houses, the endless choice in the supermarkets and shops, the fancy lifestyle. But the hipster Californian sensibility doesn’t quite make sense. When Anna tells her that she is a vegetarian, because she believes in treating every living thing with respect, Tania muses:

Treat chicken with respect! That’s a good one. I’m telling you, this country is going to the dogs. If you start treating chickens with respect, where does it end? Besides, she doesn’t even treat me with respect!

There are many opportunities for satire in the culture clashes between the newly-capitalistic Eastern Europeans eager for domestic comforts, and the privileged Californians hankering after an idealised ‘old-fashioned, more spiritual’ lifestyle. The hypocrisy of the capitalist system is exposed through delicious comedy. For example, when Tania looks for a job in a cafe (she wants to have her own pocket money, not have to ask her husband for an allowance), she is asked why she wants to work there. She replies very frankly that it was the only place hiring, that she doesn’t really want to work but she needs the money.

After all those years under communism, when we were forced to claim that we wanted to work for the good of the country, now, in freedom, I could tell the truth: I wanted to work for the money! I didn’t give a shit about society, all I wanted was the money.

The manager tries to explain that they represent more than a workplace, that every day they cleanse themselves of negative thoughts and have a philosophy of sacred commerce. Clearly, Tania muses to herself, if the communists are failed capitalists, then the capitalists are failed ministers who feel ‘compelled to shroud their money in the sacred veil of communal wholesomeness’.

Add to the mix Tania’s unruly daughter Irina, her good-for-nothing drunkard of a brother Serioja, Sammy’s divorced neighbour Bill with his teenage son, another art-collecting neighbour Lenny – and you have quite a powder keg of personal interests, rivalries, flirtations and affairs, attempts to seduce or trick or worse.

This is not the gentle observational comedy of manners that you might expect from Barbara Pym. It is more of a return to the original comedy of manners principles of the Restoration period in England or Molière in France, with heightened – often ruthless – satire, some stock secondary characters (who represent types rather than rounded individuals), complex plotting and counter-plotting, and a lot of social commentary. It is fast, furious and occasionally infuriating, as the largely unlikable characters try to outwit each other, but you can’t help wanting to know how these moves on the chessboard will all end.

There is one part that doesn’t seem to fit in as well with the rest of the story: the painting icons section. Before leaving Moldova, Irina tries to master the skill of icon-painting from the talented Maria (who later marries Irina’s uncle). Maria takes the work very seriously, and is fully immersed in the tradition and spiritual meaning of this ancient craft, while Irina just wants to learn enough to make a quick buck in the States. I personally enjoyed the long descriptions of Maria’s art and how she came to disover it:it reminded me of the film ‘Andrei Rublev’ and I really recommend you search for the famous Voronets blue, which is my favourite shade of my favourite colour. However, it jarred slightly against the lighter-hearted comic moments or social critique in the rest of the book. I also thought the ending was a bit contrived, as if the author wanted to wrap things up quickly, although it was inspired by real-life events in the Santa Barbara area.

Despite these two slight misgivings, I have to say it is a hugely entertaining novel, a perfect change of pace from my usual fraught fare; I gulped it down in 2 days. It steers clear of the cute and fluffy, and has quite a bit to say about the contrasts between two very different societies. Please note that Alta Ifland’s other work is far more quirky and experimental. The author cites Beckett, Clarice Lispector, Paul Celan and Kafka among her influences, and you can get an idea of her style in the prose poems she uses in her biographical notes on her website.

There are glimpses of this less conventional style of storytelling in the frequent changes in point of view. We occasionally have an omiscient narrator with a wry sense of humour, but we also get to see what each character thinks of the others and how they plan to outsmart them. This is sometimes done through the letters that Tania and Irina write to each other or to the grandmother they have left back in Moldova: that is where the truth comes out in an unvarnished way, with people who truly understand your background. The humour is closer in spirit that of the Soviet satirists Ilf and Petrov, but overlaid with an easy, breezy Californian chick lit style; a more successful marriage, perhaps, than Sammy and Tania’s.

#1936Club: Liviu Rebreanu

OK, I’m cheating a little here, because I read several works by Rebreanu, yet none of them were published exactly in 1936. Here are the books I’ll be referring to in this post:

  • Jar (usually translated as ‘Embers’, although I’d argue that it should be ‘Blaze’) – 1934 – psychological novel about the devastating effect of passionate love on a young girl
  • Ciuleandra – psychological novel about the devastating effect of passionate love on a young man (so an interesting counterpoint) – 1927 [Available now in English translation thanks to Gabi Reigh and Cadmus Press]
  • Amândoi (Both) – crime novel – 1940

However, there’s another connection with Sebastian, which makes the connection to my previous #1936Club entry a bit more plausible. Sebastian interviewed Rebreanu and expressed great admiration for his writing, but they weren’t really close, and at some point Sebastian expressed disappointment at the anti-semitic attitude displayed during the war by Rebreanu, which he wouldn’t have expected from the author of the novella Itzik Shtrul, Desertor, dating from 1919, which showed great empathy and understanding towards the eponymous Jewish hero of the story. However, it is also true that Rebreanu used his war-time position as the Director of the National Theatre during the war (from 1940 until his death in 1944) to allow Leny Caler to continue performing, albeit only at the Jewish theatre, so his attitude is a little complicated, perhaps merely opportunistic.

Whatever he might have been like in this personal life, in his works Rebreanu is almost always solidly behind the underdog. His versatility and range in terms of subject matter are quite impressive. During Communist times when we studied him in school, he was particularly admired for the social critique and description of rural life in Ion (1920) and Răscoala (The Revolt – about the peasant revolt in Romania in 1907) (1932). I personally always preferred his stories of inner turmoil and psychological torment, such as The Forest of the Hanged and Ciuleandra. I had never previously read Jar and Both, although I have the special edition published in 1985, marking the centenary since his birth.

My father was always rather keen on Rebreanu because he spent quite a bit of his life and actually died in Argeș, the county my family originates from. Ciuleandra, the title of the book, has not been translated, because it is actually the name of a dance which is particularly popular in that region, which starts slow and then gets faster and faster, until it all descends into an orgasm of colour, passion and sensuality. This is how it is described in the book:

It starts just like any other dance, very slow, very restrained. The dancers gather, form a circle… Stirred by the heat of those bodies, the music quickens, grows wilder. The rhythm of the dance catches its frenzy… As the fiddlers warm to their instruments, the melody twitches, spins loose, explodes into chaos… The ring of dancers, daring themselves to defy and smother the music’s spell, charge at it, feet crushing into dirt, and the tornado of flesh twists into itself again, tighter, more stubborn, clenching and loosening, until, finally the bodies melt into each other…

It is at one of these country dances, under the immediate heat of the ciuleandra, that Puiu Faranga meets the pretty, extremely young peasant girl Mădălina. Puiu comes from a wealthy aristocratic family, who think France is the epitome of culture and speak French at home much like the Russian aristocracy in novels. His father is a former government minister, but worried his son might end up living a life of debauchery, and decides a girl of healthy peasant stock is just the kind of red-blooded addition his family needs. Despite the fourteen-year-old’s protests, her mother seems quite keen to sell her off to the Faranga family. But first she has to be modelled into the perfect wife for Puiu: Mădălina is cleaned up, educated, groomed, sent to finishing school and becomes the taciturn, mysterious Madeleine, fêted by posh Bucharest society for her beauty. Puiu claims to be madly in love, but continues with his decadent lifestyle and multiple mistresses. He is, needless to say, very controlling and jealous of his wife, whose essence seems to escape him. And then, one night, as they get ready to go a royal ball, he strangles her in a fit of passion. There is nothing a man fears more than being laughed at by a woman, right?

His father wants to avoid a public trial and prison sentence for his beloved son, so of course he intervenes and commits Puiu to a private mental asylum under the supervision of a pet doctor. However, the pet doctor is abroad, and instead the psychiatrist working with Puiu is a young village boy made good, who is not at all ‘flattered that a Faranga has deigned to shake his hand’. On the contrary, he thinks Puiu may be faking his madness. Nevertheless, his treatment sparks something in Puiu, a journey of reflection and reckoning. He very gradually moves from a position of loathsome swagger and privilege to realising his own flaws.

… He grew ashamed of the time before, when he had been entirely self-absorbed; when all that exercised his mind had been how to get out of a tight corner, through subterfuge, connections, any means possible; when his greatest pain had been the thought of having to renounce his life’s pleasures for a while. Only a few days earlier, he had barely spared a thought for Madeleine, whose life he had extinguished, as she lay in the chapel waiting to be buried… There had been no heartfelt, deep repentance…

Although this falls into the set of Rebreanu’s novels labelled ‘psychological’, the social commentary is quite strong. This is not just a love story gone wrong, but very much a critique of the gap between the rich and the poor, and how the rich believe they can buy everything, even genuine feelings, with their money. The innate warmth of the people from the countryside is contrasted to the coldness of urban society, especially that of the upper classes. Puiu learns about forbearance from his guard, Andrei Leahu (who incidentally comes from the same village as some of my father’s family, and therefore automatically qualifies as one of my favourite characters), who suffered a real betrayal by his wife during the war, and yet did not kill her despite his rage.

What is interesting in this story is that, although the story revolves around Mădălina, we never get to hear her point of view. How did she feel about being plucked out of her familiar environment at a young age and being Pygmalioned without any chance of escape? No, the story is all told by men: Puiu, his father, his doctor, his guard, the prosecutor, the superintendant (his aunt is a woman, but she is all about family pride and keeping things under wraps). The poor young woman was merely an object to them, and she has been comprehensively silenced.

As a brief taster for this dance, I’m including a link to a video, not necessarily the best dancing or the highest-quality filming, but simply because it is in a village community, being danced by girls who are of similar age to Mădălina in the book.

Just in case you thought that Rebreanu sympathised with that macho point of view, the novel Jar is the counterpoint to that, presenting a love story from the point of view of a young, intelligent woman, Liana. She lives with her extended family: her father is a petty civil servant who constantly fears for his position (and would dearly love a promotion), her mother is not well-educated and spoils her younger son rotten, her grandmother just wants to see Liana married. Meanwhile, Liana herself aspires to be an independent career woman and move out, like her older brother. At her annual ‘non-birthday’ party, she meets the pilot Dandu Victor, who starts courting her with almost stalkerish intensity. Liana succumbs to his charms, but the love affair is short-lived and ends tragically. Throughout, we are mostly in Liana’s head, conflicted as she is between her intellectual aspirations and the instincts of the heart and lust. Once again, Rebreanu manages to seamlessly set a love story against the fresco of Bucharest society of that period, populated with well-rounded and recognisable characters from all social classes: the fatuous wannabe poet who is only ‘playing at’ journalism, the middle-aged state functionaries fearing for their jobs, the older rake who now craves a more settled lifestyle, the widow of a former minister who flatters herself she still has some influence and so on.

Amândoi is a more straightforward crime novel, but it too has a strong social element to it. Unlike in the other two novels, the action takes place in Pitești, a smaller town about a hundred kilometres from Bucharest, a bustling commercial and industrial centre, but still very much a provincial backwater (especially at that time). The two people found murdered (both of them, hence the title of the novel) may live in a ramshackle old house, but they were actually very wealthy landlords, shopkeepers and pawnbrokers. The rest of their family, a brother and sister with their respective spouses and offspring, come under suspicion, for there were some quarrels about inheritance. The judge Dolga who investigates the case (the Romanian legal system is similar to the French one in this respect, so it will be familiar to those who watch Spiral/Engrenages) is an outsider, refuses to bow down to political and social pressures to wrap up the case quickly without causing too much scandal. He is determined to get at the truth. As we follow his methodical investigation, we get a rich picture of small-town life in Romania in the 1930s, the rapaciousness of wealth, the desperation of poverty, the interaction between the different social classes, their assumptions and presumptions. I can’t help feeling the crime is just a pretext for painting this picture of a town where I spent huge chunks of my summer holidays during childhood – always a pleasure to see familiar places – but I was very disappointed when I found out who the killer was.

I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for Romanian literature, although I am aware only one of the above is available in translation. I do sometimes wonder why I spend so much time, days, often weeks, preparing these lengthy posts which so few people read. However, if I can get one person to try something new, or view Romanian literature as a more diverse and interesting landscape than is commonly believed, then I will declare myself happy.

#1936Club: The Holiday Game – Mihail Sebastian

Mihail Sebastian: Jocul de-a vacanța (The Holiday Game)

The ‘classic’ artistic cover dating from the 1960s, Biblioteca pentru toți.

The #1936Club week may have ended, but my interest in the literature of that year hasn’t. I’ve read a number of other works dating from that year, as well as a few other books that relate to that. The #PlaysinMarch theme also continues, with this first play by one of my favourite Romanian authors, Mihail Sebastian, about whom I may have written once or twice before.

The play is popular in Romania, and has been frequently performed and filmed, both during Communist times and afterwards. It is usually perceived as a sprightly romantic comedy, but there is something less Noel Coward and more Arthur Schnitzler to its tone. Traditionally, in Romania (just like in France, Spain, Greece and other European countries with very hot summers) pretty much the entire country goes on holiday in August, and this is reflected in the play. Six mismatched holiday-makers are gathered that summer in a pleasant but rather isolated mountain chalet called Pension Weber. The six characters are: a retired major; an over-dramatic middle-aged woman Madame Vintilă (a bit of an Emma Bovary, one might say); Jeff, a schoolboy in his late teens who has to revise for his maths exam, but would much rather go off fishing or dreaming about girls; middle-aged lowly civil servant Bogoiu, who always dreamt of running away to sea; rude young man Ştefan Valeriu (the character also appears in Sebastian’s novel Women); last, but not least, young, cheery Corina, who tries to tease and befriend them all, solve all their problems, and generally be the social glue.

It starts off almost like a murder mystery. The radio is broken, the telephone is no longer working, and they haven’t received any newspapers or letters for several days. Even the bus doesn’t seem to be stopping on the main road close to them anymore.

MAJOR: Are they here? The newspapers (He looks through them, reading the dates out loud.) 28th July, 23rd July, 25th July. All out of date. No papers for the past five days. I can’t bear it anymore! If this goes on, we’re all going to be completely out of touch! Dumbed down. Not knowing what’s going on in the world. There might be a war on… The government might have fallen.

BOGOIU: So what? You worried they need your permission to fall?

MAJOR: Look here, sir, this is no joke! No time for jokes. This is serious. If we don’t get any newspapers today either, I’m done. I’m leaving. This is no life! No paper, no radio…

MADAME VINTILĂ: No letters, no phone…

MAJOR: Nothing but last week’s news to read. It’s enough to drive anyone to call out: ‘Bucharest, hey, can anyone hear me? Please answer!’

MADAME VINTILĂ: But they can’t hear us. No one can hear us. Not a soul. We’re stuck here in the middle of nowhere. Shipwrecked. Lost.

MAJOR (unhappy sigh): Ach!

MADAME VINTILĂ: Where are we? What island? What continent? Where?

[Corina appears at the top of the stairs. She looks even younger than her real age, which is twenty-five. She’s wearing pyjamas, which she is buttoning up as she comes down the stairs. She catches Madame Vintila’s last words]

CORINA: We’re right here! 342 kilometres from Bucharest, 36 km from Gheorghieni. Altitude: 1285 metres above sea level.

They soon realise that all of these mysterious events started when Ştefan Valeriu joined them – but he refuses to answer any of their questions, merely hogs the best chaise-longue and reads all day, or else goes off for walks by himself. Is he planning to isolate them from the rest of the world and murder them off one by one?

It soon emerges, however, that Ştefan has no murderous intentions: instead, he merely wants to forget about the wider world and escape reality. He wants the others to join in his game ‘playing at being on holiday’ – a proper holiday, which to his mind is a liminal world where they can shed their worries and identities from ‘back home’. He shows them how to construct an utopia where they can be anyone and do anything, be more truly themselves, live closer to their dreams, and forget that they will have to return to the everyday in a month’s time. Of course the game goes deeper than any of them could have imagined, and of course Ştefan and Corina fall in love. Jeff also hero-worships Corina, while Bogoiu is not immune to her charms either. In a touching moment, as the end of the holiday approaches, they stop seeing each other as rivals for Corina’s affections and instead imagine living with her in a little house somewhere, all three male dreamers – basically the same character at three different stages of his life. A bit like Snow White and the Three Dwarves!

There are few writers that capture that sense of wistful yearning to show your ‘own true self’, to be able to live your dreams, in a world that crushes your spirit daily than Sebastian. This desire to escape from reality, to create a cocoon of wellbeing and hope, while certainly a universal human longing, acquires added poignancy when you think of the time at which this play was written. From Sebastian’s journal, we know that he was already experiencing significant anti-semitism within his circle, and that he was very much aware and fearful of international developments.

He wrote this play in 1936, while he was inflamed by his love for actress and singer Leny Caler. Leni (as he liked to call her, he didn’t approve of all of that fancy ‘foreign’ spelling) was very popular at the time on the Bucharest stage and, despite being married, she was the muse and lover of many famous writers, including Camil Petrescu, who happened to be one of Sebastian’s best friends.

By the time Sebastian met and fell in love with her, her affair with Camil Petrescu was over, but she was somewhat half-hearted in her romance with Sebastian. The Holiday Game was written more or less as a bet: the author joked that within a month he would write a play with a great part for Leny. The young woman Corina is probably the Leny that he would have liked her to be: charming, cheerful, with all the men in love with her, yet very tender-hearted and loving underneath her facade. After a quarrel with Leny, he briefly considered giving the part to another actress, Marietta Sadova, but the latter profoundly disappointed him with her enthusiasm for the right-wing Guardist movement in Romania at the time. So it was back to Leny, who was Jewish like him. Meanwhile, Valeriu appears to be a stand-in for the author, an outsider, doomed to forever stand on the edge of any social gathering, observing, often accused of judging, of not being a ‘team-player’.

The play premiered in September 1938 and was an instant hit. Both the sparky writing and Leny’s performance were admired – and yet the play closed down after a rather limited run. The pretext was that Leny had to go on a tour, but after she returned, there was no attempt to restage the play. Anti-semitic sentiment and the fear of war were making it difficult for either of them to be fully active on the Bucharest stage right then.

The great love of Sebastian’s life was probably not equally enamoured of him. She was clearly charmed by his writing, and keen to have good parts written for her, but she was rather coquettish, handling several affairs simultaneously, and not that attracted to him physically. I cannot help thinking she might have been the model for the self-absorbed Ann from the Sebastian novel The Accident – and that the author finally realised just how wrong she was for him. However, in this play Corina very much represents the ideal woman – with just the right winning combination of playfulness, high energy, earnest childish candour and wistful maturity. I suppose nowadays you might call her the manic pixie dream girl, although she is clearly the equal or superior of any of the male characters, and has a life and purpose of her own rather than being a mere plot device to draw out our brooding, solitary hero.

As one of the classics of Romanian theatre, the play is usually performed almost like a farce. I’ve included here a short clip (in Romanian) that veers in that direction, but is nevertheless fun, a production made for Romanian TV.

Sadly, this play is not available in English just yet [although, publishers or theatre groups, if you’re listening, I’ve translated the first act already, so…]. However, a later (and arguably far more polished) play by Sebastian has recently been translated by Gabi Reigh: The Star with No Name is available from Aurora Metro Books.

As is usual in my case, I fell into a bit of a Sebastian rabbit-hole, and read the very long novel Sebastian by Gelu Diaconu, which talks about Sebastian’s love for Leny and the writing of this play in particular. (It also talks about his life during the war and the day of his death – as he walks through the streets of post-war Bucharest, sees all the bombsites and meets friends.) I quite liked that aspect of it, although most of the descriptions and events would be familiar to anyone who has read Sebastian’s Journal. It did provide me with some new insights, such as that my old friend Margareta Sterian was friends with Sebastian.

However, there are two additional time-frames to this story: we also see the growing interest in the fate of Romanian Jews during the Second World War by Paul, a journalist starting to make his mark just after the 1989 revolution. His marriage is rapidly disintegrating, but he becomes obsessed with getting hold of Sebastian’s missing letters to Leny, which were allegedly destroyed when Leny’s house was bombed. The story is further complicated by the fact that in the present-day Paul might also be the father of a young photographer who works with him, Robert, or else simply his mother’s first husband. When Paul dies, Robert inherits his papers and starts exploring Sebastian’s life and loves, making comparisons with his own relationship with the flighty actress Maria.

The two more modern time-frames were far less interesting, particularly the contemporary, not sure they added much value. I was above all annoyed by the detailed descriptions of Maria’s naked body, especially the repetitive use of the word ‘imberb’ (beardless) to describe her sex (it must have been used at least fifteen times during the novel). It felt like a misguided attempt to make the book seem relevant to a younger generation. So a bit of a waste of time to plough through 627 pages just for a few fresh glimpses of Mihail Sebastian. Would not recommend.

#1936Club: Max Blecher and Translation Comparison

Max Blecher published the short novel Întâmplări în irealitatea imediată in 1936 and in this post I will be referring to the Romanian language version of it via the Open Access library, as well as three English language translations: Adventures in Immediate Irreality by Michael Henry Heim, published by New Directions in 2015; Occurence in the Immediate Unreality by Alistair Ian Blyth, published University of Plymouth Press, 2009; Adventures in Immediate Unreality by Jeanie Han, dating from 2007, which is freely available online.

I discovered Romanian author Max Blecher a few years back with his best-known work Scarred Hearts, a shorter, funnier but also much more visceral version of The Magic Mountain. Unfortunately, because of his early death at the age of 28 from spinal tuberculosis, and being bedridden for the last ten years of his life, he only produced a small but memorable body of work over a very short period of time between 1930 and 1938. He was not at all well-known in Romania when I was growing up. He certainly was not as well known as his contemporaries Camil Petrescu, Mircea Eliade, Eugen Ionescu or Mihail Sebastian, and was largely ignored even when his novels were reissued in 1970 during a brief cultural thaw in Communist Romania.

He is only now starting to be recognised for his unique modernist style in his home country, and perhaps this is only thanks to the reaction of readers in the West (he has been translated into French, German and English, among others), where he has been compared to Kafka, Robert Walser or Bruno Schulz. It still didn’t prevent his house in the town of Roman from being torn down in 2013, although there had been campaigns to preserve it as a museum.

This novel reads like a memoir, but it is an indefinable work, hovering somewhere between a prose poem, a memoir and a novel. In terms of subject matter, it reminds me a little of Barbellion‘s Diary, but it is less about day to day life, with less ego involved. This last may seem like a strange statement, since we have a first person narrator who gives us a detailed account of his childhood in a small provincial town, his encounters with women, his bodily sensations, his reaction to the small objects he picks up and the people he observes. And yet this is not the author worrying about his legacy, or how his contemporaries may perceive him. Instead, we have a devastatingly honest and detailed account of living with the spectre of death in front of you all the time. His reactions are very physical, immediate, powerful, occasionally excessive – it’s as though the narrator is trying to plunge himself into life, determined to squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of it. Or perhaps he is trying to determine which of the worlds he feels he inhabits is more real. The narrator has always hovered on the threshold between two worlds. As he tells us, he has suffered from early childhood from something he calls ‘crises’, which tend to occur in certain particular spaces in his home town, spaces he calls ‘cursed’. During these crises, which sound a bit like a fugue state, he feels his identity dissolve, he is no longer sure of what is real or not, and when he recovers from them, he has a profound sense of futility and disappointment with the world. At those times, he seems to suffer from an overabundance of clear sight and awareness, and it’s telling him that he is in the wrong place, that his real self and life are somewhere else. This is the rather poignant ending of the book (in the translation of Michael Henry Heim).

Now I am struggling with reality. I scream, I beg to be awoken, to awaken into another life, my true life… I know I am alive, but there is something missing, as there was in my nightmare.

I struggle. I scream. I flail. Who will awaken me?

That precise reality around me is dragging me down, trying to sink me. Who will awaken me?

It has always been like this. Always. Always.

Blecher in happier, more mobile times, 1929.

It is very difficult to describe the book in any more detail, other than to say that, although it bears some resemblance to the stream of consciousness techniques developed by James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, it is not just introverted musing. Instead, it is also a description of a town, a way of life, a family and a certain time period. It is full of anecdotes, full of scenes which take place against unusual backdrops: a waxwork museum, a cinema that goes up in flames, the props room at the local theatre, the August funfair, junk-filled attics, a sewing machine shop, all filtered through the consciousness of an over-sensitive child and then young man. I had the feeling I was watching a Jean Cocteau film (more specifically, Testament of Orpheus) while reading this, although it would be unfair to call the book surrealist, given how firmly it is anchored in the body.

However, I have to admit that I struggled with the book at first. This is because I had bought a copy of it in translation from the University of Plymouth Press, a bulk buy of beautifully illustrated translations of modern or contemporary Romanian literature (which has ceased, because of lack of funding). I could not resist the high production values, and the British translator is a prolific translator from Romanian, of philosophers like Constantin Noica and Catalin Avramescu, as well as novelists like Filip Florian and Stelian Tanase. So when I resolved to read the book for the #1936Club, this is where I started. But I soon hit a wall: I found the style pompous, pretentious, needlessly complicated, which was not at all how I remembered Blecher from Scarred Hearts.

So I turned to the Romanian original. And indeed, in spite of the modernist style, the language is simple and everyday, perfectly comprehensible to the average Romanian, not at all high falutin. I’d noticed this discrepancy before when reading English translations of Romanian works – but, in the case of Cartarescu at least, I thought maybe that was a fair reflection of his own style. However, in the case of Mihail Sebastian or others, it felt like these translations (which are mostly by men, by the way, and I honestly don’t know if that makes a difference) are pointlessly over-egging the language and giving people the wrong impression about Romanian literature. One possible explanation could be that words of Latin origin are perfectly common in Romanian but sound more sophisticated and erudite in English. Still, there are plenty of perfectly acceptable non-Latin choices in English that could convey the meaning in a way closer to the Romanian intention and spirit.

I have said before that, when there is only a small amount being translated from a certain language, publishers and readers are prone to put labels on the literature of that country. For Romania this might be ‘abstract, difficult, philosophical, traumatic’, and anything that doesn’t fit into that stereotype won’t be considered. But that was in terms of content; I didn’t expect it to be the case also in terms of language. It’s not often, of course, that you have multiple translations of the same text from Romanian, but I have seen Max Easterman puzzling over two very different translations of Mihail Sebastian’s Women. In this case, I found three translations of Blecher’s text. I don’t know anything about the earliest translator, Jeanie Han, other than that she received funding to visit Romania and was mentored by Romanian professors there while translating this work. I do know, however, that Michael Henry Heim’s translation appeared posthumously. This award-winning multilingual translator (specialist in Slavic languages in particular) was terminally ill himself when he translated Blecher’s work. However, he felt such a strong affinity for this project that he learnt Romanian especially for it. However, I didn’t allow myself to be influenced by the back story when I decided that I preferred his version, which reads far less like a treatise in philosophy. Jeanie Han also comes closer to the more colloquial language of the original, while Alistair Ian Blyth sounds the most academic.

Even in the following passage, which is more objectively difficult even in the original Romanian, you can see that Heim’s version is the one that sounds most natural in English, although he has subtly altered the meaning in the first sentence. In the original, there is no hint that the narrator was waiting for the light to change before leaving the cinema. However, in the second version the translator has suddenly made it sound like the narrator was going to the cinema with a larger group, which seems highly unlikely in that context.

2007 Version2009 Version2015 Version
In the summer I would go to the matinee early and come out when it began to get dark. The light outside was changed; the day, nearly over, was waning. I observed that in my absence an immense and essential event had taken place in the world like a kind of sad obligation to carry on the ceaseless work – night falling, for instance – regular, diaphanous and spectacular. Thus, I would once again enter into the middle of a certainty, which through its daily rigor seemed to me of an endless melancholy. In such a world, subject to the most theatric effects and obliged every evening to produce a correct sunset, the people around me seemed like poor pitiful beings with their seriousness and their naive belief in what they did and what they felt.In summer, we would go into the matinee early and leave in the evening, as night was falling. The light outside was altered; the remnants of the day had been extinguished. It was thus I ascertained that in my absence there had occurred in the world an event immense and essential, its sad obligation of always having to continue – by means of nightfall, for example – its repetitive, diaphanous and spectacular labour. In this way we would enter once more into the midst of a certitude that in its daily rigorousness seemed to me of an endless melancholy. In such a world, subject to the most theatrical effects and obligated every evening to perform a proper sunset, the people around me appeared like poor creatures to be commiserated for the seriousness with which they always busied themselves, the seriousness with which they believed so naively in whatever they did or felt.In summer I would go to the matinee and emerge only at nightfall: I was waiting for the light outside to change, for the day to end. I would thus ascertain that in my absence an important thing, an essential thing had taken place: the world had assumed the sad responsibility of carrying on – by growing dark, for example – its regular, intricate, theatrical obligations. Again I had to accept a certainty whose rigorous daily return made me infinitely melancholy. In a world subject to the most theatrical of effects, a world obliged every evening to produce an acceptable sunset, the poor creatures around me seemed pitiful in their determination to keep themselves busy and maintain their naive belief in what they did and felt.
The literal translation of the Romanian title, by the way, is Happenings in the Immediate Non-Reality

There are many more such examples, but I will spare myself the delights of typing them all up in the WordPress blocks (and spare you the delights of ploughing through very similar texts). In my comparison of the translations of Genji, I was probably the only one who preferred Seidensticker’s translation for making things smoother and easier for the English reader. However, in that case, we had a style of language that was no longer in use in present-day Japan, so I can understand why other readers preferred the translations that were closer to the spirit of the original. In this case, however, Max Blecher’s Romanian is still instantly recognisable, only very occasionally using slightly outdated verb forms etc. We all still speak like that and write like that, and, even though we share with the other Romance languages a predilection for three or four syllable words, that does not make us any more thoughtful or highly literary than others!

Photograph of Blecher from the early 1930s.

Aside from my quibbles about the various translations, I would agree with Herta Müller, who described this novel as a masterpiece of sheer literary intensity. Blecher was ahead of his time in many ways, and will probably always be an acquired taste. This book will never become a bestseller, but it is remarkable for its unflinching look at the increasingly slippery borders between the real world and the interior (or, nowadays, the virtual) world. How the real world holds us back, imprisons us, never quite lives up to our imagination, how we forever sense there is something beyond its ‘petty passion for precision’. How the imaginary world can seduce us with its infinite promise, but is ultimately empty. ‘Exasperating as it was, I was forced to admit that I lived in the world I saw around me; there was nothing else.’

I doubt this book could ever be turned into a film, but Blecher’s Scarred Hearts has been imaginatively adapted by Romanian director Radu Jude, interspersed with the author’s own words and the historical context of the 1930s.

I jumped the gun a little on the officieal #1936Club because I’m spending most of hte month in that time period. So I have already written about Don Juan Returns from War last week.

#6Degrees April 2021

Time for another random bookish chain, where we all start with the same book but end up on very different journeys, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with the Booker Prize winning Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, which I have considered reading but fear I might find too depressing. Books about bad parenting get me all flustered.

I mean, the book Back to Delphi by Ioanna Karystiani (transl. Konstantine Matsoukas) was disquieting enough, and the mother in that is not necessarily a bad one, just a tad self-absorbed and trying to hide her suffering from her son… which of course gets misinterpreted. The two of them end up incapable of communicating with each other – and the son goes on to become a rapist and a murderer. He is granted a brief furlough from prison and she takes him to Delphi in an attempt to reconnect with him, and to try and find out where she went wrong.

The next book in the chain is another Ioana, a Romanian one this time: Ioana Parvulescu’s Life Begins on Friday, a time-travelling mystery and love letter to the city of Bucharest, winner of the European Union Prize for Literature in 2013. It has been translated into English by Alastair Ian Blyth for Istros Books, and deserves to be better known.

I used to be more of a fan of time-travelling novels in my youth, not so much now. The last memorable one I read was Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls, about a time-travelling serial killer. It is not an easy book to describe, perfectly bonkers, but as always with Lauren Beukes, utterly compelling.

However, I preferred another of her novels, Moxyland, set in an alternative future Cape Town, where people are increasingly controlled by their mobile phones and apps, leading to a sort of corporate apartheid dictatorship.

I haven’t yet read Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (transl. Stephen Snyder) but it seems to have a similar premise, except here the authoritarian regime seems bent on destroying people’s memories. This was written more than twenty years ago. Perhaps if it had been written more recently the internet and mobile phones might have played a bigger part, as they do in Moxyland.

Of course, the concept of erasing memories or of accepting only one official version of history is something that all dictatorships have in common, and one of the best examples of this is the description of the ‘retouched’ photograph, a frequent occurence in an attempt to get rid of someone who became politically undesirable, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera.

Scotland, Greece, Romania, Chicago, South Africa, Japan and Czechoslovakia – a well-travelled series of links this month. Where will your spontaneous bookishness take you?

#20BooksofSummer: No. 2 – Ludovic Bruckstein (transl. Alastair Ian Blyth)

Ludovic Bruckstein: The Trap, transl. Alastair Ian Blyth, published by Istros Books

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only just now read this book, although I attended the book launch back in September. I was very impressed by the author’s son and his efforts to get his father’s work published in English, as well as the timeliness of these two novellas and what they have to say to a present-day readership. So I am not quite sure why I tarried for so long – except that I always tend to hoard those books that I am pretty sure I will like… for a rainy day.

Both novellas explore life in a small town in the region of Maramures in the north of Romania. At least, it is in Romania nowadays, but over the past 200 years or so the borders have shifted many, many times. This is a part of the country where Romanians, Germans, Hungarians and Jews used to live together cheek by jowl, although the dominant ethnic group changed over the course of history. One thing you can be sure of, however, is that the Jewish community (and probably the Roma, although they don’t get mentioned in this book) were always among the most oppressed.

It seems an idyllic location. Although the land is mountainous and the soil poor, the people who live there are attached to their land. One of the anecdotes in the book states that the peasants from that area were given the choice to move to the far more fertile plains of Banat to the west of Romania, but they refused. However, as the Second World War descends upon this beautiful landscape, some will no longer be given the choice to remain there.

The Trap is the story of Ernst Blumenthal, a young man who had been studying architecture in Vienna before the Anschluss but has now rejoined his family in Sighet. Life is getting harder and harder for Jews and the order has come for them to stitch yellow stars to their clothes.

To Ernst… the law seemed not only humiliating, not only insulting, but also stupid and ridiculous. It was a small town and everybody knew everybody else… Nobody tried to hide what he was. The law was quite simply idiotic. If a person knows you, what is the point of his making you wear a sign to say you are who you are? And if a person doesn’t know you, what is it to him what race you are?… But if the law demanded a distinguishing mark for Jews, why should it not demand a different mark for all the other races? Each with his own star or cross… it would be only right for Hungarians to wear a green star, their favourite colour… and for Romanians to wear a blue star, and for Zipser Germans to wear a black star… and Ukrainians a pink star… and so on and so forth.

All of a sudden, on a peaceful Saturday, thirty Jewish men are rounded up as they are about to head home for the Sabbath meal and kept for hours by the SS at the Palace of Culture. Personally humiliated by one of the young SS commanders, in fear of being enlisted to serve in labour brigades (Jews were not considered trustworthy enough to serve in the army), Ernst is persuaded by his family to hide in the mountains. He finds shelter with a Romanian peasant family, but soon realises that he poses a real danger to them, so he spends most of his time wandering through the forests and hills with a view of his home town. And he can’t help but notice that things are changing down there.

Just yesterday, the prison was as big as the whole country… Now, the town was a prison, surrounded by invisible walls and guarded by soldiers. And tomorrow? What would tomorrow bring? The streets and then the houses would become prisons. And the walls would close in more and more narrowly, and every person would be a prison unto himself. And a prison guard unto himself…

Bruckstein is so good at capturing the gradual encroachment of dictatorship and racism in an average community, where people are neither better nor worse than anywhere else. It is far too easy to be a bystander – and there is no such thing as neutrality when evil starts to dominate.

That is also the case in the second, longer novella entitled The Rag Doll. Here we have nearly an entire life story, rather than just a brief moment in time. Hanna is the much-loved only child of a Jewish watch-maker, whose skills are hugely appreciated in their small (unnamed) town – probably Sighet once more. She falls in love with a Romanian man, Theodor, whose family are considerably wealthier. Despite their families’ objections to their marriage, they elope and settle in a village far away. Even as war comes knocking at their doors, they continue with their regular tea parties and mild gossip spread about by the village midwife. Because Hanna accompanies her husband to church on Sunday, everyone assumes she is a Christian and not a Jew. Although she had not set out to deliberately deceive them, she is forced into hiding more and more as the discriminatory rules against Jews proliferate. Especially when she sees the reaction of the other villagers when it is revealed that their pharmacist might be a Jew:

The notary felt personally offended, the same as if he had caught Maturinski cheating at cards – the same Maturinski with whom he had sat at table so many times, playing poker or rummy or sixty-six or eight-nine, drinking tea laced with rum and neat rum without tea. Worse still, he felt insulted, as if he had caught him stealing from his pocket… Even though Mr Maturinski had never been asked who he was and consequently had never denied it. Nobody had ever seen him set foot in either the church or the synagogue. And he had never been asked who he was because everybody knew that Mr Edvard Maturinski was the village pharmacist, the proprietor of the Hypocrates, an excellent apothecary, always ready to lend a hand… a polite, courteous man, the village ‘gallant’. And hitherto that had been quite sufficient for everybody…

Not everybody is indignant or complicit. The doctor refuses to give up one of his Jewish patients. The village priest faces a real crisis of faith when he is told to tone down his rhetoric to be more compliant with the SS troops whom he regards as the Antichrist. Sadly, although Hanna is spared the worst of the war, she discovers that the end of the war doesn’t mean the end of anti-semitic rhetoric.

The stories of ordinary people caught up in hate-mongering and treating others as subhumans during war-time may seem familiar, but clearly, given our inability to learn from history, these stories need to be told again and again. I may be biased because of the setting – there was so much loving description of the natural surroundings there – but I felt these stories were fresh and added a new historical perspective.  The translation did feel a bit old-fashioned in parts but perhaps that reflects the period and the author’s style.

 

Lugging Books Home from Romania

I brought 14 books back from Romania (had to leave about 5 behind), which is not bad going for merely a week away and not too much time spent in bookshops. Here is a picture of what I managed to squeeze into my luggage. All of them are in Romanian, of course, and I don’t think any of them have been translated (yet).

So here’s a little more information about the book haul.

I brought back four books by Bogdan Teodorescu, a sociologist and journalist, who has been involved in political campaigning and opinion polls, but is above all a storyteller. He has published many novels of the noirish or political thriller variety, one of which, Spada, has been translated into French and has been well received there. I’m involved in a little conspiracy to bring more Romanian literature to the English-speaking world, and Bogdan Teodorescu is probably going to be one of our first authors, so I’m trying to make up my mind which book would be most suitable as a ‘starter for ten’. The books I have are: two political thrillers Spada and Nearly Good Boys, a domestic noir unlike any you’ll have read in recent years, Liberty, and his latest, We’ll All Perish in Pain, a story that is both thriller and social commentary, featuring an investor, a tourist and a refugee in a country not unlike present-day Romania.

I also got crime fiction by three more authors to investigate for possible future translation. Lucian Dragos Bogdan’s Spiderweb is a police procedural about people being killed off at a crime festival in the Romanian Carpathians. Daniel Timariu’s PI investigates crimes in a city that exists on two planes: the human world and the underworld, a bit like The City and the City by China Mieville. Rodica Ojog-Brasoveanu was a classic crime writer from before the fall of Communism.

Last but not least, I also got two books of crime stories: a collection of stories all set in Bucharest, Bucharest Noir, and a series of linked stories written by six different authors Domino 2.

In addition to all that crime fiction, I got some literary fiction: Mircea Cartarescu’s Solenoid, a massive tome of surrealist and semi-autobiographical writing. You can read an excellent detailed review of the book (in Spanish translation) on the much-missed The Untranslated blog. Since I am slightly obsessed with Mihail Sebastian, I bought a 630 page novel written by Gelu Diaconu about Sebastian’s life in the 1930s, which somehow has dual timeline with post-Communist 1990s Romania. The Innocents by Ioana Parvulescu is the history of a house in Brasov, the story of a young girl and a woman remembering the past, as well as the history of a country that has had way too much history to digest.

Last but not least, two non-fiction books. The same Ioana Parvulescu has published a book about everyday life in Bucharest between the two world wars, a period often viewed (probably mistakenly) as ‘golden’ in the history of Romania. The last one is even more interesting: the memoirs of Elena Ceausescu’s personal interpreter, Violeta Nastasescu, a rather lovely lady whom I met personally because she tested my English just before my university entrance exam.

#1930Club: Camil Petrescu

1930 was a bit of a bumper year for great literary works, all around the world, so I couldn’t resist taking part in this reading club hosted by Simon and Karen this week.

My choice is a book which is very well-known in Romania (required reading, I believe, in secondary school): Camil Petrescu’s Ultima noapte de dragoste, întâia noapte de război ( Last Night Of Love, First Night of War). It is considered one of the first modern psychological novels in Romanian literature and combines the story of a marriage beset by jealousy and lack of trust, as well as horrific scenes from the First World War (in which the author himself participated). Camil Petrescu believed that ‘humans are at their most authentic when they are confronted by love and death’ and the entire novel is a close exploration of one such individual drive to extremes by both love and the imminence of death.

To summarise the story: Stefan Gheorghidiu is a philosophy student who is flattered by the attentions of one of the most beautiful fellow students at the University of Bucharest, the angelic blonde Ela. They get married, much against the advice of their respective families, since they are penniless. But then one of Stefan’s uncles dies and leaves them an inheritance significant enough to allow them to enter ‘high society’. And everything starts to change. Stefan is not keen on the corruption and cruelty he finds in this new environment. Much to his horror, he discovers his wife is more materialistic and shallow than he had imagined and he starts suspecting her of infidelities. When Romania enters the war in 1916, he is on the frontline in the Carpathians and is considering desertion in order to have one last meeting with his wife, to convince himself that she does still love him and is faithful to him. He does not quite manage to allay his fears regarding Ela, but when his battalion finally plunges into war after a long period of waiting, he encounters so many traumatic situations and losses that he realises just how petty and meaningless his worries had been.

The two-volume edition my parents owned. A rather eloquent, minimalist cover.

Back in my teens, when I first read the book, of course I was more interested in the love bits. The reverse has happened when I reread it now. (Just like with War and Peace, where the girls broadly speaking liked the peace and love bits and the boys liked the battlescenes). The love scenes, particularly one infamous one where he tries to ‘teach’ his wife philosophy while she is being kittenish around him, wearing a more or less translucent nightie, seemed both cloying and unbearably patronising. Overall, Stefan is not a nice man, he jumps far too quickly to conclusions. As soon as he sees his wife flirting with a man, he runs off to a brothel or takes up with another woman to ‘punish’ her. He is far too prone to see women as mere objects of his desire, put on earth to flatter him and obliged to listen to his opinions, even commenting how his wife’s body has gone all flabby in her old age – possibly her mid to late 20s at most! It is quite possible that Ela does end up cheating on him, but boy, does he ever deserve it!

The main protagonist no doubt reflects the chauvinistic culture of his time (and his country), and Mihail Sebastian’s journal indicates that Gheorghidiu may have had some of the less desirable traits of his creator (the two of them were friends, but Sebastian can be quite critical of him). Nevertheless, I rather think that Camil Petrescu deliberately made his ‘hero’ so unheroic and so unlikeable. This is a man who excels at tormenting himself, filling his head with all sorts of fanciful notions, over-analysing every gesture (with friends and family too, not just with his wife). He is far too enamoured with his own belly-button, and it’s only when he is finally exposed to the relentlessness of war, when he sees the futility and horror and sheer repetitiveness of it, as well as the appalling organisation of the army on the frontline, that he finally starts to move beyond his immediate concerns and show empathy with others.

And yet there are moments when you really warm to the young man’s initial idealism, which soon gets crushed into cynicism by the corruption and lies he sees all around him in a country where he considers that ‘it’s easier to be mediocre or a rogue, and much harder to be a decent, honest person’. After the war starts, his cynicism gives way to shock, black humour and, occasionally, despair. There are some brilliant off-the-cuff remarks which make Stefan more sympathetic:

When it’s in a farmer’s interest to drown his dog, he will convince himself gradually that the dog has rabies.

Radulescu has gathered his troops to give them a lecture about Patriotism. We all consider it a brilliant parody, until we realise, to our surprise, that he is deadly serious about it.

The ending is too abrupt and I’d have liked to see what happened to Stefan after the war, but in subject matter it reminds me of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. There are also similarities with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front in the descriptions of painfully tenuous advances and retreats, or, in more recent days, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. The French translators also say there is a hint of Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity in the novel.

What really stood out for me is the severe criticism that the author makes (via his main character) about the lack of Romanian preparation for the war. On the very first page, he sets the scene:

Ten pigs with sturdy snouts could have dug up the whole fortifications on the Prahova valley in half a day, with all of its barbed wire and ‘wolf holes’. The wolf holes were the kind of holes that children make in the sand when they are playing, but with spikes in them. The Army General HQ in 1916 – about the time of the Battle of Verdun – were convinced that the enemy would carelessly step right into these holes and would get spiked either in the soles of their feet or in their backs. The whole country spoke with respect of the ‘fortified valley’ in Prahova: the parliament, the political parties, the press.

There are several memorable scenes from the war, no doubt taken from Petrescu’s personal experience: coming face to face with enemy fire in a tight place and understanding your own cowardice; having a discussion with a German prisoner and realising that both of them have been brainwashed into despising the ‘enemy’ and believing their own propaganda; freezing at night without adequate clothes or blankets and having to sleep covered by the other men in his regiment to keep warm. All the more surprising then, that just a few years after he published this novel, the author was temporarily seduced by the nationalist rhetoric of the Iron Guard (the far-right militaristic group concerned about ‘ethnic purity’ and Romanian exceptionalism).

Although the novel has not been translated into English, there is a French translation by Laure Hinckel, published by Edition des Syrtes in 2006. There is also a 1980 film adaptation (considerably different from the book), directed by Sergiu Nicolaescu, which might be available online with subtitles.

Literary Weeks Are the Best Weeks…

And bookish friends are the best friends… I had a rather lovely week filled with books and literary discussions, just what the doctor ordered: the perfect nourishment to keep my soul from unravelling.

On Tuesday I had another Skype session with my poetry mentor and it is amazing how excited I get about rewriting some poems that I’d set aside because I felt I’d revised them so much that I was sick of them. It took another poet to read them and ask me what I was trying to achieve to actually regain some of that original spark that gave birth to the poem.

Freddie Bruckstein and Susan Curtis, founder of Istros Books.

On Thursday I attended the book launch of The Trap, two novellas by Romanian Jewish author Ludovic Bruckstein, translated by Alastair Ian Blythe. The author’s son, who has been the driving force behind the publication of his father’s literary estate, was there and gave us a very moving account of his father’s life.

Not many people born in that part of Europe can summarise their lives in simple terms. Their choices have been horribly affected by external events.

Freddie Bruckstein

Ludovic grew up in Sighet in North Maramures, just across the street from where Elie Wiesel used to live, but during the Second World War this thriving Jewish community was rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Ludovic discovered he was almost the sole survivor when he returned home after the war. For a while it seemed like he was going to be active and successful in the post-war writing community, with plays written in both Yiddish and Romanian, but he preferred a quieter life in the north of the country rather than becoming an establishment figure in Bucharest. Of course, he was duly expunged from Romanian literary history when he emigrated to Israel in 1972. But the poignant thing is he continued to write in Romanian for the Romanian community in Israel (most of his work was translated into Hebrew as well). I gave my copy of the book to my friend from Geneva days who came to visit me this weekend, and have promptly bought another one for myself. The brief reading we had from the book was absolutely brilliant and the stories really are a stark warning that passivity and political apathy often lead to the same consequences as deliberate malice.

On Friday my friend from Geneva came over to find me after work and we did non-stop literary things all weekend. First, we visited the Writing in Times of Conflict exhibition at Senate House and I discovered that my friend Jenny (a trained actress) had actually played Anne’s mother in a theatrical adaptation of the diaries, and toured with it around Europe.

I could listen to Kathleen Jamie forever…

We then went to the LRB Bookshop to see Kathleen Jamie in conversation with Philip Hoare, talking about her latest collection of essays entitled Surfacing. I’ve had the pleasure of attending a poetry masterclass with Kathleen and have always admired her sincerity and lack of pretension. She told us how she needed to write something to fill in those fallow periods in-between moments of poetic inspiration and for some reason she thought that essays would be easier and more lucrative than poetry (‘and boy, was I ever wrong!’). She also talked about her process, how she never starts out with a theme she can research, but just lets things accrue until she finally detects a pattern right at the end.

What I really appreciate about her writing is that she bears witness to a disappearing world, muses about the connections between past and present (and future) but refuses to romanticise the past or even nature. She doesn’t consider herself a pure nature writer, because it is the collision between humans and nature that she finds most interesting. Furthermore, because she is not as bound by science as archaelogists are, she can use her imagination much more freely to speculate about the lives and emotions of the people whose objects they are unearthing.

We spent a lazy Saturday in Oxford, talking non-stop about writing and reading, having pie and mash in the Covered Market, but unable to visit any of the colleges because of the graduation ceremonies taking place in the Sheldonian. Except Keble College, where I was overjoyed to see a quince tree against the ornate Victorian Gothic background. In the evening, we watched the rather depressing Marianne and Leonard documentary about Leonard Cohen’s Norwegian muse and their life together on the island of Hydra and wondered about the excuses and sacrifices we make for men who are considered geniuses (and not just them).

On Sunday we went to Henley Literary Festival and, although the weather prevented us from taking full advantage of riverside walks, we enjoyed seeing three indomitable women writers talk about why they find family dynamics so fascinating. The writers were:

  1. Harriet Evans, whose inspiration for her latest novel The Garden of Lost and Found came via a strong visual flash of children running down to the bottom of the garden when she heard someone sing the old song ‘The Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden’
  2. Hannah Beckerman, who said she wrote 24 drafts for her novel If Only I Could Tell You, because the characters usually come to her to lie down on a therapy couch and gradually reveal their stories
  3. Janet Ellis, whose second novel How It Was I have on my Kindle but haven’t read yet, said she gets her inspiration when a voice starts plucking at her sleeve and demanding to be heard.
From left to right: Harriet Evans, Hannah Beckerman and Janet Ellis.

There was a great deal of warmth and humour in their interaction, they were almost interviewing each other, or rather, having a delightful literary conversation that we were allowed to witness. One thing that they said really stuck with me: how we assume that older women just fade and vanish from public life or literature, but maybe some of that is by choice. That it is such a relief not to be at the cutting edge anymore, constantly scrutinised, judged by appearance or have every choice analysed. And also what satisfaction it is to have survived things that if anyone had told us in our youth that we would have to endure, we would probably not have believed ourselves capable of enduring.

I was planning not to buy any more books (I’d received quite a few in the post), not even if I could get them signed by the authors – although I was intrigued by the three of them and will certainly borrow their books from the library. But then Jenny took me into the Oxfam bookshop… and, in short, here is the week’s book haul. Alas.

Belatedly, Newcastle Noir

Although I’ve written three posts about Bristol’s CrimeFest, I wrote a very long and detailed post about Newcastle Noir long before that, which I generously handed over to a different site. Since they still haven’t put it up yet (and may not do so anymore, since it’s out of date), I’ll put it up now. With apologies to the wonderful organisers and all the great people I met there for the delay. If it makes them feel better, I think I liked Newcastle the town (and the festival) even more than Bristol.

I was impressed with Newcastle’s Hanseatic port type architecture.

Newcastle Noir 2019

The 2019 event (3-5 May) was the sixth annual event, and this time it was housed in the City Library. While this did mean that the venue got very crowded at times (it remained a fully functional library and community centre and it was a busy Bank Holiday weekend), it also made it very easy for people to pop in for just one panel if they so wished. And why would they not wish to, since they were very reasonably priced (£4 – eat your heart out, Hay Festival!).

The City Library, the venue.

The timing of the panels was a huge bonus: they each lasted about 45 minutes, which gave attendees sufficient time to regroup, take a comfort break, get their books signed by the authors and then head back in for the next panel. And, while the event remains small enough to avoid parallel sessions, you didn’t face the pain of having to choose between two equally fascinating panels. There were a couple of fringe events (writing workshops or a guided tour of Newcastle’s fictional crime heritage) which coincided with a few panels, but these provided a change of pace and respite for those overdosing on author talks. A bookshop and a bar on site (as well as the library café) also offered small escape areas for when it all gets a bit too intense. However, if I had one small criticism of the event, it would be that there aren’t enough dedicated places to just sitting, resting or gloating over your newly-purchased books.

There were, however, more opportunities to mingle with the authors informally in the evening. Or, as is typical in my case, fangirling over my favourite authors and waylaying them with book signing requests. Thursday night was a pre-festival Noir at the Bar Open Mic session of readings. A great opportunity to hear not only from authors who were present at the festival but also from emerging writers or others (such as Zoe Sharp) who had to leave early. Friday night we all headed over to the Central Bar in Gateshead for a cabaret evening. Crime writers proved themselves to possess enviable talents as singers, songwriter and even stand-up comedians. Last but not least, a silent disco on Saturday night gave everyone the chance to show their best (Dad) dance moves or else catch up on the day’s events without having to shout.

But what about the panels themselves?

They were an intriguing combination of themes, yet managed to avoid that forced feeling or random groupings which are sometimes the bane of literary festivals.

I really liked the mix of the familiar faces and the fresh, emerging talent. There were some obvious suspects there, such as showcases with big hitters such as Yrsa Sigurdardottir, or Gunnar Staalesen and John Harvey, or the finale with two of the most popular female crime writers working in England today, Mari Hannah and Elly Griffiths. But there were plenty of chances to find a new favourite regional author (Femmes Fatales from the NE including Sheila Quigley, Danielle Ramsay and Eileen Wharton; Northern Noir with Mel Sherratt, Caroline England and Robert Parker; Tyneside male authors such as Howard Linskey and Mick Herron; Yorkshire Noir for example Nick Quantrill, June Taylor and AA Dhand; and Welsh crime fiction with Phil Rowlands, John Nicholl and GB Williams) or to discover debut authors such as Adam Peacock, Alison Belsham, GD Abson and Noelle Holten. The international panels gave readers the opportunity to travel further afield and discover new worlds. Alongside the big international names, there were also writers from Romania, Australia and New Zealand who are still relatively unknown (or who, like Helen Fitzgerald, are not necessarily perceived as Australian), as well as fresh Icelandic writers who have not yet been translated into English. Let’s not forget panels that are loosely grouped around a theme but are likely to have a very wide appeal, such as modern gothic and supernatural writing (SJI Holliday, Anna Mazzola and William Ryan), LGBTQ authors (Paul Burston, Derek Farrell and Jonina Leosdottir), historical crime fiction (Lesley Thomson, Oscar de Muriel, Nicola Ford and Fiona Veitch Simon) or writers who have chosen woods as their settings for murder (Antti Tuomainen, Matt Wesolowski, Will Dean and MJ Arlidge).

From BalkanNoir to Bucharest Noir – here come the Romanians!

I was there to support my fellow countryman and women, the Bucharest Noir panel, represented by Anamaria Ionescu, Teodora Matei and their publisher and fellow crime author Bogdan Hrib.

Anamaria Ionescu was introducing her ‘hot off the press’ English translation of Zodiac, part of a trilogy featuring the nearest thing Romania has to James Bond. Sergiu Manta is a trained but reluctant assassin, who has to live apart from his beloved family in order to work for an organisation that is so secretive, it’s not even supposed to exist. The author acknowledged that a real-life person, a biker friend, was the inspiration for the Sergiu Manta character, and that she deliberately made him not quite as feminist as he thinks he is in a still rather traditional macho Romanian society.

Teodora Matei is well-known in her home country for her science fiction and fantasy novels, as well as crime and even (steampunk) romance. Her first novel to be translated into English Living Candles perfectly conveys the less glamorous aspects of urban life in present-day Bucharest. Her husband is NOT the source of inspiration for Toni Iordan, her main detective, although he had high hopes initially that he was. However, Toni does represent Mr. Average in every respect: a little overweight, a little fed up of his wife and kids, a little unfaithful but not quite as much as he dreams of being…

Bogdan Hrib is one of Romania’s most successful contemporary crime writers (and publishers). He has had several novels translated into English, although not necessarily in order of appearance. His series featuring journalist Stelian Munteanu are fast-paced, moving from one European capital to the next, with complex characters who vacillate between cold-bloodedness and sentimentality.

A more relaxed picture of the Awesome Four, with a bit of Newcastle backdrop.

Quentin Bates, himself a respected crime writer and translator, helped edit the English language translations and moderated the panel in Newcastle. He asked the authors what they consider to be special and different about Romanian noir, and why it deserves to be translated into other languages. The answer showed, I believe, that noir is at the very heart of Romanian literature: ‘We have a different way of thinking and living. It’s hard for people to understand what it takes to move from Communism – actually, that wasn’t Communism, it was pure and simply a dictatorship – to Capitalism. We survived against all odds, we’re survivors and fighter, and sometimes we have to fight against ourselves first and foremost.’ However, there was also agreement that the books that do get translated (or even the books that get talked about in the Romanian press) tend to be literary fiction, often very experimental and impenetrable. There is a bit of snobbery about genre fiction in Romania as everywhere else.

Love and crime are closely entwined

Dr Noir introducing the Orenda panel.

One of the liveliest panels despite the early morning start on Saturday was the panel What’s Love Got to Do with It? A feast of Orenda authors, moderated by Mamma Orenda herself, Karen Sullivan, talking about dysfunctional relationships and the crimes that people are ready to commit in the name of love. Lilja Sigurdardottir and Steph Broadribb’s kick-ass heroines both engage in dangerous (and sometimes criminal) pursuits to protect their children, so maternal love is strongly represented. In Doug Johnstone’s latest novel Breakers, it’s brotherly love that drives the narrative, although a Romeo and Juliet burgeoning of adolescent feelings gives some hope to the conflicted main protagonist.

Meanwhile, Will Carver’s insomniac Seth is desperate for love and connection, feeling lonely and trapped in his marriage, so seeks to talk to random people he selects from the phonebook. As the author says, boredom should also be on the list of factors that motivate us to commit a crime – the unbearable dreariness of routines often make us long to do stupid things.

Doug Johnstone agrees that he likes to focus on those split-second stupid decisions that people make. Readers can relate to that: they might think that they would act differently and wisely if they were in the same position, but when we are under pressure, how many of us wouldn’t make a foolish choice?

Lilja Sigurdardottir admitted that one of the most embarrassing things she had done for love was to stalk her partner when she first met her (in pre-internet days), in order to convince her that they were right for each other. 24 years later, they are still together, so the panel agreed that what we might deduce from that is: ‘stalking works’.

And if you have no love life to speak of, maybe this fortune teller to the stars can help.

One of the most surprising moments was when the authors talked about their own favourite reading matter, love related or not. Who would have thought that tough thriller writer Steph Broadribb likes to alternate crime with romance and chick lit type fiction? Doug Johnstone admits he is envious of Sara Gran’s writing, while Will Carver considers The Great Gatsby to be one of the most poignant love stories ever told. Lilja appears to be the most romantic (or possibly the most dysfunctional) of them all, citing Wuthering Heights as her favourite, as well as being a regular re-reader of Shakespeare.

Seen one festival, seen them all?

Literature festivals are a bit like music festivals in the UK at the moment – there seems to be one (or several) taking place every week all across the country. Poetry, regional literature, special interest (children and YA, romance, for aspiring writers etc.), big names and debut authors – there seems to be something catering for every taste. Quite frankly, I don’t know how any writing or reading gets done, as we could just spend three quarters of the year touring from one event to the next.

I was tickled pink to see this Newcastle landmark mentioned in the latest book by Mari Hannah.

Crime festivals seem to be particularly popular. Unsurprising, since crime fiction is consistently one of the most bought and widely-read genres. However, in this crowded landscape, how can you make your event stand out? Well, if you are Dr Jacky Collins (aka Dr Noir) and her organising committee, you pick your lively local town (Newcastle), put together an eclectic but affordable programme of local, national and international writers, with some quirky additional events (more about that later). Above all, don’t forget to create a cosy sense of community around the event, while opening it up to as wide an audience as possible. Newcastle Noir certainly succeeds in having its very own distinct, informal feel.