#SixDegrees November 2021

Yay, it’s time once more for Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and you have to link it to six other books to form a chain. They don’t all have to link thematically, but often your subconscious produces a bit of theme for you.

This month’s starting point is What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez, a book I haven’t read, which always proves challenging at the start of a chain. So I decided to keep it very simple and link to another author named Sigrid (the only other author named Sigrid that I have ever heard of), namely Sigrid Undset, who won the Nobel Prize in 1928, mainly for her masterpiece, the Kristin Lavransdottir trilogy. It follows the life of a woman in fourteenth-century Norway, and is surprisingly frank about sexual desires (especially of women) and unwedded bliss.

The author’s straightforward, modern style was not well rendered with the initial translation dating from the 1920s, which favoured an archaic style (as if to make the historical aspect of things more obvious). This might explain why the book never made an impact in the English-speaking world. But Tiina Nunnally provided a fresh and by all accounts superior translation in 2005, and I am very tempted to read it.

Another book that was perhaps not well served by its initial translation into English is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which was first translated in its entirety by Eleanor Marx (yes, daughter of Karl). She also favoured a more dated language (although this was slightly updated for the Norton Anthology edition), heavily criticised by Nabokov and Lydia Davis – who translated the novel herself. There are by now approximately twenty English translations of Madame Bovary.

Next book therefore is Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by Sophie Divry – although the title in the original is La condition pavillonnaire, which was initially a medical term to describe the siloed nature of hospitals with separate wings for each type of disease, but has since been adapted to explain the loneliness of low-density housing suburbs in the US. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Sophie Divry speak on the French literary podcast Bookmakers and was surprised by her very combative style, although perhaps less so when I heard about her past political activism.

Another author I heard on Bookmakers and who turned out to be less intimidating than his rather fearsome reputation is Hervé Le Tellier, a member of the Oulipo group. His recent novel L’Anomalie won the Goncourt Prize in 2020 (Oulipos have not had much luck with this traditional prize in the past) and will be out soon in the English translation of Adriana Hunter.

The Oulipo group provides my link to another famous group of literary and artistic rebels, the Dadas, and the Dada Manifesto 1918 by Tristan Tzara, a Romanian-born poet and rebel. It is in fact an anti-manifesto for culture, a belief that deeds are more important than words, a desire to escape all systems – the only acceptable system is to have none. I have a lot of sympathy for Tzara’s desire to emancipate himself from competing national cultures and nationalist rhetorics – he saw himself as a true European. However, it should be noted that his Dada associates did refer to him as East European, Oriental or even barbarian – it seems he cold not escape his ‘foreignness’.

This avant-garde literary magazine was named after Urmuz and published 5 issues in 1928.

My final link in the chain is another not very well-known yet hugely influential Romanian writer of the absurdist/avant-garde school of 1910/20s, namely Urmuz. Like Cavafy or Pessoa, he led a bit of a double life, drowning in colourless clerical work, yet notorious from his schooldays on for outrageous absurdist, almost surreal pranks. He died far too soon to produce a huge body of work, but captured the imagination of everyone who knew or read him. His Complete Works in English seem to only be available in a limited edition from Atlas Press, but his work has been translated into French, German and Italian. I have just spotted that a new translation of his prose by Alastair Ian Blyth will be published in 2022 by Dalkey Archive Press. [Leave something for me to translate, Alastair, will you?]

From 14th century Norway to 19th century France, from contemporary France to the avant-garde in 1910s Zurich and Romania, we’ve had a bit of an unusual journey here this month. Where will your literary travels take you?

Young, lovely and local: Sophie Divry and Michelle Bailat-Jones

You may think it’s shallow to judge books by the author pictures. Yes, it is, and, luckily for most authors (myself included), I don’t.  Until I come across two women writers who seem to have talent, looks and youth all on their side. Furthermore, they each live about an hour’s drive away from me. Let’s hope that there’s something in the local water – to improve my talent too, as age and beauty are beyond repair…

sophiedivrySophie Divry: Quand le diable sortit de la salle de bain (When the Devil Came Out of the Bathroom)

Sophie Divry has caught the imagination of the English-speaking reading public too, with a translation of her first book ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’. That was a charming story of a lovelorn librarian and her passion for books and the arts more generally.

This is her fourth novel, as yet untranslated in English, and the story seems to be more anchored in present-day reality. And a drab reality it is too: we hear of the trials and tribulations of an educated young jobseeker (also called Sophie) in Lyon, who is trying to write a book and make ends meet by doing little odd jobs which pay late, and then cause her unemployment benefit to be stopped temporarily. Meanwhile, she tries to make the right (i.e. filling) choices in the supermarket when all she has left is 17.70 euros, sends off job applications, fills in forms, goes to the jobcentre, sells off her toaster and her books, fends off cold callers and tries to reason with bureaucrats.

Of course, this being Divry, the realism is tempered with some surreal touches. Sophie has conversations with Lorchus, her personal demon and the devil of the title, who tries to encourage her to steal or become a drug dealer or attack someone to rob them.

You need to make a choice, my dear. You’re either on the side of the winners, always emerging victorious, or else on the side of bacteria, crying over every bill and moulding away a little every day. Rethink your values. Free yourself. Honesty, sharing, sobriety – that’s all chicken poop. Are you going to listen to your Mum all your life? [my translation]

Meanwhile, her large family in the south of France are less than helpful (not that she wants to confide in them about her troubles), nor is her friend Hector, who is obsessed with the pursuit of the unattainable Belinda. Nothing much happens really: we just follow Sophie’s daily life, her anxieties, her frequently very funny rants about contemporary French society and its failings.

lediabledivryThere is a faint glimmer of Virginie Despentes in Divry, not just because of the similarities in subject matter. Divry has less realism and more of a touch of Russian fantasy (I was thinking of Bulgakov throughout). I liked the way the characters intervened, demanded to play a bigger part, how the devil draws provocative pictures in the book, how she tries to get her revenge on him and her friend Hector. There is a tongue-in-cheek postmodern satire here which is rather delightful.

However, I found the writing style annoying at times: too much of an essay or a personal rant. The long enumerations – of how her family talks, what they eat, the men she doesn’t like, the list of anxieties in the supermarket – can be an amusing device and very effective the first time it is used, but when it’s constantly repeated throughout the book, it becomes just a lazy technique. The end was very abrupt and unsatisfactory as well, and the bonus material at the end did nothing to remedy that. However, there was something about the mix of candid depiction of poverty and rampant imagination which did appeal to me. I will be reading more of this author (I still haven’t read her first book, and have heard good things about La condition pavillonaire), and I am sure she will get better and better.

Michelle Bailat-Jones in Lausanne
Michelle Bailat-Jones in Lausanne

Michelle Bailat-Jones: Fog Island Mountain

One writer who already seems at the height of her powers is Michelle. Disclosure moment here: I know Michelle personally, and that usually puts me in a bit of a quandary. Will I lose a friend if I don’t ‘love’ the book? How can I be honest about a book for other future readers without offending a friend by not giving them five stars? And if I gush, will people think I am biased and disregard my review?

Well, all I can say is that this debut novel made me cry. It did help that I was in Japan in a typhoon at the time – and the story is set in Japan just before and during a great storm. But it’s a moving and beautifully-written story no matter where or when you read it.

South African expat Alec has been living in a small town in the fog-shrouded mountains on the southernmost tip of Kyūshū for several decades. He is diagnosed with terminal cancer and this is in fact the story of how each member of his family – and he himself – cope with the news. Alec’s devoted Japanese wife Kanae is normally ‘a woman who keeps her promises’, but she has an unexpectedly visceral and panicked reaction to her husband’s illness. He ‘is going to leave her behind’, she repeats to herself, and her rage and denial make her run away and behave in uncharacteristic ways, which she later regrets. Some readers complain that Kanae is thoroughly selfish and unlikeable, but grief strikes each one of us in such extreme ways. Only people with no compassion or imagination can condemn her (even though I feel very sorry for Alec).

fogislandThen Alec sneaks out of the hospital and everyone fears the worst: that he has gone off to commit suicide. With a tropical storm ready to hit the island, Kanae and Alec mount a desperate search for each other, scanning their memories and searching out their favourite spots, all the places that have hidden meaning for them, always just narrowly missing each other. Along the way, they remember their great love, a love from which their children have sometimes felt excluded, and find the inner strength – individually and as a couple – to cope with the diagnosis and its inevitable outcome.

…he knows this frightened face of hers, the one she wore when her children got hurt, when Megumi announced she was pregnant and alone… and yes, he remembers this same face, too, for their period of courting when it would sneak into their more serious conversations, when it surprised them both in a moment of happiness, and he is nodding at her now, able to look at her again, because forever is such a terrifying thing, but they have already managed one forever and they have done just fine with it.

Readers who do not like the use of the present tense or long sentences, with many subordinate clauses, will struggle perhaps at the outset of this book. But if you treat it as a prose-poem and savour each skilfully constructed phrase, you have to admire how the length and rhythm of the sentence acts both as an accelerator and a brake at different times in the narrative. I was particularly attracted by the additional POV, the neutral observer if you like, who comments on the events with the ease and perspective of an ominiscient narrator (but in a less annoyingly knowing way). This is a neighbour, Kitauchi-san, who seems to have a special relationship with animals, rescuing trapped and wounded creatures in the wild. She has a symbiotic relationship with a fox, which brings to mind not only the ‘taming of the fox’ in The Little Prince but also the ‘kitsune’ or fox spirits of Japanese legends. In Japan foxes often take on female forms and prove themselves to be wise and faithful guardians of their chosen families, although there is also a more malevolent association with evil spirits too. This ambiguity of animal symbolism, together with the fog and menacing storm, serves the story well and creates the perfect backdrop for much emotional drama.

You may argue that the subject matter has been done before, but that’s not the point. It would be far too easy to resort to big emotional fanfare and melodrama with this kind of story, but the author manages to contain it all with the precision of Japanese painting or a tea ceremony, in which each restrained gesture stands in for so much more. Yet I defy anyone not to have tears in their eyes as they read that last scene in the book. I won’t quote from it, as it needs to be read in its entirety for the full effect to trickle through you. Just stunning!