The Fall Edition of the Asymptote Journal has just been launched and, although I can’t claim any credit for the content (by the time I joined the team, it was all pretty much done and edited), it is a pleasure to share some of its content with you.
First of all, there is a special feature on new voices from France – unusual and young voices, rather than the ones which have been translated before. I love the disturbing and dysfunctional relationship with a mother described by Frédérique Martin, the grim reality of abortion from three different points of view presented by Valentine Goby. Although not strictly speaking a new voice, one of my absolute favourite pieces in this issue is the provocative, energetic and rather elegiac essay by Bernard Hoepffner – much respected translator of English literature into French, who died recently off the coast of Wales. The translator as a chameleon, con-man and perpetrator of linguistic violence. Still in the sphere of France, there is also a review of Marcel Proust’s letters to his neighbour, which show a witty, charming, sensitive man rather than the hypochondriac we often seem to hear about in literary history.
But it’s not just France who features here. Overall, 31 countries are represented, including Romania, South Africa, Martinique, the Ukraine and Brazil. There is also a very interesting art project by Mikhail Karikis, bringing the sounds and images of a community (and especially that of young people) making abandoned industrial landscapes their own.
Overall, a great place to rummage around and explore, whether you like poetry, fiction, essays, art or drama. And in times fraught with the spectre of nationalism and lack of interest in ‘the other’, I find it is more important than ever to listen to other cultures and to further our understanding.
I am so busy with my two new jobs that I haven’t had time to write any reviews, so I have taken what is laughingly known as the ‘easy way out’ by filming myself talking about some books I have recently read and ones I am currently reading. 5 crime novels, one Israeli apartment block in Tel Aviv, an Argentinian in France and a sweeping Hungarian family saga. Pretty much par for the course…
[I should stop apologising for my awkwardness while filming – static camera and a very movable person do not mix well.]
Since starting work, it’s been difficult to find the energy to write any blog posts in the evening, but I wanted to share with you the wonderful event with Herta Müller, organised by the University of Swansea (see their storification about the event on Twitter) and held at the British Library on Sunday 17th of September, in conversation with American translator, playwright and theatre director Philip Boehm.
I had heard of Herta Müller before she won the Nobel Prize, but had only read small fragments of her work. Of course I was proud that she was the only Romanian Nobel Prize winner in Literature, but the truth is she writes in German, so I shouldn’t really claim her. Nevertheless, I became enamoured with her eloquence in the moving acceptance speech about the power of language. I have since explored her work and her themes of oppression, submission, guilt and inner revolt resonate very powerfully with me.
In person she is as passionate about language and writing and storytelling as you’d expect, but also much funnier than you might think, given her sombre topics. She is delightfully modest and thoughtful and politically engaged as well. It’s safe to say that I fell completely under her spell and have found my role model. [Interestingly enough, although the Romanian Cultural Institute was involved in sponsoring the event and many Romanians were present, she is not very popular in Romania because she is so critical of life there under the Communist regime – much like Thomas Bernhard is criticised in his home country for ‘washing Austria’s dirty linen in public’.]
She read from Atemschaukel (translated as The Hunger Angel), which is the story of the German minorities in Romania who were deported to Soviet work camps after WW2, because they had fought on the side of the Nazis. In practice, the people deported were often not the men who had been soldiers, but those who were too young or too old to have been conscripted, or women. Herta’s mother had been in such a camp for 5 years and she spoke movingly about how old and strange her mother seemed, and what a morbidly intense relationship she had with food (she would always eat hurriedly, in standing, for instance, and chide her daughter for not peeling the potatoes thinly enough and wasting food). However, the main inspiration for the book was Oskar Pastior, a poet who was also deported after the war and pretty much invented afresh the German to describe the horrors of what he had experienced there. After working intensely with Pastior in preparation for co-writing a book, she was devastated when he died suddenly of a heart attack at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006. For 18 months she could not bear to touch the notes – ‘sometimes literature is not enough’ she said wryly – but then she felt she owed it to him to tell his story and it became a way of expressing her grief.
Above all, I was fascinated by what Herta said about her place somewhere in-between languages (which I feel so acutely myself). ‘No language belongs to you – you are only borrowing it, given it on loan.’ She grew up with a local Swabian dialect, then learnt high German at school and only learnt Romanian at secondary school, but she was fascinated by the differences between the languages. Romanian to her feels very sensual, humorous, frivolous, excellent at heightening everyday language, without trivialising it. She could often empathise with the more interiorised world of the Romanian language. The lily of the valley is ‘May bells’ in German, but ‘little tears’ in Romanian, for instance. A falling star is something to wish upon in German, but the sign that someone has died in Romanian. A pheasant is a boastful, show-off, winner kind of person in German, but a loser in Romanian, because it is a highly visible bird which cannot fly well, so it’s the first one to get shot by hunters. As Herta said: ‘The Germans look at the superficial appearance of the bird, while the Romanian see the inner life of the pheasant.’ Her genuine love for the Romanian language moved me tremendously and it certainly helps to explain why her use of German in her writing is so innovative, poetic and unique.
I had ordered some books a while ago, from many different sources (mostly from the US) and for two weeks the postman brought me nothing but bills and renewal notices. I began to think that he was avoiding the regular heavy book parcels. Yesterday four packages arrived all at once, so I take it all back and am full of admiration once more for my postie’s muscles and patience!
So here are my latest delights:
Sam Shepard In Memoriam
Other than Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby and Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, I am not a great admirer of blonde male actors. But Sam Shepard was an exception. He was not only the epitome of cool yet tormented, but the fact that he could also write – and write so well – was a major attraction. I loved his plays back in the days when we were doing amateur drama, especially Fool for Love, but I never owned any of his books nor read any of his prose. So, saddened as I was when I heard about his death, I felt I owed it to him to buy Fifteen One-Act Plays and (recommended by Stav Sherez, who is so much more knowledgeable about American literature than me and called it one of the best books of recent times) Cruising Paradise, a collection of short stories, dialogues, diary extracts to portray remote or small-town America.
Open Letter Irresistible
To celebrate the 4th of July, American publisher Open Letter Books (a nonprofit, literary translation press established at the University of Rochester) has a 40% off sale, so I went on their site intending to buy just one book but came away with three.
Lucio Cardoso: Chronicle of the Murdered House
I mean to read this Brazilian novel, translated by the ever-wonderful Margaret Jull Costa, as soon as it was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, but I ordered from a German site and it never materialised. In the meantime, it has won that award, so this was my second attempt to get my hands on a copy, this time directly from the publisher. It’s a novel from the 1950s, set in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil (a former agricultural and mining heartland), and it describes the decay and fall of a patriarchal family. But it’s not your average historical family saga – it represents a move towards the modernism of Clarice Lispector, who was a close friend.
Dubravka Ugresic: Europe in Sepia (transl. David Williams)
One of the greatest Croatian and European writers of the past two decades, I love her more for her essays than her fiction. This is a collection of what one might call travel essays, but in her hands it becomes a meditation on the past, present and future of Europe, equally wise and well-informed, bitter and funny, whether she looks at history, politics or popular culture.
Inga Abele: High Tide (transl. Kaija Straumanis)
I couldn’t resist this contender for Latvia for my #EU27Project. This is apparently the story of a love triangle with political and historical dimensions, and Abele is one of the most notable young writers in Latvia, with a combination of lush descriptions, directness, evocative language and precision in mining psychological insights.
Eshkol Nevo: Three Floors Up (transl. Sondra Silverston)
A best-selling Israeli novel set in a Tel Aviv apartment building, this novel examines a society in crisis, social and political ills, through the lives and problematic decisions of three of its residents. I will be reviewing this for Necessary Fiction, which has been such an inspirational website, introducing me to so much less highly publicised writing from independent publishers, both in English and in translation. This book will be coming out from Other Press in the US in October 2017.
Francis Beeding: The Norwich Victims (An Inspector Martin Mystery)
This is the book I ordered from Amazon and it was, quite honestly, a mistake. I had read a review of it on the Puzzle Doctor’s blog and was planning to get it on Kindle, but I pressed the wrong button. Never mind, it wasn’t too expensive, and I prefer reading in paperback anyway. Originally published in 1931, now reissued by Arcturus Crime Classics. This is the one that arrived within a couple of days rather than a month.
My keen fingers may have slipped a little and ordered a few more books which should be arriving within the next two weeks – Brazilian, German, Austrian, Japanese and American authors will be joining me presently.
I have recently read three very different crime novels, which left me intrigued, delighted and frustrated (in that order). They also made me wonder if the publisher’s pressure to produce a book a year forces writers to compromise on quality at times. Because I would rather wait two-three years if it means a more thoughtful, original piece of work is produced, rather than a cut and paste job with stock situations, cardboard characters and clichés ahoy.
This refers of course to the book which disappointed me, which used all the possible tricks to turn a rather ordinary, overdone story into something suspenseful: an unnecessary dual timeline solely designed to increase suspense, but feeling unnatural and irritating; withholding of vital information to create plot twists; an utterly pointless final twist with little bearing on the story; an annoying, whining main character whose behaviour is exaggerated and lacks credibility. Yet there were certain sharp observations throughout the book which made me think the author had talent, but had hurriedly scribbled down a half-baked domestic noir story to satisfy the current appetite for that sub-genre and the publisher’s demands.
The book which intrigued me was Andrée A. Michaud’s Bondrée (Boundary, in English, translated by Donald Winkler). Michaud is Québécois and this novel is very precisely set in time and place: a summer community on the US/Canadian border of Lake Boundary during the summer of 1967. Life seems idyllic: barbecues sizzling, children playing on the beach, families relaxing at weekends, even if the men have to go back to the city to work during the week. Radios are playing ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, and two teenage girls are flaunting their gorgeous tanned bodies and long curls to confuse and delight the male population of the little holiday enclave. Zaza Mulligan and Sissy Morgan are precocious and slightly too forward. In a year or two they would be destined to become bitches, so the gossip goes, but this is their summer of glory, with a third girl Frenchie Lamar trying to keep up with them, but not quite succeeding to emulate their charisma. Meanwhile, twelve-year old French speaker Andrée is entranced by these American teenagers, the sweets they share with her because they think she is cute. She tries to repeat the words they say ‘Littoldolle’ or ‘chiz’ or ‘foc’ (which her mother tries to avoid explaining to her by discussing seals – in French ‘phoques’ – instead). She is the main narrator, but it is not really a child’s voice, but a scene remembered from the distant past. We also catch glimpses of the story from other points of view.
Then Zaza is found dead, her limbs torn apart in an old bear trap overgrown with vegetation. An unfortunate accident, so everyone thinks, and the holiday-makers band together to search for all remaining animal traps which a strange old hermit called Pierre Landry had set up around the area before he died. But when Sissy suffers a similar fate and her beautiful red hair is cut off, the community has to acknowledge the horrible truth:
A killer was on the loose in the shadow of our cottages, one who had made a zombie out of Bob, and etched into my father’s face lines that hadn’t been there before, outward signs of a kind of stupor, as if he’d received a blow from a baseball bat on the back of his head. And that’s exactly what had happened in the clearing, where a dozen men, along with him, had been blindsided by a mysterious weapon.
Stan Michaud is the American policeman who has to investigate the case, helped by Brian Larue, a bilingual single dad vacationing there, who helps with the translating. The story is very slow-moving, perhaps too much so for avid mystery fans, but it is also a subtle coming-of-age story and a description of an Anglo-French community on the cusp of modernity yet stuck in a primeval forest full of ghosts. I was fully caught up in the utterly believable atmosphere, full of nuances and poetic language. The translation did occasionally feel clunky, so I may well look out for this in French. It won the Prix des lecteurs (Readers’ Prize) at the Quais du polar in Lyon this year.
Finally, the book which delighted me is the follow-up to Susie Steiner’s debut, which I reviewed recently. In Persons Unknown, Manon is back in Cambridgeshire, together with her unconventional family: her adopted son Fly, her sister Ellie and her young nephew Solly. She is sidelined somewhat, working on cold cases, but she hopes it gives Fly the opportunity to grow up in a more peaceful environment, where he won’t be treated as a criminal simply because of his race.
But then a man is stabbed to death outside a park near the railway station and the identity of the victim makes it impossible for Manon to ignore the case. Things go from bad to worse and she has to prove that her nearest and dearest cannot possibly have anything to do with this horror. Or could they? This seamless blend of personal and professional is Steiner’s great strength, the way in which she makes us question all of our easy assumptions about family, motherhood and love. Each character seems well-rounded, with real depth, especially Manon, who feels like a frazzled yet slightly more energetic version of ourselves. The target audience for this is the reader who enjoyed the more realistic portrayal of women detectives such as Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway series (although I like this one more) or the feisty Sarah Lancashire character in Happy Valley.
Now you may say I am contradicting myself, since Persons Unknown has followed very swiftly on the tail of Missing, Presumed. However, it feels to me like this was a single, complex story that the author had already envisaged, and which she brought out in two installments. It all fits together very well, and there are hints that the third novel also builds on this story. For the sake of letting stories breathe and develop organically, however, I would ask publishers to ease the calendar pressure and allow authors to take as long as they need to make their novels as good as they can.
January felt like a slow reading month, as too much of my time was caught up with news. However, now that I’m counting, I did not fare too badly. 12 books read, of which 4 translations and 5 by women. I am far, far behind on reviews, however, so for the time being you will have to make do with a single word or phrase.
David Young: Stasi Wolf – surreal in a different way
This is where I stumbled a little, as I have written zero reviews of any of these. I am also having second thoughts about using Arango and Hiekkapelto for Germany and Finland respectively, as there is little local ‘flavour’ in their work (they take place elsewhere). I have been sadly neglectful of adding any links to the #EU27Project page myself, but thank you to all the other book bloggers who have diligently read and reviewed and linked up. So much better than me! I will do better in February, I promise.
Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes: Breach (Peirene Now!) – the refugee camps of Europe – more necessary reading than ever
Sascha Arango: The Truth and Other Lies (Germany) – macabre fun
Kati Hiekkapelto: The Exiled (Finland) – cross-cultural misunderstandings
Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (Ireland) – inventive delight
For fun (and to reduce TBR pile, especially on Netgalley):
The 100 year anniversary of the beginning of Battle of the Somme (it dragged on for 4-5 endless months) should show the monumental stupidity and futility of war and the dangers of heeding the siren call of nationalism. Thy advanced all of five miles during those months and suffered nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day alone, over a million deaths (on both sides) over that period.
The First World War was a war of empire and young men were used as cannon fodder, so, not surprisingly, it was also a time of ‘rude awakening’ and cognitive dissonance for those young men. There has been a steady stream of literature depicting the horrors but above all the psychological torments of that war. I remember reading Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘ when I was 12 and shivering. If that doesn’t make you a pacifist, nothing ever will!
Here are some lesser-known novels about the First World War, which truly question in some depth the role of individuals in history, how history shapes each one of us, how we become its pawns and whether we have any choice in the matter.
Camil Petrescu: Ultima noapte de dragoste, întîia noapte de război (Last Night of Love, First Night of War) – 1930
Ștefan Gheorghidiu is a rather self-important, naive young man who falls in love and marries Ela, a woman who seems his polar opposite in every respect. He becomes increasingly jealous and suspects she is only interested in his fortune, but war intervenes and he is sent to the front.
Many present-day readers feel the book delves too much into Ștefan’s tortured psychology, but that was precisely what I loved about it. As he is confronted with the harsh realities of war, he realises just how petty his own problems are and becomes aware of the greater tragedy and absurdity of life. This book is very similar in theme to the next on the list below. It hasn’t been translated into English, but there is a French version of it.
Ford Madox Ford: Parade’s End – 1924-28
This book doesn’t describe war scenes in great detail either – rather, it’s about the psychological effects of war on the people who live through it, on the front and beyond. Christopher Tietjens and his flight wife are very similar to the couple in Petrescu’s book, but the style is far more modernist and experimental. Tietjens is more infuriating than Stefan – a big block of an emotionally stunted man who seems to be a passive recipient of things, rather than over-agonising mentally. And yet, both novels show that sex and war are two sides of the same coin: when passion becomes obsession and we become overly focused on just one thought, one person, one ideology.
Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front – 1929
Rather better known than the others featured here, but still not quite as popular in the English-speaking world as it deserves to be. It shows the war from ‘the other side of the barricades’, the German side, and just how unwilling and disenchanted the average soldier could be about being a cog in a very large imperial machine which had little to do with him or his life. The author makes it clear that he wants to tell the story of ‘a generation of men who even though they escaped the shells, were destroyed by the war’. The filth and squalor, the boredom and random cruelty of trench warfare are shown here quite graphically.
Liviu Rebreanu: Pădurea spânzuraţilor (Forest of the Hanged) – 1922
This is in some ways the most shocking of the books on the list. For those unfamiliar with Romanian history, before the First World War Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All the ethnic Romanian men were recruited and fought on several fronts, including against Romania, which was on the side of the Allies. The author himself was considered a deserter for leaving Transylvania during the war and settling in Romania, but the real inspiration behind the story was the tragic fate of his brother, who was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army and executed for treason for refusing to fight against his fellow Romanians. The Forest of the Hanged is a haunting image, apparently based on a picture of a forest filled with Czech soldiers who had been hanged for treason (for refusing to fight against their compatriots behind the Italian front). It’s not great battle scenes, however: it’s about one man’s internal journey and the awakening of his conscience. There is an English translation from 1986 – out of print now, obviously.
If any publisher would like to reconsider a translation, I’m happy to offer my services. I love this book so much!
Didier Daeninckx: Le der des ders (The Last of the Last) – 1984
The title alludes to the fact that the First World War was initially known as the ‘War to End All Wars’. So far from the truth!
This is almost a crime story set in the confused, anarchic period just after the end of the war. A former colonel hires a former soldier turned detective (René Griffon) for an apparently banal case of suspected adultery. But what Griffon uncovers is a wide-ranging case of corruption and conspiracy, which mocks all of the idealistic principles of war and fatherland. Similar to Lemaitre’s Au-revoir la-haut, but predating it by 30 years. There is also an immensely evocative BD version illustrated by Tardi, an English version has been recently published as ‘A Very Profitable War’ by Melville House .