#1936Club: Max Blecher and Translation Comparison

Max Blecher published the short novel √ént√ĘmplńÉri √ģn irealitatea imediatńÉ 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 M√ľller, 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.

#FitzcarraldoFortnight: This Little Art

Kate Briggs: This Little Art

This delightful, quirky essay about literary translation by Kate Briggs, based on her own translation of Roland Barthes’ lecture notes (but moving far, far beyond that) was the perfect book at the perfect time for me, as I myself embark upon a journey as a professional literary translator. I have stuffed it full of little post-it notes, and will probably return to it again and again. It’s the kind of book that you never really finish reading – it is designed to stimulate your thought and your passion for words, language, for finding the right word.

There are far too many ideas here for me to do them justice, but here are some of the things that most resonated with me:

  1. The translator is always demanding a suspension of disbelief from the reader – asking you to go along with the fiction that these characters are talking or thinking in English, that what you are reading is in fact the language of Barthes or Thomas Mann or anyone else.
  2. Helen Lowe-Porter was Thomas Mann’s first translator into English and at the time her translations were phenomenally successful, but she has since been criticized for making mistakes, for changing things around, misleading the readers. There is a fierce rivalry (as well as comradeship) between translators, especially when it comes to classic writers, because it is quite hard to get funding for a new translation, how hard it is to fight copyright issues and publishers’ interests – and so to see someone else do a far worse translation and thereby block your chances of doing another one for perhaps 20-30 years… But, Briggs argues, who are we to decide what makes a good or bad translation? While it should be possible to correct obvious mistakes and offer alternatives, it should be done in a spirit of improvement – because can we really be sure that we are getting better at translation over time, rather than merely following a current fashion?
  3. Translators may wish to transmit the original author’s voice as much as possible, but they will never be entirely neutral and impersonal instruments. They are always putting all of themselves – their background, experience, personality, emotions, associations – into the final work.
  4. Yet translators need to be humble – the work itself humbles them every single time. Regardless of how much experience you might have translating, you always start each fresh work from a position of not knowing. You are opening yourself up to learning, to interpreting, to being curious and honest and self-critical.
  5. A bit of a reality check: A translator’s work ‘is celebrated if and only if the work she is translating is worth celebrating; there is no celebrating her achievement from that of its original author. As a consequence of this… mediocre translators of successful books sometimes get unduly praised, while those more talented translators translating less visible works hardly get noticed at all.’
  6. Some argue that there is one perfect translator for a particular book – or at least the right translator, who can truly get under the author’s skin. (I have the tendency to believe that about myself and Mihail Sebastian and am somewhat miffed that he has already been translated into English, see point 2 above). But Kate Briggs argues that books don’t come with designated translators, they don’t have built-in protocols or rules that you have to obey for success, otherwise you will be a failure. It’s about a million different tiny choices, and the same translator might make different choices a day or two later.

I hope that gives you a flavour of the book – and yes, it does refer to Barthes a lot, but it was never Barthes himself that I objected to, merely the pretentious young men at university who were forever quoting him as scaffolding for their own hastily built, shoddy work. I’ll end with a wonderful plea for more translated work, which chimes so well with my own beliefs:

Yes… do translations, for the simple reason that we need them. We need translations, urgently: it is through translation that we are able to reach the literature written in the languages we don’t or can’t read, from the places where we don’t or can’t live, offering us the chance of understanding as well as the necessary and instructive expereince of failing to understand them, of being confused and challenged by them.

The Translated Literature Book Tag

I saw a blog post this week on Portuguese reader Susana’s blog A Bag Full of Stories, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to tag myself and take part. As you know, I am very opinionated when it comes to translations!

A translated novel you would recommend to everyone

Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver (trans. Thomas Teal) is such a deceptively simple story of village life in winter and the friendship between two women, but it is full of undercurrents, ambiguity, darkness. Of course, if you haven’t read Tove Jansson at all, then I suggest you start with the Moomins, which are just as wonderful for grown-ups as they are for children.

A recently read ‚Äúold‚ÄĚ translated novel you enjoyed

The Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic, which was the inspiration for Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, was even better than I expected.

A translated book you could not get into

Everybody knows that my Achilles heel is The Brothers Karamazov, which is ironic, given that I love everything else that Dostoevsky wrote (and generally prefer him to Tolstoy). I have bought myself a new copy of it and will attempt it again (for the 5th time?).

Your most anticipated translated novel release

This is a little under the radar, but it sounds fascinating: Istros Books (one of my favourite publishers, for its brave championing of a part of Europe that is still woefully under-translated) is bringing out The Trap by Ludovic Bruckstein, a Romanian Jewish writer virtually unknown to me (because he emigrated in 1970 and was declared persona non grata in Romania). The book is made up of two novellas, offering, as the publisher blurb goes, ‘a fascinating depiction of rural life in the Carpathians around the time of the Second World War, tracing the chilling descent into disorder and fear of two cosmopolitan communities that had hitherto appeared to be havens of religious and racial acceptance’. The official launch will take place on 26th of September in London and you bet that I’ll be there!

A ‚Äúforeign-language‚ÄĚ author you would love to read more of

I only discovered Argentinean author Cesar Aira in 2018, and he is so vastly prolific (and reasonably frequently translated) that I have quite a task ahead of me to catch up. His novels are exhilarating, slightly mad and, most importantly, quite short.

A translated novel which you consider to be better that the film

Movie still from Gigi.

Not many people will agree with me, but I prefer the very short novella Gigi by Colette to the famous musical version of it, starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier. The book’s ending is much more open to interpretation and makes you doubt the long-term happiness of young Gigi. It can be read as a satire and critique of the shallow world of Parisian society and the limited choices women had within it at the time.

A translated ‚Äúphilosophical‚ÄĚ fiction book you recommend

Not sure I’ve read many of those! Reading biographies of philosophers or their actual work is more fun. The only example I can think of, and which I enjoyed at the time but haven’t reread in years, is Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, transl. Paulette Moller.

A translated fiction book that has been on your TBR for far too long

Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall (trans. Shaun Whiteside) is a post-apocalyptic novel with a difference. I’ve been meaning to read this much praised novel forever, but in the original, so I finally bought it in Berlin last year… and still haven’t got around to reading it.

A popular translated fiction book you have not read yet

Korean fiction seems to be having a moment in the sun right now (thanks to a great influx of funding for translation and publication), especially the author Han Kang. I haven’t read the ever-popular The Vegetarian but her more recently translated one Human Acts (trans. Deborah Smith) sounds more on my wavelength, with its examination of policital dissent and its repercussions.

A translated fiction book you have heard a lot about and would like to find more about or read

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischwili, translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin is perhaps far too intimidatingly long (1000 pages) for me to read, but it sounds epic: six generations of a Georgian family living through the turbulent Soviet 20th century.

Asymptote Fall 2018 issue is out now

Or ‘Autumn’, for those of us who are still resisting the encroachment of Americanisms into our daily speech. With photography by Olaya Barr, visual arts, drama, non-fiction, poetry, fiction and reviews, there is something for everyone¬†here.¬†

So many goodies to explore! As usual, the sheer ambition and mix of languages is dazzling. 31 countries featured in this issue alone. Togo is represented here for the first time, bringing the total of countries in the archives up to 122.  The number of languages featured is now at 102, with the inclusion of Q’anjob’al from Guatemala.

Just a few of the things I want to read at leisure during my holidays, if I have internet connection:

  • the special feature on Catalan fiction, about which I still know far too little beyond¬†Merc√® Rodoreda and Jaume Cabr√©
  • Phillip Lopate talking about the personal essay as ‘a mode of being’
  • Abdellah Ta√Įa about why he chooses to write in French – asking himself if he even likes this language anymore, this has real emotional resonance with me, since I too write in my ‘non-native’ language
  • An intriguing review about the unfinished novel of one of the great losses to Chinese literature Xiao Hong.

The contrast between intriguing possibility and depressing probability is perhaps widest of all with Xiao Hong, who, in her brief thirty-one years on this planet, managed to write some of the finest Chinese fiction of the twentieth century. I wonder what would have happened to her had she lived another few decades, but I doubt it would have been anything good.

Dylan Suher

Hay Festival 2018: Part 1

I did not have internet access at my B&B while I was in Hay, and the Wifi access on the Festival site was patchy at times, so I only tweeted occasionally but was unable to give a day by day account of the three days I spent at the Hay Festival. So I will have to write several posts to discuss the panels, discussions, personal thoughts and book buying binges that all took place during those amazingly rich days.

After an adventurous trip led by the GPS across cattle grids, narrow one-lane roads, Brecon nature reserve with sheep and horses following my car curiously and a pallour of fog hanging over me, I finally made it to my B&B just outside Hay on Wye. The weather was atrocious. There had been thunderstorms earlier in the day accompanied by power failures, but by the afternoon it was merely raining heavily, and it kept it up for most of the weekend. Luckily, the organisers are prepared for the Welsh climate and there are plenty of tent-like structures everywhere, plus covered walkways between them, so this is not Glastonbury levels of mud (although one year it was apparently more like Hay IN Wye). And of course, as soon as any ray of sun came out, everyone was milling about on the wet grass and deckchairs. You have to admire British resilience!

Those dark clouds only lifted in the evening.

I was sensible on Friday afternoon and allowed myself plenty of time between the two events I attended. There is a downside to that, however: too much time to browse both in the Festival bookshop and the second-hand bookshop run by Oxfam. My total book tally by the end of the weekend was 27 (many second-hand, and all the new ones signed by the authors), although I feel very virtuous that two of those are for my boys. I suppose I’ll have to write a separate post about the book haul.

The first day was all about debate rather than literature. The first panel featured researchers from the University of Cambridge Helena Sanson (Italian studies), Prof Bill Byrne and Marcus Tomalin talking about machine translation. I was amused to hear how algorithms transform words into numbers (with all the lack of subtlety one might expect), and that the BLEU score for establishing the accuracy of a translated text can lead to garbage results. It felt a little bit like the conversations between me and WB – with me as the human translator and him as the machine translation. The key message was that machine translation can increase a professional translator’s productivity or help in the case of basic, technical and repetitive texts, but human translators are unlikely to be supplanted by it anytime soon. What unnerved me slightly was the more sinister message about the fate of the so-called minority languages, the ones spoken by few people. Of the approximately 6000 languages in the world, Google Translate covers only 130, so less than 2%. This is unlikely to change, as it‚Äôs costly to train machines to learn the equivalences between languages, so the money for research will flow into the languages where there is a lot of potential for application (and where there are already lots of examples in place). The preservation of smaller languages will have to rely on charities, research councils, public initiatives‚Ķ so many will die. Plus, does this artificial preservation of a dead language in a showcase really help? As an anthropologist who has listened to recordings of natives speaking now defunct languages, I can confidently say that these are meaningless without knowledge of the cultural context surrounding it.

A glimmer of hope and sunshine on the horizon…

The second panel (attended by fewer people and most of them women) was organised by the University of Worcester, and included academics Maggie Andrews (consultant on the BBC programme Home Front), Sarah Greer, Krista Cowman (consultant on the Sufragettes film), Anna Muggeridge (Ph.D. student researching women’s work in the Black Country) and Dana Denis-Smith (founder of Obelisk Support for women lawyers, who started an initiative about telling stories from the first 100 years since women entered the professions in 1919). The title of the session was: Is 2018 going to go down in history as the year of lasting change in women’s rights?

And the answers of the panel matched my own not very optimistic one (although I’d be happily proved wrong). Although it has become much more acceptable to define yourself as a feminist than it was 5-10 years ago, the panel felt that it was almost like clicking Like on a Facebook page, that #MeToo is still very much a privileged white middle-class movement and that 2018 happened to coincide with a lot of anniversaries but by 2019 it might feel already like ‚Äėit‚Äôs been done, it‚Äôs over now and we can move back to life as usual‚Äô.

The Women’s Panel.

There was also a warning that progress for women’s rights always seem to take a step backwards when bigger events overshadow them (world wars, Vietnam war and oil crisis, austerity government and economic crash and Brexit), yet women are the ones that get disproportionately hit by these.

One important point that the panel made was that a lesson contemporary feminists might learn from suffragettes is that we should focus on a single issue and really fight hard for that. However, it all unravelled a little when it came to defining what that single issue might be even amongst the panel (let alone across the world). Opinions were split between equal pay, social care and precarious work, extending Me Too to all women everywhere, valuing women‚Äôs work more. I really liked Dana Denis-Smith’s comment that we devalue women’s work so much that as soon as women enter a particular bastion of men‚Äôs work, that also becomes devalued and starts paying less (women in accountancy or solicitors for example).

And the rain, rain, rain came down, down, down…

One final thought on today’s post about Hay, before we move on to literature, was that although some care was taken in programming a diversity of writers, the audience was still predominantly white middle-class (with a tendency to upper). This is perhaps not surprising considering how expensive it is to attend. I don’t even want to calculate the total amount spent, for fear it will give me a panic attack, but add up: petrol costs, B&B, overpriced food at the festival (¬£9 for a burger – without any extras, ¬£3.50 for a coffee), parking, ¬£7 entrance fee on average for every panel…

So I was not surprised to find lots of yummy mummies sipping Prosecco and gentlemen with straw hats, pink trousers and kerchiefs, children dressed in muddy designer clothes and wellies called Freya, Sebastian, Benedict and Isla. However, I also started chatting to lots of wonderful people in the queues: sheep farmers from the local area, translators, Americans, Irish, Sri Lankans. And of course I do wonder how much of the earnings of the festival gets ploughed back into the local community – or do the organisers just pack up their tents at the end of it all and take all the money and leave? As my B&B host said: ‘At least for 10 days a year most people in Hay can make a little money from renting out their rooms or fields.’

Holiday Reading and Women in Translation

Instead of my July round-up, this is more of a July and August holiday reading list. Since August is WIT month, I decided to take it one step further and focus predominantly on women writers for both months. So here are the plans and what I’ve read to date (marked with a bold R at the start of the line). Completely gratuitous holiday pictures from previous years included, just to put myself in the mood. Please don’t mention how far behind I am with the reviews…

Fake beach at Vevey.
Fake beach at Vevey.

Crime fiction:

R Kati Hiekkapelto: The Defenceless (Interview with the author and review to come on Crime Fiction Lover)

Fred Vargas: Temps glaciaires – was snatched away from my loving arms by another reader who had requested it at the library (I was overdue, to be fair, should have started reading it earlier), but I’ll try to find it again

Karin Fossum: The Drowned Boy

Ancient plane tree in Crete.
Ancient plane tree in Crete.

Other fiction:

R Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd

Alice Quinn: Queen of Trailer Park

R Therese Bohman: Drowned

Judith Schalansky: The Giraffe’s Neck

R Virginie Despentes: Apocalypse Baby

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver

Renate Dorrestein: The Darkness that Divides Us

To complete this diet of women in translation, I’m also adding this category:

Nikki de Saint Phalle sculpture, Paris
Nikki de Saint Phalle sculpture, Paris

English-speaking Women Writers

R Sophie Hannah: A Game for all the Family

R Lucy Atkins: The Other Child

R Denise Mina: Blood Salt Water

R Sarah Ward: In Bitter Chill

R Rosamond Lehmann: The Echoing Grove

Anya Lipska: A Devil Under the Skin

Men Who Snuck in There:

R Reread: F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender Is the Night

R¬†Emmanuel Carrere: L’Adversaire

R Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts

Botanical Garden, Geneva
Botanical Garden, Geneva

I abandoned the book about Isadora Duncan, as it was flitting about too much from scene to scene, country to country, without a coherent structure or mood.

 

Just to do a brief round-up: I read 14 books, of which only 3 by men, abandoned one. Half of them were in translation or in a different language.

In case you are wondering, my two crime fiction picks for the month of July are: Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill and Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless. For Overall Book of the Month, I’ve read so many good books this month, it is really hard to choose a favourite. One that whacked me on the head and took me for a ride, leaving me slightly breathless and laughing with exhilaration:¬†Apocalypse Baby. But the one that has stayed with me, slightly haunting my dreams, is Valeria Luiselli.

MontmartreView
View from Montmartre, Paris.

After the holiday, I need to focus on getting my Netgalley request shelf in manageable order. I am back up to 31 books now and soooo out of date (not that I care, but the publishers probably do!). Here are some that really tempt me for September:

Simon Unsworth: The Devil’s Detective

Richard Beard: Acts of the Assassins

David Lagercrantz: Fall of Man in Wilmslow

Johan Theorin: The Voices Behind

Don Winslow: The Cartel

Malcolm Mackay: The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter

What do you think, too much testosterone after two months of predominantly female authors or a necessary redressing of the balance?

The Tale of Genji Readalong (2)

Apocryphal drawing of Murasaki Shikibu, dating from the 18th century, from Wikipedia.
Apocryphal drawing of Murasaki Shikibu, dating from the 18th century, from Wikipedia.

It’s taken me three months, but I’ve finally vanquished the monster that is The Tale of Genji in the Royall Tyler translation. I started it back in April together with Akylina from The Literary Sisters, but we both realised it would take far longer than a month to do it justice. Tony Malone has also been reading it and will have a post about it shortly on his blog, but I loved his comment that Genji’s modern-day equivalent would be a spoilt rock star, concessions being made because of his elevated god-like status.

I broke off my reading in the previous blog post at Chapter 10, where Genji gets his first taste of hardship, as he is sent into exile following an ill-advised love affair with the daughter of one of his political enemies. He has to leave Murasaki behind and he suffers from loneliness and some strange dreams, as well as humiliations and a raging storm. However, life is not all bad and he becomes entangled with his neighbour’s daughter, who will bear him a daughter. In time, she will become Empress, but even before that Genji returns from exile and is elevated by the new Emperor (his secret son) to the highest possible status.

This is when the snobbery of the age becomes apparent – or should that be Genji’s own sense of self-importance? Because he now becomes all too acutely aware that Murasaki, for all her qualities and the love that he bears her, does not have the rank and influence to become the wife of such an elevated person as himself. It’s almost unbearable to read about Murasaki’s pangs of jealousy when he spends night after night with Lady Asagao, or develops decidedly unpaternal feelings towards a young girl he has been entrusted with (to raise her as his own daughter). Finally, he marries the Third Princess, daughter of the retired Emperor (under some pressure from the latte), and soon lives to regret it, when she takes a lover and has an illegitimate son. In the midst of all this furore, Murasaki falls desperately ill and is possessed by an evil spirit. When Murasaki dies, Genji becomes an empty shell of a man, dreaming only of retiring to a temple.

Genji with his family, from artelino.com
Genji with his family, from artelino.com

In between all these soap-opera dramas, there are plenty of charming scenes of domestic and courtly life: descriptions of archery contests, processions, poetry competitions, moon-gazing evenings, coming-of-age ceremonies, kite-flying and football amusements, concerts. These scenes must have seemed aspirational to readers and perhaps created a centuries-long ideal of sophistication and culture which never truly existed at the Heian court.

The first time I read Genji, I too fell under the spell of all these courtly events and the carefully planned poems the protagonists all send to each other. This time, however, I was more interested in the cosy scenes of intimacy: Genji and Murasaki chatting together in bed, the children squabbling, Genji playing with the youngsters, the gossipy ladies of the entourage.

The philosophy of the age is summed up by Genji’s son Yugiri, who initially seemed a dependable, serious and loyal man, but later makes two women very unhappy. This induces some self-reflection in Genji and awareness of the less than stellar way he has treated Murasaki in the past. Here is how Yugiri justifies polygamy or having a mistress (or several):

What must be unique is a husband who seeks no diversion elsewhere, even after he reaches a certain level of prominence, but remains as tremulously faithful to his one and only wife as a hawk to his mate. People must be laughing their heads off at me. It is hardly to your credit, either, that you command such loyalty from anyone so dull. What really sets off a woman is to stand out among a range of others…

I’ll be completely honest and admit that I still love the last chapters of Genji (45-54, the so-called Uji chapters) more than the rest. Genji has died, all of a sudden, and after his life and loves had been described in such minutiae over hundreds of pages, his death is dispatched with incredible alacrity. We have one blank chapter, entitled ‘Vanished into the Clouds’ (which evokes the void he leaves behind) and then we hear just this:

‘His light was gone, and none among his many descendants could compare to what he had been.’

Lady Murasaki writing, from Wikipedia.
Lady Murasaki writing, from Wikipedia.

The story now turns to his descendants, the more sober and thoughtful Kaoru and the impulsive, stubborn Niou (both of these names refer to the distinguished and unique fragrance that seems to surround them). They both fall in love with two sisters who have been brought up by their pious and world-weary father in Uji, at that time a good few hours’ away from Kyoto. With a much smaller cast of characters and deeper psychological insights, I feel these chapters show a much more mature author at work. There is an overarching sadness, the result of the conflicting desires: for human connection and love, and for Buddhist renunciation and not being too tied to the material world. There are some who contest the authorship of Murasaki Shikibu, but on the whole it is accepted that she probably wrote the whole epic (and possibly more, which has since been lost).

Calligraphy of the Heian period (12th century), from the Indiana University Library.
Calligraphy of the Heian period (12th century), from the Indiana University Library.

So, does this mammoth novel deserve its place in the pantheon of world literature? Of course it does! Find the translation that best suits you, read a little at a time, enjoy the language and the poetry, do some calligraphy or origami or write a haiku inspired by them. ¬†And don’t get too het up about the plight of women. The past is a foreign country; the Japanese past doubly so…

But then why have I struggled so much with this rereading of Genji? Not just because life is much busier now than in my student days, nor that I’ve been much less captivated by the stories of court life and Genji’s wild pursuit of women. I believe it’s also because of the translation. Royall Tyler’s translation may be the most accurate and encyclopedic to date, but it also makes for very hard work. I simply did not get on with: the endless titles, instead of sensibly picking just one nickname (like Kaoru or Niou) and sticking with it throughout; the hesitations and many circumlocutions (which may be closer to the original style, but feel very old-fashioned and heavy weather); the lack of poetry in both the prose and the tankas liberally scattered in the text. The whole meaning of certain passages changes, and the Seidensticker translation feels more modern and feminist. Let’s compare:

He is inclined to think little of anyone he gather might give herself too easily. The yielding woman, quiet and unassuming, who sensibly winks at one thing and another and resigns herself if she feels a little hurt, is the one who actually inspires truly lasting devotion. Once a couple’s mutual loyalty begins to crumble, mud soils the clear waters of her Tatsuta River, and all that she shares with him is lost. (Royall Tyler)

It is said that he prefers not to spend his time with women who come at his beck and call. Then there are women who take things as they are. What the world does is what the world does, they say, and they do not care a great deal whether they find husbands or not. If someone comes along who is neither entirely pleasing nor entirely repulsive, well, such is life. They make good wives, rather better than you might think. And then the bank begins to give way, and what is left is a muddy Tatsuta. You must have heard of such cases – the last of the old love gone down the stream… (Seidensticker)

Or here is the same tanka in the two versions:

No brush but your own has marked the steep mountain trails buried deep in snow wtih footprints, while back and forth letters go across the hills. (Tyler)

Along the cliffs of these mountains, locked in snow,
Are the tracks of only one. That one is you. (Seidensticker)

 

 

 

 

Vive la France! Some Reading for Bastille Day

What better way to celebrate 14th of July, the Day of the Fall of the Bastille, than with some French fiction? I’ve picked three very different French writers for you, who are perhaps not quite household names (yet), especially outside their home country. ¬†Each one has a very different style and approach to literature and life in general. Their books have been translated into English, but there are many more I could have recommended who are not yet available in translation. More’s the pity!

DelphineEng1) Delphine de Vigan: Nothing Holds Back the Night – Bloomsbury (transl. George Miller)

This is perhaps the closest to what you might expect from French fiction – moody, complex, eloquent and philosophical. It is somewhere between memoir and fiction: the autobiographical account (with embellishments and multiple interpretations) of the author’s childhood and, in particular, a portrait of her beautiful, fragile and troubled mother. A book that explores not just mental health issues and depression, family history and myth-making, but also whether we can ever truly help someone, as well as a meditation on the nature of memory, of how we construct our lives, our truths and semi-truths. Infused with some of Colette’s lyricism, yet analytical and even clinical at times, it is a book which startled, shocked and moved me deeply. I’ve reviewed it in the context of ‘bad mothers’ earlier this year. Currently available as an e-book, the paperback version will be published on the 31st of July.

Nicolas2) Goscinny (text) and Sempé (illustrator): Nicholas (Le petit Nicolas) РPhaidon (transl. Anthea Bell)

Absolutely enchanting, nostalgic trip down memory lane, when classrooms still had blackboards and chalk and children were allowed to play outside on a vacant lot. Goscinny( of Asterix and Obelix fame) captures the voice of a seven-year-old with great accuracy and charm. Nicolas and his merry band of friends set out with the best of intentions, but somehow always end up doing something naughty. A mix of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Just William, set in 1950/60s France, there are plenty of witty subtleties which will appeal particularly to adult readers. However, my children loved the books too, as well as the cartoon series and films. Unpretentious, laugh-out-loud fun with a minimum of moralizing, the books in the original language are also great for improving your French.

 

3) DaviBielberg-Project_cover_200x300d Khara: The Bleiberg Project – Le French Book (transl. Simon John)

Are you afraid that French literature is too ornate stylistically, too obscure or quirky in subject matter? Here is something refreshingly punchy and action-filled, but thought-provoking, to whet your appetite. It’s hard to do justice to the complex¬†storyline, but this thriller blends memories of World War II atrocities with an account of a present day menace and manhunt. Many of the usual elements of international conspiracy are added in: an all-powerful global team, ruthless killers, betrayal of the principles of science‚Ķ there are even sci-fi elements and biological experiments. ¬†Yet the cocktail is served in a fresh and exciting way. I’ve written a review of this book on the Crime Fiction Lover website, as well as conducted ¬†an interview with this popular young writer.¬†The book will now be available in paperback from the 15th of July, courtesy of the hard-working independent publisher Le French Book. Since this is the first book in a trilogy, we hope that the next two translations are on their way soon

 

As for me, after a rain-soaked first week of the holidays, I just hope this weekend stays dry for the multiple planned fireworks displays! Bonne fête!

Why Writers’ Retreats Work (Mostly)

Chateau+Lavigny+016-590x393Last night I discovered one of the great treasures literary life in the Lake Geneva area.

I had the great pleasure to attend  a reading of poetry and prose at the coquette Chateau de Lavigny near Lausanne.  This beautiful manor house set amidst vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva is home to the Ledig-Rowohlt foundation and has been hosting for two decades retreats for both emerging and established writers from all over the world. Once a month in the summer, the resident writers share their thoughts and works with a small public, in both English and French Рand also, very often, their native languages.

Last night’s friendly and talented group of writers included: novelist and children’s author Ousmane Diarra (from Mali); poet Janet McAdams from the United States; fiction writer and translator Alexander Markin (from Russia); novelist and essayist Tatiana Salem Levy from Brazil; writer of Gothic novels Leonora Christina Skov from Denmark.

View from the Terrace.
View from the Terrace.

The Readings

Ousmane kicked off with an extract from his novella ‘La Revelation’. ¬†It is the story of a child who discovers that his real mother is dead. He asks the local priest what death means and is told that his mother is now with ‘le bon Dieu’ (the good Lord). From now on he will wage war with the good Lord, in an effort to gain back his mother. ¬†With his resonant voice and brilliant insights into a child’s confused thoughts, ¬†the author gathered us around an imaginary campfire to hear this moving, thrilling and often funny tale.

Janet’s poetry was about finding and losing one’s identity, about moving on, about moving to other countries and about being observed and scrutinised. Haunting, thought-provoking poems, which struck a deep chord in me, although she seemed to fear that she was too serious and said at one point, apologetically: ‘It doesn’t get any more cheerful.’

Alexander read fragments from his semi-fictional diaries depicting the life of an artist in present-day Russia, a mix of minute details and philosophical reflections, anecdotes about artistry and repression, acute observations of everyday absurdity and a healthy dose of satire.

Tatiana read the opening of her first novel ‘A chave de casa’, an exploration of her family’s past, from Smyrna to Rio. She was lyrical, funny, tender, with richly sensuous details and an air of sepia-coloured nostalgia.

Last but not least, Leonora very bravely read out her own translation into English from a rough draft of her current work in progress. ¬†This is a novel inspired by Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ and is set in a writer’s colony on a lonely Danish island. ¬†Murderous writers, tongue-in-cheek and witty style, mordant characterisations: I can hardly wait to read this!

So, as you can see, a remarkable diversity of styles and subject matters, but all equally talented and passionate about writing. ¬†Can you just imagine the dinner table conversations there? This is one of the beauties of writers’ residencies. ¬†While conferences within your own genre are very useful and huge fun, ¬†the best ideas often come from this diversity of visions and ideas. It’s the difference of approaches and the cross-pollination that ultimately leads to the most interesting experiments, that will make a writer venture out of their comfort zone.

Steamboat on Lake Geneva, near Lausanne (Switz...
Steamboat on Lake Geneva, near Lausanne (Switzerland) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Availability of English Translations

Or, rather, the lack of availability. In our post-reading chat over drinks, every one of the writers (except for Janet McAdams, who writes in English, obviously) emphasised how difficult it was to get translated into English and published in either the UK or the US.  This rather reinforces the point I made earlier about reaching a wider public if you are writing in English.

Although Tatiana Salem Levy is featured in Granta 121: Best of Young Brazilian Novelists, her work is not otherwise available to the English-speaking world. How is it that her first novel has been translated into¬†French, Italian, Romanian, Spanish and Turkish, but not in English? Alexander’s diaries are being translated into German – everyone there agreed that German publishers are so good at discovering new talent abroad, that they are the fastest with their translations. ¬†Yet the Germans themselves are just as worried about the demise of the publishing industry as anyone else.

To my mind, Leonora Christina Skov has all of the qualities to appeal to an American or British audience: she has that sly dark humour, she writes quirky Gothic tales and she is a Scandinavian bordering on crime fiction, for heaven’s sake! ¬†What more has that woman got to do to be noticed? ¬†It seems to me infinitely sad that she is seriously considering switching to English in her writing.

The Future of Writer’s Colonies

I don’t think there is a writer on earth who has not dreamt of going to a writers’ colony for a month or so, in a idyllic location, and having nothing else to worry about but writing. ¬†Not even laundry, cooking and cleaning, let alone earning a living. ¬†Most would agree that it is very conducive to writing, even if the company you find there may be challenging at times.

Of course, as foundation pots and art funds dwindle, it’s becoming harder and harder to fund these programmes. ¬†Last night I heard rumours about initiatives like these closing down in Spain and Greece. Smaller profit-making initiatives are springing up, offering no stipends, but instead comfortable surroundings in which a paying visitor can get away from it all and be creative. ¬† Not quite the same, is it, if you are still worrying about money and the taxman?

The group of volunteers from the steering committee at Lavigny are worried about the future. ¬†They can’t get any funding from the Swiss state or local canton, because they have an international rather than a local remit. Meanwhile, PEN or other international art foundations are overwhelmed with applications on a daily basis. ¬†Above all, they are reluctant to reduce the residency programme from its current 3-4 weeks to just one week, because they feel that is too short to get the creative juices really flowing. ¬†I do hope the magic of Lavigny¬†will be able to exert its influence on writers worldwide for a while longer.

Nothing like an inappropriate picture to end the article!
 Typical Swiss landscape, photo credit: Wink Lorch,http://www.jurawine.co.uk

 

 

Best Read of the Month: May

This past month has been  more diverse than most in terms of reading.  I have managed to finish 12 books, of which only 7 were officially crime fiction, 4 were love stories (of a sort) and one was non-fiction but proved to be a more exciting and unbelievable read than any fiction.  Two of them were in French, which makes me want to do a little dance of joy.  My goal has been to read at least one book in French every month, preferably two, so as to improve my language skills, but I am sure there have been many, many times when I have failed in this mission.  Finally, three of them were translations: one from Danish and two from Hebrew.

1) Sophie Hannah: The Carrier. ¬†Some of Sophie Hannah’s earlier books gripped me completely: it felt as though the author had been in my head and uncovered my most hidden thoughts. ¬†She always seems to set the reader up with an impossible puzzle, yet solves them with flourish, keen psychological finesse and not a little poetic vision. ¬†Although this was not my favourite of Hannah’s novels, it is still a good read, although perhaps not at an airport when your flight is delayed… ¬†For my full review on Crime Fiction Lover, see here.

Dicker2) Joel Dicker: La Verite sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert. ¬†¬†Having seen and heard the author at the Lyon Crime Festival, and having seen how many awards and accolades have been heaped upon this book in the French-speaking world, I was naturally curious to read it. Well, it’s an easy-to-read, quite exciting¬†story, with reasonable plot twists along the way, but I am puzzled as to why it has won all those awards, since¬†it feels good but not outstanding to me. The setting is a small town in the United States, and there is nothing remotely French or Swiss about this book. ¬†There are a few cliche situations and characters, but the simple, even pedestrian language appealed to me as a non-native speaker of French.

3) Amos Oz: To Know a Woman. ¬†¬†Perhaps not my favourite book by Oz, but he still is such a magnificent writer. He takes a widower’s story of loss and grieving, and turns it into a universal tale of love, reassessment of one’s life, trying to truly understand another person, moving on. He piles on detail after detail (about Yoel’s daily routines, his gardening, his cooking, his thoughts, his travels) and each adds a layer, but you feel that the depth really lies in what is unsaid.

Tokyo host4) Jonelle Patrick: Fallen Angel: An Only in Tokyo Mystery

Once again, the full review is here, but this is an intriguing insight into the world of Japanese nightlife and host clubs, written by someone who knows Tokyo rather well but still brings an external perspective to things.

5) Alan Glynn: Graveland.    Not quite as enthralling as his previous novel Bloodland, perhaps because this one takes place all in the US, rather than Ireland or the Congo. It certainly feels very topical, dealing with unemployment, young protesters and the shadowy world of finance and corporations. I found the excessive amounts of web searching a little tedious, and the investigative journalist Ellen never quite grabbed my attention.  However, the character of Frank, former architect now working as a sales assistant in an electronics store, and worried about his daughter in college, was quite moving.

6) Benjamin Tammuz: Minotaur. ¬† ¬†The principle of the story is similar to Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’: you get to see an unusual love story from multiple points of view, until you are able to discern what really happened and how each player in the drama justifies matters. I read this in one breathless go, but it is actually a book to be savoured slowly. It has so many beautiful passages and philosophical meditations on love, passion in life, music and fear of the unknown. It is a thriller, a love story, a history of Palestine, a hymn to the Levantine spirit, a noir.

7) Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers. ¬† ¬†¬†This book deserves an entry of its own: it is the book I wish I could have written, as an anthropologist, yet it reads like a novel. ¬†Except that all of the events described are real. ¬†It is the heartbreaking story of everyday life, hopes, fears and disappointments of slum life in Mumbai. ¬†One of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time.

Cover of "The Concrete Blonde (Harry Bosc...
Cover of The Concrete Blonde (Harry Bosch)

8) Michael Connelly: The Concrete Blonde.      A mix of courtroom drama, police procedural and serial killer novel, this is a solid entry in the Harry Bosch series, with an interesting backdrop of LA after the racial riots.

9) Meg Wolitzer: The Uncoupling.     I actually left this book behind me (once I finished it) in a hotel room.  I was that sure that I would never want to read it again. Although I found this story of disintegrating love and familiarity breeding contempt quite compelling.  I think all of us women have experienced some of those sentiments at one time or another.  However, the fable element of the story and the supposedly magic spells that descends upon all the women in the New Jersey suburbs was a little annoying and artificial, especially the ending. When it stuck to the mundane, there were many funny moments in the book. It is all at once a sharply observed, witty look at modern life in the suburbs, and a universal statement about the relationship between men and women, the way they misunderstand each other and mistreat each other, even unintentionally.

10) Massimo Carlotto: At the End of a Dull Day – to be reviewed next week

11) Louise Doughty: Apple Tree Yard – to be reviewed next week

Fran√ßais : L'auteur danois Jens Christian Gr√łn...
Fran√ßais : L’auteur danois Jens Christian Gr√łndahl au Salon du livre de Paris lors de la conf√©rence La soci√©t√©, source d’inspiration. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

12) Jens Christian Grondahl: Piazza Bucarest

This was an impulse loan from the library, as I stumbled across it while searching for something else, and I couldn’t resist the blurb. ¬†The narrator tries to find Elena, a young Romanian woman who married his stepfather to escape from Communism and then abandoned him. ¬†Sadly, the book was a disappointment, and not just because the woman was unsympathetic (or because we Romanian women cannot take a bit of criticism). ¬†I was never quite sure what the author was trying to say or what the point of the whole thing was. ¬†Maybe the fact that I read a French translation of the original Danish didn’t help much either – it’s like trying to see a landscape through a doubly opaque window.

My top read of this month (and many other months) is undoubtedly ‘Beyond the Beautiful Forevers’, and my favourite crime fiction pick? ¬†Hmmm, that’s a tricky choice, as there were quite a few good ones, although nothing exceptional. ¬†I think it’s a tie between ‘The Concrete Blonde’ and ‘At the End of a Dull Day’. ¬†Both rather macho reads, though, so I need something more feminine next month to compensate.

So I have covered quite a few of my reading challenge requirements. ¬†Although, don’t you find that, as soon as you near the goalposts of a challenge you set for yourself, you start moving them about? Taking them just a little further? Demanding just a tad more of yourself?¬†Fearful of missing out on something? ¬†