Overall, a good month of reading: 11 books, of which four were outstanding (Haushofer, Teffi, Kawakami and Melchor), three were very good (Puhlovski, Michele Roberts and Sarah Moss), two were entertaining and two were fine (just not as good as I expected). Unsurprisingly, with it being Women in Translation Month, I read mostly women, Mark Billingham being the sole male writer sneaking in because of the Virtual Crime Book Club.
If you include the Spanish Literature Challenge reads from July and the Tokarczuk which I read in July but did not get to review until August, I’ve reviewed a total of nine books for #WITMonth and they represent a nice diversity of nationalities.
I also had the best experience that can happen to a book blogger, who can sometimes feel they are writing in the dark, spending all their money buying books, then hours on writing fair reviews, only to discover that a handful of people read them. [Always the same handful, usually, and I am very grateful to my constant readers!] But then… Mieko Kawakami actually read and retweeted my review and thanked me for it: ‘Thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing such an insightful, courageous and wonderful review. I am also touched to know that you wrote it in time for my birthday’. I think that will keep me going for another few years in terms of reviewing motivation, for sure!
In between reading and reviewing these more demanding books (ostensibly – I found most of them on the whole pleasant and easy to read), I had some down time with the non-fiction of Michèle Roberts in Negative Capability, a gentle, contemplative and very evocative book about learning to live with uncertainty and even failure, while still enjoying life, and the hilariously accurate and often poignant observation of people on holiday in Summerwater by Sarah Moss (reviews to follow).
I mentioned some of the films I saw in early August, before the boys joined me for my share of the holidays. Since their return, I have watched some of their film choices, as well as mine. Let’s see if you can spot which is which!
Christian Petzold: Barbara (Germany) – captures the chill factor and claustrophobia of East Germany when the Stasi have their eyes on you
Alejandra Márquez Abella: The Good Girls (Mexico) – what to do when the economy of your country is in meltdown, your currency worthless and you still have to keep up appearances – the original ladies who lunch, viewed with biting satire but also some compassion
Almodovar: Live Flesh (Spain) – I love my early (1980s-90s) Almodovar – complex female characters, good-looking young men, and always elements of the past creeping in and tainting the present
Tarantino: Django Unchained (US) – was not expecting this Western approach to the story of slavery (and yes, he does rather glorify violence, but that is Tarantino every single time)
Alejandro G. Iñárritu: Birdman (US/Mexico) – the long, long single shots worked a treat (only found out afterwards how difficult they were for actors and crew to get right) and Michael Keaton, with his own Batman background, was the perfect actor for this part
I’ve just noticed that I’ve had quite a good dose of Mexico this month in both books and films!
Plans for next month – well, what’s even the point of planning, because I don’t seem to stick to any of my plans?
Fernanda Melchor: Hurricane Season, transl. Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)
Someone on Goodreads describes reading Hurricane Season like ‘running downhill’ and that is probably the best description of what it feels like: the mad rush, the acceleration, the inevitability of gravity pulling at you. You get caught up in something inescapable and you cannot stop until you reach the bottom of the hill, whether in one piece or not. This is one of the few instances where I perfectly understand and concur with the author’s choice of syntax and style: eight chapters, eight different voices, and it feels like each chapter is composed of just one very long sentence. In actual fact, there might be more than one, but the overall effect is one of precipitation and agitation, so you cannot put the book down and it propels you along to its terrible conclusion.
Not that the beginning isn’t terrible as well. It starts with some children playing by the canal in the Mexican village of La Matosa and finding the body of the local ‘witch’. The rumours go into overdrive about what could have happened to the person they called the Young Witch, to distinguish her from her mother, who was likewise known as a Witch and to whom all villagers turned to for medicine, potions and fortune-telling. In each chapter we find out more about the murder and the witches themselves, the village and several of its inhabitants, in their own language, via their own unfiltered thoughts.
The breathless, feverish style may make for an exhilarating read, but it’s not a joyful one. You may feel the urge to shower or go for a long walk after being in those people’s heads for a while. Poverty, illiteracy, misogyny and homophobia in the rural area are conveyed with such urgency, that they feel like a blow to your stomach. In the interview with Fernanda Melchor and her translator at the Edinburgh Book Festival, the author says she deliberately set out to shock the audience with the violence of the discourse, to demonstrate that this kind of language, thought and behaviour are not normal, that we cannot be complicit in it. She also said she had to start therapy after finishing the book, because so much work and heart and passion went into it – and I’m not surprised.
What really struck me is how angry each of the characters is – anger is often the way they express their loneliness or desperation or need to be loved. The men, especially, come across as weak, pathetic losers who have to take it out on those weaker than themselves, usually the women and children. The author says she is not excusing the monstrous behaviour of those people, but she wanted to show how monsters are made. And she certainly succeeds. She does not shy away from describing the mud and stench, the lack of opportunities, the small and great betrayals, where even the family no longer represents a safe harbour, and where church and superstition constrain people even more.
If you dislike strong language and graphic descriptions of violence and bodily functions, you are going to struggle with this one. The author used the speech patterns of her own native Veracruz region, but also described how she was inspired by A Clockwork Orange to construct a fictional language that would really highlight the problems. Although I haven’t read Selva Almada’s Dead Girls yet, that book (which is a true crime recount similar to In Cold Blood) would provide and interesting contrast with this fictional insight into femicide, a huge problem in most Latin American countries.
This is a world in which men and women distrust and merely use each other, both sides feeling trapped, not realising that it is society that has entrapped them. The men tell each other:
And there are bitches who go even further, they head into the hills in the rainy season to pick a wildflower shaped like a trumpet… and they brew them into a tea that turns you into a real prick, a real soft touch, brings you to your knees, cowering at their feet like a slave, and you don’t have the first fucking clue what’s going on… They’re all the same, dipshit, all up to the same tricks, all capable of untold fuckery just to hold on to you…’
Meanwhile, the women give each other advice as follows, even though they are talking about their own sons:
Got to keep your wits about you in this world… You drop your guard for a second and they’ll crush you, Clarita, so you better just tell that fuckwit out there to buy you some clothes. Don’t you be anyone’s fool, that’s what men are like: a bunch of lazy spongers who you have to keep rounding up to squeeze any use out of them… you’ve gotta keep men like that on a tight leash, keep them busy to stop them coming out with all their shit.
There are a few, very few glimmers of hope, the tentative possibility of real love – all too often nipped into the bud almost before it has had a chance to blossom. Ultimately, however, this is a horrific read, because it is a horrifying subject: the violence that humans perpetuate against each other, and especially against women. Towards the end of the novel, we realise the full extent of it, the national problem one might call it, as Melchor moves from the specific story to the bird’s eye view of the region.
They say the place is hot, that it won’t be long before they send in the marines to restore order in the region. They say the heat’s driven the locals crazy, that it’s not normal – May and not a single drop of rain – and that the hurricane season’s coming hard, that it must be bad vibes, jinxes, causing all that bleakness: decapitated bodies, maimed bodies, rolled-up, bagged-up bodies dumped on the roadside or in hastily dug graves on the outskirts of town. Men killed in shootouts and car crashes and revenge killings between rival clans; rapes, suicides, ‘crimes of passion’, as the journalists call them.
But just when you think there is no hope, no escape, when the women in town agree that ‘there’s no treasure in there… nothing more than a searing pain that refuses to go away’, you get the final chapter. Tenderness and a release of sorts, when a gravedigger known only as Grandfather buries the ‘overflow’ bodies from the morgue, the ones for whom there were no more spaces at the cemetery. He seems to be the only one showing some compassion for the poor mutilated bodies, some understanding of all the suffering, and he believes in talking to the dead as he buries them, guiding them into the afterlife. The final words seemed as powerful and elegiac as the ending of The Great Gatsby:
Don’t you worry, don’t fret, you just lie there, that’s it… The rain can’t hurt you now, and the darkness doesn’t last forever. See there? See that light shining in the distance? The little light that looks like a star? That’s where you’re headed, he told them, that’s the way out of this hole.
So pleased I managed to read this book in the nick of time to include it in the #WITMonth. One that I will be thinking about, uneasily, in years to come.
Mieko Kawakami: Breasts and Eggs, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd
By fortunate coincidence, it turns out today is this author’s birthday, so Happy Birthday, Mieko! And thank you for a very thought-provoking and entertaining read.
If I told you that a book entitled Breasts and Eggs talks frankly and at length about breast surgery, sperm banks, artificial insemination, asexuality, single motherhood and periods, you would probably conclude that it is an angry feminist tract – possibly written by a brash Western writer (Virginie Despentes or Otessa Moshfegh come to mind). The fact that it was written by a Japanese woman makes this book seem even more revolutionary. Japan is still a far from equal society when it comes to gender – in some ways, it has even regressed in recent years under a conservative government.
Yet, of course, Japanese women have been writing books portraying women’s (and men’s) thoughts and their restricted lives for centuries. Just off the top of my head: Murasaki Shikibu‘s portrayal of men playing their power games with women as their pawns in the Heian period, to the frank description of sexual desire in Akiko Yosano, the trauma of spouses supplanted by second wives in Fumiko Enchi, the description of working class struggles and the red light district in Ichiyo Higuchi (a writer Kawakami cites as an inspiration), the fiendishly subversive retelling of myths of Aoko Matsuda. There is a plethora of exciting women writers in Japan today and, luckily for us, more of them are getting translated. Alongside the well established names such as Banana Yoshimoto, Natsuo Kirino, Yoko Ogawa, Hiromi Kawakami and Kanae Minato, we are starting to see the emergence of challenging and fearless writing, occasionally with a surreal twist, by younger authors such as Hitomi Kanehara, Sayaka Murata, Misumi Kubo and Nao-Cola Yamazaki.
So, while I don’t agree that Mieko Kawakami is a revolutionary who ‘lobbed a literary grenade into the fusty, male-dominated world of Japanese fiction’ (as The Economist puts it), I have to admit that this book addresses issues that are typically swept under the carpet in Japan – and, let’s admit it, probably are not discussed that much in fiction in the West either. And she manages to offer us a variety of opinions about motherhood and the female body, while also giving us an involving plot about sisterhood and friendship, well-rounded characters with great back stories, and writing which can span everything from raucous female banter (in dialect) to philosophy to passages of lyrical descriptions.
In the first part of the book, which is by and large the original novella entitled Breasts and Eggs that won the Akutagawa Prize in 2008, we see three women at three different stages of their lives. Natsuko, the narrator, is 30, still young but no spring chicken anymore, and she can feel the clock ticking on her career as a writer in Tokyo. Her sister, Makiko, is nearly ten years older and still lives in their home town of Osaka, doing her best to keep herself and her daughter afloat as a single mum, working in a hostess bar. She too can feel the clock ticking – on her body – and thinks that getting breast enhancement will improve her life and her career. Meanwhile, her daughter Midoriko (the name means ‘green’ in Japanese and she really is very green still, just starting to experience her own bodily changes at the age of twelve) refuses to communicate with her mother in any other way than in writing. Natsuko is mostly the observer and tries to mediate between them, but she struggles to understand her sister’s need for validation or her niece’s judgemental attitude. There are some beautiful conversations between them, but the reminiscing about the past steers clear of either melodrama or sentimentality. One of the most poignant passages was the conversation between aunt and niece as they go round in a ferris wheel – this was the passage that Kawakami read out during her Edinburgh Book Festival interview, and the contrast between the Osakaben that Natsuko speaks with Midoriko and the descriptive passages in literary Japanese stood out even more when she read them.
I would have loved to see more of the sister and niece in the second part of the novel, but that is really Natsuko’s story (the title of the whole book in Japanese is Natsu Monogatari, which can be translated as either Summer Tales or Tales of Natsu). Natsuko is now nearing the age of her sister in the first part, and this time it’s her biological clock that is ticking. She is still single, and doesn’t really want a relationship with a man. She is enjoying some literary success, which is a great opportunity for mocking the pretentiousness of the Japanese literary scene, but realises that she really would like to have a child before it gets too late. So she starts investigating the possibility of using a sperm donor (which is not really possible for single women or same-sex couples in Japan). Along the way, she both befriends and alienates people, and gets to hear a variety of different attitudes about what it means to be an artist or a mother or both in Japan, as well as being the child of a sperm donor (and condemned to never know exactly who your biological father is).
As for being a wife, well, I can just imagine the reaction of the reading public to the quote below by a fellow writer Rika, who is also a single mum, and whom Natsuko befriends:
Everything men do repulses me, I can’t tell you how good it felt when we got divorced and my ex left the house. It was like I could breathe again… It’s just, men can be such idiots. They can’t do anything around the house without making a ton of noise, not even close the fridge or turn the lights on. They can’t take care of anyone else. They can’t even take care of themselves/. They won’t do anything for their kids or their families if it means sacrificing their own comfort, but they go out in the world and act all big, like I’m such a agood dad, such a provider… For better or worse, living with someone is nothing but friction, the collision of incompatible ideals. It takes trust to make it viable. I mean, love is basically a drug, right? Without love and trust, resentment is the only thing that’s left.
Well, I could certainly relate to that, and so could many women, particularly those living in rather patriarchal societies. Yet, in her Edinburgh Book Festival interview, Kawakami expressed some surprise and amusement that her book was a big hit with male readers as well in Japan.
In some ways, this novel reminded me of Americanahby Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, both of them novels of ideas, with the focus here being on women’s bodies and motherhood instead of race and immigration. Much as I loved Americanah, I felt that Kawakami was more successful at integrating her ideas into the flow of the narrative, rather than having long blog-like passages, which slightly marred Adichie’s book for me. However, another reviwer I admire feels that there is a blog-like quality to the second half of the book and overall it’s chick lit with a feminist agenda. I think individual passages taken out of context can sound flat, but when all the layers come together, it certainly left me with a powerful impression.
Thank you also to Tony Malone, who in his review of Breasts and Eggs, pointed out that there was an alternative translation of part of the first part by Louise Heal Kawai, using a Mancunian speech pattern to render the Osaka dialect. I think it’s a brilliant version and wish we could have had the whole book translated like that (although Sam Bett and David Boyd have done a good job of smoothing out the language to appeal to a wider audience). And, although I’m the last person to suggest that books by women writers should only be translated by women, given the particular subject matter, I cannot help wondering how different it might have looked if it had been translated by a woman.
Marina Šur Puhlovski: Wild Woman, transl. by Christina Pribicevich-Zoric
This Croatian novel published by Istros Books was a recent discovery thanks to the Borderless Book Club organised by Peirene Books. The author is an example of persistence – although she started writing at an early age, she only got published in 1991 after writing no less than nine books. But of course, we all know what happened in Yugoslavia after 1991 – so she ended up at the age of 50 having written all her life, but with very little to show for it. Luckily, her 20th novel, Wild Woman, had some success in Croatia, and has now been translated into English. And the good news is that Wild Woman is just one book in a series depicting the life of a young woman trying to make her way in her society (and in a rapidly disintegrating country).
The protagonist of Wild Woman, Sofija Kralj, is the main character in my three other novels – Nesanica (“Insomnia”), Ljubav (“Love”) and Igrač (“Player”). They represent three lives of the same character, told from different perspectives and through different relationships. In Wild Woman, Sofija Kralj is twenty-seven, in Insomnia – fifty-seven.
In fact, there are five books in total depicting Sofija – a fictionalised version of the author herself – and this has prompted comparisons with Knausgaard. It’s a coming of age novel or a ‘waking up to reality’ which will sound familiar to many women, especially those who grew up in patriarchal societies or who had artistic aspirations. The protagonist looks back on her student years, the death of her drunk and frequently violent father, the hard-working and downtrodden mother, her infatuation and marriage with a lazy, pretentious womaniser.
What was interesting when we discussed the book at the Book Club was that people unfamiliar with socialist societies were wondering why the young couple were still living with their parents, but could afford to eat out and go on holiday to the seaside. I had to explain that there was frequently a housing shortage, you were placed in a queue to get affordable accommation, but that food was cheap and domestic holidays were heavily subsidised for students or by the trade unions. There is also that fraught moment, when the husband turns out to have a brain tumour, that they borrow and beg money to bribe the doctors for an operation… and when the doctor refuses to accept their money, they rejoice that they have some money left for going on holiday to the seaside.
The almost casual mention of domestic violence, how it was almost an expected part of being a woman in that society at that time, as well as how Sofija is constantly urged to ‘stand by her man’ because he has fallen ill, how she supports him pysically, financially, morally, while he has a licence to misbehave, all of this rang very familiar. Socialist society meant women were expected to go out and work as hard as men, but did not necessarily lead to any liberation on the home front. Although atheism was espoused during Communist times, the preceding centuries of Catholicism and Orthodoxism traditions of relegating women to submissive roles did not die instantly (if at all).
The narrator is remarkably frank about the disintegration of the marriage and the hypocrisy of those surrounding them. The voice is raw, angry, naive and cynical by turns, slightly self-pitying – very authentic indeed. This is what she says about her in-laws:
My poor son, Danica moans, crying her eyes out, while France just nods inconsolably, shakes his head and brings her coat so that they can return to the peace and quiet of their own home, or at least the peace and quiet of a place where they don’t have to look at a sick person all day. They don’t have to wait for the next seizure, to jump every time there’s an unexpected sound in the flat, the sudden flushing of the bathroom toilet, the door slammed shut by the wind… they don’t have to tremble if he calls out from his room to the kitchen – not knowing if he needs something or is screaming – and then run over to him, prepared for the worst. Make sure he takes his pills, and if you discover in the middle of the night that he’s run out, go straight to the duty pharmacy, wherever it is, on foot if need be, and get a hold of those pills, even if you have to do it without a prescription.
The description of the yawning gap in their marriage is conveyed in just one long breathless sentence, the perfect furious stream of consciousness:
The sea will restore him, I think, but it doesn’t, it doesn’t, he lives with me but is lifeless, like a doll you have to wind up, I make him move, he eats, he walks, he swims, he doesn’t sunbbathe because it’s bad for the angioma, and anyway he has a fair complexion, he doesn’t like the sun, but he drinks, the red wine has been on the table since lunch, he sits, smokes and sips his wine, gazing out at the sea from the shade, and I’m next to him reading, because what else is there when all the joy has gone.
The story is perhaps an all too well-trodden one, but it’s told in a fresh voice, not politely restrained like so much Anglo-Saxon literature is, and from a part of the world where we expect political rather than domestic drama, so I am all for it!
Teffi: Subtly Worded, transl. Anne Marie Jackson et al. (Pushkin Press, 2014)
Imagine Dorothy Parker combined with Marina Hyde, with a dash of Chekhov and a sprinkling of Anna Seghers – and you might have something like Teffi, a Russian journalist and short story writer from the early 20th century. Had she lived today, she would no doubt be a star of social media, an influencer with her pithy, succinct and witty comments. She was a star twice over in her lifetime – first in her homeland (admired first by the Tsar and then by Lenin), then in exile in Paris in the 1920s, had perfumes and chocolates named after her, was the toast of political and cultural circles in several European cities. Towards the end of her life and after her death, her star waned somewhat, but she has now been rediscovered both in Russia and abroad.
Subtly Worded is a selection of her literary work from 1910 to 1952 and, although Teffi was celebrated primarily as a humorist and satirist during her lifetime, this collection certainly proves that she was not a one trick pony. Some of her shortest early pieces are slight, laugh-out-loud funny and hugely relatable – such as ‘Will-Power’ (about a man whose doctor has told him to give up the booze). There is gentle mockery of vanity in ‘The Hat’, in which a young woman believes she is irresistable to her poet boyfriend (‘who had not yet written any poems, he was still trying to come up with a pen name, but in spite of this he was very poetic and mysterious’), but only when she is wearing her new hat… and then she realises she was wearing the wrong one all along. The stories told from the point of view of children (‘The Lifeless Beast’ or ‘Jealousy’) ring very true and are made up of equal parts of innocence, humour and heartbreak. She does not sentimentalise childhood, nor old age. Her characters are infuriating as well as touching.
The sting in her humour becomes more noticeable during and just after the Russian Revolution. These stories may have just one string to their bow, so they feel more like satirical newspaper articles, but they certainly hit the mark. She observes how ideals get derailed by famine in ‘Petrograd Monologue’, narrated by someone determined not to mention ‘food’, yet thinking of nothing else. She recounts the indiscriminate persecution of the cultural elites and suspicion of education in ‘One Day in the Future’ – an exaggeration that was not too far from the truth in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe in the 1950s and during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
On his return journey he overtook several carts loaded with firewood. Their drivers had the most improbable backgrounds: one had been a tenor with the Mariinsky Theatre, another an academician, the third a staff captain, the fourth a gynaecologist. […] At home, he had an unpleasant surprise. In the dining room his ten-year-old son was studiously learning the alphabet. Terenty tore the book out of the boy’s hands and ripped it to shreds.
‘You mangy pup!’ he yelled. ‘So you thought you’d start reading books, eh? Learn the sciences, eh? So you wanna end up a goatherd?’
Yet she is equally scathing about the airs of misplaced superiority and nostalgia for the glories of the past of Russian aristocracy. She lampoons them in ‘One of Us’, in which Mrs Kudakina, wife of a general, laments the disappearance of les nôtres (people like us) and their replacement by les autres (people not at all like us), yet proves incapable of truly distinguishing between the two.
Teffi is a keen political observer, and the description of her encounter with Rasputin is eye-opening. He tries his hypnotic powers on her, and, although she doesn’t succumb to them, she can understand how others might. However, she is careful to distinguish between personal charisma and the charisma of power. All those ‘sucking up’ to Rasputin for the hope of political advancement or at least for being spared severe punishment – their behaviour is reprehensible yet what other choice have they got? Teffi seems like a precursor of the Me Too movement when she says:
… there was something in the atmosphere around Rasputin I found deeply revolting. The grovelling, the collective hysteria – and at the same time the machinations of something dark, something very dark and beyond our knowledge. One could get sucked into this filthy mire – and never be able to climb out of it. It was revolting and joyless… The pitiful, distressed face of the young woman who was being thrust so shamelessly by her lawyer husband at a drunken peasant – it was the stuff of nightmares, I was seeing it in my dreams. But he must have had many such women – women about whom he shouted, banging his fist on the table, that ‘they wouldn’t dare’, and they were ‘happy with everything.’
Once in exile, she casts her lucid eyes on the emigrant community and they don’t escape unscathed, as in ‘Que Faire?’, perhaps one of her best-known and most-quoted pieces.
We – les russes, as they call us – live the strangest of lives here, nothing like other people’s. We stick together, for example, not like planets, by mutual attraction, but by a force quite contrary to the laws of physics – mutual repulsion. Every lesrusse hates all the others – hates them just as fervently as the others hate him.
This lack of solidarity in exile has been observed by other ethnic communities – especially when they are escaping from a country in political turmoil, because they are never quite sure on which side their new acquaintance might be (or might have been in the past). Add to that the envy of someone else’s success abroad, a success that would have been inferior to yours if you had still been experiencing the ‘normal’ (i.e. long gone) state of affairs in the ‘motherland’…
This is an impressive collection, showing a full range of emotions – from flighty to serious, from mockery to genuine compassion, from sharp insight to sentimentality. There is depth and sadness here too, a lot of reading between the lines, but also sheer impish humour. Something for everyone in fact – her ‘idol-like’ status becomes more understandable.
This was my 20th book of the #20BooksofSummer challenge and my third review for #WITMonth.
It’s not often that you have the privilege and delight to start off the Women in Translations with two books of such high calibre, books that will stay with you forever. After Tokarczuk’s modern fable about humans vs. animals, I moved on to The Wall by Austrian Marlen Haushofer. Once again, it was a book that so many people had been recommending, including my childhood friend who now lives in Berlin, so that’s where I finally bought it a couple of years ago.
This time my reluctance to read it was not because I thought I’d enjoy it, but because I feared I might not (and I’d have to admit that to all my friends who loved it). I thought the premise sounded deadly dull: a woman wakes up to find she is the only survivor in a small portion of the Austrian Alps, sealed off from the rest of the world by a transparent wall. The rest of the book describes her daily life over the course of the seasons, her struggle to survive, a sort of female Robinson Crusoe, with only a dog, a cat and a cow as her companions, and a lot of hard work that she has to learn to do: chopping wood, growing potatoes, scything the long grass to produce hay and so on.
And yet this relatively short and simple story is anything but dull. She keeps a sort of notebook of her experiences, not a diary but a story written a couple of years after she started her hermit lifestyle, so there is a sense of foreshadowing throughout. Both the unnamed narrator and the reader are forced to slow down, to think about time in a very different way, to become one with nature and the seasons. The descriptions of the natural world and the loving observations of animal behaviour are very moving, almost magical. The empathy that the woman develops with her animals, choosing her duty towards them over any attempt to ‘escape’ from the enclosure, is one of the things which reminded me of Tokarczuk’s work (and I wonder if the Polish writer was inspired by the Austrian one). Haushofer’s father was a forest ranger and she spent her summers in early childhood roaming on the Alps a bit like Heidi, which would explain her profound love of nature (although she admitted she relied on her brother’s expertise in botany and animal husbandry while writing the book).
The narrator shares this quiet sense of acceptance and even contentment with the author. I gather Haushofer’s life was not all that happy. Growing up and studying during the Second World War in an Austria that rather conveniently forgot its Nazi proclivities after the war, she divorced and later remarried her dentist husband, helped him out in his work and raised two children. She was hugely respected by her contemporaries, won several literary prizes, but (whether out of a sense of bourgeois guilt or whatever), always put her family first. She was frustrated that she did not have enough time to write but, modestly, never made a big fuss about it. She was a contemporary of Ingeborg Bachmann, but was forgotten for a while, although Elfriede Jelinek considered her a source of inspiration.
The book has been interpreted as a description of some sort of psychological breakdown or depression. It has also been interpreted as a feminist or ecological tract or anti-nuclear manifesto. It can be all of those things, but to me it’s about a journey of self-discovery: just what are you capable of in extremis, what inner reserves can you have and how do you find peace despite suffering pain and loss, despite being confronted daily with your mortality.
Time is the main character really in this book: it seems to stand still, and yet we can feel its passing, in the seasons, in the animals and the body growing old.
I sit at the table and time stands still. I cannot see it, smell it or hear it, but it surrounds me on all sides. The stillness, the lack of movement, is frightening. I jump up, run out of the house and try to escape it. I do something, things move on and I forget about time. But then, all of a sudden, it surrounds me once more. I might be standing in front of the house and looking at the crows, and there it is again, invisible and silent, holding us firmly – the field, the crows and myself. I’ll have to get used to it, to its indifference and constant presence. It spins out into infinity like a spider web…
It was particularly moving to read this book in a state of almost lockdown, alone in the house without the children, merely the cats for company, but overall I did not find it depressing, although I may have cried once or twice when I heard about the fate of one or the other of the animals. I read the book in German, but it has been translated into English by Shaun Whiteside and published by Cleis Books and then reissued in 2013 by Quartet Books after the success of the film adaptation.
I enjoyed this book so much that I instantly ordered a couple more books by Marlen Haushofer (unfortunately, only available in German). What is it about these Austrians, that they seem to see into my very soul (or has my soul been corrupted by growing up in Austria)? It’s a book that will certainly stay with me all my life.
I was smitten with Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights when I read it and then had the good fortune to see her and her translator Jennifer Croft at the Hay Festival in 2018. I bought Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead(this time translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) as soon as it came out, but for some reason I kept putting off reading it. Perhaps because I was sure I would like it, so I was saving it for a rainy day? What rainier day than a plague? But then I got a bit nervous that it might not live up to expectations. A blogger friend who had read it in German translation said it sounded somewhat pedestrian in that language.
Luckily, that was not the case, and my 18th Book of the Summer and first #WITMonth read was as good fun (and serious and thought-provoking and endearing) as I expected. It will certainly make my Top Read of the Year list – and feels remarkably appropriate for this period.
I’ve heard it described as Miss Marple meets Fargo, with a dash of William Blake, feminism and astrology, and that is probably not a bad description. Imagine a middle-aged spinster who lives in a fairly remote village on the border of Poland and the Czech Republic, in the Tartra mountains by the sounds of it. It is the kind of place that is a holiday resort in summer but deserted in winter, but she stays there all year round, looking after people’s second homes. She has a few neighbours, some of them friendly, some of them decidedly not: they view her as nuisance and a nag, with her constant complaints to the police about poaching and cruelty to animals – not that the police do much about it. One night, she and a friendly neighbour she calls Oddball find the body of their less friendly neighbour, nicknamed Big Foot. Convinced that his death was retribution for the way he hunted and killed deer, she sets out to do her own investigation and gets into conflict with the local hunting club, which includes members of the police, the church and pretty much everyone in the rural community.
That’s all I’m saying about the story, because it’s really not about the plot. It’s above all a fantastic and unforgettable character portrait of a rather formidable woman, who lives quietly but knows when not to be quiet, and who has all sorts of firm, one might even say extreme beliefs: pro-astrology, anti-religion, pro-animal rights, anti-hunting. She is prickly, spiky, yet somehow also endearing. She is mostly alone but not really lonely – although she misses her dogs (she calls them My Girls). She has a few friends who are as eccentric as she is.
Above all, she is full of sharp observations about modern life. Some of them might strike you as absurd, some of them as very perspicacious. She is of course living in the present day and therefore more adapted to modern life, but in many ways there is something timeless about her. The shrewdness of the native peasant, which is a whole branch of literature in Romania (perhaps in Poland too?). She reminded me of both of my grandmothers, larger than life but deliberately not romanticised.
I filled the book with post-it notes, there are so many arch, clever and sometimes downright wicked quotes.
With age, many men come down with a testosterone autism, the symptoms of which are a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication, as well as a reduced capability to formulate thoughts. The Person beset by this Ailment becomes taciturn and appears lost in contemplation. He develops an interest in various Tools and machinery, and he’s drawn to the Second World War and the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains.
I snorted with laughter, remembering a woman author saying how many middle-aged men she came across in the London Library who were writing biographies of Churchill or about planes and trains in the Second World War! The book is full of such darkly humorous observations which had me chortling.
She may have the sharpness of Miss Marple’s observational skills, but this is no mere onlooker. She writes letters, she protests, she argues with people, she does not suffer fools gladly – and she makes friends and has sex. Yes, really, at her age (which is never quite specified, but I suspect she is not as old as one might think). She also has the memorable voice of anger that I heard in Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs:
Anger makes the mind clear and incisive, able to see more. It sweeps up the other emotions and takes control of the body. Without a doubt Anger is the source of all wisdom, for Anger has the power to exceed any limits.
But there are beautiful, almost lyrical and very sad observations about the transience of life, the passing of time, how we are all part of nature, which I then thought about as I was reading my next book, The Wall by Marlen Haushofer. Both of these books are unforgettable and unrepentant in their clear view of the tiny part that humans play in the wider world.
Spring is just a short interlude, after which the mighty armies of death advance; they’re already besieging the city walls. We live in a state of siege. If one takes a close look at each fragment of a moment, one might choke with terror. Within our bodies disintegration inexorably advances: soon we shall fall sick and die. Our loved ones will leave us, the memory of them will dissolve in the tumult; nothing will remain. Just a few clothes in the wardrobe and someone in a photograph, no longer recognized. The most precious memories will dissipate. Everything will sink into darkness and vanish.
I noticed a pregnant girl sitting on a bench, reading a newspaper, and suddenly it occurred to me what a blessing it is to be ignorant. How could one possibly know all this and not miscarry?
Tokarczuk was severely criticised in her native Poland for this book, especially once the film Spoor came out, which is based on this book and was directed by Agnieszka Holland. In an increasingly conservative and Catholic Polish society, it was described as anti-Christian and promoting eco-terrorism. I found this quote by Holland (as reported in The Guardian) very important for understanding both the film and the book:
Holland said the protagonist embodied many disillusioned women of her generation “who are very rational, working as engineers or scientists, who reject the official religion that became very politically corrupt and has little to do with Jesus Christ. But at some point they start to have the need to connect to something like astrology, yoga or zen. It’s the above-55 generation who believed in progress and in the freedom that came with the collapse of communism, and the fact they could take things into their own hands, but who have now lost this hope.”
August is obviously Women in Translation Month, and I’ve been taking part since 2014, which I believe is the year it was initiated by that indefatigable supporter of women writers from all parts of the world, Meytal Radzinski. Last year I had a bit of a Brazilian theme going on; this year, it’s going to be more of a free for all. I cheated a little by starting my reading in July, to comply with Stu’s initiative of #SpanishLitMonth. So I have reviews for Lina Meruane, Margarita Garcia Robayo and Liliana Colanzi. I am still planning to read Ariana Harwicz’s Feebleminded, but I also have a very tempting stack of books by women writers from other countries.
I’ve recently finished Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and also am nearing the end of Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall. There are definite similarities between the two books (middle aged woman living alone, loving animals, philosophising about the world), aside from the fact that I really enjoyed both of them. But I still have to write the reviews. They will also constitute Books 18 and 19 of my #20BooksofSummer challenge.
I have one more book remaining then for the 20 books challenge, and I think it will be Teffi’s Subtly Worded, which has been sitting on my shelf for far too long. After that, I am free to roam wildly, so I may add Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs to the mix, although she wasn’t on my original list of possible summer reads. Then again, I recently bought a couple of Yuko Tsushima books, so I may choose those instead (or additionally). I’ll also dip into Tove Jansson’s letters, but I suspect that, like Virginia Woolf’s diaries, it will be the kind of book that I want to read every day over a long period of time, in small gulps, and ponder over the creative life and what might apply to me.
I’ve also borrowed quite a few books from the library, so will prioritise those, even if they don’t fall into the WIT category.
Polly Sansom’s A Theatre for Dreamers will transport me to the Greek islands, which are very precious to me, although a bit less accessible to me during and after my divorce. The Murdstone Trilogy by Mal Peet and Come Again by Robert Webb look like light-hearted, fun holiday reads. And of course I will continue with my exploration of Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger and The Paying Guests are beckoning, each in their own creepy way. I have also bought the most recent Susie Steiner, which I’ve been awaiting with impatience, so I doubt I’ll be able to resist that one for too long!
If you are looking for inspiration for Women in Translation Month, here are some of my favourites from the past few years, all of them good fun, not too dark:
Posting this a little early, because I haven’t got the mental capacity to write reviews today (and I owe at least three).
I’ve read 10 books this month, despite being very busy at work once again. I’m alternating my #SpanishLitMonth (and anticipating #WomeninTranslation Month as well) with comfort (i.e. holiday) reading. My reading took me all over the world, and most of the books (80%) were written by women, half of the women writers were in translation. I’ve also read quite a few books from my #20BooksofSummer list – 18, but only reviewed 15 of them.
I discovered a new to me author that people on Twitter seem to be raving about: Sarah Waters (I slung down Fingersmith within 24 hours and have already reserved some other books by her from the library). I also discovered the Abir Mukherjee crime series set in 1920s India, which I want to read more of. I was very happy to be reunited with Eva Dolan, whose crime fiction I adore. I finally got to read Olga Tokarczuk again and she did not disappoint, she is rapidly becoming a firm favourite. I was moved and surprised by The Home-Maker, which still feels remarkably contemporary. I reread Barbellion with less of a giggle and more sympathy for his predicament than I did in my brash teens. I was fascinated by the passionate, experimental fiction of the South American women writers, but disappointed by the ‘society pages/lifestyle magazine’ style of Fleishman Is in Trouble, although it contained some clever observations about marriage and divorce.
Plans for the month of August – what else but Women in Translation? I am continuing with my Latin Americans – Ariana Harwicz awaits, plus Teffi, Tove Jansson’s Letters, Marlen Haushofer, Svetlana Alexievich and more. I’ve also ordered a few more books from the library for easy reading, so that should keep me out of mischief. Only two more books and I am free of any #20BooksofSummer constraints! Plus, I plan to dedicate a lot more time to writing.
There I was thinking I hadn’t done all that much reading in August, because my #WITMonth contributions have been a miserly five. However, when I counted them all up, I realised I’ve read 16 books, 7 of them in translation (5 of them Brazilian, to fit in with my August in Brazil reading). 10 books were by women, and I even read two non-fiction books (Sylvia Plath’s diaries and The Secret Barrister’s rather terrifying descriptions of the shortcomings of the English legal system).
I have reviewed The Head of the Saint, Middle England, The End, Lost World, The Tortoise and the Hare, The Pine Islands and Clarice, so only about half of what I read. I still intend to review some of the above, but don’t hold your breath, as out of sight tends to be out of mind! I will not be reviewing Plan B or Guilty Not Guilty, which were quick fun reads but nothing to get worked up about, while Platform Seven is the kind of novel that started out very eerily and got my hopes up, but became a bit too much of a bog-standard thriller about a psychologically abusive relationship. Fatechanger is a YA novel about a Dickensian Boston of thieves and newspaper boys during the First World War and a time-travelling girl who has to pretend to be a boy in order to survive.
Next month I will be focusing on China – and I have a good haul of women writers, including Eileen Chang, Wei Hui, Xiaolu Guo and Yan Ge, so my #WITMonth is set to continue!
It’s been a good month of events as well: a powerful play about immigrants, a writing retreat at my house, a Russian film about life after the collapse of the Soviet Union, an exibition on writing at the British Library, a triumphant GCSE results day, a day trip to Oxford and, last but by no means least, an extremely inspiring conversation between Ali Smith and Nicola Barker, two of the most innovative and daring and poetic writers at work today.
With all of the back to school preparations, we’ve been going shopping and therefore ‘accidentally’ ending up in bookshops (my older son is nearly as addicted to them as I am – hurrah for him, but boo-hoo for my wallet). So this month has been the scene of another massacre of my book-buying ban (it hasn’t really been in place since April).
These two are actually for the boys: one is required for the GCSE (for younger son), the other was older son’s choice as he pursues his plans for world domination. They liked the tactile covers and wordcloud/ quotations on the front.
Speaking of beautiful editions, I just had to get these two favourite Murdochs in the new Vintage editions. Yes, I like stories about cult-like communities and dodgy patriarchal leaders.
Some politically prescient novels and another edition of To the Lighthouse. When I first came to the UK, I only had two medium-sized suitcases but I brought my battered editions of Virginia Woolf’s diaries (5 volumes), A Room of One’s Own and 5 of her novels. I left this particular one at my parents’ house and haven’t been able to find it since, so it was high time I got myself a new copy.
Last night’s haul from the London Review of Books bookshop. The Ali Smith and Nicola Barker ones are now signed, of course, while the very slim Korean novella was devoured in the train on the way home. I so hope I will get to see George Szirtes again to have him sign this book for me – a moving account of his mother and her journey into exile. Last but not least, Deborah Levy’s story of starting over as a middle-aged divorcee, mother and writer.