September is still full of ‘back to school’ vibes for me, not just because of the children. I always make my resolutions at the start of September and look back on my holiday thoughts and reading, even if I don’t always have a holiday in summer.
It’s hard to estimate how many books I read in August, because for the last week I’ve been diving into endless amounts of poetry books and some slim Japanese novellas which I am not counting as full-sized books. Aside from that, however, I’ve read 12: 3 for #WITMonth, 3 other translations or foreign language books, 4 review books and 2 library books. 7 books were by women, 5 by men. One thing is clear: I have had the privilege of reading some outstanding and memorable books this past month.
Women in Translation
Elena Varvello: Can You Hear Me? – coming of age, spooky atmosphere, spare prose style, participant in #EU27Project
Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War (transl. Pevear & Volokhonsky)
This oral history of Soviet women’s experience of WW2 was compiled with sensitivity, patience and emotion by Svetlana Alexievich in the 1980s, updated in 2000 and has finally been translated into English by that indefatigable duo that is Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
And what a surprising, moving and often shocking story it is! It provides an alternative view of war, from the point of view of women on the front line, as well as the lesser known point of view (in the Western world) of the terrible human cost of war amongst the Soviet army. It is an unforgettable virtuoso piece of storytelling and it left me in goosebumps, although I’d heard a few (much milder) stories from my own grandmothers.
Alexievich explains her mission in the foreword (and it was revolutionary back then, in the days before perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet empire): history is ‘in the street, in the crowd, in each of us there is a small piece of history’. She wants to give voice to those who have been ignored, forgotten, whitewashed out of history, who have been silenced or simply never been listened to. Not all of the women wanted to speak to her at first: for some, the memories were too painful, for others it was like opening up a dam. On the whole, she is received with warmth, made up of equal parts eagerness to share the untold stories, and reluctance to dwell too much on the details. They explain in simple terms, in language so stark and unadorned, yet with such vivid detail, what it means to survive such darkness.
Although few women veterans suffered the fate of the men who returned to war only to be sent to gulags by Stalin, it is quite shocking to read of the less than triumphant reception many of them experienced. There was no counselling, no treatment for post-traumatic stress after the war. Many of them received nothing except for a few medals – not even adequate housing which they should have been entitled to as war veterans. The state ignored or downplayed their contribution (perhaps out of a sense of shame that they had to resort to using women in their war effort), there was little support for these heroines and little effort to reintegrate them into society. In contrast to the protective and gallant way they had been treated by their male comrades at the front, many women had to pretend afterwards that they had never been in battle, because the men feared these women and longed to marry someone more feminine and untarnished by violence.
Unsurprisingly, women felt that the Great Victory came at a terrible human cost and sacrifice, and they are more aware of this and more willing to acknowledge it, while men were disposed to wax more nostalgic about heroic deeds and former Soviet greatness. And yet, one of the women says:
Life is hard… not because our pensions are small and humiliating. What wounds us most of all is that we have been driven from a great past into an unbearably small present.
In other words, they are beginning to wonder if it was all worth it. Yet, at the time, no one questioned the ideology. It was not just that their country was attacked, nor that they unquestioningly followed Stalin. They just felt they had to do something to help, they did not stop to think of themselves (or of their families or even their children) – they felt they were cornered and had no choice other than fighting the enemy as best they could. These women were not just nurses, doctors, bakers, laundrywomen, but also engineers, telecommunication experts, tank commanders, snipers, artillery and cavalry soldiers etc. They were everywhere and each one of them saw things that are almost unbelievable and unbearable. And, unlike men, they struggled far more with killing the enemy or watching their comrades die. One married couple reminisce about the war together and the husband says at one point that the grandchildren don’t want to hear his tales about historical detail, generals, facts, figures. They want to listen to her stories, which are all about feelings and momentary impressions.
War is first of all murder, and then hard work. And then simply ordinary life… how unbearable and unthinkable it is to die and to kill…
It’s the small details which make all the difference: the shoes which were several sizes too big and caused blisters; how they all had to chop off their braids; how uncomfortable it was to pee when they were in the tank with all the men; how they would kiss dying soldiers to soothe their pain; how there was no material to stop the flow of menstrual blood; how they could never bear the colour red after the war or buy meat from the shops.
There is a section on the mixed feelings the army had when they reached Germany. How tidy and wealthy the country seemed to them, to the extent where they couldn’t understand why these Germans had wanted to attack other countries. How they felt they would never be able to forgive them, yet they fed the frightened German children. The women whisper (in fear) about how their male colleagues did in many cases kill in revenge, rape and pillage, things which had been left out of the official history books – ‘are we allowed to mention that now?’.
There is bittersweet recognition that human nature did not learn from the past:
We dreamed: ‘If only we survive… People will be so happy after the war. People who’ve been through so much will feel sorry for each other. They’ll be changed people… We never doubted it. Not a bit.
Yet there were also instances of compassion and I want to finish on one of those, with the simple, unfiltered words of someone who has witnessed it herself. The last interviewee in the book tells the story of when she was carrying two wounded soldiers on her back, in turns, from the battlefield around Stalingrad. At some point, she realises that one of them was a German and starts getting angry with herself for making a mistake.
Should I go back for the German or not? I knew that if I left him he would die soon… And I crawled back for him… There can’t be one heart for hatred and another for love. We only have one…
Pictures are from Sputnik International and Global Research websites.
How nice to find a book which fits in perfectly with two reading challenges! A contemporary entry for Women in Translation Month and for Italy in #EU27Project.
Elena Varvello is an Italian author from Turin and this is her first novel to be translated into English by Alex Valente. It has been described as a coming of age story and a thriller, but it is far more of the first, although it does have its suspenseful moments. It is also the story of the fissures tearing apart a family (or even two families) and a description of an individual mental breakdown and its effect on others.
The narrator is sixteen-year-old Elia Furenti, who lives with his mother and father on the outskirts of a small town in northern Italy, in a valley with a river, surrounded by forests. Despite its seemingly idyllic location, the town has fallen on hard times. The local factory has closed down and his father has lost his job. His father could be humorous and lively, but also a bit odd, yet the relationship between his parents has always been very loving. Yet after the closure of the factory, his father’s eccentricities have taken a turn for the worse. He seems to think there is a conspiracy against him and disappears for hours at a time. When a local boy goes missing, Elia can’t help but feel his father is somehow involved. And there is worse to follow…
If I have made this sound like a thriller, I am misleading you. Yes, there is a sense of foreboding and ‘what will happen next’. Especially in that part of the book which alternates chapters between Elia’s experience – how he befriends a boy his own age Stefano and his mother Anna, who have also been let down by a man – and his father’s attempt at kidnapping the girl who minds their neighbour’s daughter. (I am not giving away anything, as the author baldly states it in the very first sentence.)
But overall, it is far more about the unspoken, about all the things that crack open a facade and leave people broken, even though they pretend to be resilient. It is about people hiding the truth even from themselves. It is clear that Elia’s father suffers from some form of schizophrenia and/or paranoia, but everyone refuses to acknowledge it or seek help. This might seem infuriatingly obvious to readers, but from personal experience of friends with schizophrenia, I have seen families denying the fact for years, even decades.
With its ability to capture the tormented adolescent soul, it reminded me of Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, but this is far less idyllic and nostalgic. The tense, moody atmosphere, conveyed not through purple prose, but through a very restrained, economical style, is more reminiscent of Alberto Moravia. There are also hints of that author’s disenchantment with human nature, modern life and that elusive myth of finding happiness.
The book cover of Can You Hear Me captures that one moment of unalloyed happiness in the whole story. Yet even that is tinged by the discovery of some squashed beer cans in his one place of freedom and happiness. The idyllic valley becomes claustrophobic and Elia can’t wait to grow and move away… to another valley, another river, another forest just like the one he can’t quite leave behind.
This is one of my favourite times of year in terms of reading challenges, namely the wonderful Women in Translation Month created and championed by the ebullient force of nature which is Meytal Radzinski (aka as Biblibio on Twitter). I’m not always good at matching August to translated women writers, but I do try to read a good proportion of them throughout the year.
This month, courtesy of the slim volumes of short stories/novellas published by Strangers Press, a University of East Anglia publishing venture, I have discovered three new Japanese women authors.
Misumi Kubo: Mikumari (transl. Polly Barton)
A bit of a scandalous subject this: the story of a high school student (under age), who meets a married cosplayer Anzu, more than ten years his senior at a comic convention in Tokyo and embarks upon an intense affair, which at once thrills and disgusts him. During the summer, the boy is working as a lifeguard at the pool and gets to spend time with his classmate and more appropriate crush, Nana. As he tries to distance himself from Anzu, he realizes that desires are never straightforward and not always as pleasant as we like to think they are.
There is a matter-of-fact description of sex in all its wet, glistening, slippery glory and repulsiveness which I have only ever found in Japanese authors. None of the sentimental rosy-cheeked intoxication with our own words which you might find in Romance languages, nor the timid self-consciousness so prevalent in Anglo-Saxon literature. The subject matter is deliberately designed to shock, and yet the narrator is no stranger to women’s bodies and all the bodily fluids: his mother is a midwife who works from home and he often helps out with the births. By the end of this brief story, he begins to realize something about himself and about the continuity of life, although it might take a while until he comes to term with the unbreakable mix of purity and dirt which lies in all of us. The sentence which really stuck out in my mind was:
…it seemed unbelievable that water so clear could be connected with the filthy river flowing near our house.
This has all the shock factor, darkness and yet underlying tenderness of Natsuo Kirino.
Nao-Cola Yamazaki: Friendship for Grown-Ups (transl. Polly Barton)
There are three loosely linked stories in this volume, connected more through the names of the characters than through any storyline. There is an odd, timeless tale of human development called ‘A Genealogy’. A (still) young woman named Kandagawa tries to recapture a moment in her past with her former lover on the site of their former apartment in ‘The Untouchable Apartment’. A relatively new author Terumi Yano dithers between her art and love, when she attracts the attention of a young music scholar at an author event. There is a wonderful sense of confusion and yearning about each of these stories, that hesitation about which path to take, that mourning about ‘what ifs’, that need to justify one’s decisions a posteriori, which will sound very familiar to women in their thirties. A delicate, melancholy description of the life of Japanese women reminiscent of Fumiko Enchi.
Aoko Matsuda: The Girl Who Is Getting Married (transl. Angus Turvill)
This was perhaps my favourite of the three: a very strange story which feels like an Escher woodcut. Just when you think you’ve grasped it, the point of view is all changed, turned upside down and you question everything you know.
An unnamed narrator visits her friend, the girl who is getting married. As she climbs up the stairs to the fifth floor, where the girl who is getting married lives, she recalls fragments of their life together and their friendship. But each account differs: they met when they were children, they met at secondary school or at work, on the train or at a cookery school. As the story shifts like quicksand under our feet, we understand more and more about the deepest needs and constraints of the narrator and we begin to question just whose eyes we are looking through. There is an almost obsessive repetition of the expression ‘the girl who is getting married’ (there are no names at all in this story) – and in the original Japanese it is even more emphatic: ‘moo sugu kekkon suru onna’ – the woman who is getting married imminently/very soon. Why does that sound so threatening? Whose fears are being projected here? The very plain, unadorned, clear prose belies the surrealism of the scene, where any interpretation is possible (and most likely wrong). There is a hint of Haruki Murakami’s short stories here.
There was quite a bit of uproar on Twitter about the extremely worthy and ever-so-slightly pretentious beach reading promoted by The Guardian. Why can’t people admit that they crave chick lit or the latest Harlan Coben instead? They don’t have to be trashy airport novels (although most recently I’ve noticed a vast improvement in terms of variety being offered at airports), but they have to be able to withstand great heat, sun cream, the odd splash of water, and fried holiday brain. Can your expensive hardback of Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, written by John Banville, with beautiful photography by Paul Joyce, withstand that? Perhaps one to buy and keep at home as a coffee table book, rather than shlepp to distant beaches…
Of course, I won’t actually be going to any beach this summer, but I hope to get a few nice days of sitting in my deck chair in the garden and worrying about nothing else but reading. And I readily admit that I look forward to a nice dose of escapism to mix in with my literary education. So this is what I would really read if I were on a Greek beach.
Michael Stanley: Dying to Live
I’m a great fan of the Detective ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, and the Kalahari Desert setting fits in perfectly with the beach. Also, it’s a really intriguing tale about the death of a Bushman, who appears to be very old, but his internal organs are puzzlingly young. Could a witch doctor be involved?
Linwood Barclay: Too Close to Home
Another author that I would rather read on the beach than alone at night in a large house, as his nerve-wracking twists are prone to making me jump. The strapline on this one goes: What’s more frightening than your next-door neighbours being murdered? Finding out the killers went to the wrong house…
Helen Cadbury: Bones in the Nest
Like many other crime readers, I was very saddened to hear about the recent death of Helen Cadbury. I had read her debut novel in the Sean Denton series reviewed and marked her out as a talent to watch in 2014 on Crime Fiction Lover. This is the second in a series set in Doncaster, which unfortunately never had the chance to grow to its full potential.
Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy of a Scandal
The perfect novel for those who can’t quite take a break from politics: this is the story of an MP whose affair is made public, his wife who tries to stand by him in spite of her doubts, and the barrister who believes he has been guilty of rape. A searing look at privilege, hypocrisy and the social justice system.
Not my usual kind of reading at all, but I like to keep abreast of what my children are reading.
G.P. Taylor: Mariah Mundi – The Midas Box
Mariah is a young orphan, fresh out of school, who is employed to work as an assistant to a magician living in the luxurious Prince Regent Hotel. But the slimy, dripping basement of the hotel hides a dark secret. I’ve heard of the author’s Shadowmancer series, but never read anything by him. Described as the next Harry Potter, this book promises to take the reader into a world of magic and fun.
Paul Gallico: Jennie
Peter wakes up from a serious accident and finds himself transformed into a cat. Life as a street cat is tough and he struggle to survive, but luckily stumbles across the scrawny but kindly tabby cat Jennie, who helps him out. Together they embark on a bit of an adventure.
This is not only worthy reading, but highly enjoyable into the bargain! Although seeking out translations from some of the countries on the list is not that easy or cheap.
Hungary – Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (transl. Patrick Thursdfiel and Katalin Banffy-Jelen)
Satisfies any cravings for family saga and historical romance, as well as looking at a part of the world which is very close to me (Transylvania). Plus a society bent on self-destruction – what more could one want?
Romania – Ileana Vulpescu: Arta Compromisului (The Art of Compromise)
This author’s earlier book The Art of Conversation was an amazing bestseller in the early 1980s in Romania, partly because it went against all the expectations of ‘socialist realism’ of the time and was quite critical of socialist politics (of an earlier period, admittedly). This book, published in 2009, continues the story of the main character, but this time set in the period after the fall of Communism in 1989. Critics have called it a bit of a soap opera, but at the same time an excellent snapshot of contemporary society. Sounds like delightful light reading, with a social critique, perfect for reconnecting with my native tongue.
Spain – Javier Marias: The Infatuations (transl. Margaret Jull Costa)
Another story with a murderous aside by an author I’ve only recently discovered and whose baroque sentences mesmerise me… Every day, María Dolz stops for breakfast at the same café. And every day she enjoys watching a handsome couple who follow the same routine. Then one day they aren’t there, and she feels obscurely bereft. She discovers that the man was murdered in the street – and Maria gets entangled in a very odd relationship with the widow.
Women in Translation Month
Another project which has the merit of being both worthy and great fun. I plan to read several of the Keshiki project of Strangers Press – beautifully produced slim translations of Japanese short stories and novellas. There are plenty of women writers represented: Misumi Kubo, Yoko Tawada, Kyoko Yoshida, Aoko Matsuda and the improbably named Nao-Cola Yamazaki. I expect the strange, unsettling, disquieting and sexually heated… Phew!
Just got time to squeeze in one more author for Women in Translation Month and it’s the effervescent, smart, charming and loyal Emilie du Chatelet, who deserves to be far better known as a scientist in her own right rather than merely as Voltaire’s great love. Her slender volume Discours sur le bonheur (Essay on Happiness) has not been translated in its entirety in English yet, but there are extracts to be found in the biography by Esther Ehrman in Berg Women’s Series.
It was a bit of a fashion to write about happiness and how to acquire it in the 18th century. However, Mme du Chatelet’s essay stands out for its fearsome honesty. It was not written for publication and so is remarkably clear-eyed and candid, at a time when the author had laid to rest the sadness over ending her relationship with Voltaire (or at least the physical part of their love affair, for they remained good friends until the end of her life). She had not yet met the playboy Saint-Lambert, who was to upset the last couple of years of her life and (indirectly) cause her death. She was apparently serene and content at the time, and certainly had not lost any of her idealism. [All the quotes below are my translations, so apologies for any inaccuracies.]
In order to be happy, you need to strip yourself of any prejudice, be virtuous and healthy, have your tastes and passions, and be susceptible to illusions, because we owe a great part of our pleasures to illusions, so woe the person who loses them! Far be it from us to kill off our illusions through the torch of reason and remove the varnish they put on most things…
She distinguishes between male and female happiness, subtly pointing out how women’s subordinate position limits their capacity for attaining full satisfaction and happiness.
Love of learning is less essential for the happiness of men than for that of women. Men have endless other resources for happiness, which women lack. They have other means to attain glory, and it’s almost certain that the satisfactions of rendering service to one’s country through one’s talents, or serving one’s fellow citizens through the art of war or government or negotiations are vastly superior to the satisfactions of learning alone… but chasing after glory is nothing but an illusion…
Women are often encouraged, of course, to find their solace in love rather than glory, and Emilie admits that there is no greater joy if you are lucky enough to find that twin soul, that marriage of true minds, which she admits she did find with Voltaire, but such loves are rare, she warns, perhaps one a century. However, the careful reader (or one prone to melancholia) will detect certain notes of regret and wistfulness. All was not perfect even in this most envy-inducing of relationships:
I don’t know if love has ever featured two people so much made for each other that they never experienced boredom or the coolness that comes from security, nor the indolence and tepidness that seems conjoined with ease of access and continuity of passion, in both good and bad times… For ten years I was happy, in the love of the man who subjugated my soul and I passed those ten years, alone with him, without a moment of doubt or boredom… I have now lost that happy state, and it cost me endless tears. It takes an earthquake to break such ties and the wound in my heart bled for a long time. I felt sorry for myself but I have forgiven everything now. I think I now understand that my heart alone has got that constancy which defies time…
The official version of their break-up was that Voltaire (who was far more advanced in age) was no longer able to satisfy his mistress physically, but his dalliances with actresses and particularly with his widowed niece, who later went to live with him as his housekeeper and mistress in Ferney, would demonstrate that this was not quite the case. For a fascinating insight into this complicated relationship, I would recommend David Bodanis’ book Passionate Minds, although it left me feeling that poor Emilie was forever being let down by her male companions (although her father and her husband were surprisingly enlightened and understanding for their time).
This is more a personal memoir than a self-help manual, but there are echoes of the latter in the way Emilie muses about the importance of setting goals or, as she calls it, deciding the path you want to take in life, ‘what you want to be and what you want to do’, otherwise you are perpetually swimming in a sea of uncertainty and vagueness, full of regrets.
This feeling of regret is one of the most useless and disagreeable that a human soul is capable of.
So… echoes of the famous Piaf chanson, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’. Perhaps this is the greatest wisdom I can learn from this admirable woman: I need not feel sorry for her, she led a good life and enjoyed it to the full. And, in the end, she made her mark in the world without the help of any famous male companions. Her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica and her theoretical work on the nature of light paved the way to the great discoveries in physics in the next two centuries.
I leave you with this touching scene described by Voltaire’s secretary Longchamp (and quoted in the Bodanis book). It’s February 1749 (Emilie was to die in on September 8th of that year). Emilie has found out that she is pregnant at what was then a dangerous age of 42. She becomes convinced that this will be her death knell and she fears not being able to finish her scientific work. She sets off for Paris (where her scientific papers are) with Voltaire in a carriage, but the rear axle breaks and they have to wait for hours in the cold and snow for help to arrive. Covered in furs and blankets, instead of despairing, the remarkable couple lay back beneath the stars and enjoy their last truly peaceful moment together.
Despite the extreme froideur, Madame and Monsieur admired the beauty of the sky. It was serene, and stars were burning with a most vivid brightness… Ravished by this magnificent spectacle spread above and around them, they discoursed – while shivering, I should point out – on the nature and paths of the stars, and on the destiny of so many immense globes spread in space.
For a modern-day interpretation of Mme du Chatelet and her proto-feminism, see the notes for this play. For a review of her scientific work, see Stanford University’s biographical entry. For a French take on it (and a much better translation than mine), here is Emma’s review.
I don’t usually post something on a Saturday, but I’m so far behind in my Women in Translation Month reviewing, that I feel I have to.
As a student in my early 20s I went through a period of infatuation with Clarice Lispector. I had always admired Virginia Woolf and here was a Brazilian writer equally at ease with the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique, but upping the ante when it came to passion and candour. Being very Latin in fact, compared to Woolf’s cooler Anglo-Saxon attitudes.
I have not reread her since, but WIT Month seemed like a good time to revisit her. Near to the Wild Heart is her debut novel (translated by Alison Entrekin) but this time round it left me not quite fully satisfied.
It’s the story of Joana, an eccentric little soul growing up with a kindly but absent-minded father after the death of her mother.
The child was running wild, so thin and precocious… He sighed quickly, shaking his head. A little egg, that was it, a little live egg. What would become of Joana?
When her father dies, she goes to live with her aunt and uncle, which proves unbearable for all concerned.
‘She’s a cold viper, there’s no love or gratitude in her. There’s no point liking her, no point doing the right thing by her. I think she’s capable of killing someone…’
She is sent to boarding school, grows up, is regarded as somewhat of an enigma by those around her, marries the conceited and shifty Otavio, who continues his affair with his old lover. Joana has misgivings about marriage itself, about tying herself to any man (thoughts which would have been revolutionary in Brazil at the time the book was published in 1943)
Otavio made her into something that wasn’t her but himself… how could she tie herself to a man without allowing him to imprison her? How could she prevent him from developing his four walls over her body and sould? And was there a way to have things without those things possessing her?
Finally, Joana finds the courage and determination to strike off on her own after a period of loneliness and abjection. At first she turns to God.
My God I wait for thee… come to me… I am less than dust and I wait for you every day and every night, help me, I only have one life and this life slips through my fingers and travels to death serenely and I can do nothing and all I do is watch my depletion with each passing minute…
But then she realises that the power comes from within and the book ends on a hopeful note.
What was rising in her was not courage, she was substance alone, less than human… Throngs of warm thoughts sprouted and spread through her frightened body and what mattered about them was that they concealed a vital impulse, what mattered about them was that at the very instant of their brith there was the blind, true substance creating itself, rising up, straining at the water’s surface like an air bubble, almost breaking it…
Of course, I have simplified and tried to give the narrative shape and linearity where there is none. Rather, it’s all about ‘illuminations’, moments of consciousness in Joana’s life (and occasionally other characters). There is much of the animal nature of Jinny, the flanks breathing in and out from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a tremendous physicality.
Yet Joana also ponders on the nature of words such as ‘never’ and ‘everything’, she is in a state of constant questioning, a swirling intensity of raw emotions, half-formulated thoughts, openness to experience but also (over)analysis of each new experience. There are some similarities to Anais Nin and Elena Ferrante, but the work this most reminded me of was the Diary of Marie Bashkirtseff. Joana has the same breathtaking belief in her own genius, shows the same inscrutable character to outsiders, is in equal measure puzzled by the slipperiness of the concept of (her own) identity and yet wields it like a blunt instrument to manipulate others.
Reading a chapter at a time, there are nuggets to treasure but it was all too much for me when reading it in one go. (Although the impressionistic technique in The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway still works well for me now.) This is something of a young person’s book. I’m glad I read it at the appropriate age but it did not resonate with me as well a couple of decades later. I guess I’ll have to go back to her other works, especially her short stories, and see whether they can rework their magic on me once more.