20 Books of Summer (More Like 30)

Cathy at 746 Books has been hosting this annual event for several years now: a very simple idea – to burn through your TBR pile by selecting the 20 books you plan to read over June/July/August. Summer in some parts of the world, winter in others. I usually get close to the fateful number twenty, but am easily distracted on my journey.

I have already announced that I will dedicate June to French language literature, July to Spanish language and August to Women in Translation more widely, so I have a huge pile of books to choose from. Since I never know what mood I will be in when the time comes, I am giving myself a large selection of at least ten or twelve every month in each category, so that I can choose the ones I feel most attracted to at the time.

So here goes:

June:

I’ve picked writers I know and love for my birthday month, or else books I’ve been looking forward to reading for a long, long time.

  1. Maylis de Kerangal: Painting Time
  2. Delphine de Vigan: No et moi
  3. Sophie Divry: La condition pavillonnaire
  4. Lola Lafon: Reeling
  5. Dany Laferriere: Je suis un ecrivain japonais
  6. Jean Claude Izzo: L’aride des jours
  7. Romain Gary: L’Homme a la Colombe
  8. Gael Faye: Petit Pays
  9. Pascal Garnier: Nul n’est a l’abri du succes
  10. Janis Otsiemi: La vie est un sale boulot

July:

I am far less well-read in Spanish language literature (or Portuguese – other than Brazilian), although I seem to enjoy it a lot when I do get around to reading it.

  1. Claudia Pineiro: Elena Knows
  2. Gabriela Cabezon Camara: Slum Virgin
  3. Maria Judite de Carvalho: Empty Wardrobes
  4. Rosa Maria Arquimbau: Forty Lost Years (I am including Catalan in the Spanish/Portuguese language challenge)
  5. Juan Pablo Villalobos: I don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me
  6. Enrique Vila-Matas: The Illogic of Kassel
  7. Javier Marias: Your Face Tomorrow (Vol. 1 at least)
  8. Roberto Bolano: The Skating Rink
  9. Javier Cercas: Even the Darkest Night
  10. Rafael Bernal: The Mongolian Conspiracy

August

I am being clever here, or so I think, because I can leave any unread women authors from June and July for this month. In addition to that, I m also taking a look at the rather chunky ones below:

  1. Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob
  2. Svetlana Alexievich: Second-Hand Time
  3. Esmahan Aykol: Divorce Turkish Style
  4. Magda Szabo: Iza’s Ballad
  5. Anke Stelling: Schäfchen im Trockenen (Higher Ground – because you can never get too many stories of Berlin)

Additional Random Choices:

All by and about women and all of them quite chunky:

  1. Tirzah Garwood: Long Live Great Bardfield
  2. Tessa Hadley: The Past
  3. The Letters of Shirley Jackson
  4. Stela Brinzeanu: Set in Stone
  5. Yvonne Bailey-Smith: The Day I Fell Off My Island

Which of these have you read or do you look forward to reading? Also: am I mad to choose quite a few looooooong books?

Oz Feb and #ReadIndies: Miles Franklin

Miles Franklin: My Brilliant Career, Virago Press, 1980.

When I first asked for recommendations for Australian authors a few years ago, particularly women authors, the name that cropped up most frequently was Miles Franklin and her classic novel My Brilliant Career, written when she was sixteen and published when she was twenty-one in 1901. It contained enough autobiographical material for readers to think it was a memoir, and it became a ‘succès de scandale’, which proved so distressing to the young author that she forbade its republication until after her death. Nevertheless, she revisited the story in a sort of sequel called My Career Goes Bung, although that too was deemed too scandalous at the time and wasn’t published until 1946. She was a prolific writer, in spite of her peripatetic lifestyle and numerous other jobs across three continents, but never quite replicated her early success.

My Brilliant Career (brilliant in this case is both ironical and also expresses the idealism of the heroine) follows a few years in the life of young Sybylla and her downwardly mobile family and is one of the first examples of what one might call ‘working class’ literature, albeit from the rural environment.

There is no plot in this story, because there has been none in my life or in any other life which has come under my notice. I am one of a class of individuals which have not time for plots in their life, but have all they can do to get their work done without indulging in such a luxury.

As you can tell from the titles of the two books themselves, we are no longer in prim and proper English Edwardian literature territory here. The 1890s were very much a decade when Australia was finding its own political identity but also its voice, and what a raucous, unfiltered, lively voice it was, at least judging by this book. As one critic (Havelock Ellis) at the time described it, it reads a bit like the work of ‘a Marie Bashkirtseff of the bush’, which can be regarded as a back-handed sort of compliment. On the one hand, it is precocious, high-spirited and sincere. On the other hand, it can be regarded as childish, temperamental, pretentious, overwrought.

To me, it felt like both. It was certainly a book ahead of its time, with its rejection of marriage or a happy ending, and the way the heroine Sybylla expresses her desire to escape from a dull life and societal expectations, and pursue a fulfilling artistic career instead. It ventures further than even the Brontë sisters dared to go, but it all becomes permissible because it is seen through the eyes of a teenage girl (16-17 years old for most of the book), who wouldn’t really be portrayed again with such accuracy and detail until the 1960s. There is all the drama and complaining and concerns about her looks that we might expect of any girl that age, at any time throughout history, but Sybylla is more than that. She is interested in arts and politics, she is active and resolute, mischievous and witty, self-deprecating but also proudly independent. She is also very much in love with the landscape and life on her grandparents’ farm, providing us with many lyrical descriptive passages, but also no-nonsense glimpses of the hard daily work.

Although she protests so much about her lack of height and good looks, it seems there is no shortage of men falling in love with her vivacious personality, especially the tall, quietly supportive Harry Beecham, whom no doubt most women readers fall in love with. We may feel she is mistaken or even cruel when she ultimately rejects Harry, but at the same time you cannot help but cheer her on as she realises that she is not the marrying kind, that her ambitions are too high and she would never be content to be the accomplished dilettante wife of even the nicest of farmers. She is prepared for the loneliness that this might bring her in life, but she has already experienced that in her family: her drunkard father, her demanding mother with whom she clashes.

Our greatest heart-treasure is a knowledge that there is in creation an individual to whom our existence is necessary – someone who is part of our life as we are part of theirs, someone in whose life we feel assured our death would leave a gap for a day or two. And who can this be but a husband or a wife? Our parents have other children and themselves, our brothers and sisters marry and have lives apart, so with our friends; but one’s husband would be different. And I had thrown behind me this chance; but in the days that followed, I knew that I had acted wisely.

There are some unpleasant or puzzling aspects to this book too. The casual racism and disparaging treatment of servants would have been typical of the period, perhaps, but grate on modern ears. Although it is true that Sybylla does not have many positive male role models in her life, she seems to have rather extremist views about men in general, expecting them all to behave badly. There also seems to be a bit of sexual squeamishness going on, some overreactions when anyone touches her that could indicate some deeper traumas.

In conclusion, I am glad I read this book – it is refreshingly different from anything written in England at the time, but there was a bit of a YA tone to it. I think I would have loved this even more if I had read it aged fourteen, together with Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.

Still from the film My Brilliant Career (1979)

Virago is now part of Hachette, but back in 1980 when this book was first reissued in the Virago Modern Classics series, with a foreword by Carmen Callil, it was an independent publisher, so I am not really cheating, am I, if I include this in the #ReadIndies initiative organised by my blogging friends Lizzy and Kaggsy.

Maki Kashimada: Touring the Land of the Dead, transl. Haydn Trowell, Europa Editions

I can never stray too far from Japanese literature, even though it’s no longer January in Japan. This book, which is made up of two separate long short stories or novellas, was published by Europa Editions earlier this month and is translated by Australian academic and translator Haydn Trowell. I was lucky enough to receive an ARC (and to be only a week or two late in my reviewing of it).

The first novella Touring the Land of the Dead won the Akutagawa Prize in 2012 and, back then, Glynne Walley at the University of Oregon commented that it could be translated as ‘A Tour of Hell’ or ‘Running Around in the Afterlife’ or even ‘The Dark Land and Its Rounds’. [The wide range of possibilities gives you an idea of why I gave up ever translating from Japanese.] The second novella Ninety-Nine Kisses was a sort of bonus at the time, to make the entry book-length, and Walley is possibly the only reader other than me who preferred it to the prize-winning one. Most readers were repulsed by the strong hints of incest in the second story, but for this Shirley Jackson fan, it had more of the slightly sinister insider vs. outsider vibe of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Anyway, back to the first novella, with a clever title that sounds appropriate for the spa holiday that our protagonist Natsuko undertakes with her husband, but also refers to that well-known maxim that ‘Hell is other people’ – in this case, Natsuko’s family.

You poor thing, her mother would say. You poor, poor thing, working so hard in place of your husband at that drab job of yours… Even though what was really deserving of pity were those hours spent in that restaurant looking at that tonguesole meuniere, that evening spent together with someone who didn’t understand her at all, in that gorgeous world in which she didn’t belong.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Natsuko’s mother and brother are lazy spongers, with a breathtaking sense of entitlement, who have never been able to recover from their loss of fortune and status. They have no qualms about borrowing money from Natsuko, the only member of the family actually working, while berating or faux-pitying her constantly. Natsuko’s husband, Taichi, was struck with a debilitating illness (something like MS, although it is never named) soon after their wedding, so she has been the one supporting her household on her part-time wages. She takes him on this very brief holiday because the hotel that her family used to consider the height of luxury now offers affordable spa breaks. The place of course triggers all sorts of memories, mainly of how abominably her family treated her, and she ends up considerably more appreciative of her husband, who at first seems naive, but ultimately proves himself to be simply not bitter and therefore quite wise.

Although Natsuko resents her mother and brother from the very start of the story, the novella represents a journey towards Zen wisdom and acceptance. The story ends on an upbeat note as Taichi finally gets an electric wheelchair and becomes more mobile. But Natsuko herself learns to let go of resentments, let go of caring what her family thinks and does, but without becoming numb, like she does earlier in the book, and giving up all hope:

She had already given up on everything. And she never thought too deeply about why such unreasonableness, such unfairness, such unhappiness always befell her. She lived her life trying to think about it all as little as possible. Because it wasn’t the kind of thing you could easily look at, not directly. And if, by chance, she were to glance at it, she knew it would leave an unhealthy, fatal wound…

The style in this story is quite pared down, the language simple and everyday, almost dull. By way of contrast, the second story is more baroque, more ornate, at times lyrical, a bit of a fever-dream from the youngest of four sisters, who, together with their mother, have created a powerful little matriarchy in their house in Shitamachi. Desite their little squabbles, they are a tight-knit unit (the youngest sister is so smitten by the beauty of her older sisters that she expresses rather explicity sexual longings towards them, as mentioned earlier on – but ambiguously enough that it can be brushed off as merely a bit of an unhealthy obsession with the family nest). At least, until a young man called S makes his appearance – an outsider to their area and clearly buying into all of the reputation of Shitamachi.

This is the aspect of the story that I found most interesting, because Tokyo’s Shitamachi was traditionally the poorer, flat area around the Sumida river, where fishermen, tradesmen, craftsmen lived and where the entertainment and red-light district were situated. It was also a melting pot of Edo culture, kabuki artists, sumo wrestlers, with Saikaku Ihara describing the ‘floating world’ in words, and Utamaro in pictures. Later, the area featured strong women writers and activists such as Higuchi Ichiyo and Hiratsuka Raicho. Clearly, S is attracted to the area for its reputation and a nostalgia for the past; he somehow expects the four sisters to live up to his false image of the place. Instead, they are unusual for their area and backgroudn. Their mother has raised them on French nouvelle vague films and frank discussions about their bodies and sex. Two of the sisters might be considered old maids by Japanese standards (around the age of thirty), but they are bold about expressing their desires, at least to each other.

Azalea Festival at the Nezu Shrine, as mentioned in the story.

The outsider is dangerous – he might upset their precarious balance. The narrator, who reminds me very much of Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s novel, with an equally slippery manner that makes you question how much to believe her, seems to be the only one to be fully aware of what this intrustion might mean:

They’re all my sisters. We were all one body to begin with. But then we were born, cut away from each other one by one. That’s why I want him to stop, this S – to stop planting these seeds of love inside them. We don’t need all that… We’re a perfect whole. Like Adam before Eve. Or like a hermaphrodite.

I find it intriguing and almost perplexing that, despite the sexism that women experience in Japan (far more overtly than in the English-speaking world, although clearly that doesn’t mean there is less of it here, as recent events have shown), contemporary Japanese women writers, such as Kawakami Mieko or Misumi Kubo, seem to be at the forefront of candour about their bodies, their sexuality, their darker impulses. As if to catch up with those generations of Japanese male writers holding forth quite explicitly on these topics for well over a century. Or, perhaps, because they cannot always voice those thoughts in public without being judged, they choose to do so via their fiction. Many of them write within the Japanese tradition but also bring in plenty of Western references, thereby building hybrid, occasionally oddly-shaped constructions. Not all of them are successful, but they are always interesting to read.

I have to admit I love this current publishing hunger for Japanese women authors and can only hope that it will last for a long, long time. You can find another review for this on Tony’s site, as he also shares my passion for Japanese literature. I think if Tony and I ever met in real life – preferably somewhere in Japan – we would probably never stop talking!

January in Japan: Higuchi Ichiyo, First Professional Woman Writer

Robert Lyons Danly: In the Shade of Spring Leaves: The Life of Higuchi Ichiyo with Nine of Her Best Short Stories, Norton, 1992.

Higuchi Ichiyo is revered in Japan as the first major woman writer of the modern era, poised between traditional Japan and the death of the samurai era, and the rapidly modernising Japan of the late 19th century, a precursor to the many excellent women writers that Japan produced in the 20th century and the present-day. Although her portrait appears on the 5000 Yen note, and most of her stories have been adapted for film, I had not really read any of her work until Mieko Kawakami mentioned her as a role model and inspiration in her interview at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Higuchi Ichiyo on the 5000 yen note.

Although Ichiyo died in 1896 of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, she left behind a legacy of nearly four thousand classical poems, twenty-one well-crafted stories and numerous essays, which would make anyone else feel like a slouch in comparison. Some of her stories are regarded as examplary to this day. This book contains nine of those stories, as well as extensive quotes from her very detailed, lively and accomplished diary, which she kept over a long period of time (and which I wish would get translated in its entirety into English). It also contains biographical notes, showing just how surprising and remarkable her achievements were, because she came from an impoverished former samurai family, and became de facto the head of the family at an early age, was largely self-taught and constantly struggled to make a living to support her mother, her sister and herself.

Trained initially in the classical style of poetry, and clearly a huge fan of the writing of the Heian court, this all changes in 1893, when she and her family move to the poorer, red-light districts of Tokyo and try to run a stationery shop (not very successfully). Her stories become less melodramatic and inspired by the past, and instead feature both a rich description of a particular time and place, as well as social critique. She allows the rickshaw drivers, prostitutes, orphans, shopkeepers from their neighbourhood to appear as fully-rounded characters and voice their concerns, their small joys and triumphs, as well as their disappointments and defeats. At the same time, she also depicts the social constraints placed upon them.

In her most famous and accomplished story/novella Takekurabe (translated here as Child’s Play), we encounter a group of youngsters growing up in the Yoshihara red-light district. We are privy to their games and teasing, their quarrels and fights, their mischief and bullying, but also their kindnesses and mutual help. Midori is a free spirited, almost pampered girl, generous at sharing the little luxuries money can buy with her friends – but her money comes from her older sister’s work as a courtesan and she herself is being groomed to follow the same fate. Nobu is the shy, introverted son of the local priest, perpetually embarrassed by the materialistic, wordly nature of his parents. Shota is the wealthiest of the three, the son of the local pawnbroker, but he is a likable boy, constantly embarrassed by his family’s avaricious ways. As the children reach their mid-teens, they realise that the world of opportunities that seems to lie ahead of them… are actually illusions, that their fate was always to follow in their parents’ or sister’s footsteps. The solidarity and hope that they had as children drains away and they are left feeling very lonely indeed.

The last story Wakaremichi (Separate Ways) addresses the same problem, although here it is a friendship between Okyo, a young woman in her twenties who works as a seamstress and the boy who oils umbrellas Kichizo, nick-named the Dwarf, because he looks far smaller than his actual age (sixteen). Okyo is finally forced to become the mistress of a rich older man and Kichizo feels utterly betrayed that she should choose that way of life. Childish innocence gets destroyed by adult pragmatism in all of her stories.

Nigorie (Troubled Waters) is an earlier, slightly more melodramatic piece, but it succeeds in showing the life of courtesans as they grow older and fade in popularity, and the dreams they have had to cast aside. Meanwhile, in Jusanya (The Thirteenth Night), the author addresses the plight of the woman desperate to leave an abusive husband. Oseki returns home to her parents one night to say that she wants a divorce, but that would not only bring poverty and disgrace upon her family, but it would also mean she never gets to see her son again.

Ichiyo’s protagonists have very little wriggle room, very few choices open to them. They simply hustle and try to get through the day, the week, the month, and feed their dependents. This type of subject matter was perhaps not entirely new (there had been stories about the red-light district or ‘floating world’ before, notably Saikaku Ihara from two centuries earlier), but most of the stories were told by men and had a certain quality of titillation and sensationalism. Ichiyo shows real compassion and understanding for her characters. Moreover, it’s not just her subject matter that makes her memorable, but her beautiful style: full of allusions to classical works, elliptical, compact, full of word associations, puns, kakekotoba. These last are so-called pivot words, where you use the phonetic reading of a kanji character to convey multiple meanings concurrently – a much prized rhetorical device, because you can be concise yet introduce multiple layers of meaning. I suspect she might be quite difficult to read in the original, and not just because she was writing 130 years ago.

You can read a review of this book and of Ichiyo’s stories on Tony Malone’s excellent blog. If you get a chance to see the 1955 film of Takekurabe directed by Gosho, it provides a useful counterpoint to those in Japan who were looking back with nostalgia at the Meiji period during the post-war years.

Still from the film Takekurabe.

#GermanLitMonth: Marlen Haushofer

This is a good year to be reading Marlen Haushofer: 100 years since her birth and 50 years since her death. I wasn’t aware of these anniversaries but finally got to read her best-known work The Wall a few months ago and was blown away by its mix of vivid description, eerie atmosphere and philosophical/ecological musings. I’ve been keen to read anything and everything by Haushofer since, but was disappointed to find that, although her output for adults is reasonably small, it is not exactly easy to find even in German. I think her biographer Daniela Strigl is quite right to criticise the publishers for falling asleep on the job and missing this opportunity.

The truth is that, beyond her tales for children, which were frequently read in Austrian schools when I was a child, her work has always been a minority taste. She was very much admired but not widely read, although she enjoyed a brief renaissance as a feminist icon in the 1970s/80s. Her current book covers don’t do her any favours either, as they make it look like romantic (which many people misread as sentimental) fiction for and about women. Not that there is anything wrong with that kind of fiction, but it puts off a wider audience.

So I should say that Haushofer is in fact the anti-romantic writer. She depicts human loneliness (yes, particularly for women, but more generally as well) like no other writer I know. The loneliness can be physical (as it is in The Wall), but, equally, it can be the devastating loneliness of being in a relationship, or living in a crowded city, or being in a group of friends and still feeling misunderstood.

Die Tapetentür (translated as The Jib Door, but I have no idea what that means so I translated it as The Wallpaper Door – a concealed door in the wallpaper) is the story of Annette, a quiet, introverted, solitary librarian. She has had some relationships with men, but is quite relieved when things go nowhere or the men move away. She enjoys her life and routine, has one good friend and a few acquaintances whom she either respects or secretly mocks.

She is shaken out of her contentment when she meets the lawyer Gregor, who is temperamentally almost her exact opposite – extroverted, a womaniser, a bit of a macho man, who doesn’t enjoy reading or being quiet. In spite of her misgivings, she marries Gregor and expects a child. She is not entirely convinced she will be a good mother, but she is both fascinated and repulsed by the animal response and change in her body. She seems resigned to the traditional division of labour and gender roles in the household, even though she resents Gregor for cheating on her and not being more tender and understanding.

The narrative switches between close third person POV and Annette’s diary entries, so we get to see both her behaviour in social situations, but also see her anxieties and doubts reflected in her journal. She also muses about life more generally and makes some witty observations about society, single and married people, even wealth and poverty. The concealed door that Annette suddenly sees in the wallpaper (she is the only one that notices the door, so it probably is a metaphorical rather than a literal one) represents perhaps the wall that Annette has put up between herself and others, and a door that she is unable or unwilling to walk through in the battle of the sexes.

Memoir Month: Maggie Gee and Beth Ann Fennelly

Women’s memoirs are bringing great comfort and inspiration to me at the moment, especially those of women writers. (To be honest, I seem to read very few memoirs by people who are not writers or dancers… and that has been the case since childhood.)

Maggie Gee: My Animal Life

Unusually for a writer, Maggie Gee focuses not so much on her interior life, but on what she calls her ‘animal life’ – the life of the body, the senses, sex and love, birth and parenthood, illness, aging – all the things which make Jinny in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves so irresistible.

Not to degrade my life, but to celebrate it. To join it, tiny though it is, to all the life in the universe. To the brown small-headed pheasant running by the lake in Coolham. To my grandparents and parents, and my great grandparents who like most people in the British Isles of their generation wore big boots, even for the rare occasions of photographs, and lived on the clayey land, and have returned their bones to it, joining the bones of cattle, horses and foxes.

Her accounts are frank and fresh, humorous and without an inflated ego. She is content with her husband, her daughter, her writing, but she constantly asks herself questions: How can we bear to lose those we love most? How do we recover from our mistakes? How do we forgive ourselves – and our parents? What do men want from women, what do women want from men? Why do we need art and why are we driven to make it? On the whole, she attempts to answer these through personal observations and reflections, acknowledging her luck but also detailing those near-misses. After a clear, deftly-rendered memory, she will often start a more general musing on the subject.

Above all, I enjoyed her observations about the life of a writer (creatives in general, but she singles out writers and storytellers in particular). For example, she describes how her writing career nearly derailed when she became too complacent. She admits that the literary world can feel like a jungle, that it is bowing down to commercial reality. Yet I like the way she refuses to be bitter about it – and seems to have a very kind word to say about book bloggers without an agenda other than sharing their love of books.

In the jungle, writers are opportunists. We are show-offs, trying to display our coats. We need to be the most beautiful and youthful, we need to have novelty, we need to have mates… If we fall, we must be sure to get up quickly, for if we lie there, bleeding, we will die down there… Of course, some good writers do well in the jungle… But it isn’t inevitable, it isn’t even normal. If you want to know where the best writers are, you can’t tell by reading the literary pages, or going to big bookshops, or looking at prize lists. You must read for yourself, and think for yourself, or listen to voices you know and trust: private readers: truth-tellers…

And then there is the work. Come back to that. Get up on the wire, walk the line in the sunlight. Breathe, concentrate, find the nerve.

Beth Ann Fennelly: Heating and Cooling. 52 Micro-Memoirs

If Maggie Gee is inspirational in terms of content, then the second memoir I read was inspirational in terms of form. Beth Ann Fennelly is in fact the Poet Laureate of Mississippi and these micro-memoirs (ranging in size from one sentence to 3-4 pages) are almost like prose-poems. Poignant observations, tiny vignettes, which make you suddenly see the world in a new way. The poet describes herself as being bad at remembering, so these memoirs come out higgledy-piggledy, some of them with addendums, some of them on topics she keeps coming back to (like Married Love). But of course that is all carefully and deliberately constructed.

She was recommended to me by poet Anne-Marie Fyfe, when I attended her workshop on the ‘Home Movie’ (writing about house and home). They are very funny and quirky, some seem just casual throwaway remarks, but they build up over the length of the book into something far more coherent and touching. Here are just three very short ones which I love:

I Knew a Woman

Everything she had was better than everything the rest of us had. Not by a lot. But by enough.

Mommy Wants a Glass of Chardonnay

If you all collected all the drops of days I’ve spent singing ‘Row, row, row your boat’ to children fighting sleep, you’d have an ocean deep enough to drown them many times over.

I Come From a Long Line of Modest Achievers

I’m fond of recalling how my mother is fond of recalling how my great-grandfather was the very first person to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge on the second day.

Women’s memoirs month

This month I’ve decided to focus on memoirs (factual or slighly fictionalised) by women writers. The first two that I read were Motherwell by Deborah Orr and Splithead by Julya Rabinowich (translated by Tess Lewis).

Deborah Orr: Motherwell

Although Motherwell is the name of the place where Deborah Orr was born and grew up, it is a felicitous play on words, because her relationship with her mother was going anything but ‘well’ and because it is a story of origin, such as the fountain/ well that gave her inspiration and values for the rest of her life (even if she chose to rebel against them).

Motherwell is – or was – a working-class coal and steel town on the Clyde Valley. The stripping back of its industry had already started when Orr was a child, the town lost its purpose and the people lost their identity. Orr hated the town and longed to escape – which she did, as soon as she left school – but this is a more nuanced revisiting of the place at the removal of several decades, a brutally honest look at what was both good and bad about it. There are moments of real lyricism, childhood friendships revisited (and the division between Catholics and Protestants stated all too clearly), and Orr’s love of nature becomes apparent. Both the child and the grown-up Deborah appreciate the landscape around her home town, the great river Clyde on their doorstep, the woods and marshlands. What she notices in the present-day, however, is that more attention is being given to the historical background of the area, which used to be a royal hunting forest in the Middle Ages.

There’s a sign by the tree now, telling people this stuff…. But none of this was there when Motherwell was a place with a future. The heritage industry moves in when people don’t know who they are any more and have to focus on who they were instead.

This is the story of a certain time and place, but it’s also a personal family history. Orr is sometimes a little too harsh on her parents, but she also tries to understand how their hard and unsatisfactory lives shaped them, and why this might have made them less-than-perfect and rather unsupportive parents. Having a difficult relationship with my mother myself, I could relate to many of the instances she describes.

It makes me grieve for the lost Win, the bright, talented girl who could have got so much more out of her life, if all of her life hadn’t been squashed into the tiny space of husband, home and children. My mother’s whole existence… was ordered by the choices of men. Their attention, their validation – that was everything to Win. She didn’t even think about it, was not really aware of it. Being in the good graces of men, attracting them, keeping the one you chose… these were the only important ways in which to gauge the worth of a woman. Win’s forty -year marriage to my father had been the great achievement of her life. Getting married, being married, staying married. These were things my mothers was violently, indefatigably in favour of.

My mother slagged off women, women she didn’t feel superior to who were different to her in a way that made her doubt herself, because she was so invested in the perfection of her womanhood, so proud of it.

Yet I can accept her unsentimental critique of her parents, because I can imagine she was just as hard on herself. Nevertheless, as she rummages after her mother’s death through her bureau, where she kept all of her paperwork and valuables, she finds keepsakes of many of her achievements as a child and a collection of clippings of her articles after she moved to London and became a journalist. Her parents were proud of her after all – they just weren’t the generation or perhaps the personalities who could comfortably articulate that.

I’d read a few articles by Deborah Orr, but I really became aware of her on Twitter in the last few months before her premature death, when she was describing in painful detail her nasty divorce. (You can imagine why I could relate to that). She does not shy away from painful details in this book either, and I do wish she could have lived longer to write the next volume of her memoirs.

Julya Rabinowich: Splithead

Julya Rabinowich emigrated from Russia to Austria in 1977, when she was just seven. She is now considered one of the most interesting German language writers of her generation (she is also a translator, playwright and painter). Both her parents were artists and this ‘novel’ is a very lightly fictionalised account of her own move to Austria. It tells the story of Mischka, born in St Petersburg into an extended Jewish family. She moves to Vienna with her parents and grandmother, and her story of trying to fit into the Viennese schools and society is interspersed with memories of their life in Russia, as recounted by Spaltkopf (“Splithead”), a Russian fairy-tale monster who feeds off the emotions of his victims. It’s a quirky experimental style, quite different from the more straightforward account by Deborah Orr. While I generally like experimental fiction, I have to admit that I found this style annoying at times, too jerky and bitty, swerving from one paragraph to the next, even from one sentence to the next, to Russian folk tales or imaginary friends or other influences.

Although I enjoyed the scenes of life in a block of flats in St Petersburg, the descriptions of neighbours and scenes of naughtiness, the oppressive atmosphere that they had to learn to navigate, I felt that the life in exile section was not as detailed as I’d have liked. I much preferred the descriptions of life as an immigrant in Switzerland by Irena Brežná or Julia Franck’s description of life in a refugee camp in West. There were some scenes such as the one below, but far too few of them for my liking.

We wait in a long queue with other emigrants for allocation by the organization responsible for us… Our goal is the shabby desk of the official who will interview us… An endless wave of complaints washes over the man facing us with his questionnaires. There is no alphabet in the world that can capture this despair. Whatever gets set down on the form is not what makes up the person. Our Noah’s Ark, which we’ve lined up by twos to enter, doesn’t have enough room for us all; at least, that is the rumour.

As for Mischka herself, she is a bit of a manipulative brat (the description of what she does to her mother at some pointm for no good reason at all just broke my heart) and she gets even worse when she grows up. However, there are little gems of insight scattered throughout the book, which kept me reading on. Of course, means of communication have moved on since the 1970s, but perhaps it’s still not easy to get past censorship in the ‘mother country’.

Emigration tears people apart. They learn about high points and personal disasters in letters and phone calls. Closer contact is impossible. As if they had landed on another planet, breathing is difficult in the spacesuits that they don’t dare take off for fear there won’t be enough air in the new atmosphere. Their chests rise and fall with difficulty.Their lungs hurt. The voices of the other settlers croak through the microphones in their helmet.

January in Japan: Short Stories by Women

I cannot remember where exactly I came across this rather lovely little bilingual collection of short stories by Japanese women writers, translated and edited by Angus Turvill and sponsored by The Japan Society in the UK . Probably the London Book Fair, but it is available for purchase (mostly online). The collection features Kuniko Mukoda (gone far too soon), Natsuko Kuroda, Kaori Ekuni, Mitsuyo Kakuta, Aoko Matsuda. I had only read Mukoda in the original a long time ago and in translation only the last of these authors, Matsuda’s novella entitled The Girl Who Is Getting Married (translated by the same Angus Turvill).

The stories are presented in parallel text format, although of course it is not intended to be an absolute literal translation. Nevertheless, it makes me feel curiously powerful to be able to check the original Japanese on the left against the English on the right, especially when the original includes phonetic transcription of all the kanji characters that might prove a bit of a struggle to this rusty scholar of Japanese! It also includes a fascinating discussion of translation choices at the end, which demonstrates just how tricky translation can be.

The stories all take place in different settings – town, country, seaside, past, present. In all but one of them, the main character is a woman, at different stages of their life, and in scenarios that will sound terribly familiar to women outside Japan too. From the young girl shunned by her classmates in The Ball by Kuroda, to the young worker profoundly tired of ‘friendly working environments’ in Planting by Matsuda, from the mother mourning the loss of her stillborn infant in The Child Over There to a lonely older woman finding some kind of connection with the younger generation in Summer Blanket. What is very Japanese about these stories, if we can make any cultural generalisations, is the subtle, slant way of telling things. None of that ‘drumming home the point’ that we often get in what I like to call the MFA class of contemporary American short stories.

Having said that, my favourite story is probably The Otter, the one that follows the most typical Western-style short story format. (It was written in 1980, shortly before the death of the author in a plane crash). It is the only one where the main protagonist is an elderly man, whose pride and joy is his garden, a rare thing in an urban environment. He likes to sit on the veranda and admire it at dusk. He has been resisting his wife’s suggestion that he should sell off part of the plot of land to a developer to build a block of flats. But then he has a stroke and his wife takes matters into her own hands.

Throughout the story, Takuji compares his wife to an otter – he feels real affection for the energy with which she tackles most things, how lively and captivating she is. How easily she proffers little white lies to the travelling salesmen who come knocking at their door. In Japanese the word for otter is ‘kawauso’ (which is written throughout the story in hiragana rather than any kanji – significantly so, because kawauso also sounds like ‘kawaii + uso’ – which could mean ‘cute lies’). But then he remembers a painting entitled The Otters’ Carnival:

Otters are wanton in their destructiveness: they sometimes kill more fish than they can possibly eat, and lay them out on display. That kind of display is sometimes called an otters’ carnival.

In layer after layer of recollections, almost a list of the things he admires but also finds a little frustrating about his wife, he begins to realise what shaky foundations his life has been built upon.

Stories that felt like a breath of fresh air. I was transported to a Japanese seashore, was wrapped in a light summer blanket, and planted away my fear…

Nominations for #WIT Top 100

Women in Translation Month is coming up very soon, and for this year, the founder and host of #WITMonth Meytal at Biblibio has decided to curate a list of the top 100 women in translation. You are all invited to take part, if you follow some basic rules:

I’ve selected ten books that instantly came to mind, without me having to go through my bookshelves in detail. I could have chosen so many more, but these are ones that have really changed my world, shaken my foundations, taught me what it means to be a woman and an artist and other such fundamental things. And, instead of telling you what the book is ‘about’, I will just give you a 3 word (or thereabouts) summary and a quote from each.

Looking at the list, I guess none of them are really cheerful, happy books, are they?

Simone de Beauvoir: Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter) – bourgeois turns bohemian

 I had wanted myself to be boundless, and I had become as shapeless as the infinite. The paradox was that I became aware of this deficiency at the very moment when I discovered my individuality; my universal aspiration had seemed to me until then to exist in its own right; but now it had become a character trait: ‘Simone is interested in everything.’ I found myself limited by my refusal to be limited.

Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, Ging, Gegangen (Go, Went, Gone) – meeting, connecting, empathy

Have the people living here under untroubled circumstances and at so great a distance from the wars of others been afflicted with a poverty of experience, a sort of emotional anemia? Must living in peace – so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world – inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?

Veronique Olmi: Bord de mer (Beside the Sea) – depressed mother, heartbreak

You force yourself to live as best you can, but everything keeps fading away. You wake up in the morning but that morning no longer exists, just like the evening preceding it, forgotten by everyone. You inch forward on a cliff edge, I’ve known that for a while. One step forward. One step in the abyss. Then you start over again. To go where? No one knows. No one cares.

Ingeborg Bachmann: Malina – victim of imagination or men?

Some people live and some people contemplate others living. I am amongst those who contemplate. And you?

Murasaki Shikibu: Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) – shining prince ages

You that in far-off countries of the sky can dwell secure, look back upon me here; for I am weary of this frail world’s decay.

Yosano Akiko: Midaregami (Tangled Hair) – poetry of female desire

A star who once

Within night’s velvet whispered

All the words of love

Is now a mortal in the world below —

Look on this untamed hair!

Clarice Lispector: Complete Short Stories – capricious, scintillating, sad

Mama, before she got married… was a firecracker, a tempestuous redhead, with thoughts of her own about liberty and equality for women. But then along came Papa, very serious and tall, with thoughts of his own too, about… liberty and equality for women. The trouble was in the coinciding subject matter.

Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu: Drumul acuns (The Hidden Way) – social critique of inter-war Romania

The snobbery of Papadat-Bengescu’s protagonists is a defining trait of the Romanian bourgeoisie, of humble and precarious origin, without any aristocratic ancestry, and therefore keen to integrate into top-tier society at any price, either by falsifying their family history or by making unjustifiable moral compromises.

Critique from Autorii.com

Gabriela Adamesteanu: Dimineata pierduta (Lost Morning) – political family saga

How little of what lies within us we are able to convey through words! And how few of those words are received by others. And yet we keep on talking, firm in the belief that the sun of rationality will light up our souls… Otherwise, what would our lives be like if we view conversations as being as complicated as blood transfusions? It’s only when we’re at our lowest ebb that we are haunted by this suspicion, but we cast this suspicion aside as soon as we possibly can.

Marina Tsvetaeva: In the Inmost Hour of the Soul (or any other of her poetry) – quirky, passionate, ruthless

I have no need of holes

for ears, nor prophetic eyes:

to your mad world there is

one answer: to refuse!

Academia or Life? Joanna Cannan’s High Table

Joanna Cannan, Persephone Books

I’d never heard of Joanna Cannan until I saw her in the Persephone catalogue, but she was the mother of the Pullein-Thompson sisters and almost single-handedly invented the pony books genre which I devoured as a youngster. She is also a typical example of what has been called the ‘furrowed middle-brow’ type of literature which was so popular (and so well written) back in the 1920s and 30s.

My librarian thought I meant Joanna Cannon, whose books were readily available, but we finally managed to find one of her books in the deepest recesses of the cellar. The book is High Table, which is predictably about the Warden of a fictional Oxford college. Joanna Cannan herself was the daughter of an Oxford warden, so she knows her stuff.

Theodore Fletcher is the (anti?)hero of this book. A wimpy, self-conscious, anxious little boy of the late Victorian age – clever but not exactly brilliant at school, not any trouble either.

…his accuracy, his copperplate memory and lack of intellectual imagination were admirably suited to the precise demands of schoolwork. He was popular with his masters, for he gave them no trouble and looked like doing them credit, and the worship of the athlete had not then reached the later disproportionate stage.

He is of course the perfect target for bullies – not so much at school, but with the landed gentry in the village where his father is the rector. He is constantly reminded that of his inferiority in social status, social and physical skills, even looks. Luckily, he has the world of books as his refuge and I’m sure many of us earnest and bookish children labelled as ‘swots’ in our youth can relate to that:

All around the room in the shelves stood the books, waiting for you, not criticising you, you needn’t wonder or worry over what they were thinking, they didn’t care if you lost races or cheated at games, they didn’t whisper that you were short for your age or snigger at your spectacles; quiet and brown and learned… they waited for you, and you only had to open them and they’d each a world to give you, not a hot, hurrying, jeering world full of races you couldn’t win and balls you couldn’t catch and trees you couldn’t bear to climb, but the cool, slow, smooth world of the mind…

He goes to study at Oxford, but a holiday fling with a girl socially his inferior (but whose mind he would like to improve) results in a pregnancy. Horrified by what he has done, he shirks responsibility. The girl gets married to a farmer and moves away from the home village, while Theodore continues his academic pursuits in Oxford. On the eve of the First World War, he becomes the Warden of his college. The great pride he feels in his appointment is considerably diminished when he realises that he was in fact the compromise candidate, despised by his fellows but designed to keep other, more controversial although brilliant candidates out:

And now there’s nothing to come, nothing to hope for. I’ve got years and years before me… of being Warden and keeping Haughton out, and all of it to be spent with these men who’ve used me, who put me in this place when they had to find someone for it, because they thought, we’ll be able to manage Fletcher; he’s as weak as water’ he’ll be wax in our hands.

Bitterly disappointed, he then faces another challenge: seeing his beloved college and Oxford itself decimated by the war – or rather its young men disappearing. Gradually, he starts questioning the superiority of intellectual life, which has become meaningless in a world at war:

We’re not waiting. We’re left behind. Oxford’s no use in this, any more than scholarship or literature; a heap of earth out there that a man can take cover behind is of more use than the loveliest of our buildings… this ghastly feeling that your world had been nothing all along but an illusion, that everything you had lived for had been useless, impotent all this time?

Just about at this stage in his disillusionment, fate brings Lennie into his life, the eldest son of his former love, the result of his only amorous adventure. Suddenly, he feels he has been given a second chance to reconnect with life, real life.

I won’t spoil the rest of the story for you, but it is charmingly written, with many astute observations which keep it just this side of sentimentality. And, for all its Oxford setting, it is not strictly speaking a campus novel, although it shows quite clearly the disconnect between Oxbridge and real life. You cannot help but feel sorry for poor Theodore, infuriating though he undoubtedly is – the very illustration of ‘old fogey’. Overall, an enjoyable read but one which also raises questions about ivory towers and just how much we can bear to engage with the mess of the real world.