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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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’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.
It’s not the first time I join in the 20 Books of Summer challenge hosted by Cathy. But I may have slipped and not been 100% successful in the past, as it’s so hard to commit to books, when there are so many other exciting ones peeking at you. (My book monogamy is a movable feast.) Still, in theory, it’s possible to read those 20 plus a few others. After all, it’s 94 days, so exactly 3 months.
I am going to attempt something unusual this year: namely, to have all 20 books from my Netgalley list, because I am only at 59% review rate and it’s embarrassing! I do have an excuse for that, as I received so many physical copies to review lately, plus my previous Kindle broke down and then I lost the other one, so it took a while to replace. So I have a mix of old and new books, some have been lingering on my shelf (now archive) for years. Besides, it’s easier to carry the light Kindle in my backpack on the train alongside my laptop and packed lunch!
Here are my mountain of 20 books to be climbed:
Crime (because I have a lot of those and these look fun and summery)
Mario Giordano: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
Belinda Bauer: Snap
Zygmunt Miloszewski: Priceless
Derek B. Miller: American by Day
Rachel Rhys: A Dangerous Crossing
Women in Translation Month (because there aren’t nearly enough of these on Netgalley)
Muriel Barbery: Life of Elves
Virginie Despentes: Vernon Subutex
Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream
Kanae Minato: Penance
Xialu Guo: Once Upon a Time in the East
More Women Writers (and across different genres)
Aminatta Forna: Happiness
Janet Hogarth: The Single Mums’ Mansion
Lucy Mangan: Bookworm
Louise O’Neill: Asking for It
Nell Zink: Nicotine
The Oldest on My Netgalley Shelf
Philip Hensher: The Emperor Waltz (2014)
Essential Poems by 10 American Poets (2015)
Malcolm Mackay: The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter (2015)
Back from Quais du Polar crime festival in Lyon and it was once again a wonderful experience, one that I would encourage all my crime fiction friends in the UK to consider. The total cost can work out cheaper than attending British crime festivals, even with a weaker pound: flights to Lyon are often cheaper than train tickets, hotels can be cheaper too, all the events are free, and you need to eat and drink in both places (plus the food in Lyon is usually of excellent quality).
So that’s my contribution to the Lyon Tourist Board. I was very lucky to attend the festival with a book-blogging friend in Lyon, Emma from Book Around the Corner, and her far more timely and excellent descriptions of each day at the Quais du Polar are here, here and here, so I am not sure I can add much more to that. But I did attend some different panels than Emma. Incidentally all the conferences available for replay on live.quaisdupolar.com (mostly in French, but also in English and Spanish, depending on what language the authors were using). I will try to include a link to each specific conference I am discussing.
Clare Mackintosh (UK) and Jenny Rogneby (Sweden) both worked with the police before turning their hand to crime fiction, so they had interesting things to say about the capacity of women to be perpetrators of crime. The other writers on the panel (Andrée Michaud from Canada, Dominique Sylvain and Harold Cobert from France) agreed that they were all tired of seeing women in fiction exclusively as disempowered victims, being raped or murdered or tortured for entertainment purposes. Andrée said that kind of writing smacked of voyeurism and she isn’t sure it serves the purpose of the story. Clare wants to give a voice to the victims, and what happens off the page, what is implied, what we all fear is often scarier than a very graphic scene of actual violence. Jenny pointed out that there is still very often a double standard: that when women commit a crime, they are judged far more harshly, as if it’s more understandable or forgivable or to be expected when men commit a crime. Harold thought (based on the example of his own young son) that all of us are born with a capacity for violence – we all feel like killing certain annoying people, for instance – but we don’t act on it because we learn to put on a thin veneer of civilisation as we grow up. Dominique didn’t quite agree with that; she argued that it’s the survival instinct, when we feel attacked or cornered, which can make even the most placid of us react violently at times. She was fascinated with Clare’s account of drunken Friday nights in city centres in the UK, when women are often more aggressive and resort to physical violence even more readily than the men, and commented: ‘It’s interesting that you don’t see that kind of female behaviour in fiction: you see the manipulative/psychological type of feminine violence.’ Indeed!
A journey from East to West and North to South of Europe: Arnaldur Indriđason (Iceland), Victor del Arbol (Spain), Andriy Kokotukha (Ukraine), Zygmunt Miłoszewski (Poland), Olivier Truc (France, but writing about the Reindeer Police in the Arctic Circle).
This was one of those panels where it was very difficult to find a common subject, other than stating that crime fiction is a wonderful way to discover new countries and cultures and that we should enjoy our European diversity without ever taking it for granted. Each author shared a little bit about their specific countries and their experience of ‘occupation’ or ‘oppression’. The most poignant account was of course from the Ukraine, where the ‘Maidan’ (street) movement was not just revolutionary but also a cultural initiative, and the protesters found refuge (and spiritual nourishment) in the Cultural Centre and Library. Yes, even Iceland has known occupation: it only became independent in 1944 and until 2006 had a US military base which practically doubled the population of Reykjavik overnight. They also expressed concern about the recent resurgence of nationalist rhetoric. As Del Arbol said: ‘I thought I was writing about the past – dictatorship, not being able to listen to other points of view, the blaming of others, hatred – but I can see we are in danger of it happening all over again.’
Three male writers – David Young (UK), Ron Rash (US), Caryl Ferey (France) – who have powerful female protagonists in many of their books. Why do they choose to write about women – in either first or third person (and they all agreed that it was much more intimate and difficult to do the first person)? What was fascinating here was the difference in approach: Rash and Ferey talked very much about inspiration, almost divine dictation straight from the source of the story. David Young had a much more down-to-earth, craftsman-like approach.
RR: It’s not that I choose to write women: the story and the characters choose me. When I tried to write one particular story from a man’s perspective, it was as if I was switched onto the wrong frequency, so I had to switch to a woman’s voice and then it all became clear. Besides, women in American fiction often only have power within the family, so I wanted to go beyond the stereotypical. Plus I am such a boring person, I want to write about much more interesting people than myself. Perhaps some other writers – naming no names – should consider doing that too. And I love the challenge of writing about something or someone that I know less – we are all essentially trying to describe what it means to be alive in the world, to be human. After a while, you start to hear the voice so clearly, it’s like being possessed in some ways.
CF: Two women together in a scene are always far more interesting than two men: with two men in a scene in a crime novel, they usually end up fighting or shooting each other, with women it’s a lot more complex. I do admit falling in love with my female character, pathetic though it may sound. And my ideal of manhood is David Bowie, who is that perfect combination of male and female characteristics.
DY: I had a much more cynical reason for using a female heroine: I wanted to write a thriller set in GDR in the 1970s, but that kind of thing usually only appeals to male readers, so I wanted to draw in female readers by creating Karen Müller as the recurring main detective in the series. Plus, it is reflective of East German society at the time: over 90% of women were working, in all sorts of jobs, it was a far more egalitarian society in that respect. I was also lucky that my tutors at City University were women and gave me good feedback if they felt that I was straying too far from a woman’s perspective on things.
This was the first of two panels on Germany: viewed from the inside, by German authors Thomas Willmann, Sebastian Fitzek and Oliver Bottini. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the second session on Germany and Berlin seen from the outside by Maxime Gillio and Romain Slocombe (France), Philip Kerr and David Young (UK), but I will be listening to that recording.
Aside from the huge pleasure of hearing German once more, I also appreciated the opportunity to discover some new authors. I had only read Fitzek before, and his fast-paced psycho-thrillers are not necessarily my cup of tea, but I discovered that Bottini has a series featuring an alcoholic woman detective Louise Boni (makes a change from male alcoholics, I suppose). However, the one that captured my imagination was Willmann’s combination of Heimatroman (translated as: sentimental novel set in a traditional regional background) and Western, with a stranger coming to a snowbound village in the Alps, sounded very much like Dürrenmatt’s play about revenge ‘The Visit’ liberally sprinkled with Scandinoir moodiness. It has been filmed in Austria, directed by Andreas Prochaska. The German language trailer is at the end of this blog post.
What all three writers complained about was that German literature tends to be very earnest, full of educational zeal and purpose, so genre literature, whose sole purpose is entertainment, is regarded with suspicion and quite a bit of derision. Fitzek claimed that he doesn’t care what the critics say about him, or what drawer he gets stuck in, as long as he can tell the kind of story he enjoys reading himself. Bottini, however, was more enraged by the lack of consideration given to crime fiction, and said there are no big crime festivals in Germany which could compare to Quais du Polar or English festivals. In spite of all that, German ‘Krimi’ is remarkably healthy and diverse, and it engages with current affairs, examines social problems, provides a kind of X-ray of society.
Although I want to avoid this becoming a roman fleuve, I also want to avoid a massively long post, so I will write separately about the two political panels which I attended, plus the advance screening of the first episode of the new series of Spiral (Engrenages), as well as my book haul and personal encounters.
Only one of these was on my #20booksofsummer list, the other one snuck in because it’s a friend’s book. Now guess which one of them disappointed me?
First, the friend. I’ve previously read and reviewed Rebecca Bradley’s debut novel Shallow Waters and was curious to read the second in the series. Although I enjoyed the first novel, I have to admit the writing is slicker, stronger, much more confident in this book. DI Hannah Robbins and her team are still struggling to come to terms with the fall-out from their previous major case (described in Shallow Waters). Hannah is not only worried about regaining her professional credibility and enabling her team to work together efficiently once more, but on a personal level, she is not at all sure she can trust her former boyfriend, journalist Ethan.
A spate of severe food poisoning seems to be going around Nottingham – or could it be suicide, even murder? The team is unable to find any connections between the victims: could it really be a case of random poisoning of strangers? And to what purpose?
This is a puzzling and painful case for the team, but slightly more comprehensible for the reader, as there are chapters written from another POV. The author turns the serial killer trope completely and very successfully on its head, allowing us to feel much sympathy for an individual, while not condoning his behaviour in the least. Nor showing that sickly fascination with the convoluted advance planning and almost superhuman cleverness of serial killers which have spoilt the whole subgenre for me.
As before, Bradley is not afraid to tackle difficult subjects, with no easy answers, subjects which may make some readers feel uncomfortable. I admire that bravery. Another thing I really like about this series is that, although it is narrated predominantly by Hannah herself in first person, she is not the star of the show. Instead, both Hannah and her author make it very clear that investigative work is all about teamwork and patience. It’s this attention to detail (without getting bogged down in formalities or over-long explanations) which makes you settle down comfortably in Bradley’s experienced (policing) hands.
One minor point of disgruntlement: that the final denouement comes a bit too quickly after Hannah realises a crucial point from a throwaway remark. Perhaps this was done for the purposes of keeping the book at a manageable length, but I for one wouldn’t have minded a few more pages of investigation and misdirection before we got there.
Made to Be Broken will be released tomorrow and is available for preorder on Amazon UK, Amazon US and all other Amazon stores. There will also be a Facebook party for the launch tomorrow, if you’d like to join in for a bit of fun and support for Rebecca.
The second book was the one I abandoned. I received it as a freebie when I signed up for Quais du Polar in Lyon. It’s by a French author and screenwriter I’d never heard of before, but she’s been receiving very positive reviews. Ingrid Desjours’ Les Fauves (The Beasts – talk about a controversial title, although it ostensibly refers to the two main characters) is about a young woman, Haiko, who’s heading a charity aimed at preventing young people from becoming jihadists. When her friend and fellow worker is gunned down on the street, she reluctantly hires a bodyguard, ex-military man Lars, whose experiences in Afghanistan may both help and hinder him to do his job properly.
The premise sounds interesting and it’s high time this subject was explored. But this is not the way to do it (for me). It felt like the author jumped upon a bandwagon of topical subjects and produced a sensationalist thriller which could have been about anything else, really, rather than the more thoughtful and in-depth exploration in Jihadi: A Love Story by Yusuf Toropov. At some point I decided I could not read anymore about how Haiko is attracted to the unwashed, hairy masculinity of Lars…
I did not finish it, although this was supposed to be my 5th book of the #20booksofsummer challenge.
I sometimes use little green stick-its to mark passages I particularly want to return to or quote in the books I read, and the three books below are FULL of green. They are all memoirs of one sort or another, looking at motherhood, being a woman in the modern world, moving between cultures and countries, how to be creative and fulfilled. And they are all poetic, funny, sad, and don’t beat you around the head at all with preachy ‘self-improvement’ tips.
Elif Shafak: Black Milk (transl. Hande Zapsu)
After the birth of her first child, the highly successful Turkish author experienced a severe case of post-partum depression, which puzzled her and crippled her creativity. She describes how she overcame it and found salvation through writing. So far, so dry a blurb, but this is Shafak we are talking about. So, in the storytelling tradition of Shehrazat, with typical scorn for conventionalities, we embark upon a stormy tale of how the author came to terms with all the warring women inside her. Miss Highbrowed Cynic, Milady Ambitious Chekhovian, Little Miss Practical, Mama Rice Pudding, Dame Dervish and Blue Belle Bovary are at times suppressed or neglected, at other times they come to the fore and attempt to install a military dictatorship. It’s a witty way of talking about inner turmoil and life in general – and woven in we find Shafak’s usual candour, erudite cross-cultural references and self-deprecatory humour. Here’s a quote from the end of the book, chosen not because it is typical of her style, but because it seems to me to speak about so much more than just inner peace.
That is not to say that they [the 6 women] agree on every issue. But by listening, not just talking, they are learning the art of coexistence. They now know that to exist freely and equally, they need one another, and that where even one voice is enslaved none can be free. Together we are learning how to live, write and love to the fullest by simply being all of who we are. Sometimes we manage this beautifully and artlessly, sometimes we fail ridiculously. When we fail, we remember the moments of harmony and grace, and try again.
Elizabeth Smart: The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals
Nowadays if you do a Google search for the name, you will find a former kidnap victim talking about her experiences, but before that, Elizabeth Smart was a Canadian writer best known for her fragmented, personal, prose-poetry work By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, a barely fictionalised account of her tumultuous love story with English poet George Baker. This volume is a continuation of the first one, in which Smart is a single mother of four trying to make a living as a copywriter in post-war London, in equal measure addicted to and annoyed by a feckless lover.
It surprised me, upon looking at Smart’s biographical details more closely, to discover she was very successful and made lots of money in her profession… and that she found ways to be a prolific writer (although it was mostly published posthumously). The way she presents herself in this book (and in its predecessor) is very much ‘woe me’, with an anger and ferocity of spirit, an openness about love and sex and feeling unfulfilled, which must have been very fresh and scandalous at the time. Yet the observations are not just personal: there are excellent descriptions of austere, grey London after the war; of the centuries old division of labour- a proto-feminist too; a champion of ‘our hard-working deserving poor’.
Everyone must work; nobody must loaf. ‘Pull your own weight,’ my mother repeats… ‘Keep clean, bear fruit, and wait.’ This seems to cover housework, childbirth, sainthood. But money must come into it… I am reluctant, until we know more, to see the future so drearily laid out like an allotment garden, with each to his patch of work.
There is little continuity in a narrative of this type: it is made up of glimmers of brilliance, highly quotable passages, and then we’re off on a new tangent, a new jumble of thoughts and impressions. The author acknowledges she may not be to everyone’s taste.
I am the obsessional type. Which type are you? If you are the butterfly type you will never forgive my intensity…. An obsessional fog, even if it is made of a flock of holy ghosts, is not the sort of thing we can put before the members of Parliament… too fleshy too flighty too messy for debating floors?
Before you can start shifting uncomfortably in your chair, however, and complain that she is dripping in self-pity, she points out precisely that, proving that awareness of privilege is not a new thing:
O stop the caterwauling! Women with gusty voices pound pianos in pubs, impossibly happy against great odds. More ravaged and more successful by far than you, they know how to back-slap life with a greeting of gratitude. I am old enough to know that nothing I want will ever happen. I might get a faded facsimile. If I were lucky a man I want might happen to find comfort in my simple meals, or warmth from a fire always burning at the right moment. This isn’t at all enough, but I see I must make it do. I must. I see I must.
‘Miss Smart, you are not the first woman to have had four children.’
Smart thinks and writes like a poet, so there is no story arc here to speak of. Instead, you have diverse approaches to the same body of a problem, like birds coming to peck at a cadaver from all different angles. You have repetition, strong rhythmical patterns which need to be chanted out loud, clusters of images exploding under their own weight at times. While it hasn’t got the raw power and coherence of her more famous book, it is brittle and smouldering and shrill. An acquired taste, perhaps, best read in instalments, a cry of real pain, with added burrs of satire and wit, and much compassion for frailty, drunkenness, despair. I can see myself liking it more and more after several rereadings.
Isabel Huggan: Belonging
By contrast, Huggan’s style is not at all convoluted: it is limpid-clear like a mountain spring, occasionally mischievous, and warm and welcoming like a bowl of soup. Huggan makes us feel one with the world and humanity in general. Although it’s a very personal story of (yet another) Canadian writer who lived in Kenya, the Philippines, France, and finally renovating a house in the south of France, it is in fact a mix of memoir and fiction (to show just how permeable the line between the two is), and something to which many readers will be able to relate. Above all, there is that generous, humble, self-aware spirit which makes me love the work and its author. Modesty, I suppose, is the word I am looking for: gentle curiosity, wisdom, openness, empathy for others, willingness to learn. Something which is often lacking from the ‘me, me, me’ shouty, selfie-touting discourse on social media nowadays.
I know all about homesickness – sipping maple syrup from a spoon while listening to a tape cassette of loon calls, endlessly writing letters to friends asking for news, sifting through old photographs, weeping on the telephone. I’ve been there, that strange and dangerous place where longing can blind you to everything else. And so you learn to live with mal de pays as with chronic illness or disability, you salt your days with nostalgie. Then finally you wake up and compare yourself to the millions of displaced people in the world who will never see their homes again, and you feel ashamed, and you stop.
She gives us the most succinct and true picture of what it really means to be moving abroad, that you will never be the same again:
… neither of us suspects how changing countries, even temporarily, is going to change us. He hopes that this job will open doors for him in the future, but we do not yet know the windows and doors in our hearts that will be opened – be wrenched open and torn from their hinges, never to be shut again. We do not know that we have begun a long journey with no return.
I used to be somewhat suspicious of memoirs, seeing them as ego-driven exercises, for what could average people possibly have to teach to others? A strange attitude for an anthropologist, who loves listening to other people’s stories. However, after reading the unusual approaches to memoir-writing taken by these three women writers, I am converted. Memoir is really about sharing stories around the camp-fire, about sharing memories, finding the universals in human experience. I end this very, very long post (well done if you’ve made it this far!) with another wonderful quote from Isabel Huggan:
Since my earliest days I have been a merchant for Nostalgia, setting up my souvenir stall on the road to the wharf on the River Styx. I do not hoard memories and I am willing – even eager to part with them.
‘Here now, sir, here’s something to take in the boat with you as you pass on to the other side. A line of poetry smooth as a pebble, a phrase bright as an insect’s wing, a clause transparent as snake-skin shed in the grass. Take these souvenirs, if you wish, you who travel forward, and keep them close to your heart as you move into the darkness. You cannot take your gold and jewels, you cannot take your fossils. But you can take your stories across the water.’