Some Thoughts on Translations of Genji

It’s been a few years since I last reread Genji, but I’m vicariously living through the experience as two of my literary friends on Twitter read it for the first time in English and French translations. Yee @hdinguyen11 (check out her book blog here)  and Knulp @KnulpTanner, who has a book blog in French, are comparing notes on their respective translations as they go along. It’s such fun to read their tweets and to add my tuppence worth of additional info and comparisons to the (possibly far too many) translations that I own. I wrote the article below for the Asymptote fortnightly newsletter back in 2018, but it’s not currently available anywhere online, so I thought I would share it here on my blog, with big thanks to Yee and Knulp for reminding me of it!

Scenes from the Tale of Genji painted by Tosa Mitsuyoshi, of the Tosa school in Osaka. Dating from the second half of the 16th century (Azuchi-Momoyama period).

Written by court lady Murasaki Shikibu roughly 1000 years ago, The Tales of Genji (Genji Monogatari) is considered the oldest novel in the world. It is perhaps also the longest novel in the world, more than 1200 pages, spread over 54 chapters. Although it has a cast of over 400 characters, there is a recognisable main character (Genji himself, the son of the Emperor by a beloved but not royal concubine) and a small core of recurring characters. There is a narrative arc (of sorts): the characters grow older and wiser, while the story gets darker as old age and regrets set in. However, the chapters are believed to have been written episode by episode for distribution amongst the other ladies of the court (therefore, there are some inconsistencies, time lapses or overlaps), much like a feuilleton in a newspaper in more modern times.

When I first encountered Genji Monogatari as a student, our Japanese professor told us: ‘It’s the kind of book that everyone talks about, but very few read properly.’ This is in marked contrast to the 13th century poetry anthology of Hyakuninisshū, which is widely known and often quoted in contemporary Japan (thanks in part to the card game based on its tanka poetry, which is traditionally played on New Year’s Day). Why should that be the case? It cannot be solely because of the obscure allusiveness to classic Chinese poetry typical of the Heian period, for the poetry anthology too contains many such examples, including the author of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu, herself.

It could have something to do with the sheer length of the story, which is not for the faint-hearted. However, the main reason undoubtedly is that until the early 20th century there was no adequate translation of it, not only in English, but even in modern Japanese. The 11th century saga remained part of the cultural legacy of Japan, but the refined, almost effeminate aesthtetics of the Heian court fell out of favour in the period of warring clans and samurai codes which followed. It would be like English readers trying to tackle Chaucer in the original.

It wasn’t until 1912 that Japanese modernist poet, feminist and social activist Yosano Akiko published an abridged version of Genji translated into colloquial Japanese. This was the result of a lifetime’s infatuation with the work: she had read it countless times by the time she turned twenty, wrote biographical studies of Murasaki Shikibu, produced a series of lectures and a scholarly commentary of the text. The latter was sadly destroyed in a fire following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, but she published a full translation in 1938. While it is perhaps surprising that such a resolutely modern, unconventional woman as Yosano Akiko found common ground with the confined women of the Heian court, waiting patiently for fickle lovers, she somehow found a voice that would speak across the centuries to both men and women of her day.  Both her translations are still in print and transformed the fate of Genji.

It was thanks to her earlier version of the modernised Genji that we have the first complete English translation of the work. A partial, unsatisfactory translation attempt was made by Baron Suematsu in 1882, but that sank without a trace. Then Orientalist Arthur Waley discovered both the original and Yosano’s translation in the 1920s and there is something of the flow and verve of Yosano in his own work. As a confirmed Sinologist, Waley was also familiar with many of the classical Chinese poems that are being referenced in the text. Last but not least, the translator was an admirer of the artistic and literary style of the Bloomsbury group. We see all of these influences at work in his creative, some might even say idiosyncratic translation.

Waley skips any bits he finds too dull or obscure. He has no qualms about rearranging names, sentences, even paragraphs and themes to make the book more palatable to an English audience. He tries to capture the spirit of the beauty of the original prose, rather than sticking to it literally. The flowery style may on occasion veer towards sentimentalization and prettification. It seems to capture an echo of an earlier period much like the pre-Raphaelite painters captured the medieval spirit in a new style that had little in common with the original.

There is also a paternalistic bias which jars with the modern reader – the translator’s voice intervenes at times, giving us his value judgements rather than Murasaki Shikibu’s voice: ‘This chapter should be read with indulgence. In it Murasaki is still under the influence of her somewhat childish predecessors…’ Yet in spite of his imperialistic tendency to judge other cultures through the prism of his own, his translation helped perceptive readers to see beyond mere ‘exoticism’. Virginia Woolf reviewed Waley’s translation in 1925 and saw instantly that this was far more than ‘cranes and chrysanthemums’. Genji is about universal human nature: ‘how passionately he desires things that are denied; how his longing for a life of tender intimacy is always thwarted; how the grotesque and the fantastic excite him beyond the simple and straightforward; how beautiful the falling snow is and how, as he watches it, he longs more than ever for someone to share his solitary joy’.

Despite its flaws, Waley’s attractive translation raised the profile of this Japanese classic so much that when Japanese novelist and short story writer Tanizaki Junichirō attempted his own translation into modern Japanese, he admitted that he was heavily influenced by Waley’s work. While Tanizaki and Yosano’s translations are the most literary, there have been other modern Japanese translations, for example the more erotic version by Funchi Emiko and the most accessible one, the everyman’s edition by Buddhist nun Setouchi Jakuchō. Contemporary scholars of Japanese literature recognise, however, that it was Genji’s surprising success abroad which led to its enshrinement as the ‘greatest Japanese classic’ in its home country.

The second complete English translation of Genji was published by Edward Seidensticker in 1976 and could hardly be more different from Waley’s work. Seidensticker resolutely sticks to a pared-down, understated style, with relatively few footnotes. As such, it is very readable, clear yet faithful to the original. His treatment of the 800 or so poems which appear throughout the pages of Genji has provoked some ire from purists: he renders them as couplets. It may not be true to Japanese poetic form, but at least he keeps them distinct from the main text, unlike Waley, who turns them into dialogue.

Royall Tyler’s translation in 2001 consciously attempts to return to the original Heian text and mimic its highly elliptical style. For instance, he does not use place or chapter names to identify the characters – an unspoken convention that all translators have resorted to for the sake of clarity. Instead, Tyler sticks to identifying them by their titles with elaborate ceremonial indirectness. This makes it difficult to follow, since those titles constantly change over the course of the book, as characters get promoted or fall out of favour. The endless hesitations and circumlocutions may be closer to the original style, but they feel old-fashioned and heavy-handed. The poetry sticks to the Japanese form but sounds a little pedestrian. For those who would like an insight into the intricacies and dramas of the Heian period, however, there is much to learn from the encyclopaedic footnotes.

Finally, the most recent translation is the 2015 version by Dennis Washburn, who tries to find a middle ground between clarity and as literal a translation as possible. The strength of his translation lies in its psychological depth and a modern sensibility to the different voices, which is in direct contrast to Waley’s. Washburn allows these often introverted, opaque characters to muse about their life and regrets, without judgement or sense of superiority. In his interpretation, it becomes clear just how much the characters are torn between the fleeting appeal of material, secular culture and a desire to escape worldly attachments.

To demonstrate just how different these translations can be, and why none of them can be considered the definitive translation, let us look at just two examples:

  • Chapter Five: Wakamurasaki

Genji visits a Buddhist monastery in the mountains and encounters there the love of his life, Murasaki, who is but a little girl at the time.

Arthur Waley: “Genji felt very disconsolate. It had begun to rain; a cold wind blew across the hill, carrying with it the sound of a waterfall–audible till then as a gentle intermittent plashing, but now a mighty roar; and with it, somnolently rising and falling, mingled the monotonous chanting of the scriptures. Even the most unimpressionable nature would have been plunged into melancholy by such surroundings. How much the more so Prince Genji, as he lay sleepless on his bed, continually planning and counter-planning.”

Edward Seidensticker: “Genji was not feeling well. A shower passed on a chilly mountain wind, and the sound of the waterfall was higher. Intermittently came a rather sleepy voice, solemn and somehow ominous, reading a sacred text. The most insensitive of men would have been aroused by the scene. Genji was unable to sleep.”

Royall Tyler: “Genji felt quite unwell, and besides, it was now raining a little, a cold mountain wind had set in to blow, and the pool beneath the waterfall had risen until the roar was louder than before. The eerie swelling and dying of somnolent voices chanting the scriptures could hardly fail in such a setting to move the most casual visitor. No wonder Genji, who had so much to ponder, could not sleep.”

Dennis Washburn: “Genji was feeling ill. It has started to rain, bringing a cooling breeze. Moreover, the water in the pool of a nearby waterfall had risen with the spring runoff, and the roar was clearly audible. He could just barely make out the sound of sleepy voices reciting sutras, a sound that sent chills through him. The atmosphere of the place would have affected even the most insensitive of people, and, coupled with his preoccupation with both Fujitsubo and the girl, it prevented him from getting any sleep at all.”

In this passage, Waley comes across as charmingly entertaining, Seidensticker as pedestrian, Washburn as a little too emphatic, while Tyler’s version seems both respectful to the orginal and the most seductive to modern readers.

  • Chapter One: Kiritsubo

However, the test I always give to any new translation of Genji is to read the first paragraph of the opening chapter, which is fiendishly difficult to render comprehensible to a modern reader. The chapter describes Genji’s mother and the circumstances of his birth. In this case, it seems that Waley is the most gossipy and entertaining, Seidensticker the most unobtrusive and clear, Tyler the most instructive, while Washburn is once again too long-winded.

Arthur Waley: “At the court of an Emperor (he lived it matters not when) there was among the many gentlewomen of the Wardrobe and Chamber one, who though she was not of the very high rank was favoured far beyond all the rest; so that the great ladies of the Palace, each of whom had secretly hoped that she herself would be chosen, looked with scorn and hatred upon the upstart who had dispelled their dreams. Still less were her former companions, the minor ladies of the Wardrobe, content to see her raised so far above them. This her position at Court, preponderant thought it was, exposed her to constant jealousy and ill will; and soon, worn out with petty vexations, she fell into a decline…”

Edward Seidensticker: “In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. The grand ladies with high ambitions thought her a presumptuous upstart, and the lesser ladies were still more resentful. Everything she did offended someone. Probably aware of what was happening, she fell seriously ill…”

Royall Tyler: “In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty’s Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor. Those others who had always assumed that pride of place was properly theirs despised her as a dreadful woman, while the lesser Intimates were unhappier still. The way she waited on him day after day only stirred up feeling against her, and perhaps this growing burden of resentment was what affected her health…”

Dennis Washburn: “In whose reign was it that a woman of rather undistinguished lineage captured the heart of the Emperor and enjoyed his favour above all the other imperial wives and concubines? Certain consorts, whose high noble status gave them a sense of vain entitlement, despised and reviled her as an unworthy upstart from the very moment she began her service. Ladies of lower rank were even more vexed, for they knew His Majesty would never bestow the same degree of affection and attention on them. As a result, the mere presence of this woman at morning rites or evening ceremonies seemed to provoke hostile reactions among her rivals, and the anxiety she suffered as a consequence of these ever-increasing displays of jealousy was such a heavy burden that gradually her health began to fail.”

Which of those translations do you prefer? And do you think you might be tempted to tackle Genji yourself, if you haven’t already done so? Let’s start the Murasaki Shikibu fan club [I was going to say the Genji Fan Club – but that is in fact the entire plot of Genji Monogatari, one might say!].

 

Reading Summary for August 2018

13 books this month. Not surprising that a certain proportion of them were women in translation, given that it is #WITMonth, but I also felt tempted to read more women in general, which is reflected in the ratio of women to men: 8 women, 5 men this month. I was also keen to read more foreign authors in general: 11 are either in another language or in translation. My favourite genre remains crime fiction, obviously, with no less than 7 books in this area, but I have also read short stories, diaries and essays this month.

Women in Translation – done a good job of reviewing nearly everything

Lucy Fricke: Daughters  – in German

Teresa Solana: The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and other stories

Beatriz Bracher: I Didn’t Talk 

Anne Holt: Dead Joker 

Lilja Sigurdardottir: Trap

Marina Tsvetaeva: Earthly Signs – Moscow Diaries 1917-22

Veronique Olmi: La Nuit en vérité – in French, review to come possibly at the weekend

Crime Fiction

Tana French: The Trespassers – one of my favourites of the Dublin Squad series because of the prickly, larger than life voice of Antoinette Conway, the main protagonist

Michael Stanley: Dead of Night – standalone about the rhino horn trade in South Africa

Pierre Lemaitre: Inhuman Resources – the most extreme assessment centre you can imagine and the despair of the unemployed, review to come soon on CFL

Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland – comic noir, review to come soon on CFL

Other Random Reads

Mircea Eliade: The Old Man and the Bureaucrats – an elderly teacher ends up on the wrong side of a totalitarian state when he tries to find an old pupil of his

Norman Manea: The Fifth Impossibility – essays about censorship, the difficulties of translation, living in exile, as well as many Romanian and other authors.

Two Crime Novels for #WITMonth

Better still – two crime novels by women writers, featuring a main protagonist who is a lesbian out of her 20s, yet this side of her (although it’s an integral part of the story rather than a bolt-on) is not the most interesting aspect. In other words, this is not about titillation or jumping on a bandwagon of including ‘some kind of minority’ in the story. It is, quite simply, normal.

That doesn’t mean that it is easy for the characters to face the world as lesbians, for fear of how people might judge them. But it’s a great step forward to be the main character, rather than the supportive sidekick, to be in their 40s and fairly sure of themselves, rather than shy young things. Not surprising, perhaps, that both books are written by Nordic writers.

Anne Holt: Dead Joker, transl. Anne Bruce

Anne Holt has all the background knowledge you could ask for: she worked in broadcasting, then for the police, started her own law firm and was even briefly Norway’s Minister for Justice. Since 1993 she has been steadily writing novels, at first mainly in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series, featuring the lesbian Chief Inspector Hanne, her live-in partner Cecilie, and her investigative team, including the very loyal if somewhat scatty Billy T.

Or at least, all of the above appear in this book, because the series covers such a long span of time that people appear, disappear, marry, die, have children and grow old over the course of the series. So, more realistic than most, where everything seems to happen within the same couple of years of the main detective’s life. Hanne grows progressively more grumpy and anti-social over the course of the series, although it could be argued that it’s life and the things she witnesses that make her so. The books have been translated out of order into English, after the success of the book 1222, which was the eighth of the series. Holt’s other crime series about a profiler Johanne Vik were translated earlier and Hanne appears as a very minor character in those. Was the thought of a lesbian police officer too much for the shores of the UK in the early 2000s?

Here is a quick plot summary: The wife of the Chief Public Prosecutor is found dead in the family home, brutally decapitated. Her husband is under suspicion, as he was present in the house when it happened, but he claims that he knows who did it. The only problem is: that person is already dead. Hanne is inclined to believe him, but his foolish behaviour is very suspicious indeed. There are some gory details, but overall the emphasis is on the puzzle element, and figuring out just what drives the odd behaviour of a number of different characters. In the meantime, Hanne’s partner has worrying news, and the book is at least in equal parts the story of how a relationship can triumph in the face of death.

Lilja Sigurðardóttir: Trap, transl. Quentin Bates

This is the second book in the Reykjavik Noir series and it features volcanic eruption (or rather, its impact upon air travel) as well as drug-smuggling. In the first volume, Sonja had been caught in a vicious circle of acting as a drug mule for her ex-husband in order to gain access rights to her son. But she thought she had left that life behind her, after snatching her son and running away to Florida.

The second book opens almost immediately after the end of the previous one. Sonja’s past catches up with her and she has to return to Iceland and try to extricate herself from the drug trade once and for all. This is set against a backdrop of Iceland’s failing banks and bankers being imprisoned for their shady deals. The story is grim and the characters are pretty ruthless, yet they are described with so much gusto that you might catch yourself laughing even when you feel you shouldn’t. A mad caper of a story, with perhaps a few too many financial transactions for my level of comprehension. The author says her aim is to entertain people, and she certainly manages that.

As a bonus, there are all sorts of hidden depths here, particularly in describing the relationships between the various characters: Sonja and her lover Agla, customs officer Bragi and his dying wife, Sonja and her controlling ex Johann. There is also a lot of suspense about ‘will she, won’t she’ manage to go through customs with her packages. Last but not least, there are some completely insane moments with the Mexican drug dealers Mr Jose, his wife Nati and their tiger in the basement.

So two very different series – one more a classic police procedural, the other more of a heist or crime gang novel – but both with psychological depth. I would recommend starting with the first book in either of the series if you are new to them, though.

 

 

#WITMonth: Lucy Fricke’s Middle-Aged Thelma and Louise Story

Although I am tagging this with #WITMonth, German author Lucy Fricke has not been translated into English, even though she is no writing newbie. The novel Töchter (Daughters) is her fourth and I’d heard quite a rumble of excitement about her previous one, Takeshi’s Skin. I had Daughters shipped over from Germany following rave reviews not only in the German press but also on the blog of Kaffeehaussitzer, who always keeps me abreast of the German publishing scene. So let me be upfront about it: I enjoyed it, but didn’t think it deserved quite such high accolades.

It is a road trip novel about two indomitable female friends, who at some point describe themselves as Thelma and Louise, except they are neither young, nor sexy, and not even oppressed. Martha and Betty have been friends for 20 years, ever since they first moved to Berlin. Both of them come from broken homes with disappearing fathers, and each of them has developed a different mechanism for coping with the trauma. Martha has married and is trying desperately to conceive via IVF before her 40th treatment (after which IVF is no longer available in Germany). Meanwhile, Betty avoids any commitment by being the proverbial rolling stone and rents her flat out in gentrified Kreuzberg via AirBnB while she travels.

Martha’s father, Kurt, with whom she has reached an uneasy truce in his old age, suddenly announces that he has a terminal illness and has made an appointment at a Swiss clinic to curtail his suffering. Could she please accompany him on his final journey? Martha, who has been unable to drive after a horrible accident some years previously, and who thinks this is a terrible idea anyway, appeals to her friend Betty. So the strange trio set off in Kurt’s clapped-out old car and this grim-sounding road trip soon takes on farcical proportions.

Author photo, credit Dagmar Morath.

As they wind their way through crappy hotels and appalling petrol station snacks, they are subjected to Kurt’s anti-feminist rants and then a sudden change of plan. Before he dies, Kurt would like to see once more his very first love, whom he lost to an Italian man on the shores of Laggo Maggiore. Betty has her own agenda for going back to Italy, since she bears a certain nostalgia for her Italian ‘Dad’, the one man from her mother’s endless collection of ‘uncles’ and ‘step-dads’ who was ever nice to her as a child.

While the themes of the story can be easily identified as friendship, parenthood, forgiveness and death, and the final message is the somewhat trite ‘you need to find joy in life itself’, this goes a bit further than typical chick lit. There is quite a bit of self-mocking going on, for one:

We spend three, four decades talking about men and then we talk about illnesses. What a waste of life!

Secondly, the story is (refreshingly) not about finding the perfect man and partner, but about making peace with fatherly imperfections and moving from being a daughter to being a full-grown woman. Beneath the comic moments and sharply satirical observations, there is an underlying sadness. The author also lampoons the road movie she is imitating in the book:

It’s not as if a road trip is necessarily full of surprises, the promise of love or sex or crime at every road station. That only happens in films and books, a coming of age story on the fast lane. In real life, things happen slowly. In real life, we spend years grieving over a single heartache, while on the big screen any loser, any clown can save or destroy the world within a couple of days, as long as he (sic!) believes in himself and his power.

Scene from Maren Ade’s film ‘Toni Erdmann’.

I think the reason this has been so rapturously received in Germany is perhaps that there is not much of a literary tradition there for Bridget Jones style humour. I actually liked it more than Bridget Jones, mostly for the social satire aspects. However, among the worthy, dramatic German women filmmakers such as Margarethe von Trotta and Helma Sanders-Brahms of the New German Cinema period, there has always been a bit of a comedic tradition with directors and writers such as Doris Dörrie and, more recently, Maren Ade. I think this book fits in that slot – and can easily imagine it filmed (and perhaps improved in the process).

 

#WITMonth: Beatriz Bracher – I Didn’t Talk, transl. Adam Morris

This book, which I received as my title for July for my Asymptote Book Club subscription, ticks a lot of boxes:  #WomeninTranslationMonth, #TranslationThurs, an abiding interest in Brazil and a secret (or not so secret) hankering for what might be called ‘dictatorship literature’, i.e. literature about living under a dictatorship. It is something I can relate to very easily, and am always curious to see how much of the experience is the same, regardless of where you are in the world, and how much is country (or dictator) specific.

The story is outwardly simple: In present-day Sao Paolo, Gustavo is a professor (and former school principal) who is now retiring, selling the old family home and moving to the countryside. He must clear out all the papers and personal belongings in the house. Meanwhile, a young woman called Cecilia is writing a novel set during the years of the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964- 1984) and would like to hear his stories and impressions about that period. The problem is that Gustavo has been feeling guilty all his life about the part he may or may not have played in the death of his friend and brother-in-law, Armando. Both he and Armando had been arrested and tortured by the police in 1970, but only one of them survived that ordeal. Over the years, Gustavo has been trying to convince everyone around him (and even himself) that ‘he didn’t talk’ under torture, but it turns out that he was so tangential to the protest movement that anything he might have talked about would have been useless information anyway.

So Gustavo, who is by nature disorganised and forgetful, tries to make sense of the jumble of memories, his own papers and those of the rest of his family, of the ghostly apparitions of his parents, his friend Armando and his wife Eliana. There is a sharp contrast between the private man who felt he was often invisible or cast into second place in his family life and the much more opinionated Gustavo the teacher and school principal. His riffs on education and politics are among the most interesting digressions in the book. He claims he is reluctant to generalise but is quite trenchant in his opinions.

I really distrust this excessive formalization, disconnecting us from the world. Government bodies suffer from an absence of reality, not a surfeit of it… They think they are prevented from thinking by the crushing demands, the excesses of the world. But it’s the opposite… small strategies for specific cases.

Gustavo also knows his Portuguese literature and likes to bring in long quotes to support his theories. We catch brief glimpses of past moments when he started to doubt himself (hiding the fact that people are actually buried in cemeteries from his daughter, but that her mother is not buried in Brazil, for instance) but then he remonstrates with his memory, he adjusts and examines, ponders and reinterprets until he finds justification in everything.

Author photo from AuroraEco.br

Yet his memories are challenged by his brother Jose’s writings. Jose grew up in the same household, in the same circumstances, and yet his life took a very different trajectory, he is gay and became a very different type of character. Gustavo feels betrayed and excluded in the conversations he has with his brother and in those fragments of his brothers’ memoirs that he reads. Jose (and his younger sister Jussara) remind him of the period when he was at his weakest, but perhaps also reinforce his impression that he was always the outsider, that he never quite fitted in or made himself understood.

Those were confusing times, every utterance cut short, everyone suspected, I was always half-dirty and disheveled, returning to the home I’d left four years before… it was I who was the stranger there and everywhere else.

A chorus of voices assault Gustavo and he argues with some, talks over others, sighs and cries with the rest. The very words ‘voice/speak/talk’ appear with almost obsessive frequency throughout the novel. Gustavo tries to regain the upper hand and perhaps he does, in a way, because on the last few pages, he remembers – as if in a dream – a conversation he had with his father shortly before his death. And that conversation casts the whole story in a different light. This is the story he wants to tell, he decides.

What the author tells us, however, is that in the end, there is always going to be a discrepancy between private and public truth, between different personal interpretations of the past. In the end, your story is what others make of it.

 

 

Bookish Summary for July 2018, Plans for August

Only 10 books this month (of which two were flash fiction collections, so much easier to read in bits and pieces). I’ve really struggled to read, and I’m not quite sure if it was because I was busy and tired, or going out too much, or just too hot to be able to concentrate properly.

6 written by women, one anthology, and 3 written by men. 3 in translation.  Penance and Vernon Subutex were the only two of #20booksofsummer which I read this month, which means that I am only up to 6 out of 20. It’s not going to happen, is it?

 

I don’t know if my lack of reading enthusiasm influenced my appreciation of the books, or whether the lack of brilliant books led to a slump in my reading, but I have a confession to make. Quite a few of the books were not particularly exciting – mildly disappointing, in fact. I expected more, for instance, from Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends but overall I thought it pretty average, while Home Fire was reasonably good but didn’t bowl me over for all its prize winning. Vernon Subutex was the most disappointing, simply because I have high expectations of Virginie Despentes and have enjoyed her provocative, satirical writing in the past.

However, there were also some successes. I really liked Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Tidings of the Trees and Hometown, Carrie Etter’s collection of flash fiction dedicated to typical small-town America and life lived at its more precarious margins. I discovered the first thanks to Asymptote Book Club and the latter thanks to the Flash Fiction Festival. Which just goes to show that sometimes you need to allow someone knowledgeable to guide you into a new reading direction rather than rely on your favourite genres or media recommendations. American by Day was a fun crime read, contrasting Norwegian and American cultures and policing styles, although the mystery part of it was perhaps not really all that mysterious or satisfactory.

I’ve got some excellent books lined up for Women in Translation month though,  all of which I have just recently received in the post:

  1. Gine Cornelia Pedersen: Zero, transl. Rosie Hedger (which the translator very kindly sent to me) is the story of a young girl with mental health problems and has been described as ‘punk rock’
  2. Teresa Solana: The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, transl. Peter Bush – a collection of dark, crime-seeped stories set in Solana’s native Barcelona (thanks to publisher Bitter Lemon Press)
  3. Lilja Sigurdardottir: Trap, transl. Quentin Bates – 2nd book in the series about a single mother trying to escape her drug-mule past (thank you to Orenda Books)
  4. Beatriz Bracher: I Didn’t Talk, transl. Adam Morris – powerful story about people caught up in Brazil’s military dictatorship (Asymptote Book Club’s July title)
  5. Marina Tsvetaeva: Moscow Diaries 1917-1922, transl. Jamey Gambrell – diaries and essays written by one of my favourite poets during one of the most turbulent periods in Russian history (taking advantage of NYRB book sale)
  6. Lucy Fricke: Töchter (Daughters) – two middle-aged friends take the seriously ill father of one of them to a Swiss clinic, but things don’t quite turn out as planned. Described as a sort of Thelma and Louise road trip, it’s supposed to be both hilarious and thoughtful, and was recommended by a couple of my favourite German book bloggers.

Other books for August will be all the ones I have to review (a long, long list, as I’ve been even more lax in my reviewing than in my reading): Michael Stanley: Dead of Night; Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland; Pierre Lemaitre: Inhuman Resources; Roberto Saviano: The Piranhas. I also have three library books that I would really like to finally get around to reading, although I’ve renewed them repeatedly: Romain Gary; Eliade: The Old Man and the Bureaucrats; Norman Manea: The Fifth Impossibility (Essays on Exile and Language).

Virginie Despentes: Vernon Subutex 1 – ennui and more ennui

This book fits into no less than four categories of hashtags: #TranslationThurs, #EU27Project, #WomeninTranslation and #20BooksofSummer. However, it didn’t do much else for me! Which is a shame, because I’ve had a good experience, on the whole, with Despentes’ writing.

This time, however, she focuses on such a narrow category of arty-farty pretentious Parisians that it’s difficult to care about any of them. Vernon is a middle-aged loser, former record shop owner now sofa-surfing from one dubious acquaintance to the next. Besides, haven’t we had enough of French male midlife crisis, portrayed in so many French novels and films? I wouldn’t have expected a woman to write about it – although she supposedly makes fun of it. But for a figure of fun, we simply get too many details about Vernon and the people he mingles with.

Everyone is neurotic, narcissistic, racist, drugged to the eyeballs or all of the above. You switch quite rapidly from one point of view to the next, which does allow for comic effect (what people believe about themselves and how they are perceived by others vs. how people are actually perceived by others), but rarely digs beneath the surface of a character. Despentes has created unlikable narrators before, but then gradually revealed many more layers to them. No time for that in this rather futile, repetitive and overly long novel (and there are two more volumes of this!)

There are some good social observations, as you might expect of Despentes, but it’s simply not political enough, witty enough or engaging enough to sustain my interest. It must have been a bit of a challenge for the translator as well to use so much bad language – Trainspotting for the chi-chi media set and those funding them.

The cultural habits of the poor make him want to spew. He imagines being reduced to such a life – over-salted food, public transport, taking home less than 5000 euros a month and buying clothes in a shopping mall. Taking commercial flights and having to wait around in airports sitting on hard seats with nothing to drink, no newspapers, being treated like shit and having to travel in steerage, being a second-class scumbag… Screwing ageing cellulite-riddled meat. Finishing the working week and having to do the housework and the shopping. Checking the prices of things to see if you can afford them. Kiko couldn’t live like that… Guys like him never act like slaves…

Kiko’s job? Trader on the stock markets.

DNF

P.S. A French friend who works in publishing says it’s a ‘roman à clef’ with recognisable characters from the Parisian media world, but that is too narrow a satirical premise to appeal to me.