I am not sure why this has only occurred to me, perhaps because there is a new Robert Walser translation just out (A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories, NYRB Classics). This is excellent news, of course. I love Walser’s work, and I think Jacob von Gunten one of the most fascinating pieces of literature I have ever read. But this new translation reminds me that so many people think of Walser when they think of Swiss literature. This is interesting to me simply because of my work with Ramuz —whom most people have never heard of.
Walser was born in 1878 and died in 1956. Ramuz was born in 1878 and died in 1947. These men were perfect contemporaries, writing incredibly avant-garde literature (although both in their own unique way) at exactly the same time. They both started publishing their work around the same time, and had similar professional trajectories in that they lived both inside and outside of Switzerland, were befriended by various “high-up” literary people, lived both reclusively and in the company of others. The biggest divergence between them would be Walser’s continuing mental troubles.
What is so curious for me when comparing these two men is how one came to be “exported” and not the other. You could even argue that at the time they were publishing, Ramuz was the more famous and had much more of an international audience. Ramuz was translated into German and a few other languages during his lifetime, including a handful of English translations that were done in the 20s (three, I think, not more). But Walser, with only one book translated into English in his lifetime, has become the canonized writer (in an international way) and Ramuz not. Although Ramuz is on Switzerland’s 200 franc bill, so symbolically he is a “national treasure.” I am genuinely curious about the how and the why of this, and can only explain it to myself with the idea of an accident of history.
I’ve been reading Ramuz’s journals again – slowly, and loving them – and yesterday, in the middle of an antique book shop where I’d gone to hunt down some Julia Daudet and Clarisse Francillon (but found neither), I got stuck inside two volumes of Ramuz’s letters. I have found no mention of Walser in the letters or the journal. Did Ramuz know of Walser? Did he read him? I have no idea if Walser was translated into French in his lifetime. But Ramuz made it into German. So did Walser read Ramuz? These things are fun to think about. They were, in a way, both writing about similar ideas, both obsessed with individual solitude and nature’s effect on that individual. Walser much more interested in bureaucracy and institutional questions, Ramuz much more focused on nature and village life.
I assume that somewhere out there – in Switzerland or beyond – there are academics looking at these two men in parallel. I think it would make for a fascinating comparison – from a critical perspective as well as biographical.
I am so excited to be able to announce the publication of my first book-length translation—Beauty on Earth by Charles Ferdinand Ramuz—which has just come out this month from the Australian publisher Onesuch Press. It has been a true pleasure working with Onesuch and I’m honored to have had their support. Also, this English-language edition comes with a forward from the American writer Valerie Trueblood, and I am so grateful for her insight into the novel.
Beauty on Earth was first published in 1927 and it is the story of a Cuban orphan, Juliette, who must come to live with her uncle Milliquet in a small village on the shores of Lake Geneva. He is a local café owner, greedy and inept, and he has a horrid wife; Juliette’s life in this village is doomed from the start. She is so different from these stuffy Swiss villagers, so beautiful, so exotic, that they literally do not know what to do with her. With her beauty.
Unfortunately, the quickest and most common response is an attempt to possess her. And as the story proceeds, a series of men try their hardest (in quite different ways) to do exactly this.
The book is populated with a range of wonderful characters—from Chauvy, the town drunk, to Rouge, the gruff but sweet fisherman; from Ravinet, the malicious Savoyard, to Maurice, the Mayor’s son. And my favorite—Emilie. I won’t tell you about her because I want you to read her for yourself. More than Juliette, I think of her as the novel’s emotional pinpoint. Each scene in which she features broke my heart (several times, as I translated and revised and revised and revised). And while Ramuz has been criticized for keeping his distance (and therefore the readers) from his supposed main-character Juliette, he shows with Emilie exactly how deep he is able to go into one of his creations.
So that distance from Juliette is done on purpose and is there for a reason. I leave it to you to speculate why.
I don’t want to write too much more about the book, for fear that I will unwittingly give away all of its hidden treasures, but I’ll leave you with an excerpt, from one of the story’s quiet moments, when the first difficulties have seemingly fallen away, just before everything falls apart:
As for the girl, she’d gone on fishing with us. She’d gone on having a place among us, when she got into the boat, leaving each morning with us to go raise the nets. She held onto the rudder; Rouge telling her, “Right…left…straight on…” she pulled one of the ropes, or the other, seated on the rear bench. In the beautiful weather that lasted all of the rest of that month and for much of the next, they set out together, the three of them, and this space where she found herself, it belongs to us. It seemed she was right where she should have been: look carefully, beneath the mountain, look carefully, among the stones and the sand, or on this water that is gray at first, then lemon yellow, then orange yellow; then it looks as though we are navigating through a field of clover, upsetting the stems with the oars. She was completely at home here, maybe, for awhile, because there was no one else here; which means that there was no one but her and us; her and us, and these things and us.
The book is available in the UK, the US and Australia. Please take a look at the Onesuch Press website, for even more information.
While I was away on holiday (which was wonderful, absolutely wonderful, and during which I read some incredible books), my review of Karen Brown’s novel The Longings of Wayward Girls was published at The Rumpus:
The title of Karen Brown’s début novel, The Longings of Wayward Girls, is an apt fit for this story with its persistent curiosity about indiscretion and desire. But the word wayward sticks a little, draws attention to itself. What does it mean to be a wayward girl? Is this about being willful, difficult and capricious? The emphasis here is on perverse behavior or character—and a not-so-easy one at that. But wayward also hints at a journey, an idea of wandering; it conjures up phrases like “the way forward,” or it highlights an opposite direction, “homeward.”
It is worthwhile pushing a little precision here, because the women and girls within the pages of Brown’s novel are not just wayward, they are lost. This darker, more concrete meaning of wayward is really what hums throughout the story—babies lost at birth, girls lost in the woods, women lost to their own purpose, lost to their families. In some sense, the parade of wayward behavior within these pages is trumped by an even greater carnival of loss—lost items, lost memories, lost siblings, lost loves, lost lives.
You can read the full review here.
I thoroughly enjoy Brown’s writing as well as the dark suburban worlds her characters inhabit. I reviewed her earlier short story collection, Little Sinners, at Necessary Fiction. She has one other previous story collection (Pins and Needles) which I’m looking forward to reading, and then I can’t wait to see what she’ll be publishing in the future.
Because it is finally very warm on this little mountain and this makes me lazy, because listening to the crickets pulse and whirr out in the yard is much easier when I am not typing, because there are several books waiting for me just a few feet away… I am simply going to write a kind of list:
Books I recently finished (all of which were excellent, absolutely excellent):
- The Longings of Wayward Girls, Karen Brown: desire & memory & being lost, losing oneself, missing people, missing pieces of one’s life (full review forthcoming)
- In the Heart of the Country, J.M. Coetzee: denial & self-denial & repression/oppression & Coetzee’s impeccably flawless narrative control
- An Elegy for Mathematics, Anne Valente: physical manifestations of emotion, longing, impossible hopes, mixing of science and feeling (full review forthcoming)
- Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life, Lyndall Gordon: enacting desire within rigorously guarded (or self-guarded) confines (blog review forthcoming)
Books I am currently reading:
- Mr. Darwin’s Gardener, Kristina Carlson
“We are not bad people. We are not perfect either.”
- Love Dog, Masha Tupitsyn
“She’s embarrassed. Embarrassed because she is excited, so she can’t look at him. I like people, no love people, who take looking and being looked at this seriously.”
- To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
“There it was before her—life. Life, she thought—but she did not finish her thought. She took a look at life, for she had a clear sense of it there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband. A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her; and sometimes they parleyed (when she sat alone); there were, she remembered, great reconciliation scenes; but for the most part, oddly enough, she must admit that she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance.”
A few selections from the ridiculously tall stack of books I am currently piling on my desk (I am gathering books to read for the next three weeks, when I am on holiday, both at home and away):
- Orlando, Virginia Woolf
- Vanishing Points, Thea Astley
- The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner
- New Finish Grammar, Diego Marani
- All Dogs are Blue, Rodrigo de Souza Leao
- Bear Season, Bernie Hafeli
- Under the Jaguar Sun, Italo Calvino
- Sorrow, Catherine Gammon
- Grey Cats, Adam Biles
- How Animals Grieve, Barbara J. King
- A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Eimear McBride
And finally, books I lingered over this evening while passing an eye across my shelves because I wished (really wished) I had not yet read them since reading them for the first time was so incredibly wonderful (this may be only interesting to myself, but all of the books that made it onto this list are somehow about both movement and solitude)
- The Summer Book, Tove Jansson
- The Discovery of Slowness, Sten Nadolny
- To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
- To the Wedding, John Berger
- Flying to Nowhere, John Fuller
- The Ballad of the Sad Café, Carson McCullers
Elizabeth Baines’s Too Many Magpies (Salt, 2009) is a slim little book. And the timeline is short, following along the events of just a few seasons. But it is one of those books interested in describing/exploring how a person’s life can fundamentally change in a matter of seconds. In this case it is the result of chance, an unexpected meeting between a man and a married woman who is also a young mother.
So, yes, this is a book about infidelity. And often it feels like there are already too many of those around, but Too Many Magpies comes at the question from an oblique angle. It isn’t interested in asking the reader to think about how this young woman could possibly fall for another man at such a time in her life—surrounded as she is by a loving husband and two small children—instead, it takes the falling part for granted. This is something that happens. This is something people do not always control. A connection arises, unforeseen and even unwanted. But it is too powerful to ignore.
And the question the book sets up is one about rational thinking vs. superstition and intuition, about logic vs. emotion, about need vs. desire. More than anything the book is about power. How does a person come to exercise a kind of power over another? How willing, how complicit are we in this process? And finally, perhaps the most interesting part of the question, the book also looks at how other people’s perceptions of us change once it becomes clear that we’ve allowed ourselves to be influenced by someone else’s power.
Without a doubt the story and the questions Baines poses are compelling, unique even. But her writing is what makes this short book exceptional. A very intimate first-person narrator takes us through her story, telling of the events and conversations and occurrences that mark her experience. She slips easily between time markers, and gives only the essential; she is interested in symbolism, coincidence and knowledge. She wants to understand how you can know things, and what that word really means.
Funny how something good and easy can make you know about the bad.
It wasn’t that the birth was easy, the second time; they tell me that in an earlier age he’d have died. I believe it. I knew it then, and so did he. They held him up, amongst all that blood and metal, and I saw the instinct-knowledge cross his face: so that was it, that’s the line you have to teeter on, that was death, and this is life. So. And satisfied, he closed his eyes.
And set to work seizing life in as calm and efficient a way as possible, drinking deep and quickly from my breasts and falling straight back into unburdened sleep for hours.
No, it wasn’t that there was no danger. But there was this certainty: that however things turned out, they were proceeding according to natural laws.
The book involves this wonderful tension between ideas of science and more romantic and felt explanations for what happens in everyday life. The narrator is curious about how deeply we want to believe in magic, yet she is aware of how dangerous and beautiful those beliefs can be. But also, on the other side, how very shocked and disappointed we may feel when science fails us in some way. It is really well done—complicated and with no real attempt to do more than question and examine and highlight these tendencies. I love the ambiguity in that.
I’ve only just discovered Baines. She has another short novel called The Birth Machine, and a collection of short fiction, Balancing on the Edge of the World, both of which are published by Salt. Very much looking forward to read the rest of her work.
A bit late on linking to these reviews, but I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing two very interesting books in May and June.
The first was All My Friends, a short-story collection by French author Marie NDiaye. (You may know of her from her Goncourt-winning novel Three Powerful Women.) The collection came out in May with Two Lines Press, a new translation-only imprint (hooray – we need more of these!) and it is a really great read.
The five stories that make up All My Friends, a small collection by Frenchwoman (and Prix Goncourt winner) Marie NDiaye, are stories of breakdown. This breakdown is not necessarily the kind of single-character unraveling we expect from good psychological fiction, although there are certainly echoes of that more familiar and intimate falling apart in several of these pieces; instead, NDiaye seems more interested in setting her characters up to hover and worry over the self-disconnecting questions of reality perception and personal narrative—are my world and my person what I perceive them to be? Do others understand my reality, my history, and my memories as I do? The often frustrated desire to answer these questions (either by the character or the reader) is what drives these stories forward, and contained within that unsettling narrative movement is the foreshadowing of imminent collapse.
As I mention in my review, she is exactly the kind of non-English language writer that should have already been translated in full. Her work is stylistically complex and varies thematically – she is not easily placed into any category, and she has a long and steady publishing career already.
Read the entire review at The Rumpus here.
The second book was Courtney Elizabeth Mauk’s Spark. This is another novel from Engine Books – a still-relatively-new independent press that is publishing consistently good work and well worth supporting. (I wrote about another of their books, Echolocation by Myfanwy Collins, and Susan Jupp, one of Necessary Fiction’s regular reviewers also gave a lot of praise to Into This World by Sybil Baker.)
The initial premise of Spark has to do with the return home of a law-breaking brother and the awkwardness and anger that his presence creates in the life of his sister and her live-in boyfriend, but the book is really about the blurry line that runs between desire and obsession.
About Spark, I wrote:
Where Spark becomes gently provocative is that it sets itself up inside a framework of easily understandable psychology—the institutionalized language of “impulse-control disorder,” the built-in guilt of a sister for her wayward brother, the lingering effects of a damaged childhood—but as the story progresses, and as Andrea allows herself to experience and explore this notion of desire, Mauk reminds the reader that desire is as much about satisfaction as it is about control, and that there is nothing so false as the notion of easy psychology. People are messy, humans will do the unexpected. At this point, the narrative itself begins to blur around the edges. Scenes become a little more impressionistic. Andrea’s self-awareness (and therefore her clarity as our narrator) begins to softly break down. It is a wonderful narrative transformation, both surprising and extremely compelling, and it makes the book much more complicated than it first appears to be.
Read the entire review at Necessary Fiction here.
Guernica has an issue devoted to race* in America this month with some really great essays and fiction**, including an interview with Jamaica Kincaid that I’ve now read several times. I’ve read Kincaid’s fiction (I love her novels Lucy and A Small Place) but had no idea of her personal/individual voice; she comes across in the interview with an honest and glittering intelligence and a large measure of humor. She moves through a lot of excellent topics in the interview (especially related to race in literature and women’s writing, and history and politics) so it’s worth reading the entire thing, but this particular question and answer has remained with me:
Guernica: You’ve often said you write because you have to. But I wonder if you’re able to articulate more specifically what it is you’re trying to accomplish when you write? What it is you’re trying to achieve.
Jamaica Kincaid: When I start to write something, I suppose I want it to change me, to make me into something not myself. And while I’m doing it, I really have the feeling that this time, at the end of it, I will be other than myself. Of course, every time I end a book, I look down at myself and I’m just the same. I’m always disappointed that I’m just the same, but not enough to never do it again! I get right back up and I start something else, and I think this time–this time—I really will be transformed into something other than this tawdry, ordinary thing, sitting on the bed and drinking cold coffee. When I write a book, I hope to be beyond mortal by the time I’m finished.
Read the entire interview here.
*I dislike using the word race when talking about people, but Guernica uses it so I follow suit. And I realize it is difficult to find a substitute, especially in titles. “Ethnicity in America” doesn’t necessarily have the same impact, does it?
**And do not miss Rae Paris’s The Forgetting Tree. It is incredible.