Profanes (Actes Sud, 2013) by Jeanne Benameur is a story about long-standing grief, and how it transforms a person, transforms a life. The book involves one very important grief situation and then around that is clustered a raft of smaller ones. Wrapped around and mixed in with this are other smaller stories about how desire works within this context. I think it’s fitting to put these two situations side by side, since grief and desire are essentially forms of longing with vastly different modes of expression.
Structurally, the book is multi-voiced and richly-layered—a favorite of mine. The story opens in the first person voice of a 90 year old man, Octave Lassalle, a retired surgeon, and all we learn is that he has assembled four people to “assist” him in an unspecified project. We are then introduced to the four people—three women and one man. Each person is given a room in Lassalle’s house and a portion of the day: Marc will come in the morning and work in the garden, Hélène (painter) will come in the afternoon to complete a painting at Lassalle’s request, Yolande will come in the early evening to prepare supper and sort through the house’s many rooms and attic, and Béatrice (who is a young nursing student) will come to sleep, to be a presence in the house if Lassalle needs someone in the night.
This premise of strangers coming together in quest of an unspecified goal is one that I really enjoyed. There is something slightly unbelievable about it (especially in today’s world, I think) but then it all felt very old-fashioned and natural. It makes sense that an elderly man of his position would need help to maintain his estate and house, and Lassalle is presented with a certain benevolent (and quiet) eccentricity that makes it easy to accept that he would prefer to create the situation on his own terms instead of finding himself in a medicalized and sterile environment.
Lassalle doesn’t really explain what he is really after—mostly because he doesn’t know it himself. He’s selected Marc, Hélène, Yolande and Béatrice quite carefully, this he makes very clear. But the only part of the project that is concrete is the painting that Hélène is meant to create, a portrait of the daughter that Lassalle lost about forty years before. It becomes very clear that the daughter’s death (and all that happened just after) is a situation that Lassalle cannot seem to move away from, despite how many years have passed. He has gone on living and working, but his life has essentially been an empty one. He doesn’t even really have any memories of this time. Forty years is a long time to efface oneself, and this becomes the central question of Profanes—how did this happen, and can it be undone?
That makes it sound like the book is about trying to “live” again when one has lost the verve for life, but that isn’t right at all. Benameur doesn’t work the reader toward any grand epiphany or attempt to “unefface” Lassalle – except in a very gentle, sideways kind of way. There are subtle evolutions as Lassalle’s story evolves and connects with the individual stories of the four, and there is a general (although muted) movement toward a kind of closure. As the situation deepens (with a kind of mystery at its center—although I think some readers will find the mystery a little superflous), Benameur wrestles with questions of grief and desire more than she propels the reader toward any answers. It is carefully done.
The book’s title is an interesting one: Profanes. This word—and what it means in the context of the novel—has a double meaning. As in English, profane describes something that is outside the realm of religion (opposite to sacred). But here it is being used as in a person who is uninitiated to something. You can say in French, un profane en philosophie, meaning that you haven’t studied it, know nothing of the subject, have not yet experienced it. I am fascinated by this title because within the context of the story, it essentially refers to the idea of being un profane de la mort, a person who does not yet know death. And Benameur plays with this idea (while brushing up against its other meaning of religious/nonreligious) again and again—confirming it, rejecting it, subverting it.
Finally, there is a lot of poetry in Profanes. Lassalle is a great admirer of Haiku and he attributes one of his favorite verses to each of the people who come to the house. These verses change sometimes, or become images that Benameur plays with as we learn more about each character. One of my favorite passages about the meaning and importance of poetry is here:
A l’intérieur de lui, une terre arasée. Il a besoin de poésie, c’est tout. Il a besoin à nouveau du calme des haïkus. Tout ce blanc entre les mots, tout ce vide qu’on ne comblera jamais. Et puis un mot, un seul, et le monde qui bat, fragile, éphémère, tenu par un seul mot.
I’ve made two different translations of these lines—one that plays with the rhythm of the words in English and a couple word choices. I can’t decide between the two.
Within him, a flattened terrain. He needs poetry, that’s all. He needs again the calm of a haiku. All that white space between the words, all that emptiness that can never be filled. And then a word, a single word, and the beating, fragile, ephemeral world, held by a single word.
A razed landscape inside of him. What he needs is poetry. What he needs now is the calm of a haiku. All that whitespace between the words, all that emptiness that can never be made full. And then a word, a single word, and the beating, fragile, ephemeral world, held by a single word.
I’m not happy with the word order of that last sentence – putting all the adjectives together isn’t as pretty as the French original, but to keep it more literal (and the world that beats) doesn’t show that the “bat” here is like wingbeats or heartbeats. So I fear I’d have to do something like: …and the beating world—fragile and ephemeral—held by a single word. Maybe that’s the best solution.
Benameur is a new discovery for me (and I can’t see that any of her work has been translated into English) and I’m eager to read more.
I read Ingrid Winterbach’s To Hell With Cronjé (Open Letter Books, 2010) at some point over the end-of-year holidays, staying up late to finish it despite the ongoing problems I am having with my eyes (a frustrating kind of eye fatigue). I bring this up only because the book is printed in a lovely but very small typeface called Bembo that, while pretty, made me want to throw the book across the room on several occasions as I squinted in the light of my reading lamp and rubbed at my smarting eyelids.
Eyes are very important to this book, or rather, “seeing” is important. There is a lot of scanning the landscape, watching other people to guess at their decisions and motives, studying the natural world, examining faces, being a witness to both words and acts, and even—in one special instance—the experience of a ghostly vision, a visitation.
Even the narrative perspective that Winterbach uses becomes a kind of “seeing.” The story is told through a close focus on one character, Reitz—he is the only man whose thoughts we are given. But he is watching the others so closely it often feels like an omniscient perspective. What Reitz notices and evaluates and worries at, so the reader does too.
To Hell With Cronjé is a historical novel set during the Boer War in South Africa. While the book is very much about this moment in history, I found myself much more drawn to the elements of the novel that spoke far beyond this particular setting and time. Not that I wasn’t curious to learn about it, but I think the success of the book is particularly related to how much the story operates outside its historical anchor. It is a book of wandering and of friendship forged in war, a book of longing, of fragile and fleeting connections. It is about the dangerous tension between belief and knowledge, and how people navigate that tension when they stand at opposite ends of that spectrum.
While reading To Hell With Cronjé, I found myself thinking often of Cormac McCarthy. The journey that Winterbach lays out for her two main characters—Reitz and Ben—felt very similar to the one experienced by McCarthy’s young hero in All the Pretty Horses. This comes, I think, from the juxtaposition of human-centered violence with a deep study of natural beauty and solitary thought. In many ways the book felt very masculine (perhaps I only noticed this because Winterbach is a woman?), and I know this comes from its focus on war, and on these men living out in the camps and in nature. So I am curious to read her other novels—only one other is translated into English, The Book of Happenstance—to see if she repeats this aesthetic or does something else entirely.
I haven’t said much about the story itself: the basic premise is that Reitz and Ben (and two other soldiers) leave their commando unit in order to return a traumatized young soldier to his mother. These men, some more consciously than others, are flirting with desertion. They end up getting picked up/captured by another commando unit, a band of wounded men and misfits left to survey a small area, and are in danger of being killed for having left their unit. They must prove (to the others and themselves) that they were not deserting.
Behind all of this are the little stories that make the book into such a quietly intense read: the war tales the men share around the campfire at night, Reitz’s attempts to commune with the ghost of his dead wife, Ben and Reitz’s scientific studies of the natural world, the power relationships between the men, the lack/loss of women because of the war, the variations and struggles with racism… the list goes on – with everything interconnected and related. It is neatly done.
Perhaps what I loved best about the book (and how it differed the most from, say, a Cormac McCarthy novel) was how it resisted any grand heroics and how quietly it resolved itself. Its resolution is not neat, nor was it without very serious complications. But it is very human. It asks the reader to be satisfied with something rather messy and a situation that feels both fitting but also quite sad. On top of all of this, the last line is pure genius.
My review of the Icelandic novel The Greenhouse (by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir and translated by Brian FitzGibbon) is published this week at Necessary Fiction. This was an intriguing book – the kind of writing and story that grows on you as you work through its pages and story. By the end, I loved it. Here is a little of what I had to say about it:
As signaled to the reader in the very first pages when Lobbi and his father, in the midst of preparing his farewell dinner, go back and forth about his leaving, about his accidental fatherhood and what it means to be going away from his child and the child’s mother, and with the subtext of Lobbi’s mother’s death between them at every moment, the biggest question in The Greenhouse revolves around the possibility of meaning in coincidence:
Dad doesn’t believe in coincidences, or at least not when it comes to major events in life such as birth and death. A life doesn’t start or end out of pure chance, he says. […] Dad looks on these things differently; the world is a cluster of numbers that hang together, making up the innermost core of creation, and the interpretation of dates can yield profound truths and beauty.
Words like coincidence and accident fill the book, as do the possible examples of each: Lobbi’s mother dies in a car accident, Lobbi’s child is conceived accidentally after a party, and even the least important story, of Lobbi’s damaged twin brother, gently re-phrases this same question of the coincidence or destiny of someone’s birth.
Interestingly, Ólafsdóttir works these questions through the narrative while keeping the reader in the shadow of the monastery. There are no overt religious discussions—no direct wondering at God’s hand in all these accidents—but instead there is place, there is the infrequent glimpse of a monk in his robes, there are moments of wonder inside a church.
You can read the rest of my review of The Greenhouse here.
Ólafsdóttir has a more recent book out in English translation, Butterflies in November, (this time with Pushkin Press), that sounds very good as well.
Thinking about it, she might be the first Icelandic author that I’ve read – is that possible? It seems I should have read something Icelandic somewhere along the way… There were a few things I wanted to write in my review about how the language felt, but without having read more examples of Icelandic in English translation, I didn’t feel confident making any real statements. Does anyone have any suggestions? I know that I would like to read Sjón, since so many people whose reading tastes I trust have spoken so highly of his work. But who else should I be adding to my list?
“…as if everyone is confronted with their inner darknesses” – a conversation about Ramuz’s Beauty on EarthPosted: January 10, 2014
Outside of Switzerland, Ramuz is not very well-known but in the country he is really and truly considered one of the “fathers” of Swiss literature. This fact explains why the Swiss radio invited me this week to talk about my translation of Beauty on Earth on one of their cultural programs. (I’m a huge fan of this program by the way – every morning from 7 to 9 on Espace 2).
But because this is an English-translation we were talking about (in French) and this book is meant for English-language readers, I thought it might be useful/interesting to write out a transcription & translation of our short conversation.
Two things I learned from writing this out:
- it is difficult to make a transcription like this read like a normal conversation
- introverts (like me) do their best thinking in quiet spaces and not on national radio programs (but there are a few things about Ramuz I’m happy to have said)
Here is the link to the interview, which will only be available for a few more weeks.
Florence Grivel: It is 8h21, hello Michelle Bailat-Jones.
Michelle Bailat-Jones: Hello.
FG: You are a Swiss-American writer and you’ve just published a highly-anticipated English translation of CF Ramuz’s Beauty on Earth with Onesuch Press. This is a highly anticipated book because, if what I’ve heard is correct, it has never before been translated except for an unsigned version published just after its French publication, in, I believe, the beginning of the 1930s.
FG: We’re going to come back to this, but first I’d like to ask you something I’m really curious about. You live in Puidoux, in the hills above Lake Geneva, in the very countryside Ramuz speaks so much about. Is this one of the reasons you wanted to translate this author?
MBJ: Yes, exactly. When I first arrived in Switzerland, people gave me a number of Swiss books and Ramuz was obviously one of the first I received (in fact it was my mother-in-law who gave him to me). And I discovered in this book a vision of Switzerland that I didn’t know before, a vision I found extremely beautiful. So I very much wanted to translate Ramuz, to throw myself into his world, to discover his universe.
FG: When you say a beautiful vision of Switzerland, what does that mean more precisely?
MBJ: On the one hand, it’s a pastoral vision – with the lake and the mountains
FG: The background of a painting.
MBJ: Yes, exactly. There is this aspect of his work. And then what I love about Ramuz is how he looks in detail at people, (he has) a very particular way of creating detail… (mumbles about the story taking place in the past and how beautiful the book is – totally lost my train of thought)
FG: The story of Beauty on Earth is the story of Juliette, a young 18 year old orphan who arrives one day in a village in Vaud. She is from Cuba. And she lives at first with her uncle, a café owner, who remains her only family. And her beauty, her difference, will radiate in a way that ends up hurting the village…
MBJ: Yes, her beauty destroys the village,
FG: Exactly, and this novel, published in 1927, remains relevant even today. Maybe this is what fascinates you about this book?
MBJ: Yes, I think that the idea that a foreign person who comes to a new country, someone who is very exotic, who upsets the mores and attitudes of the people (in this new country), this is something that happens even today.
FG: Especially today.
MBJ: Exactly, this is very much a topic that we can still really discuss.
FG: A translation is something anchored in its time period, in the 30s Ramuz was translated into German, for example, and there was a kind of polemic because of its relationship to traditions/customs was something that spoke to the nationalist propaganda of the time. Ramuz translated into English in 2014, what kind of story does that tell?
MBJ: Hmm, that’s a very good question. I think the thing that surprises me a lot with Ramuz is that this is an author who is extremely modern. He deals with “modernist” themes in the sense that he is looking at the difficulties between the two wars, for example, the psychology of people between the two wars, and this is something that is still relevant for us today. So then to put this into English, I think this is still meaningful today. Despite the particularities of his French, I believe this is a text that resonates in English.
FG: Michelle Bailat-Jones, Ramuz’s writing is very particular, as you’ve just said, there is both “plomb and celeste” (NB: a particular way of describing his style, both weight and weightlessness might be one way of translating this) in the way of fashioning the words. What did you discover, as a young woman, when working through this text?
MBJ: For me, what I find in Ramuz’s work is that he has a completely fascinating way of moving the narrative framework between the reader, the narrator, the characters, and even him… because I think that Ramuz himself is also there inside the text. So, there is this frame that is changing all the time, the size of the frame changes between the “we” of the village, and the characters and the people he is describing. I find this to be completely unique. It is only in Ramuz’s texts, in his style, that we find this way of— I don’t know how to say it—this way of maneuvering throughout the story. And this is something I found to be extremely beautiful. While translating this book, and I really wanted to keep this in the English text. It’s destabilizing for (Francophone) readers, and I wanted English readers to be just as…
FG: Immersed in this.
FG: Something interesting, at least something that interested me about this idea of translating Ramuz into English is that English is an efficient language…it has absolutely nothing to do with Ramuz’s French, how did you render this language, beside this idea of a moving framework?
MBJ: I really tried to remain extremely faithful to Ramuz’s French, by doing this I think that I created an English that is not exactly a normal English, and because of this I’m asking the readers of this English translation to keep their minds open to this. I kept faithful to Ramuz’s movement, to his grammar, which means in turn that the English is also changed… and so it’s actually a much less-efficient English.
FG: And what about the regional expressions, the traditional/local words, how do you work those into the text, how do you make them come alive in English?
MBJ: I tried to find the same kind of pastoral, bucolic words, things like that – for the plants, and the flowers, all that, just being very specific, and sometimes I kept a word or certain small expressions in French.
FG: Like what, for example, do you have something in mind?
MBJ: Sorry, not off the top of my head…
FG: Michelle Bailat-Jones, how does one approach Ramuz, how does a translation begin?
MBJ: In reading, for me it is about a deep reading, reading the text over and over. I have to find a way to get Ramuz’s voice into my head. So now I have this little Ramuz voice in my head—I hope it’s really his although I can’t be sure. I think I read this book at least five or six times before even starting the translation, at that point I began to play a little bit with paragraphs and words. Also in re-writing a lot. I think that I re-wrote the beginning, the first three chapters, two or three times, until I found the right narrator, the narrator that worked alongside Ramuz’s narrator but in English… it was a kind of detail work.
FG: This fairly pessimistic vision that moves throughout the book…
MBJ: Yes, it’s sad…
FG: Sad, isn’t it? But is this also something that interested you?
MBJ: Yes, a lot. I really like… in fact, this is what I mean by Ramuz’s modernism. In the sense that everyone in the book is extremely sad, everyone is angry… they have trouble with their neighbors, with the village, their relationships…
FG: Yes, it’s like the lightness or the beauty of this young woman…hmm, I’m not sure how to say it, it’s as if everyone is confronted with their inner darknesses.
MBJ: Exactly, no one can stand the beauty of this woman… and everyone falls apart, everything destroys itself.
FG: Would you like to translate more Ramuz? I know that before Beauty on Earth, you translated a few of his short stories. Would you like to start another Ramuz project?
MBJ: Yes, absolutely. I am currently working on Si le Soleil ne Revenait Pas which is also an exceptional book… but I still need to find a publisher.
FG: (laughs) Ah, so here’s a call out to publishers!
FG: Have you had any commentary coming back from the English reading public?
MBJ: Yes, it’s coming slowly. I’ve heard from people who have read him now in English, who are experiencing him for the first time. This is a real pleasure (for me) to hear people express their surprise that they’ve never heard of him before, and especially someone of his level. So I’m hoping this (translation) will start to have an impact, to make some noise.
FG: Thank you (etc etc) and good luck to this translation.
MBJ: Thank you.
Have had the pleasure of reviewing two wonderful books lately for Necessary Fiction. The first is Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës—and this title tells you nearly all you need to know, except how absolutely excellent the writing is in this collection. Unthank Books and Editor A.J. Ashworth put together an incredible list of contributors, and each writer seemed to have had their fun with the idea of re-envisioning, re-writing, or working through Brontë inspiration:
Here is a little of what I had to say about the collection:
There are also stories that engage with the melancholy of the Brontës, like David Rose’s beautiful “Brontesaurus” and Carys Davies “Bonnet.” The first is an elegant story of loneliness and academic solace, a piece that worries away at words like grief and drear in first a strictly literal manner and then a more emotional, more metaphorically delicate way. In “Bonnet” we are back to contemplating the real Charlotte Brontë in an imagined scene that quite possibly could have taken place and that gets at the heart of Charlotte’s conflicting personality: the passionate writer, the careful lover.
The range of subject and theme in the other stories is quite impressive: the deceptions of a modern-day governess, the death of a loved one, a contemporary Catherine & Heathcliff romance, a hike on the moors invoking Sherlock Holmes and much Brontë lore, and even fictional letters between Emma Woodhouse and Jane Eyre. As a purely selfish wish, I would have enjoyed a bit of direct engagement with Anne Brontë, she seems so often overlooked and yet her works are as powerful and complex as her two more studied sisters. And it is fun to speculate what a story inspired by Branwell or the Brontë children’s fantasy worlds of Angria or Gondal might have added, but this is not to say that Red Room feels incomplete, only a little Charlotte-heavy. As a whole, Red Room is a provocative, emotionally-engaging and witty anthology. It is clear that the authors featured here took to their task with both application and admiration.
You can read the whole review here.
Next, I read a début novel by an American writer, Elizabeth Gentry, called Housebound, which was quite simply excellent. If you are a fan of Barbara Comyns (and I know many of you are), you will want to go right out and get this book.
“They” are a peculiar family—nine children, two parents—living in a large house on the outskirts of a small city. In many respects, they are an experiment, a utopia created by the parents according to very specific rules. The greatest of which is their near complete isolation from anyone else excepting a weekly trip to the library. This excludes the father who works every day in the city—and his difference from the rest of the family is an important element of Gentry’s narrative structure. Now, if this house and family is a utopia, it is one without a moving force; it has turned inward and become frozen. And even when the story’s action begins with Maggie, the oldest child, deciding to leave the family and take a job in town, this feeling of being perched and poised continues. As Maggie begins her preparations for leaving and, suddenly relieved of her role as child-minder for the first time, begins to wander about the property and visit the neighbors, there is a sense of the family holding its breath. And this psychological stillness begs the question—what is everyone waiting for? That tension stretches on, and gently but powerfully becomes the novel’s focus.
I have nothing but high praise for this unique story and Gentry’s descriptions and careful storytelling. It is quite dark in some ways, but thoughtful and beautifully written, and more interested in complicated salvation than any kind of long drawn-out portrayal of gorgeous failure. That sentence may need some explaining, but I hope it is clear that I mean this book does not focus on making something horrible seem beautiful nor on ending on some trite feeling of redemption. The book has a wonderful mood to it and I’m really looking forward to anything else that Gentry will write.
You can read the whole review here.
Also, I’ll sneak two mentions of my own writings in this post. I have a short poem in the Fall issue of the Ann Arbor Review. A tiny thing, some thoughts about the word proof.
Lately, I’ve been working to write fiction from photographs again, and it was nice to think about the very first time I did this and ended up with “St. Tropez.”
Finally, I started reading Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (tr. Anne Born) the other day. What a beautiful book—I am sad it has taken me so long to get to his work. (Of course I could say this about so many authors-the panic of someone who would like to read it all.) Reading this book has me also thinking about John Pistelli’s list of books he’d put into a category he is calling Penitential Realism. I am very drawn to this idea, and I would definitely put Out Stealing Horses on this list. His essay on this idea of Penitential Realism (HT: Anthony at Time’s Flow) has been circulating around in my brain for the last week or so.
Something I am really enjoying in Out Stealing Horses are the narrator’s tangents—how odd, or slightly off-topic, but always somehow organic they seem to be. Like this one, which addresses a supposed coincidence in the story, but ends up commenting on life and fiction in general, but also addresses something Pistelli mentions in his essay about the books on his list and their “resistance to the kind of holistic plotting that binds the narrative into a fully meaningful structure of coincidence…”
I have in fact done a lot of reading particularly during the last few years, but earlier too, by all means, and I have thought about what I’ve read, and that kind of coincidence seems far-fetched in fiction, in modern novels anyway, and I find it hard to accept. It may be all very well in Dickens, but when you read Dickens you’re reading a long ballad from a vanished world, where everything has to come together in the end like an equation, where the balance of what was once disturbed must be restored so that the gods can smile again. A consolation, maybe, or a protest against a world gone off the rails, but it is not like that anymore, my world is not like that, and I have never gone along with those who believe our lives are governed by fate.
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.
Between January and March this year, I had the very real pleasure (and subsequent immediate self-doubting anxiety) of seeing several short fiction pieces, and one translation, published around this beautiful lit-loving internet:
In January the exciting and new Sundog Lit published the first of my Elemental stories, “miner’s daughter.” These are very short pieces that I’ve been playing with as I work on a longer cycle; they are also auxiliary pieces to the novel I’m slowly writing about a woman who discovers a naturally-occurring nuclear fission reactor (and abandoned mine).
PANK just recently published a second one, called “Mining.”
In March then, Two Serious Ladies, which is an online journal that has published some of my favorite contemporary writers, included a short piece I first wrote over 10 years ago and have been re-writing ever since. “Gongneung subway, 1.am”
Also, the always-beautiful Cerise Press included my translation of Ramuz’s “The Two Old Maids” in their spring issue. This journal does such wonderful work and this issue hosts a number of really beautiful translations as well as essays. Two of my favorites from this issue are Mary P. Noonan’s essay on Beckett and Jacqueline White’s on Mata Hari.
The Ann Arbor Review published a very tiny poem called “For September.” This poem is the perfect example of something I wish I could re-write now that it’s been published – an ongoing war with my inner poet.
Finally, at Necessary Fiction, I was very happy to be involved in a Round Table Discussion on Kate Zambreno’s Heroines with fellow writers/readers Helen McClory, Joanna Walsh and Christine Cody. This book has continued to stimulate some very interesting discussions around the web, and I highly recommend it.
My reading has been very much all over the place for the last few months—a mixture of contemporary titles, classic and contemporary Japanese novels, and back to Virginia Woolf’s Diaries. I’m also about halfway through Lyndall Gordon’s biography of Woolf and thoroughly immersed—Gordon filters all auto/biographical information about Woolf and her family and peers with lengthy discussions of Woolf’s fiction and other writings. It’s all extremely compelling.
I have discovered a handful of writers this winter worth looking further into. The first is Michelle Latiolais, whose story collection Widow was published by Bellevue Literary Press. She has a novel as well, which I will read soon. And I’m going to write a full post on Widow, but will say quickly here that it was an exceptional collection—the combination of emotional and cerebral that I absolutely love, with narratives just a bit inscrutable but which attain a high emotional resonance. She reminded me of Christine Schutt in many ways (and indeed, Schutt blurbed the book). The second is Mariko Nagai, whose collection Georgic I wrote about here.
I’ve also read two quite different francophone women writers, neither of whom has been translated into English but who were both incredibly well-published in their lifetimes and who walked along the periphery of the “nouveau roman.” The first is Hélène Bessette who was French, and the second is Clarisse Francillon, from Switzerland although she lived for most of her life in Paris. Imagine my delight at finding at small back room at the public library in Vevey that houses the Francillon collection—all of her own work plus the library she donated to the city when she died in 1976. Imagine my further delight when I learned I could check anything out and that it wasn’t restricted to use on site. I toddled home with a tall stack of her novels and am getting acquainted. Her novel Le Carnet à Lucarnes (The Skylight Notebook) is described in the Dictionnaire Littéraire des Femmes de Langue Française in this way:
L’héroine y incarne au féminin trois archétypes de l’imaginaire occidental: Hamlet, le tourmenté, Don Juan, l’insatisfait et Faust, l’orgueilleux.
[In this book, the heroine represents a feminine personification of three western archetypes : Hamlet, the tormented, Don Juan, the unfulfilled and Faust, the proud.]