Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts by Michelle

I’ve spent the last two weeks reading these five novels:

  • Doctor Glas, Hjalmar Soderberg, 1905, tr. Paul Britten Austen (1963)
  • Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie, 1934
  • That Night, Alice McDermott, 1987
  • The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper, 1973
  • Doppelganger, Daša Drndić, 2002, tr. S.D. Curtis & Celia Hawkesworth (2018)

I’m not sure a person could pick five books at random and make a more eclectic list. Sometimes odd combinations of books speak to each other in subtle, intricate ways – that wasn’t the case with these five books, but reading such different novels at the same time didn’t diminish the reading experience for me either.

I read Murder on the Orient Express because of a conversation I’d had with my mother recently, enjoyed it in the way that I was remembering what it was like to read Christie in my household as a teenager—I rediscovered my mother’s Christie paperbacks when I helped my parents move last year, more importantly, I was reminded of the the way she wrote the month and year in pencil each time on the back page and some of them have been read five or six times. The books are yellowed and falling apart, and she goes back to them again and again. And then I happened upon “The Case of Agatha Christie” (which is really interesting, especially if you are interested in modernism and discussions of formalism) in the most recent London Review of Books and now I am writing, or trying to write, an essay about the memories and questions that have come alive to me by the simple juxtaposition of this article, my mother, her Agatha Christie paperbacks. As essays about mothers often go, I may not be able to finish this one.

Lanchester writes (of Christie): “Perhaps her entire being, her inner life, was a kind of absence, a variety of fugue.”

We are reading That Night for the novel class I’m teaching this year. It’s a favorite of mine, and was one of the first novels I wrote about for this blog, as well as part of my list of “perfect novels”. Rereading it again for the third or fourth time, I was struck (again) by its accomplishment. The novel does not feel dated, neither does the style, even if its subject matter has somewhat. McDermott’s narrative control—the telescoping outward to transform a very specific domestic story into something unequivocally universal, the poetic repetition, the effaced 1st person narrator—is both subtle and flawless. It was a pure delight to reread.

I wonder now what heartache it caused them, the mother especially, fleeing her home like that, the home she had made with her husband. I wonder now how bitterly she had looked back across the year and a half that saw her lose her husband, her daughter, her home. With what envy she had looked at the other houses along our block as she drove past them for the last time that morning. How peaceful, how untouched they must have seemed to her, those houses where the brave men slept, their wives tucked under their arms, their children nearby.

Or perhaps as she drove past the shuttered houses, with their damp lawns and purring window fans, she saw instead how precarious their peace was, how momentary. Maybe she saw instead the coming troubles: the scattering of sons, the restlessness of wives, the madness of daughters. Maybe she was aware, in her flight that early morning, that all futures were as uncertain as her own, that even as she drove away, her mother crying quietly beside her, the very blood that pulsed through their veins and set the rhythm that kept their wives asleep was moving pain and age and sorrow to the hearts of the good men.

I will save my thoughts of Doctor Glas and Doppelganger for posts of their own. What strange, marvelous books. One daring for its time period, the other formally playful but shadowed and dark.

What are you reading?

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Included at the end of Jan Zwicky’s collection, Chamber Music, there is an interview between Warren Heti, Darren Bifford, and Zwicky about her poetry that I return to once or twice a year, and I did this morning after reading a few of my favorite poems in that collection (“The Geology of Norway”, “Cashion Bridge”, “Epistomology”, “Small Song for the Voice of the Nuthatch”)

Zwicky is a hesitant interviewee, because, in her words, “…it seems graceless to talk about one’s own work.” I very much agree. But Zwicky does go on to talk about how a poem is both created and received by the poet – she doesn’t want to give the poet all the credit, nor does she believe the poet is only a conduit. It seems to me that great writing is always wedged in a balance between craft and raw inspiration; they must go hand in hand. And Zwicky has a nice baseball metaphor about catching a fly ball.

The interview goes on to talk about something I’ve mentioned in passing in other posts, this is her reflections on the idea of lyric availability. Her point is that a writer needs technique in order to make something of the way in which they perceive the world, but the initial perception (or attention) is key. She uses a notion from Charles Simic to explain what she means by that perception:

…an eye for the similar and the significant… most of the time poets, like everybody else, stare at the world in incomprehension; and occasionally they don’t, occasionally, for reasons we don’t understand, poets and other lyric artists are suddenly available to the connections—the real, significant similarities—that are actually there in the world all the time.

And she goes on to describe what this availability means to her specifically, how some aural or visual scrap of memory or attention will stand out to her and she feels compelled to do something about it, to honor it in her way. Later she calls it a “haloed being or situation”.

All over the margins of this little interview, I have written the names of the writers and poets who do this – who come to a kind of raw emotional attention at “something” and then find a way to create something out of it, narrative or poetry or something else entirely. I am enjoying the fact that I cannot provide a concrete definition of this “something” as it will be different for any writer. But the experience is the same, I think, of a very definite and attuned focus that is transposed into words.

Zwicky goes on with wonderful difficulty to explain the idea further:

Most of my experience of availability is indeed simply of image-complexes—individual things, or situations, or events—standing out against their backdrops. Invariably, though, if I can stay under long enough, I sense—well, more. And it’s not until I sense that more, until its shape, too, begins to be discernible—that’s not quite right: until my availability is stretched to extend to it, too (although that’s also not quite right: it’s often more like achieving sufficient interior darkness for some dimmer trace to register—nothing so active as stretching)—anyway, it’s only then that the haloed image-complex stands stably in my perception.

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Almost by accident, I picked the perfect book to entice me back into regularly blogging. I had a very early train ride this morning (to go listen in on a translator friend’s lecture on translating “time” (tenses) from French into Japanese – which was excellent for a nerdy language type like me), and as I raced out the door, I grabbed Ivan Vladislavić’s little book, The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories* (Seagull Books, 2014, and which includes a series of excellent illustrations by Sunandini Banerjee). Forty-five minutes later and I almost stayed on the train and missed my friend’s lecture. This tiny little book is very hard to put down and I’ve kept it with me all day, finishing it a few hours ago in a café beside my daughter’s drawing class.

The collection is comprised of ten essays, divided into two brackets of five that embrace the book’s centerpiece: the titular short story, “The Loss Library.”

This very short fiction describes a man guided by a mysterious librarian through the shelves of The Loss Library – a museum arrangement of books that were never written (arranged by the author’s type of death), books that were destroyed, books that were forgotten, and so on. I won’t go into details because it would spoil this wonderfully imaginative story for anyone who hasn’t yet read it. It also breaks Vladislavić’s collection so perfectly in half.

The rest of the book’s essays each take one of the author’s unfinished ideas and describe it, annotate it, discuss the research that went into it, as well as muse upon why the idea was never completed. The result is a series of complex and touching reflections upon writerly and readerly inspiration, upon those mysterious synergies of thought and observation that result in the creation or non-creation of art. The essays reach both inward toward and outward from the writer, braiding memory and literature and happenstance. The effect is meditative, thoughtful, and sometimes humorous. My overall feeling is the delight of seeing how an incomplete idea can become fertile ground for a different kind of art and reflection altogether.

I would be hard pressed to choose a favorite from this slim volume – each essay adds something unique to Vladislavić’s evolving perspective. But a single line won’t let me go – I read it this morning about 25 minutes into my train ride, and I was still thinking about it as the sun set outside the window of that small, overheated café:

All fiction is the factual refracted.

The line comes from the essay entitled “Mrs B”, about Vladislavić’s unfinished idea to write something about Mrs. Burden, the wife of the American naturalist W. Douglas Burden. That essay is about so much more than just the transposition of event or fact into fiction – it touches on a variety of issues related to colonialism, on narrative inspiration and the way a character develops or not out of the writer’s mind – but this single idea, and the choice of the word “refracted” has stopped me; in it I can see angles of light, variations of focus, broken perspectives and the multiplying possibilities of deflection. It’s genius and I’ll be considering it for some time to come.

I’ve not read any of Vladislavić’s fiction but am now very intrigued to see what I make of it…

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As keeps happening, this blog has been sorely neglected lately. I don’t want to let it go, but I need to find a way to make it work and keep it going. I’ve never wanted my website to be a landing page with links to my publications – I like writing about books too much, and I like the discussions that still crop up. But I feel scattered these days across several social media outlets and many book conversations are reduced to photos and one-liners. I am as guilty of this as everyone else.

Sigh.

In any case, I am thinking very hard how to keep this book blog running. I find when I am not writing about the books I’ve read, that I forget them all too quickly (I’ve had to comb through various messages and posts to even put this list together).

Here is what I’ve been reading this autumn:

  • Day for Night – Frederick Reiken (a reread)
  • The Girls of Slender Means – Muriel Spark
  • The Plains – Gerald Murnane
  • The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
  • Push – Sapphire (a reread)
  • The End of the Affair – Graham Greene (a reread)
  • The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin
  • The Accidental – Ali Smith
  • Imagine Me Gone – Adam Haslett
  • Over Sea, Under Stone – Susan Cooper (reading the 5book Dark is Rising series with my daughter)
  • The Master of Go – Yasunari Kawabata
  • Kudos – Rachel Cusk

My beloved book group and a novel class I’m teaching this fall have dictated most of these choices, but it’s been a rich reading period nonetheless. I already wrote about a few of these here.

I also read quite a few short stories over the last two months, jumping around between different collections like: David Hayden’s Darker With the Lights On, Shusako Endo’s Stained Glass Elegies, Grace Paley’s Complete Collection, Lispector’s Complete Stories, and What We Do With the Wreckage by Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum.

For some strange reason I did not finish Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, so I’m going back to that right away.  And I know I read something else while traveling through the US in October but I cannot recall what – hence the need to get back to writing, even a little, about each of the books that I read…

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My second novel, Unfurled, comes out next week, and I’ll be traveling around the US for the next few weeks for some readings and other events, and then back home to Switzerland – if I’m coming to your area, please come and say hello.

Unfurled Events flyer

I read several novels in September: Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Sapphire’s Push, Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, and (am just finishing) Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart. It’s a strange group to read together, really, all of them so wildly different one from the other. But this reminds exactly why I love reading so much; the luck of being able to flit between such different worlds.

Sapphire’s Push is an incredible piece of literature. This was a re-read for me, as I’d first read the book over ten years ago. I found it as excellent as I did the first time. The novel is set in 1980s Harlem and is narrated by a 16-year-old illiterate young woman named Precious who is pregnant with her second child, and who’s been the victim of incest for years. It is a brutal read and there are very difficult scenes to get through. The heart of the book, however, is about Precious learning to read and write, and how this transformation changes everything for her. Over the course of the novel, Sapphire gives Precious the gift of poetry, a community that sees her for the first time in her life, and an increasing sense of agency, and she manages this while revealing the honest and harsh reality of Precious’s situation.

I’m alive inside. A bird is my heart. Mama and Daddy is not win. I’m winning. I’m drinking hot chocolate in the Village wif girls–all kind who love me. How that is so I don’t know. How Mama and Daddy know we sixteen years and hate me, how a stranger meet me and love me. Must be what they already had in they pocket.

Cut to the desert and post-World War II Italy with The English Patient. I think the entire world has already read this (or seen the film, which I haven’t) so it seems nearly superfluous for me to even write about it. It’s a lovely book, and I took my time reading it and admiring much about the writing. At the same time, I felt an incredible distance from this book, and from the characters – maybe because I tend to like my characters more palpably messy? Everyone is broken in the book, but their surfaces remain very smooth. My favorite part was when Kip hears the news of the nuclear bombs in Japan and leaves – his ride on that motorcycle through the night was an exciting bit of fiction.

Heavy tin flew off and shouldered past him. Then he and the bike veered to the left, there was no side to the bridge, and they hurtled out parallel to the water, he and the bike sideways, his arms flung back above his head. The cape released itself away from him, from whatever was machine and mortal, part of the element of air.

Keeping to war, Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means is a slim and viciously funny little book about the choices for poor young women, about WWII, and even about writing and publishing. I devoured it. Spark is just so marvelous. A book that opens with the line – “Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.” – is a book that cannot fail. Spark’s post-war boarding house microcosm is mostly hilarious and sometimes touching, but always incisive. This is for now my favorite Spark.

This was a mistake she continued to make in her relations with men, inferring from her own preference for men of books and literature their preference for women of the same business. And it never really occurred to her that literary men, if they like women at all, do not want literary women but girls.

It’s quite a leap now to Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, and I’m at a loss as to how to describe it. I loved the book, found it delicate and also rich with meaning and aesthetic questions. To discuss this book properly would take a long time and probably a re-read or two. The story is simple: a young filmmaker goes to the inner plains country of Australia to create a film about the landscape and the people. At least this is the thread that Murnane uses to meditate on a strange land. The plains of The Plains are a mythical, unknowable place inhabited by people in their large landowner homes filled with art, books, and naturalist collections. They are a contemplative but self-centered people, focused exclusively on their own lives and histories and traditions. The novel is written in the style of a poetic ethnography, and it’s such a curious narrative – confusing in a way that doesn’t necessarily disturb, and although the writing is careful and measured, there is a very surreal quality to the book. The Plains has often been described as dream-like, and I would agree but I would also call it film-like – I think of it as a novel that is striving to feel like a certain kind of art film, with the narrator providing the voice over.

I want to read those unpublished poems that surely have been written in rooms facing southwards. I want to read those poets who knew that their desires could lead them out of even the widest land. I’m not talking of those few fools who appear every decade or so urging us to set our passions free and to speak frankly before our women. There must have been many a man who knew, without leaving his own narrow district of the plains, that his heart enclosed every land he could have travelled to; that his fantasies of scorching sand and vacant blue water and bare brown skin belonged not to any coast but to some mere region of his own boundless plain.

My final September read is Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, and I’m not finished yet, so I’ll wait to write something about it. But I’ve never read Bowen (1899 – 1973) and until someone described her work to me in early September I had mistakenly assumed she was a writer from a much earlier period. She’s an exact contemporary of three of my favorite writers (Elsa Triolet, Anna Kavan, Clarisse Francillon) and it’s exciting to read her now in that context.

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One of the public libraries near me is a “living library” – it’s meant for the local school population, is not silent, in fact can be quite animated when the students are there for the internet or to have a coffee in the “café” portion on the second floor. It’s a decent size, making it a wonderful resource for anyone living nearby. Also interesting is that the library only stocks “recent” books or magazines, those that were published in the last 10 years or so. (All books in French). It isn’t, then, a place to go looking for classics, but it’s a fantastic place to come across new-to-me Francophone writers.

I picked up Agnès Desarthe’s La Partie de Chasse (now in English as Hunting Party, tr. by Christiana Hills, Unnamed Press) this way a few months ago, and also books by Lydie Salvayre and Pascal Kramer and some others. In my endless quest for the perfect novella, I often pick out slim books by writers I’ve never heard of. Which is what I did last week, and this tactic awarded me with Valérie Zenatti’s Mensonges (Lies).

I am, obviously, always interested in translators who are writers (“interested” is a little slight, to be honest, I’m probably obsessed) and Zenatti is both. With that in mind, Mensonges was especially fascinating because it is many things at once: it is both fiction and personal essay, but it is also a comment on translation as well as the relationship between a translator and the author being translated.

Not all translators feel so strongly connected to “their writer” but some do, and Zenatti writes so beautifully about what the act of translating Aharon Appelfeld has brought her personally. The book—which is just 90 pages—is like a platonic love letter, an expression of extreme gratitude and grace.

The book begins with a first person biographical sketch that you only realize later has nothing to do with Zenatti. It’s a description of someone born in 1932, whose early life is marked forever by WWII: removal to a ghetto, death of his mother, deported to and escape from a concentration camp, years of hiding until he arrives in Israel (just before independence), and then his adolescence in Israel and the learning of a new language. She is writing in the voice of Appelfeld. A daring ventriloquism.

The next section begins in 1979, in Nice, and this is an 8-year-old Zenatti, coming to understand her Jewishness, how it situates her, how it will always define her. She writes of her childhood nightmares and she details what a Jewish child born at any point after the war, when so many survivors were still around to describe what it must have been like, must have felt: the specific fear of “this happened, this could happen again” but also the pointed understanding that “this would have happened to me.”

Each chapter then moves the reader through the different stages of her “encounter” with the Shoah. There are moments she admits how unable she was—her youth, her distance from the war—to truly comprehend the immensity of it, and there are moments when the immensity of it overwhelms her. She writes also of her time in Israel, learning Hebrew, forgetting French.

And then, in 2002, she “encounters” Appelfeld for the first time through his novel 1978 Les Temps des Prodiges (The Age of Wonders), and in 2004 she finally meets him in person in Jerusalem after beginning to translate his work. I won’t give details about her description of that meeting because it is, in many ways, the heart and the secret of Mensonges, and it leads to the final chapter – a fiction, a kind of fairy tale of two children, an older brother and a younger sister, lost in the woods, hunted by an army. It is haunting, and deeply moving.

I mentioned above that Zenatti’s ventriloquism of Appelfeld in the first section is daring, but it also makes sense she would dare it. Of anyone, after translating at least nine of his novels, I suspect she knows what it’s like to inhabit his words.

After finishing Mensonges, I did my research and Zenatti has a long and successful publishing history: she writes novels for adults and for children, she is a translator and a screenwriter. One of her young adult novels—Une bouteille dans la mer de Gaza, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea—was translated into many languages, including English, and was made into a film as well.

From what I can find, none of her novels for adults have made their way into English. I took one of them, Les Ames Soeurs, from the library and will start it soon. I’ve also never read Appelfeld and will remedy that immediately.

(I have read several books this year dealing specifically with the Holocaust, and others looking at political oppression and forms of fascism. This is no accident, obviously, and the echoes to the contemporary politics of several countries are deeply disturbing.)

Over at Necessary Fiction this week, I review Maybe Esther by Katja Petrowskaja, translated by Shelley Frisch.

Maybe Esther takes on so much emotional and political territory that it can feel disorienting. I mean this is a compliment, because I believe the book’s offering of a slightly overwhelming reading experience is entirely intentional, and much to its point. Petrowskaja relates entire constellations of stories: the schools for deaf-mute children run by her maternal grandfather’s family; the political assassin, Judas Stern, who was tried and shot in Moscow in 1932; the great-great-grandmother and great-aunt who faithfully made their way through the streets to what would become the infamous Babi Yar massacre in Kiev; the long-lost American relative who made it through a ghetto, five concentration camps and a death march, and so many more family stories, as well as Petrowskaja’s own journeys around Europe. But it never feels as though Petrowskaja is sharing these stories and her questions about them in order to resolve their specific and personal mysteries. Instead, her persistent questioning and gentle paralleling to Greek tragedy and the Bible seems to suggest that the real mystery under investigation here is how did these events come to take place—historically, politically, humanly. How was all of this tragedy allowed to happen?

You can read the entire review here.

Also, if you missed it, you can also read my interview with _Maybe Esther’s_ translator, Shelley Frisch.

How easily the world splits. How simple it is to get everything wrong. I thought I’d worked out long ago who was the villain and who was the hero.

It’s exciting to be able to say that Unfurled will be published in October, exactly four months from this week. This also means that the book can be pre-ordered and this is a great way to show support for both my publisher Ig and the book itself. You can read more about the book at Ig and on Goodreads. 

I also wrote a bit more about the book when I announced it here.

p.s. isn’t it a lovely cover?

To pre-order:

US: Indiebound can help you track down your nearest bookshop and they can order it for you. Ordering from your local bookseller is a great way to help a book find its way farther and wider in today’s publishing world.

Switzerland: Books Books Books in Lausanne will be happy to take your pre-orders, and your orders when the time arrives.

Elsewhere: Always worth asking local bookshops, and of course the book can be ordered at Barnes and Noble, the Book Depository, Powells, and Amazon, too.

I look forward to sharing Unfurled with you soon.

In May I spent a lot of my time sharing quotes from Katja Petrowskaja’s beautiful book, Maybe Esther. I was very taken with this book and it’s project of retracing 20th-century Europe through the stories of Petrowskaja’s family, but because of the nature of the book’s wordplay and linguistic focus (shifting constantly between Russian, Polish, and German), I was equally interested in the work that went into its translation into English. I had the opportunity to interview Shelley Frisch, who masterfully translated Maybe Esther and that interview is now published. Frisch answered my questions in great detail and it was a wonderful discussion of a unique book. Here is just a small taster:

In both form and content, Katja aimed at foregrounding the fragmentary nature of her quest to piece together her family history, and the jagged use of language that comes with foreign language proficiency acquired later in life is part and parcel of that fragmentation.

You can read the entire interview here at Necessary Fiction.

I’ve also written a review of Maybe Esther that will be published on Monday.

And just a quick word on the title of the interview and this blog post – Shelley mentioned the first two lines of an Emily Dickinson poem in the context of our discussion but I cannot stop thinking of this line as the best description of translation I’ve ever heard:

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”