Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts by Michelle

The second writer on the panel for BIBLIOTOPIA was Gazmend Kapllani, with his three novels A Short Border Handbook, Je m’appelle Europe (My name is Europe), and Le Dernier Page (The Last Page). Kapllani was born in and grew up in Albania, and then immigrated to Greece where he lived for something like twenty years. He writes, for now, in Greek. He currently lives and teaches in the US, however, and will probably be published directly in English at some point.

All three of his novels deal with immigration – the first, A Short Border Handbook, is told through the eyes of a migrant escaping Albania for Greece, and the difficulties of that journey. It also includes a kind of manual – the handbook in the title – for the illegal immigrant experience. It is funny at times, but the humor is sharp and pointed, as it should be, for a book describing the absurd cruelty of the modern migrant experience. It is also a poetic book, looking philosophically at the relationship between language and identity, between language and memory.

I think the tone of that book can be picked up from one of it’s opening lines:

My difficult relationship with borders goes back a very long way, back to my childhood, because whether or not you end up with border syndrome is largely a matter of luck: it depends where you’re born.

I was born in Albania.

The quote of the title of the post is also from A Short Border Handbook.

In one of his panels, Kapllani asked why there wasn’t a museum of immigration in Europe. Europe has museums for the smallest, most specific things, museums for the great wars, and yet nothing for immigration – arguably the longest “event” in Europe’s history. That last bit is my own paraphrasing, as his question and the point he was making really struck me.

In Je m’appelle Europe, an Albanian immigrant falls in love with a Greek woman name Europe. I loved the symbolic meaning of the premise of this book—that two people meet, an immigrant and a native, simply because a woman named Europe loses the key to her home. Their relationship is fraught with questions of the effect of language—occupying a new language, inhabiting a mother tongue—on relationships. Of the power dynamics of language – and these endless distinctions of migrant and immigrant and native as fixed entities that end up shredding our notions of a shared humanity.

Je suis convaincu qu’une langue n’a pas de frontière. A y regarder de près, dire « ma » langue représente un abus de langage. On peut dire « mon » portefeuille, « ma » voiture, « mon » parti politique, « mon » champ. Mais on ne peut s’approprier une langue. On peut la cultiver, la transmettre et accomplir de grandes choses grâce à elle. Mais une langue n’appartient à personne.

(I believe that a language doesn’t have a border. Considered carefully, to say “my” language is really an abuse of language. You can say “my” wallet, “my” car, “my” political party, “my” field. But you cannot appropriate a language for yourself. You can cultivate it, transmit it, you can accomplish great things because of it. But a language doesn’t belong to anyone.)

Je m’appelle Europe has two neat tricks in it as well. First, it is set in a near-future – where Europe, the country, has been transformed. Having the narrator look back, retrospectively on his love affair with Europe and his early life in Albania, but from the context of this new strange place, was really interesting – the juxtapositions, the sneaky predictions. Also, book is threaded with immigrant narratives, with chapters that rest alongside the main story, documenting the experiences of others as they have moved or fled their homes, as they have tried to establish lives in their new homes.

And finally, in Le Dernier Page (The Last Page), the reader follows a man named Melsi, an Albanian who has spent his life in Greece, a writer, who must return to Albania to bury his father who has passed away unexpectedly in China. This book goes backward, however, to the previous generation, to the story of Melsi’s parents and their own European migration experience. It’s the story of Albania in many ways, and its transformation and historical relationship to Italy and to Greece.

All of Kapllani’s books deal with the world of writing, of translation, migration, historical connections, and political oppression. As someone who has been and continues to exist within this wave of movement (in a different way, obviously) – from Japan to the US, raised by an immigrant father, and now to Europe, as an immigrant myself, but a “welcome” one, for now anyway – and as a translator who is deeply interested in how language affects memory, how language shapes and controls identity, watching my own daughter grow up bilingual, with a deep love of several other languages that she uses with relative ease, these three books were a fantastic study for me, posing questions and settling over many of my own preoccupations. I look forward to Kapllani’s future work.

Of the three writers I interviewed for BIBLIOTOPIA, Xiaolu Guo has the largest body of work – and she is a filmmaker as well. I was not able to read all of her books in time for the weekend, but I managed four of them and am so glad that I did. Her work is a complex mix of biography and fiction, and she’s interested in issues of displacement (both within a culture and between different cultures) as well as sexual expression and feminism. She was also generous and engaging in person, a real delight to meet and discuss books with.

Village of Stone is the story of Coral, a young woman living in Beijing with her lover, a man named Red. One way to describe Coral would be to say that she is frozen, or stuck, and it’s only when a mysterious package arrives from her far away hometown that she begins to tell the reader the story of her childhood, giving us a chance to understand what has made her the way she is now. The book flips between the past and the present, revealing the tension that holds the two together. Coral was raised in the “village of stone” by her grandparents – two people who hated each other and lived on separate floors of their home – and she essentially lived as an orphan in a village of families, all of them at the mercy of a wild and merciless sea. The book is very much about loneliness and escape, about surviving trauma, and it plays endlessly with ideas of language and silence. (p.s. The title of this post is a line from Village of Stone.)

Once Upon a Time in the East is Guo’s most recent book, written in English, and published last year. This is her memoir, and many of its stories were achingly familiar after reading Village of Stone (which draws heavily from Guo’s own experiences). Here they are given more concrete detail and Guo’s own interpretations. The book also goes further, showing us when Guo meets her parents for the first time at the age of 7, the very fraught relationship she had with her mother, her family’s story during the Cultural Revolution and its lingering effects, as well as what happens when she leaves for Beijing to attend film school, and then when she travels to England and eventually stays. This book has a marvelous focus on what it means to create art, to write, from within a culture of censorship (which creates an equally strong self-censorship), and she talks a lot about how she was able to define herself outside of China, using English because for her it represented a switch from the patriarchal Chinese system and gave her a chance at equality. There is a lot about families here, too.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is the first book that Guo wrote in English, and it accomplishes a very neat trick. She was learning English at the time, and so she used her unsteadiness in the language as the very basis of the book. It is written in broken English, a broken English that would be spoken by a Chinese immigrant. It’s a love story, as the title suggests, but it’s also a kind of travel narrative, and a book of self-discovery. There is nothing cheesy or simplistic about the novel but the directness of the language almost masks what is a lovely, careful story about losing one’s culture and oneself and trying to find a sense of wholeness again in a new place and a new language. That last sentence is the kind of sentence that gets so overused from a marketing standpoint, that I almost regret writing it, but the book very seriously and thoughtfully asks questions about what it is to love someone – physically, emotionally – and how loving someone else teaches you what loving yourself feels like. It is a deceptively light-seeming book with a much more serious heart.

20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is the first novel Guo ever wrote. She wrote it when she was still in China, and she wrote it in Chinese but according to Western novelistic narrative conventions, a style that was newish in China at the time. She writes in her memoir that a first-person story with a continuous narrative arc felt modern and strange. 20 Fragments is about Fenfang, a young woman who travels from the countryside to Beijing hoping to become an artist. She dates all the wrong men and has a lot of rotten luck. Again, there is a certain false lightness to the book that belies the seriousness of Guo’s subject: the real struggle of a young woman to make it on her own in a big city without family connections or support, and in a professional setting that is mostly hostile to women. An interesting footnote to this book is that the English version is probably very different from the original Chinese version. Guo writes in her acknowledgements that the ten-year gap between the publication of the original and the translation brought her to make some changes to the text, mostly because her vision of that young woman had changed, but also because, “The translation needed to capture the speech of a young Chinese girl who lives a chaotic life and speaks in slangy, raw Chinese.” I’m also curious if the English version is more overtly critical of elements of the Chinese system and culture than the original – something she may not have been able to do when the novel was first published.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time you will already know that one of my favorite things to do is read an author from start to finish. My experience with Guo over the past few weeks was like a compressed version of that, and it was interesting to read and study the way the margins blurred between her biography and her fictional project. Village of Stone fictionalized her childhood, 20 Fragments fictionalized her early experiences in Beijing, and A Concise Dictionary fictionalized her own immigrant experience in the UK and Europe. The actual memoir, Once Upon a Time in the East, added a ton of interesting nuance to those other stories.

I was not able to read UFO in her Eyes, I am China, or Lovers in the Age of Indifference (a collection of stories). I will eventually read those three as well, and I am particularly keen to read I am China because one of its characters is a translator who pieces together a love story based on letters, and also because it deals with modern issues of asylum. It’s also maybe the only novel of Guo’s that is written in the 3rd person and I’m curious how she’s made that shift.

I’ve gone on and one here, and I feel like I could still say a lot more. I’m delighted to have been introduced to Guo’s writing and films, and I look forward to follow what she does in the future.

This past weekend was the first ever BIBLIOTOPIA festival at the Fondation Jan Michalski here in Switzerland. I was asked to moderate one of the sessions – a focus on Language and Identity – and in preparation had the pleasure of reading the following books from three very interesting writers:

  • Katja Petrowskaja – Maybe Esther (tr. Shelley Frisch), 2018
  • Gazmend Kapllani – A Short Border Handbook (tr. Anne-Marie Stanton Ife), 2009
  • Gazmend Kapllani – Je m’appelle Europe (tr. Françoise Bienfait et Jérôme Giovendo), 2013
  • Gazmend Kapllani – Le Dernier Page (tr. Françoise Bienfait et Jérôme Giovendo), 2015
  • Xiaolu Guo – A Village of Stone (tr. Cindy Carter), 2005
  • Xiaolu Guo – Once Upon a Time in the East, 2017
  • Xiaolu Guo – A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers, 2007
  • Xiaolu Guo – 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth (tr. Rebecca Morris, rev. by Pamela Casey), 2009

Several things connect these writers – the first being that none of them are writing in their native language. Petrowskaja is Russophone but chose to write her book in German, Kapllani is originally from Albania but has written his three novels in Greek (which I then read in English or French translation), and Guo began her writing career in Mandarin (which was her 3rd language) before switching to English after she had moved to the UK. All of them are also writing about immigration, displacement, and/or escape, about the intricacies of family narratives – this often meaning silent or hidden stories – and all of them are writing about censorship in one form or another. There was so much linking the writers that I was excited to speak with them as a group. The actual panel conversation I got to have with them was far too short, but I enjoyed hearing their thoughts on how they located themselves—personally, politically, artistically—within their new language and culture.

Something I took away from the discussion and that I am still thinking about is the idea that it isn’t really that big of a deal to be writing in one’s 2nd or 3rd language. We talked about the idea of “betraying” one’s mother tongue, and how they each negotiated that tension in their work and over time, but eventually all three of them insisted on the normality/necessity of writing outside of one’s native language, and even expressed a sense of exasperation that Anglophones are continually astonished, as if this were an impossible task when, in fact, it is not. It was a gentle scolding of the idea that languages are impenetrable from outside their attached culture, in other words language can become another border that doesn’t need policing. We didn’t have time to go into the nuances of stylistic compromises, emotional engagements, etc – things about which I am still very curious. As a translator I know what it feels like to undress and dress a language, and although I consider myself almost bilingual, I very rarely write extensively in French. I found it both perplexing and liberating to think that I could just switch one language for another if I wanted to or needed to.

In any case, I’d like to write a bit about their books now that I’ve spent so much time with them, and I’ll start a new post to do so, beginning with Xiaolu Guo.

If only he would answer a question simply, and not with a superior air as if he had invented the thing he was telling about. She felt she had a right to all the knowledge there was, without fuss…

It took me a few months to get my hands on a copy of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, but I am delighted to finally have it, and have been enjoying, slowly, the first half of the first novel. My Virago Modern Classics edition contains the first three books of her 13-book project: Pointed Roofs, Backwater, and Honeycomb.

Having known absolutely nothing of Richardson before seeing Anthony’s mention of her, it is a treat to discover her writing and her project. To write so directly, so carefully, of a young woman’s consciousness; it was a revolutionary technique when it appeared in 1915. There is no filter – just Miriam and her view of herself vis-à-vis the world as she leaves home and goes to work as a governess at a school in Germany. Richardson was one of—or was—the first to use stream-of-consciousness, and she expresses what I can only call that “thin skin-ness” of someone who is alive to the world, and curious about one’s place within it. There are so many key moments of this: her awareness of her father playacting an English gentleman while on the boat, her fear that she’ll be seen to be a fraud as a governess, that excellent mortifying hair-washing scene in the German school, and one of my absolute favorites, when Miriam is listening to one of the schoolgirls play the piano and remembering a pastoral scene and a mill-wheel from her childhood:

She felt a little tremor in her throat. All at once she knew that if she went on listening to that humming wheel and feeling the freshness of the air, she would cry. She pulled herself together, and for a while saw only a vague radiance in the room and the dim forms grouped about. She could not remember which was which. All seemed good and dear to her.

What Richardson does so well is the interplay between Miriam’s self-awareness and her surroundings – how the people and the furnishings, how everything affects her so keenly. How she guards her outward emotions, as if afraid of them. That’s what I mean by thin skin-ness. When I think of the English writers I associate with this – Kavan, Woolf, Welch – they all came so much later.

I’m going to be a little annoying and mention Ramuz – who was a very close contemporary of Richardson (she was born in 1873, he was born in 1878), and I find he does the same seeing out from under the skin. So does Walser, also a contemporary. I’m not trying to argue the claim that Richardson was the first to employ stream-of-consciousness, I’m just curious how other writers around the same time, but from other literary traditions, were negotiating interiority through stylistic particularities.

And then there is Colette with her Claudine novels – perhaps an even more interesting comparison as she also wrote a series of semi-autobiographical novels about a woman making her way into the world. Colette’s Claudine novels feel so much lighter than Richardson, but they were published between 1900 – 1904. By the time Colette is writing in the 1920s and 30s, she’s focused on older women, on sexuality and marriage. If anyone knows of a formal Colette/Richardson comparison, I’d be keen to see it.

One of the elements of Pointed Roofs that I find both startling and marvelous is Miriam’s impatience with organized religion. She sees only artifice, and she hates having to pretend herself that she might enjoy going to church. I am so curious to see how this will develop over the 13 novels. And lastly, the various descriptions of men being impatient with women. There is a marvelous passage in which Miriam criticizes the male German schoolmasters who come to work with the pupils in her school, and how condescending they are, even scornful. And Miriam compares this with the men who taught her in England, with her own father as well, and finds her own schoolteachers were kinder, more interesting, took their pupils more seriously. But this leads her to a wonderful questioning and awareness of herself, and how she had learned and what she cared about:

She could only think that somehow she must be ‘different’; that a sprinkling of the girls collected in that school was different, too. The school she decided was new—modern—Ruskin. Most of the girls perhaps had not been affected by it. But some had. She had. That thought stirred her. She had. It was mysterious.

These first stirrings of her intellectual awakening here are exquisitely drawn, and I can’t wait to read on and see how this aspect of Miriam develops across the thirteen novels.

I have read very little Korean literature: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (tr. Deborah Smith), Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom (tr. Kim Chi-young), and now Kim Yi-Seol’s Bienvenue/Welcome (tr. into French by Lim Yeong-Hee and Françoise Nagel). All three extremely dark novels, all three dealing with a woman’s (oppressed) place in society, all three dealing with serious family ruptures. All three written by women as well, which makes me wonder if the contemporary books coming from the Republic of Korea’s male writers might be different. Wikipedia tells me there is very little Korean literature translated into English or other languages – but I am curious to find what I can and dig in further. (I did find this link for a thorough, albeit slightly dated, list of Korean literature available in English, and here for some more contemporary listings.)

Bienvenue is the story of Yunyeong – a young, unschooled woman from a poor background, now living in Seoul and trying to earn enough money so that her boyfriend can finish studying for his civil service exams, thus propelling their small family (they have a one-year-old daughter) toward a better life. It seems, for just a short while that she will be able to climb out of poverty. But obviously Yunyeong’s carefully laid plans will go to waste because there are too many pressures at her heels: her family back home needs money from her, her boyfriend never studies, her daughter has some medical issues.

Yunyeong takes a job at a big restaurant, for something like fourteen hours a day. Her exhaustion is impressive, and the pay is not great. She must also stay away from her child for so long that the baby starts not to recognize her. Her boyfriend fails his exams, her sister (who is missing) calls her for money. At the same time she’s offered an opportunity – an offer presented so blandly even Yunyeong can’t really bat an eyelash when a regular customer makes a remark about her body, about the “possibility” of her. Just like that she begins sex work, like another of the restaurant’s servers. The novel continues on from here exploring in detail what life becomes for Yunyeong as this reality settles in over her.

Bienvenue is stark in many ways – which is as it should be when dealing with this kind of subject matter. There is very little lyricism to beautify Yunyeong’s experience. When the novel does hit these notes, they are quite pronounced. Something the novel does extremely well is look at female anger—there are hordes of ragingly angry women in the novel. Yunyeong’s disappointed and desperate mother who kicks her father as he’s dying in their home. Yunyeong’s co-workers with their petty, violent infighting. Yunyeong’s mother-in-law, who beats her son when he appears on her doorstep with a girlfriend and child. And then Yunyeong herself, who loses control at several key moments – lashing out verbally and physically, bent on destroying something or someone else in retaliation for the destruction she’s taken upon herself in the hope of a better life. This kind of outward violent anger isn’t often seen in western novels and it intrigued me.

Kim Yi-Seol is a younger writer (my age – ha!) and has three novels and a short story collection – none of which are yet translated into English. I was curious to see that the original Korean title of Bienvenue is Hwanyeong (환영) which appears to have a double meaning, both “welcome” and “ghost” or “phantom”. Alas the translation can’t contain those two nuances. I’d love to read more of her work, especially as it seems her work deals consistently with motherhood, vulnerable women, and family dynamics.

From The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, Dubravka Ugrešić

On the third day, we, actors in a silent film, got up and went outside. The sun glared like a spotlight, we walked through Marienplatz dragging with us a heavy burden of unspoken words. The air smelled of hot wine, cloves and cinnamon, it was Carnival time, the middle of February. We were like actors in a cheap operetta, again surrounded by the requisite stage set. The white sun, like a magnifying glass, revealed every little line on our faces, and we instinctively sought the protection of the icy shadows.


From N’avez vous pas froid, Hélène Bessette

Le même jour. Minuit.

As-tu pensé ?

As-tu pensé que certains gens vivent entre le manger et le dormir. Le travail qui permet le dormir et le manger.

As-tu pensé ?

Que certains gens croient ce qui est admis ?

Vivant de la grammaire habituelle.

Sont satisfaits des mots.

Ne posent pas de question. Sont sans question.

Ne répondent pas.

Ne savent ni rire ni pleurer.

A peine rire.

A peine pleurer.

I am absolutely delighted to be able to share some book news. My second novel, Unfurled, will be published this fall with Ig Publishing. I’m incredibly incredibly incredibly excited.

Ig does wonderful work and I’m thrilled to join their catalog. Check them out if you don’t already know them.

And for a little bit about the book…

Book blurbs and cover text are an impossible art – everything sounds like the description for a daytime TV drama. If you don’t believe me, test my theory: I just went and checked the back covers of three of my favorite understated, quiet novels and all of them sound like 19th century advertisements for miracle remedies. So I won’t give you that text here – it will come in its own unavoidable time.

But I will tell you a little about the book…

I live in Switzerland now, but I grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and (my heart is often still there and) Unfurled is set in a neighborhood that runs alongside and overlooks the Puget Sound, a beautiful place of mountains and ocean. The book is about a difficult woman – because I love writing them and because they are true. The book is about grief – because I cannot get away from this subject. It’s a mother-daughter book in a sneaky way because it’s pretending to be a father-daughter book. It’s a book about mental illness, about abandonment, about fear. It’s a book about the fine line between imagination and the more dangerous form of that gift, delusion. Finally, it’s a book about the daughter of a ferry pilot, about the ocean, about sailing and deep waters.

I look forward to sharing the book when it’s ready.

Unfurled by Michelle Bailat-Jones, Ig Publishing, Fall 2018.





This month I have the pleasure of translating an art book about Rodin’s erotic drawings, and so I’m enjoying a glimpse into the art world of Paris in the early 1900s.

Research (mostly checking quotations from art critics and famous people about Rodin’s work) has thrown me into many a delightful rabbit hole, looking at the originals and any existing translations of a number of art books as well as The Goncourt Journal, which is mentioned several times in what I’m translating.

While looking for several quotes, I came across a few interesting anecdotes. One of Jules Goncourt happening upon Sarah Bernhardt wandering around in an art warehouse. It’s pouring down rain and she’s bundled up, musing over different art objects. And then she passes him and he describes her:

It is curious how this Sarah Bernhardt reminded me on this gray and rainy day of one of those elegant and emaciated convalescents who pass you in a hospital at about five o’clock, in the twilight, to attend prayers at the end of the hall.

There are also many mentions of evenings out or evenings in with Alphonse and Julia Daudet, as Edmond de Goncourt was great friends with Alphonse. The section I came across was one of Edmond spying a moment between the couple when Alphonse shows Julia the dedication of one of his newly printed editions.

We go down to the publishers; Daudet shows his wife the dedication, of which only a few copies have been printed, and which she has not yet seen. And Mme Daudet, reading it, denies her husband’s acknowledgments of her talent in words which have almost the emotional sputtering of a disappointed woman in love: “No, no, it’s too much. … I don’t want it … no, I don’t want it!”

(Both quotes are from an English (translator uncredited) edition published sometime in the first half of the 20th century.)

I’m so curious about this. Julia wrote and wrote, and I translated one of her beautiful short stories “The Unknown Woman” a few years ago for Spolia Mag, but she refused credit for all the editing and perhaps even writing she did of her husband’s manuscripts. It makes me think about Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Wife, and wonder how much “editing” Julia may have actually done.

I spent a good portion of yesterday looking for an article on a exhibition that Rodin did in Holland in 1899, of some drawings that were inspired, in part or in whole, by Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden. I found myself, quite at random, stuck reading through all April editions of La Presse (Parisian newspaper) and found myself reading the listings of duels – who was hurt, why they fought, whether it was swords or pistols. It was hard not to laugh, and yet how sad this is. We disagree, we fight to the death (or near death). Albeit, no one listed in these April 1899 duels actually died! Many of the fights were about literary disputes – that made me smile.

This book I’m translating also talks about how Rodin (like so many other artists) was heavily influenced by Japanese woodblock prints – and while checking for the correct spelling of one of the artists who influenced him, I fell into a lovely hour of browsing Hokusai, Utamaro, Hiroshige and many others.

I love woodblock prints of Kyushu, a place that is lesser known for anyone traveling to Japan – even today — and Mt. Sakurajima in Kagoshima was a big inspiration for many artists.

This one is Kawase Hasui:

Kawase Hasui

This is another Hasui that I have always loved….

Kawase Hasui 2

And probably my favorite artist was one who came a bit later – Kiyoshi Saito. If you do an image search for him, you’ll see that his work was darker, more gray scale, and more modern than many of the woodblock artists of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Kiyoshi Saito

And finally, to finish, here is Hiroshi Yoshida’s Matterhorn. He was born on Kyushu but travelled extensively, so here we have Japan and Switzerland from 1925.

Yoshida Matterhorn



Sometime last year I read and loved Jenny Diski’s Stranger on a Train, about Diski’s trip through America on Amtrak, and I’ve read many of her essays over the years, but I had never read her fiction. At the end of last year, I ordered several of her novels, and the first one I took up was her Apology for the Woman Writing, a historical novel about Marie de Gournay and Michel de Montaigne.

I read over half of the novel without bothering to check if Marie de Gournay actually existed (she did), and whether any of the story of her relationship with Montaigne was true or not (it was, it wasn’t), because Diski’s questions, as posed through her story, were infinitely more interesting to me. Later, the fact/fiction question does become relevant, and this adds another layer onto my appreciation for what Diski does in the novel.

Apology for the Woman Writing is a novel of ambition. And more to the point, of a woman’s ambition. It is the story of Marie, who falls in love with books and learning at a young age, but who is never able—because her nobleman father dies and the family subsequently loses most of their money—to enjoy or develop herself within that love of learning. Books, intelligence, and writing become a secret place for her, but, and this is very important for what happens to her, this intellectual space begins as and is constantly reinforced as a place of antagonism against the rest of the world. She loves these things against the wishes or understanding of her family, and later, of society.

Plot wise, the book is about how Marie falls especially in love with the recently published Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Her reaction to his work can only be described as cataclysmic. It is so violent that her family believes she has lost her mind. Her mother’s reaction is excellent:

It was quite clear to Jeanne that those wretched, godless books had finally worked their evil on Marie, and that her solitary life in the library with nothing but words as companions had driven her to melancholy madness.

And a few lines later, finally Marie speaks – a line which made me laugh out loud:

“I am not ill, Maman,” she whispered, still breathing fast, her face changed from dead white and vivid pink to the yellowish pale of parchment. “It’s Monsieur de Montaigne. He has ravished me.”

I love how over-the-top Diski is here – a nod, I think, to the melodrama of romances of the era, but also, for a reader, an undeniably true statement. What genuine reader has not felt ravished at some point by a book? By something utterly new and wonderful that comes through from the written word, directly to you. Reading is so incredibly intimate. It is a communion between the book and the reader. And in this case, because Montaigne was writing in this radical new form, taking himself as the subject and writing so freely about his musing thoughts, Marie becomes in a sense imprinted on him. And from this, only tragedy can ensue.

And it does, again and again. What I’ve written above about Marie makes her appear a sympathetic character. She is not, however, and for this Diski repeatedly impressed me. Marie is awful. She is proud and self-important, and she’s consistently delusional. She uses emotional blackmail to avoid censure, she continues to connive and strive to become what she wants to be: une femme de lettres. Diski’s fictional discussion around all of this is nuanced—how much is Marie simply a horrible person? How much is our perspective of her colored through the eyes of the men who are her inevitable gatekeepers? Could she have been different if born a man, or born into wealth? There are no easy answers.

As a piece of fiction, Apology for the Woman Writing has some odd bumps and rough edges, but as a book of ideas, it’s a delight. I love the liberties that Diski takes with Montaigne and de Gournay, I love the moments of insight into human nature that crop up in so many scenes, and I love the way she plays with the idea of a great writer (Montaigne) adopting a would-be writer (Marie) and the parallel this has to Diski’s own life.

I’ll finish with one of my favorite passages – written from the point of view of Marie’s maid (a fascinating character I didn’t go into) as she thinks about the difference between Marie and Michel de Montaigne, and it sums up one of the book’s salient questions:

It was not the differences in their wealth, or not that alone. Nor in their education. It was not even simply that he was a man and she was a woman, though that difference was implacable. It was that he possessed — and had been freely given — the mind, the talent, the originality: everything that was needed to make, and to seem not to try hard to make, what he wanted of himself. She was so exposed, no padding, just the near-transparent skin and bone of her desire chafing constantly against the raw wind and weather of her lack of what she needed in order to be what she knew was her true self.

Any suggestions of where I should go next with Diski’s fiction?



I started reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s The Grasmere Journal the day after Christmas and have been dipping in each day. It’s a lovely, quiet book and it’s beautifully presented with illustrations and an elegant overwrap cover, all done by The Folio Society.

Wordsworth began the journal in May 1800, and it follows just over two years of time while she and her brother William (and others) were staying at Dove Cottage in the village of Grasmere.

I’m only about a quarter of the way into the journal, but already its entries revolve regularly around four different things: the natural world, the comings and goings of her brothers, short listings of cottage tasks, and descriptions of visitors or the people she passes while out on her many walks. For the first category, she has a wonderfully sensitive eye for nature. There is not a journal entry without some mention of the weather, of the look of a lake, the condition of the winds or any animals she might see – birds especially.

May 16th. The woods extremely beautiful with all autumnal variety and softness. I carried a basket for mosses, and gathered some wild plants. Oh! That we had a book of botany. […] I was much amused with the business of a pair of stone-chats; their restless voices as they skimmed along the water following each other, their shadows under them, and their returning back to the stones on the shore, chirping with the same unwearied voices.

I quite enjoy her listing of cottage tasks, even if this is as simple as mentions of baking a pie or putting out the laundry. They do so much work in their little garden over the summer, and eat in season and happily with what they harvest. The simplicity of it is appealing. And the walks each day to retrieve and send letters. The days as Wordsworth presents them are busy, but somehow that busyness includes what seems like leisure: walking, discussing poetry, garden work, etc. I’m trying not to overly romanticize what their life might have been like (Wordsworth mentions illnesses and I can only imagine how frightening these would actually be) but parts of it viewed from 200 years in the future seems quite idyllic. I’m sure it is the quiet I find mostly so appealing.

She writes often of the many beggars who come to their door or pass them on their many walks. I am often struck by these entries, in which she describes the situation of the women, children, or old men who come knocking at their door with such detail. Quite matter-of-fact, but in listing the details of their lives, it’s easy to read her interest and empathy.

Will finish with one of the small instances of humor I’ve come across so far, written after a friend walks her home one evening when the lake is particularly beautiful.

This was very kind, but God be thanked, I want not society by a moonlight lake.