Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts by Michelle

Some of you will remember that I have been mentioning the Swiss writer Clarisse Francillon (1899 -1976) for a few years now. She is the writer I discovered by finding myself in a small back room at my local library; unbeknownst to me I had stumbled into her archives.

I’m very excited to share a first translation of her work into English. This is “Saturday Evening”, first published in 1944 as a novella by the Swiss Schiller Foundation, from whom Francillon had won a special prize the year before. Francillon wrote about women, their sexuality and their lives, and although it may seem quite mild for today’s standards, there is quite a lot simmering under the surface in this story. Later she would get ever more daring, and I look forward to placing some of those pieces!

Much of her later work is set in Paris, (and I am always calling her the Mavis Gallant of Switzerland) and so it’s a treat to have this story come out first, which is set here in Switzerland, in Lausanne and in the small lakeside village of Cully. It’s the story of an ordinary evening, a village party and dance, and a young woman named Rita who is ready for her life to change…

Stoll said, “A man gets rather lonely in a city in the evening, you see. Spending the whole day on business, you see, but the evening… so if there’s a chance to meet a nice lady…”

To Rita’s ears the words “nice lady” sounded rather disagreeable. Like an old woman, walking slowly, with a black purse, and not a young woman of twenty who was sometimes positively thrilled to be alive, and sometimes so sad. She glanced again at the package of earrings.

“I wanted to thank you,” she said. “You shouldn’t have, you know,” she continued, shy. Even if it wasn’t so long ago her friend Evelyn was telling her that one needed to know how make men pay. A habit just like another.

“If you like them, then I’m happy,” said Stoll.

He took a sip of his vermouth. Sounds of voices, of dishes, and on the palm-tree decorated stage, the stand of a silent double bass. Was she going to the ball in Cully tonight in a wrinkled dress? She felt a certain regret. Not because of Jean-Pierre, no. Jean-Pierre wouldn’t even notice. He said, and this was the last word on it, not before we’re married and that’s it. That was how he was. But Rita liked her clothing carefully ironed, pressed.

You can read the entire story here.

Thinking back over my reading in 2017, it is inextricably connected to feelings of concern and panic, even despair. Many people have expressed this, so I know I’m not alone. My reading has been both guided by and in reaction to the world’s events and the continued ugliness of politics. Luckily reading is a comfort and a refuge, and luckily, I have discovered excellent comforts and distractions for an unsettled mind.

Something I did this year—at first unintentionally—was read much more in French. Without making this an essay on the angst of an emigrant/immigrant and how much I have struggled to be engaged with the political horrors of contemporary US politics while consciously telling myself to step back and focus on where I live now (Swiss passport in hand since 2016), I found myself wanting to avoid English, wanting the coccoon of my new home in language and books. Doing this I read more Michele Lesbre, whose work I have consistently loved. Her Le Canapé Rouge is stunning (and available in translation from Seagull Books), and I read her Ecoute La Pluie and was just as enchanted. I have her Chemins waiting for me to read this year.

I read Anne Brécart’s La Femme Provisoire which is a delicate and dark little book, and I loved it, reminding me that 15 years ago I loved her Les Années de Verre, so I reread that and my memory of its complicated elegance was confirmed.

Perhaps the best “discovery” of 2017 was Elsa Triolet, whom I add to my bulging basket of undertranslated French modernists. I wrote about her here, so I won’t say more than I have a stack of her books waiting for me to move slowly through this year, and I cannot wait. The other writer I will continue to champion is Clarisse Francillon, an almost exact contemporary to Triolet, and the two must have crossed paths in Paris at some point—which, if I can prove once I spend more time with both of their writing, will make me very happy. Both women writing about war, both women writing about women and power.

I read a short story by Francillon the other day, “L’harmonica” from her collection La Belle Orange, and it just quite blew me away. It’s a dark and horrible story, part of a collection published in 1944, and its content shocked me for its frank dissection of a brief but intense moment between a man and a woman, following the death of the woman’s lover. Each page is a concise study of power dynamics. So much of her writing is like this.

Finally, I did read in English this year but my reading was all over the place. I read Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and was surprised to find I couldn’t put it down. I spent two days devouring Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching. I discovered that Graham Greene is utterly wonderful, even if I imagine everyone else knew this before me. I read two more Ali Smith, Autumn and How to be Both, confirming her as one of my favorite contemporary writers. I had the distinct pleasure of reading Helen McClory’s début novel, Flesh of the Peach, which is a book with sharp edges (I mean this in the best way) and extremely interesting, both in terms of story and style. It’s a book that bleeds. Along the same vein, Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter held me captive for several weeks, and continues to resonate long after I’ve finished. I really like Zambreno’s sideways curating, and this no matter the subject she’s working around.

I read more poetry this year than I have in past years—poetry is the ultimate comfort reading for me as it circles around the logical instead of dealing with it straight on—and I’m so glad that I did, returning again and again to Jan Zwicky’s marvelous collection Chamber Music. I am still reading through her Lyric Philosophy, so it doesn’t yet count for 2017, but it’s an enormous work and I can get lost in it or stuck on one or two of its pages for days. I read Brenda Shaughnessy’s Interior With Sudden Joy, loving so many of the poems I will read them twice or three times a day. I came across a copy of Nzotake Shange’s performance poem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide while visiting my family in the US, and read it over and over. It’s such a beautiful and frightening work of art, and doesn’t feel dated even if it’s now over 40 years old. I received Anne Carson’s Float for my birthday and have been thrilling over its chapbooks, each one like a special gift. I’ve also really enjoyed Antonio Rodriguez’s Big Bang Europa, which is intense and contemporary (and in French).

What has stuck with me the most this year? This year there isn’t just one author. So I suppose it is that I always wish I could read more, that there is always more to read. But also that reading is the best passion (just don’t even try to argue that one with me), and that as readers we’re so lucky to have these marvelous worlds at our fingertips. It’s endless, it’s so incredible.

Happy New Year bookish people, see you in 2018 with more books.

2 Comments

My review of Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter came out yesterday at Necessary Fiction – it begins like this:

A quarter of a way into Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter the following stand-out line surfaces amidst a collage of anecdotes related to memorializing, burial practices, and grief writing:

What does it mean to write what is not there. To write absence.

The line sits on its own, separated out from a preceding block of text commenting on Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary, and it feels, at first, like a standard academic question. A way to frame Zambreno’s thirteen-year project to write about the death of her mother. And it certainly does do this. But its tone and position—that missing question mark, the clarified repetition of the idea of absence, and the white page that engulfs the reader as they finish the weighted word—give these simple sentences all the power of a lament and an entreaty. This isn’t a curious professor posing a rhetorical question to a dispassionate audience, this is the fierce howl of a desire for sense-making.

Grief memoirs are interested in burdened negotiations of this sort because grief is always a plea bargain, an attempt to wring sense from this most senseless of experiences. But here’s the trick: death is senseless in only one definition of that word, meaningless, but it engages the five senses relentlessly. So what does it mean to write what is not there? That missing question mark in Zambreno’s line places her sentence somewhere between a defeated query and a brave gesture to the impossible. And she doesn’t mention writing about what is not there, she is interested in the verb, the act of writing and what that very act might mean. In this way, the question is also about the asker. She could be saying_, what does it mean that I am writing what is not there_. And in this, immediately and cleverly, Zambreno embraces the conflicted dichotomy of absence versus presence.

You can read the entire review here.

 

The four books I have been reading leisurely (even lazily) over the last few weeks are talking to each other in marvelous ways. Added to this I have been racing through, and just finished, Madeline Miller’s forthcoming novel CIRCE. A particularly excellent reading week with many interconnections and echoes.

“For our texts interrogate us when we have crossed into the world of the imagination, until we can figure out why we have come, where we have come from, and how we have managed the passage.”

–Grace Dane Mazur, Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination

“Loveliness and stillness clasped hands in the bedroom, and among the shrouded jugs and sheeted chairs even the prying of the wind, and the soft nose of the clammy sea airs, rubbing, snuffling, iterating, and reiterating their questions—“Will you fade? Will you perish?—scarcely disturbed the peace, the indifference, the air of pure integrity, as if the question they asked scarcely needed that they should answer: we remain.”

–Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

“An utterance, a gesture, is clear if it is transparent; if it renders what is on the other side of the glass easier to understand, to accept, respond to, or love; if it facilitates the integrity of our being in the world.

An utterance is clear if it purifies vision.”

–Jan Zwicky, Lyric Philosophy

“Original paintings are silent and still in a sense that information never is. Even a reproduction hung on a wall is not comparable in this respect for in the original the silence and stillness permeate the actual material, the paint, in which one follows the traces of the painter’s immediate gestures. This has the effect of closing the distance in time between the painting of the picture and one’s own act of looking at it.”

–John Berger, Ways of Seeing

 

 

Cette double identité ravit Françoise : moitié homme, moitié femme. A la fois le dandy décadent et la grande dame du monde, reçue partout comme chez elle, entourée de princesses de son rang et des colliers de perles à son cou. L’image qui collera à sa légende est déjà contenue dans son nom, car c’est un nom qui dit que l’on peut conduire, les pieds nus et vernis, des voitures de sport, que l‘on peut perdre au casino et demander au portier vingt sacs pour rentrer chez soi, que l’on aimera des hommes et des femmes parce que ce qui compte, c’est d’aimer, pas forcément d’aimer bien, mais d’aimer fort. En choisissant ce nom, elle choisit tout ce qui arrive, tout ce qui approche, à grands pas, comme l’ombre de l’ogre se projette peu à peu sur le mur dans les histoires pour enfants.

(This dual identity delights Françoise: half man, half woman. Both the decadent dandy and the great lady of the world, made to feel at home wherever she goes, surrounded by princesses of her rank and draped with pearl necklaces. The image that will stick to her legend is already contained in her name, because this is a name that says: drive your sports car with your bare feet and painted toenails, go ahead and lose at the casino and then ask the doorman for twenty bags to take home, it’s a name that says you will love men and love women because all that matters is loving, not necessarily loving well but loving fiercely. In choosing this name, she chooses everything that will happen, everything that is drawing near, looming larger and larger, like in a children’s story when the shadow of the ogre cast on the wall begins to loom.)

This excerpt is from Anne Berest’s 2014 book, Sagan 1954, which I have recently finished, and which relates in semi-fictional form the year that a very young Françoise Sagan published her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse. This section is the end of a few pages explaining how Sagan chose her pseudonym and it covers the phone book, Proust, and several fantastic & willed coincidences. Berest’s book is excellent, and has inspired me to re-read Bonjour Tristesse, along with more of Sagan’s works. Berest intertwines anecdotes of her own life with her imagining of Sagan’s life-changing year, reminding me (in the best possible way) of Kate Zambreno’s work as well as Lydie Salvayre’s Sept Femmes on Bronte, Tsvetaeva, Woolf, Colette, Plath, Bachmann and Barnes.

Et je pensais que tout autour de moi vivait d’une vie mystérieuse et intense. Tout le monde avait des secrets. Tout le monde semblait en savoir plus long que moi. Je jouais à un jeu que je ne comprenais pas.

(And I felt that all about me churned a mysterious and intense life. Everyone had secrets. Everyone seemed to know more than me. I was playing at a game that I didn’t understand.)

Thus speaks the narrator of Elsa Triolet’s 1946 novel, Personne ne m’aime, which chronicles the life (and surrounding times) of two women in 1939 Paris, following their situation until 1945. This is pre-war Paris and occupied France placed under a microscope, detailed for the reader by Anne-Marie, who begins as an ordinary woman with no feeling for politics, no desire for anything but the bourgeois life she was born into.

That will change slowly as the novel unfolds, but Triolet makes it very clear that there are no instant heroes in wartime.

Through the proximity of their families, Anne-Marie was raised as kind of older sister to another woman, Jenny Borghèze, ten years her junior. When the novel opens in 1939, Anne-Marie is 37 years old and has returned from colonial France to Paris to establish a residence for her family who are meant to be joining her soon after. That won’t happen because of the war, but no one knows this yet—and this separation from her husband and two children is a fascinating element of the novel. So Anne-Marie visits Jenny, who has become a famous film star (she is likened to Greta Garbo so we understand her renown), and the women’s deep friendship is renewed. To the point that Jenny insists Anne-Marie move in with her in her vast apartment near Trocadero. And from here the novel takes flight.

Parties and love affairs (for Jenny), a new movie about to be released in which Jenny plays Joan of Arc, and the stifling atmosphere of pre-war Paris as the intellectuals and celebrities choose their sides for and against fascism. Jenny is outspokenly anti-Fascist but a very difficult person, while Anne-Marie refuses to even acknowledge the question but is generous, loving, intelligent. This juxtaposition is where the novel hinges, where it opens up a ragged line of inquiry on heroics, on wartime behavior. Something that Triolet, who was active in the French resistance, knew much about.

The novel contains a big event that I can’t mention here without giving the entire book away, but the event essentially breaks the novel into two distinct parts, and the second half sees Anne-Marie in a subtly-done and realistic awakening. She can no longer absent herself from what is happening around her. Triolet’s Anne-Marie is one of the best kinds of ordinary women: flawed but strong, sometimes deluded but always intelligent. Even her age – nearing 40 – is an interesting choice. More than anything, Anne-Marie is compassionate. Her compassion, and how it wanes and changes and evolves, is really the theme of the book, and this question already cited in the title – No one loves me – is repeated and examined and eventually enlarged to consider not just the women in the book but all of France, all of humanity. Who loves who in wartime? Who actually loves at all?

Anne-Marie’s story is continued in a second novel, Les Fantômes Armés, which was published in 1947.

 

5 Comments

 

**Below is the post I wrote when my first novel, Fog Island Mountains, was published in November 2014. Everything you need to know about the book is here.**

 

With so much traveling last week, I didn’t get a chance to properly mention the actual publication day of Fog Island Mountains. Officially, on November 4th—while I was somewhere 30,000 feet up between Geneva and NYC and reading several wonderful novels—the book came out. It is extremely exciting to note the publication of my first novel. This is something I’ve waited and hoped for, and I’m extremely grateful in terms of the book’s road to publication with Tantor and Audible through the Christopher Doheny Award from Audible and The Center for Fiction. I had the chance to learn more about this remarkable young man while I was in New York and I’m really touched that the judges thought he would have enjoyed my book, but also that they felt it was a suitable tribute to his life.

I read from the book last Thursday at The Center for Fiction. And there are some photos of that event. The Center for Fiction is a beautiful gem of bookish goodness right in the middle of Manhattan. If I lived anywhere near New York, I’d be spending as much time as possible here. That night was also special because I finally got to meet Rebecca from Of Books and Bikes. We’ve been blogging friends for years and it was such a treat to finally meet her. (She is as smart and kind as we’ve all suspected all these years.)

And on Friday evening, there was a reception at Audible with Christopher Doheny’s family and friends. It was so wonderful to hear stories about him—my favorite being that he set up a program at Audible to curate books from the small/independent presses to be made into audio books. He was an early champion of Paul Harding’s Tinkers, an exceptional book and one of my all-time favorites. I left that evening wishing I’d had a chance to meet him, I think we would have had much in common.

Beth Anderson at Audible conducted a small reading and interview with me that evening, but one that is also a wonderful tribute to Christopher Doheny and the award that will continue on in his name.

The book is out in the world now, and there are reviews popping up here and there. I’ll be sure to link to them for anyone who is interested. On Thursday morning I spent about six hours talking to twelve different radio stations. This was a fascinating experience – to hear how people are approaching the book and to get the chance to discuss it and answer questions. I have been stunned at the kindness and curiosity of so many people. Some of my favorite questions were about the book’s structure, about how the book dealt with cultural issues, and just simply about the setting in rural southern Japan.

One of the best parts of this experience with the radio was three hosts who read out parts of the book, passages they had marked. It is a little strange (in a good way) to hear my own words read back to me, and it was neat to see which parts they really enjoyed. I’ll finish up here with one of those passages:

Now the floor trembles without his taking angry steps; this is how the mountain releases its own tension, little earthquakes, shudders of rock against earth against rock, mild displacements—all reminders of the steam and heat beneath the rocks, beneath our feet.

Enjoying an article (“Lyric, Time, Beauty” by Sue Sinclair, in the April 2015 issue of Philosophy and Literature) on lyric philosophy this morning, and its examination of Jan Zwicky’s work, in particular her book Lyric Philosophy:

Zwicky’s claim is that the composition unfolds in time but that it is not fundamentally temporal in structure. It reveals its spatial structure in time as a flower unfolds in time, but it remains spatially organized. Temporality is but a way of establishing various distances—spaces—between the elements of the musical composition. An argument, by contrast, is of time; time isn’t a setting but provides the internal structure of the argument, as indicated by the image of the girder. Parts of an argument are connected along a single line that passes from x to y to z; an argument lacks the dimensionality necessary to unfold like a flower. And as the image of the glass pane suggests, it also lacks the flexibility and responsiveness required for resonance.

Because lyric experience, as part of human experience, must unfold in time, it is dependent on time, though differently than an argument is. Zwicky, however, suggests a further sense in which lyric experience bears a relation to time. She tells us that lyric vision is “rooted in the preciousness, the losability, of the world” (LP, L70). This reference to losability suggests a deep connection to time, for loss is an effect of time’s passage.

I’m interested in these ideas for their own sake, but also how they relate to translation – which can also be spatially organized and not “linear”, if we stretch the meaning of “linear” to “mot à mot”.

You can read the entire article here.

 

For the second half of the month, I made the following casual recommendations to family and friends:

TO HELL WITH CRONJE by Ingrid Winterbach, translated from the Afrikaans by Elsa Silke.

I’ll put this simply: if you are a fan of Cormac McCarthy-style writing, if you like gripping historical fiction that doesn’t feel in any real way historical, if you like intensely beautiful descriptions of the natural world, if you enjoy challenging questions of politics and racial issues, if you enjoy friendship narratives… then you will love this book. I wrote more about it when I read it.

PLEASE LOOK AFTER MOM by Kyung-sook Shin, translated from the Korean by Chi-young Kim.

Today’s book is one I meant to mention much earlier in the month but forgot about, which is ironic because it is about an elderly woman with dementia who gets separated from her family in a subway station. There is a fascinating diversity of narrative perspectives in this book – you learn about what happens to the mother from several different voices. And at the same time you learn so much about contemporary South Korea. The family theme of the book made it completely relatable on a purely human level. I absolutely loved this book.

INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS by Nancy Huston, translated by Nancy Huston.

If you asked me what superpower I might want, I would consider invisibility for a short while but then I’d say – the ability to write in two languages. I don’t just mean the practical way I have to use French and English for work, I mean great sweeping complicated novels in two languages. Huston was not raised bilingual – she’s English-speaking originally but moved to France in her twenties and found her literary voice in French. She writes incredibly rich, complex novels in French and then does the translation herself into English. I wrote about the book years ago.

MILDEW by Paulette Jonguitud, translated from Spanish by Paulette Jonguitud

I discovered this fantastic novella among CB Editions marvelous catalogue some time last year. The story is about a woman who discovers a spot of mildew growing on her leg just 24 hours before her daughter’s wedding. Weird, yes. Excellent, yes. A little bit magical realism, a little bit family drama, Mildew is strange and dark and filled with surprises. I wrote a longer review for Mildew in 2015.

IT DOES NOT DIE by Maitreyi Devi, translated from the Bengali by Maitreyi Devi

This book was an incredible find a year or so ago in my book group. We first read a novel called BENGAL NIGHTS by Mircea Eliade (which was about a man who falls in love with a young woman in the 1930s India – it was a beautiful book, and quite provocative – and based on Eliade’s own travels as a young man), but it turns out that the woman in question was Maitreyi Devi and she wrote her own version of events – extremely different – from the original book. Her story is fascinating, as are the cultural elements behind both books – and reading the two books in tandem was excellent. This essay gives more background on the two novels.

THE WAITING YEARS by Enchi Fumiko, translated by John Bester

Originally published in Japanese in 1957, The Waiting Years is about Tomo, a wife in a “good family” in Tokyo. Enchi is exploding stereotypes in this book, and uncovering ugly hidden realities as the reader watches Tomo suffer within the bounds of her perfectly “good” marriage. The book is really gripping and Enchi’s writing is so lovely. I wrote about this one in more detail a few years ago.

THE TALE OF GENJI by Murasaki Shikibu, translated by various translators over time.

My favorite translation is now Royall Tyler’s amazing, footnoted, heavily researched absolute work-of-art, that came out in 2001. It’s stunning. Also, what other book may have taken a translator as much time as the Genji?

CHASING THE KING OF HEARTS by Hanna Krall, translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm.

Here is part of what I had to say about the book when I reviewed it for Necessary Fiction a few years ago.

This premise—that something as intangible and fragile as the connection and love between Shayek and Izolda should trump all impossible distances and insane governmental decrees and genocidal rules—is where the novella hinges. It is not so much that Izolda believes that within the context of the war she still deserves the success of her life and love, but rather despite it. On a purely psychological level, Izolda operates as if the war simply does not touch her. While her actions and movements are all prescribed and countered by what is happening in the Polish ghetto, in various prison camps, in Vienna, even in the Guben labor camp, her mindset remains firmly beyond these prescriptions. And this is this novella’s most remarkable offering.

You can read the entire review here.

COMMENTARY by Marcelle Sauvageot, translated from the French by Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis

This very slim novella, originally published in 1933, is actually a series of fierce and powerful letters, written by a young woman to her former lover, written from the sanatorium in which she would die a year later from tuberculosis at the age of 34. It’s an incredibly feminist text for its time, it’s also angry, sad, poetic, and complicated. The kind of short book you can read again and again, understanding different parts of it each time. The notes in the back of my edition discussing the various writers and critics who were impressed or affected by Commentary is also worth devouring.

JULETANE by Myriam Warner-Vieyra, translated from the French by Betty Wilson.

Warner Vieyra is a Guadeloupean writer who now lives in Senegal, and JULETANE gracefully brings together three very different places that Warner must know very well: the Caribbean, Paris, and Senegal. The book is a framework story, and the reader follows Hélène in Paris (an independent and wealthy woman about to be married) as she finds a diary while packing up her apartment. The diary belongs to Juletane, a young West Indian woman who met and married a man from Senegal while living in Paris but then followed him to his home in Africa, where she cannot manage to find her place. The two women’s stories contrast beautifully and reveal all the complexities of both.

THE TRUE DECEIVER by Tove Janssen, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

Very different in tone from Jansson’s The Summer Book, which I mentioned earlier this month, The True Deceiver is darker and a bit more complicated. I wrote about the book here.

THE NOTEBOOK, THE PROOF, THE THIRD LIE by Agota Kristof, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan, David Watson, & Marc Romano.

If you’ve been reading my site for any length of time, you’ll know how much this trilogy affected me. Written by a Hungarian-Swiss writer and it is not an easy one to read, but is one of the most thought-provoking series of books I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting lost in. The trilogy follows the lives of a set of young twins as they deal with WWII and its aftermath. The books deal with abandonment, with war, with identity, with authoritarian regimes. The stories are grim in many ways, but Kristof also has a keen eye for the humane where it honestly resides. I wrote about each book here, so if you’re interested you can have a look at “Agota Kristof” and it will all come up.

THE BRIEFCASE by Hiromi Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell.

On the surface this a book about a woman in her late thirties and a man in his seventies and the strange romance in which they find themselves engaged. That word romance is a little misleading, because what happens between Tsukiko and Sensei is far more serious than what that simple word might lead one to believe. The Briefcase is less a study of an unconventional relationship and more a query of what happens when two resolutely lonely individuals find that when they are together, their loneliness is eased.

My full review at Necessary Fiction is here.

THE CRUEL WAY by Ella Maillart (I can’t find a reference to who did this translation, so perhaps it was actually Maillart?)

Adventurer, travel writer and sportswoman, Ella Maillart is an incredible figure. She traveled alone in 1932 in Turkestan and wrote the book TURKESTAN SOLO. In 1939 she traveled with a friend (the famous Anne-Marie Schwarzenbach) from Europe through Istanbul, Kabul and Teheren, and wrote THE CRUEL WAY. Those are the two of her books that I know, but please see this site for more information about her. She was a fascinating and brave woman and her work deserves to be more widely known.

ALL THE ROADS ARE OPEN by Anne-Marie Schwarzenbach, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole

This is a memoir of the same journey taken by Ella Maillart, written from the other traveler.

From Seagull’s page for the book:

In June 1939, Annemarie Schwarzenbach and fellow writer Ella Maillart set out from Geneva in a Ford, heading for Afghanistan. The first women to travel Afghanistan’s Northern Road, they fled the storm brewing in Europe to seek a place untouched by what they considered to be Western neuroses. The Afghan journey documented in All the Roads Are Open is one of the most important episodes of Schwarzenbach’s turbulent life.

THE MAN WHO SNAPPED HIS FINGERS by Fariba Hachtroudi, translated from the French by Alison Anderson.

My last book for the month is one I read in the last week, and it was quite a book. It’s about the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and an incredibly brave female prisoner, and about a colonel in charge of the prison and his wife —another fascinating female figure. I found it a very difficult read in the sense that it was disturbing and violent. I could not read it at night, but the questions it asks are tremendous and I am still thinking about it and planning to write about it properly in a few days.

***

Well! After all this recommending, I would love to hear what your favorite books by women in translation are. I know I missed so many wonderful books, and I’d love to add to my own lists – so please do leave a comment with a book title.

This month I gave myself a small challenge to send 31 women-in-translation book recommendations to my family and friends. I wanted to do this in a casual way, especially as many who are getting these recommendations are not avid readers nor familiar with much foreign fiction. But I’d like to compile the list here, along with my off-the-cuff introductions to each book. I have now finished half of the recommendations and so here they are:

August 1: THE SUMMER BOOK, translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal.

What I love about this book is how the simple story of the summer companionship between a granddaughter/grandmother on an island in the Gulf of Finland is sad, funny, dark, and uplifting all at the same time. This is a book that I’ve read several times and I love it more with each re-read.

Aug 2: HER NOT ALL HER by Elfriede Jelinek, translated from the German by Damion Searls.

This tiny little chapbook-style book is extraordinary. It is essentially Jelinek having a stream-of-consciousness “conversation” with Robert Walser’s entire oeuvre. (That sold you, right? I know it did.)  It is stunning and unusual and complicated, and there is no story (who needs story all the time? Sometimes you just need poetry and voice…) and it’s a part of the equally stunning Cahiers Series. As proof I give you the first line:

“Wait, don’t sit down! Your soul is peeping out of your body as though a work lay there inside you like a slumbering goddess, wanting to get out, even in her sleep.”

August 3: THE WALL by Marlen Haushofer (Austria), translated from German by Shaun Whiteside

Being alone in a forest is lovely, but I wouldn’t want to wake up alone in a friend’s chalet in the woods and discover that I was presumably the last woman alive on the planet. Which is exactly what happens in this very psychological novel from 1963. She has a dog – which would save me too – and she has a cow, but she must learn to survive, on her own, and it slowly dawns on her that this is for forever. It’s really dark, but it’s so incredibly good.

August 4: THE VEGETARIAN by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

Set in South Korea, The Vegetarian is a novella about a woman who decides to become a vegetarian. But it’s also about spousal abuse, family obligations, about gender roles, about mental illness, about art and so much more. This book prompted one of the best book group discussions I’ve ever had in my lovely book group. I’m still thinking about how to understand it and it’s challenging and dark and weird – all excellent things.

August 5: SWORN VIRGIN by Elvira Dones (Albania/US), translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford.

This is a book set in Albania and the US, and it’s about Hana, and how she became Mark upon her father’s death. As ‘Mark’, she is one of Albania’s “sworn virgins” — women who vow to live their lives as chaste men in exchange for an independence that most women cannot have — but who gets the chance, by moving to America, to become Hana again. By the time she gets to the US she’s been a man for 15 years. The book is: psychological, sociological, contemporary, poetic, pretty gripping, and ultimately, very moving.

August 6: BUILDING WAVES by Taeko Tomioka, translated by Louise Heal Kawai. I’m linking to my full review, but here’s a small taste:

“Building Waves is the kind of book that comes out of a fault line, an unstable geography of changing mores and shifting cultural practices. It is a feminist book—in the way that Tomioka so baldly addresses issues of female sexuality, marriage and child-rearing—but it’s also deeply interested in what it means to be alive, what does living mean to an individual, to an entire population, and to each careful and interested reader.”

August 7: NIHILIST GIRL by Sofya Kovalevskaya, translated from the Russian by Natasha Kolchevska with Mary Zirim

A coming-of-age story set in mid-19th century Russia, about a young aristocratic woman who finds she wants to completely transform her society – politically and socially. Love! Social upheaval! Injustice! Many famous Russian male writers (*cough* Tolstoy, *cough* Chekov) have written about the same time period. Kovalevskaya’s is the first I’ve ever read from the female perspective. Also, she was a kick-ass mathematician.

August 8: THE LOOKING-GLASS SISTERS by Gøhril Gabrielsen (Norway), translated by John Irons.

This is a novel of two sisters, one who is ill and the other who cares for her. The sisters are bound by this difficult relationship, but also their loneliness in a house far out in the country. When the healthy sister falls in love and marries, bringing her husband home to live with them, the other sister (who is narrating) begins to suspect the two of plotting against her. This is an intensely psychological novel—very dark, very fascinating.

August 9: THE RED SOFA by Michèle Lesbre, translated from French by Nicole and David Ball.

A tiny book with two interweaving stories. The first is of Anne’s train journey across Siberia to find her lover Gyl, and the other is about Anne’s friendship with an older woman named Clémence. As Anne travels, she remembers her conversations with Clémence, how they talked of the young man Clémence once loved, who died when they were nineteen, but also of the famous women artists they discussed. It sounds very quiet but the book does something really interesting with the two stories and how they connect… which I won’t give away!

August 10:  BABA DUNJA’S LAST LOVE by Alina Bronsky, translated from German by Tim Mohr.

Following the Chernobyl nuclear accident, Baby Dunja has returned to her small evacuated and radioactive town to live out the rest of her days. An eccentric cast of people are there alongside her, snubbing their noses at the government and living how they please. Until a small child – who is not terminally ill – is brought to the village by a strange man. I leave you to discover the rest. Despite the dark subject matter, the book is quite light and often very funny.

August 11: THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG by Muriel Barbery, translated from French by Alison Anderson.

Hedgehog is a book about Paris, about concierges, about precocious 12 year olds. It’s about life and love, about class and intellect. It looks at philosophy and art and aesthetics, and it nods to Japanese culture, too. It’s also an excellent example of how a book can distill voice, and the two narrators – Renée (concierge) and Paloma (precious 12 year old) are fascinating. I reread my 2009 review of Hedgehog and found I was rather severe – which is curious to me now, because it’s a book I’ve continued thinking about, and I remember that everyone in my book group loved it. So I leave it for you all to decide!

August 12: ADIOS, COWBOY by Olga Savičević, translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth.

Adios, Cowboy is about Dada, a character of contradictions—tough and sensual, clever and lost, romantic and resigned—who returns from the big city to her small seaside hometown several years after the death of her younger brother. She finds her mother addicted to medication and her sister embittered. And Dada has a question—she wants to resolve the questions surrounding Daniel’s death.

August 13: LOVE, ANGER, MADNESS by Marie Vieux-Chauvet, translated from French by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur.

I reviewed the book years ago, writing: “Often called a trilogy, Love, Anger, and Madness is actually a triptych of three thematically connected novellas. The overarching preoccupation of all three stories centers on the idea of fear as a force of social destruction. Vieux-Chauvet’s characters live in fear of their political and community leaders and, ultimately, of their neighbors and friends. Even the tightest family unit warps and deforms under the influence of this pervasive fear. The novel’s stories create a three-paneled portrait of what Haitian society had become by the mid 1960s—impoverished, environmentally ravaged, chaotic and violent.”

There is extra room for celebration because another novel by Vieux-Chauvet, DANCE ON THE VOLCANO was published in English in 2016.

August 14: ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING WRITTEN BY CLARISSE LISPECTOR.

I started with HOUR OF THE STAR and absolutely fell in love with her unique, poetic vision. These books are hard to describe. They’re breathless and odd and philosophical and challenging. She is an incredibly innovative writer, but there is also something classic in her vision. I have also read and loved AGUA VIVA, THE PASSION ACCORDING TO G.H., and THE BREATH OF LIFE. I am slowly working through her complete short stories.

August 15: I, TITUBA, BLACK WITCH OF SALEM by the Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé (translated from the French by Richard Philcox)

TITUBA is loosely based on an actual person, a black slave woman who was tried for witchcraft in Salem in 1692. Condé does a magnificent re-imagining of this dark period of American history and the novel feels both historical and fairytale-esque. It’s provocative and gripping, and there is even a cameo appearance by none other than Hester Prynne!

 

 

6 Comments