Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘books’

 

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.

 

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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.

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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!

 

 

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Unusual first-person narrators are an obsession of mine—voices that jar or unique hybrid POVs—and so it was a pleasure to discover Conxa in Stone in a Landslide (Peirene Press, 2010) by Maria Barbal, and translated by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell. This is a Catalan novel, originally published in 1985, that begins in the early twentieth century and covers a lifetime.

The story begins when narrator Conxa is 13 years old and sent to live with her aunt in a village a day’s walk from her own. She settles in, works, falls in love and marries, and eventually has children—all against a background, gently described, of a changing region in the years building toward the Spanish Civil War. There are careful timestamps, like the Universal Exposition in Barcelona in 1929, the first uprisings in 1936 and so on and so forth. As the book deals with the personal side of the war, it is also describing a nation in the midst of a modernity crisis, and Barbal weaves the two elements together with a lot of grace.

Conxa has a deceptively straightforward voice and this is where the book really intrigued me. Technically, as a narrator, she is an old woman, and she’s telling the reader her story in retrospect. As fits this approach, there are tones of nostalgia in certain passages and foreshadowing in others for elements to come that are harder for her to relate. But she doesn’t play much with the voice of a “wise old woman” or even, more simply, with the reality of what might be known and understood in hindsight, and this creates a neat effect, in that we experience Conxa’s grappling with the changes around her—both personal and political—as she does, simply and honestly.

In some sense, Barbal gives Conxa a kind of naivety—to put it another way, you could describe her as simple, unassuming—and she only tempers this when we reach the end of her life. At first I struggled with this a little, because I wondered at the truth of it, wondered whether Conxa might have been a stereotype of a “woman from a small village” at that time in Catalan history. (Stone in a Landslide was Barbal’s first novel, and although she’s a Barcelona-based writer, this novel is, more than others it seems, centered on the rural region where she grew up). As Conxa moved further through her story, though, I stopped feeling this way completely, and felt more that Barbal was giving her character (and the reader) the space to experience what must have been a massive cultural upheaval without a retrospective agenda. Conxa is somehow both naïve and incredibly realistic, and while she may not be as brave as others, and spends more time avoiding change and politics, she lives her experiences fully—the good and the bad—and relates both with the same honest emotion that I ultimately found really compelling.

It is a quiet book in many ways, but I never mean that negatively. It felt in places like a gentle documentary, and yet I turned each page with real interest to see how Conxa’s life would turn out. The ending shifts tone—more poetic, and a voice that is hard-earned at this point—and this was extremely moving.

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Quick note for Women in Translation month: from what I can see, Barbal has eleven novels, and Stone in a Landslide is the only one so far available in English translation. I hope there are more planned as one of my laments about so little ‘literature-in-translation’ available in English is that it is often hard to follow a writer’s evolution over time, and selfishly, I find this to be one of the most rewarding aspects of reading and discovering new writers. How have they changed, what do they read like twenty years into their careers?

August is Women in Translation month – which was originally started by Meytal Radzinski and a fantastic initiative to highlight the issue of how few books by women authors are translated into English. This is something close to my heart, as both a devoted reader of ‘foreign fiction’ and as a translator.

I’m happy to finally report that a Swiss writer I’ve been championing for some time (and having a hard time placing anywhere) will see a first English translation publication later this fall. The writer is Clarisse Francillon – whom, for reasons of expediency, I tend to describe as the Mavis Gallant of Switzerland — and my translation of one of her short stories will be published in Mayday Magazine in a few months. I’ll be shouting about it when it comes out.

I have a very busy month of reading for Le Livre sur les Quais – a Swiss literary festival that takes place each September. This year the country of honor will be Ireland and a great number of interesting writers will be here. I’ll be moderating several panels for the English-speaking authors program, so most of my month has an imposed and diverse reading list: Ruth Ware, Kevin Barry, Emanuel Bergmann, Claire Vaye Watkins and Rachel Joyce. The small “in English” part of the festival has a healthy-sized list, not to mention the full French-speaking program! If you’re interested you can see more here.

Nonetheless, I’d still like to read a selection of women in translation this month and here is a small stack from my shelves, books I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to yet. I am only picking four – but this seems ambitious enough with everything else going on. Here they are, and I’d love to hear if you’ve read any of these…

  • Stone in a Landslide, Maria Barbal, translated from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell (Peirene, 2010)
  • Sun Alley, Cecilia Ştefănescu, translated from the Romanian by Alexandra Coliban & Andreea Höfer (Istros Books, 2013)
  • Baba Dunja’s Last Love, Alina Bronsky, translated from the German by Tim Mohr (Europa Editions, 2016)
  • Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (Pushkin Press, 2017)

Because I feel that list is woefully short, I’ll include here a list of some of my very favorite books by non-Anglophone women writers, available in English translation. Many of these books I’ve written about here or elsewhere, I’ll include a link if I have one:

  • The Wall, Marlen Haushofer, tr. Shaun Whiteside
  • Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector, tr. Giovanni Pontiero
  • Agua Viva, Clarice Lispector, tr. Stefan Tobler
  • Juletane, Myriam Warner-Vieyra, tr. Betty Wilson
  • Building Waves, Taeko Tomioka, tr. Louise Heal Kawai
  • The Summer Book, Tove Janssen, tr. Thomas Teal
  • Mildew, Paulette Jonguitud, tr. by the author
  • Farewell, Cowboy, Olja Savičević, tr. Celia Hawkesworth
  • Masks, Enchi Fumiko, tr. Juliet Winters Carpentr
  • The Waiting Years, Enchi Fumiko, tr. John Bester
  • Trilogy, Agota Kristof, tr. Alan Sheridan, David Watson, Marc Romano
  • Commentary, Marcelle Sauvageot, tr. Christine Schwartz Hartley, Anna Moschovakis

Just making this list, I can see so many of my blind spots. I feel decently well-read in Japanese and Francophone women’s fiction, but I’ve been meaning to search out and make a list of more diverse women’s voices: Asian and African writing, and Spanish-language writers, for example, that I know I’ve overlooked. Suggestions are always welcome…

To finish I’ll mention one book that I think SHOULD BE translated into English. Douchinka by the Swiss writer Dominique de Rivaz. This is a tiny little book set in a dystopian Russian future. It involves dubious art practices and institutionalized murder, and it is also one of the strangest love stories I’ve ever read. I read the book a few months ago and cannot stop thinking about it.

 

 

 

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In the last two weeks, I’ve spent many hours on trains, and I had the luck to read on one of those trips a particularly suitable train narrative called De second classe by Janine Massard. It’s really two essays put together—one about an eastward journey, and the other about a westward journey. The essays were originally published in the late 1960s, and although they definitely felt rooted in their time period (crossing borders during the Cold War), they also felt delightfully contemporary.

In the eastward journey, the narrator is riding from Belgrade to Baghdad, sleeping in the overhead rack when he can, drinking vodka at 9am, smoking with his fellow passengers… the smoking provides an interesting passage from this first essay when the narrator offers an American cigarette to his seat mate (after receiving a gift of food to share, despite the neighbor’s evident poverty). The man smokes his cigarette with appreciation and asks the neighbor if he’s American. The narrator then waffles—What to do? Admit that he isn’t and ruin the authenticity of this American cigarette (perceived as higher quality than an Eastern European variety), or lie to smooth the moment over? The narrator finally admits he is Swiss, but the other man doesn’t understand at first because the narrator has said, “niet, svetsi” a word he concedes he’s probably invented in an attempt to say “Swiss” in Serbian. He tries Italian “Swizzera”, he tries French, “Suisse”, neither work, and eventually:

…tu essaies : Switzerland à cause du fameux made in Switzerland, produit d’exportation de haute qualité, mais il ne connait pas made in Switzerland, lui, l’homme à la bouche édentée, il ne la possède pas sa montre suisse, cet homme aux joues creuses. Et à cet instant, tu réalises que, parce que tu appartiens à un pays riche, tu viens, avec ton Switzerland, de dire quelque chose dont les prolongations débouchent sur l’impossibilité du dialogue.

… you try: Switzerland because of the famous Made in Switzerland, high-quality export goods, but this man with his toothless mouth doesn’t know Made in Switzerland, this man with his sunken cheeks doesn’t have his own Swiss watch. And just then you realize that because you come from a rich country, you’ve just said something, with your Switzerland, that can only lead to the impossibility of dialogue.

(Excuse the hasty translation, could fiddle with those commas and that last sentence for a while…)

They finally find a language to speak together, German. And the encounter gathers a different kind of depth. Massard is really skilled at playing with this tension, how language filters culture and how strangers find ways to inhabit their shared space for the length of a journey.

The Westward journey is much longer, and the narrator plays a pivotal role in translating for different groups of strangers. In this essay, the narrator occupies a privileged position as the person who can speak English, French, German, and Italian (and possibly more languages – I’d have to go back and check). There are several stories swirling around the train compartment. My favorite was of an older Italian woman who has left her island (which now belongs to Yugoslavia) for the very first time to travel by train all the way to Helsinki to help her son because the latter sent her a simple telegram: NEED YOU IMMEDIATELY. And so she is on her way, without any idea how to actually get to Finland. The multiple conversations to help her are touching, many different passengers pitch in. There is also the lazy American who receives money from the desperate Russian violinist obviously trying to escape his country, and the British couple on their sweepstakes holiday… and many more.

Massard’s language is rhythmic as well – suitably rolling to mimic the movement of the train, but also the coming and going of different passengers and the image of a long twisty train, one compartment after another. I loved reading it. I imagined translating some of it and got quickly stumped on small choices of syntax and imagery. Take this sample sentence for example.

When the train finally arrives in Lausanne, in the early pre-dawn, the narrator has been speaking with a migrant worker from Calabria, returning to Switzerland after a holiday at home, and he writes a sentence I’ve been trying to translate for the last thirty minutes and am now giving up:

Et pendant un long moment vous regardez, tous les deux, défiler les maisons silencieuses où restent suspendues, presque sans force, les lumières de la nuit.

I can begin this with: And for a long moment the two of you watch a parade of silent houses…

But what exactly are “lumières de la nuit”? Streetlamps? Lights inside the dark houses? Small lights outside the darkened houses? I’m not sure…

And why or how are these lights “hanging”? And what does Massard mean by “presque sans force” – are they dim? Are they feeble or flickering? Is the darkness too dark for the lights to stand out against? I can make some guesses, or eventually just decide to make the image more concrete in a coherent way – giving my own interpretation.

And for a long moment the two of you watch a parade of silent houses, their lights, nearly extinguished, poised in the darkness.

(I know, I know, that’s a bit much… I don’t like extinguished… and I’ve kept the weird French syntax, but ending with darkness is just too tempting…)

In French, though, the image is fleeting and vague – appropriate for its moment as the train is moving more slowly as it pulls into the city. I don’t mind that I just have an illusory sense of darkness punctuated by small lights. The syntax works well, too, with those four commas and the lovely four beats before the sssss of “sans force” and the uplift of “les lumières”.

I secretly love this, though. It’s one sentence of a 100 page book, and I could play with various solutions for quite some time… any ideas?

 

 

 

 

 

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The Gulag Archipelago is rather depressing reading – even if Solzhenitsyn lets loose with a dry sense of humor from time to time. But from today’s reading a few paragraphs stand out. This is from Chapter 4, “The Bluecaps” (which is about torture and interrogation), in which he muses on the idea of an evildoer. He makes it literary, which I found entertaining (that’s a joke) and instructive:

We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any. It is permissible to portray evildoers in a story for children, so as to keep the picture simple. But when the great world literature of the past—Shakespeare, Schiller, Dickens—inflates and inflates images of evildoers of the blackest shades, it seems somewhat farcical and clumsy to our contemporary perception. The trouble lies in the way these classic evildoers are pictured. They recognize themselves as evildoers, and they know their souls are black. And they reason: “I cannot live unless I do evil. So I’ll set my father against my brother! I’ll drink the victim’s sufferings until I’m drunk with them!” Iago very precisely identifies his purposes and his motives as being black and born of hate.

But no; that’s not the way it is! To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions.

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble—and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb, too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.

Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. […]

Thanks to ideology the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago?

There was a rumor going the rounds between 1918 and 1920 that the Petrograd Cheka, headed by Uritsky, and the Odessa Cheka, headed by Deich, did not shoot all those condemned to death but fed some of them alive to the animals in the city zoos. I do not know whether this is truth or calumny, or, if there were any such cases, how many there were. But I wouldn’t set out to look for proof, either. Following the practice of the bluecaps, I would propose that they prove to us that this was impossible. How else could they get food for the zoos in those famine years? Take it away from the working class? Those enemies were going to die anyway, so why couldn’t their deaths support the zoo economy of the Republic and therefore assist our march into the future? Wasn’t it expedient?

That is the precise line the Shakespearean evildoer could not cross. But the evildoer with ideology does cross it, and his eyes remain dry and clear.

Physics is aware of phenomena which occur only at threshold magnitudes, which do not exist at all until a certain threshold encoded by and known to nature has been crossed. No matter how intense a yellow light you shine on a lithium sample, it will not emit electrons. But as soon as a weak bluish light begins to glow, it does emit them. (The threshold of the photoelectric effect has been crossed.) You can cool oxygen to 100 degrees below zero centigrade and exert as much pressure as you want; it does not yield, but remains a gas. But as soon as minus 183 degrees is reached, it liquefies and begins to flow.

Evidently evildoing also has a threshold magnitude. Yes, a human being hesitates and bobs back and forth between good and evil all his life. He slips, falls back, clambers up, repents, things begin to darken again. But just so long as the threshold of evildoing is not crossed, the possibility of returning remains, and he himself is still within reach of our hope. But when, through the density of evil actions, the result either of their own extreme degree or of the absoluteness of his power, he suddenly crosses that threshold, he has left humanity behind, and without, perhaps, the possibility of return.

 

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I had thought about ice during the cold months too. How it is movement betrayed, water seized in the moment of falling.

Gretel Ehrlich’s essay “Spring”—published in 1986 in the now defunct literary quarterly, Antaeus—is one of those gloriously meandering pieces of writing. On a micro level, the prose is precise and detailed, a collage of descriptions of the author’s physical world, her landscape as she writes: snow, rocks, wind, water, sky, the animals that cross the topography. Fitting, of course, for an essay on a season. It’s a fine example of nature writing. At the same time, in a more general and overlapping way, there’s a deeply metaphysical line of questioning. The essayist is circling human nature, an emotional spring.

She threads the movement from early spring to mid-spring with science, especially with physics. Conversations she’s had with scientist friends. Geological observations. Early in the essay she describes spring as a restless time, and the essay reflects a psychological restlessness, a movement from one state (winter) to another (spring). But the state could also be illness to health, raw grief to healing, closed to open. When I’ve written it this way it sounds nearly new-agey, and it isn’t at all. It’s inquisitive, intelligent, scientific, emotional.

Ehrlich is also dealing with the landscape of my childhood—the American West with its unreal vistas and deep wilderness. A wilderness in which “wild” should be written in bold. I returned to the US a few years ago and drove in one day across the Sawtooth Mountains and the Cascade Mountains. I’d been living in Europe nearly eight years at this point and I’d forgotten the size of those spaces. The incredible breadth, the vastness of it. Ehrlich brought me right back into that and I experienced an aching nostalgia.

Space is an arena in which the rowdy particles that are the building blocks of life perform their antics. All spring, things fall: the general law of increasing disorder is on the take.

And there’s a surprise in her narrative. Where she begins and where she ends aren’t signaled in the usual ways (although the quote just above could be taken as such signaling), and thank goodness. This is what I mean by gloriously meandering. She takes us from one personal space to another that is quite different, and I could not have predicted that movement but when she finishes it is like that is the only way we could have gone. It’s delightful.