Monthly Archives: September 2018

“Can a man write a feminist book?”: Now, Now, Louison, Jean Frémon

Translated from the French by Cole Swensen (Les Fugitives, 2018)

In Now, Now, Louison, Jean Frémon offers an extraordinary homage to French sculptor Louise Bourgeois, weaving together fragments of her life and her art from his own experience. However, it would be false to describe this short, lyrical book as either a biography or art criticism: although Frémon offers glimpses into the life of Louise Bourgeois (which was also, as Frémon reminds us, “the life of the century”), and further insights into how many of her famous works originated, it is more in the style of a memoir. This is not Frémon’s memoir, though, but rather a memoir by Bourgeois via Frémon: Frémon shifts between the first and second person in his narration, sometimes speaking to Bourgeois as a real “you”, and sometimes as her, as an imagined “I”, writing Bourgeois in “his words that are also her words” (Siri Hustvedt).

Image from lesfugitives.com

Yes, “his”. This is an interesting case study that pushes at the boundaries of how we might understand “translating women”: publisher Les Fugitives released it yesterday with the tantalising question “Can a man write a feminist book?” (my instinctive response to this is “yes” since, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I believe that feminism is for everyone – but that’s a debate we can continue another day). Written by someone who knew her well, Now, Now, Louison is a unique insight into the world of Louise Bourgeois – her upbringing, her decisions, and her art. Though famed throughout the world, it was only towards the end of Bourgeois’ life that her work was celebrated (a point eloquently made by Frémon: “You can’t make a move these days without someone’s interpreting it in his terms. Above all, the French. They ignored you for fifty years, and when they finally noticed you existed, they couldn’t wait to tell you what you’d been doing”). Now, Now, Louison avoids the temptation to explain Bourgeois and her work in this way, and instead offers snapshots into the paths that brought her to fame. This is an intimate and emotional book, and above all a very beautiful one. The translator, Cole Swensen, is a poet, and this shows through in the translation. I ached with a kind of nostalgia while I was reading this book, and at first I couldn’t put my finger on why – the nostalgia often hits me when I read in French, or about Paris, which was once my home – but this was in English, and not focused on Paris (indeed, much of the book is set in New York, where Bourgeois lived as an adult). About a third of the way through my reading, it hit me: the reason I felt this nostalgia was because reading Now, Now, Louison was like reading in French. And this is not because of what you might call “literal” translation or anything clumsy like that, but rather because the syntax and some of the vocabulary mirror the French in a way that is not “English” but yet does not feel “foreign” in the translation. And yet there is nothing odd or affected about the translation: it’s simply an immense achievement on the part of the translator, that the translation communicates the language as if through a lens. I’m aware that this might seem as though I’m advocating an “invisibility” of the translator, so let me be clear: I am not of that school of thought. I see the translator as a co-creator, and Swensen is certainly not invisible here. Nor is the French book invisible beneath the translation – and that’s why I loved it. But it’s also why there was the occasional detail that didn’t sit too well with me, words that have a reduced field of usage in English (such as “parturient spider at the bottom of the garden”), a slightly odd use of syntax that mirrors the French (“there would reign a sepulchral silence throughout the house”), even my own bête noire for translation into English (using “the latter” too liberally). The “Frenchness” of the text is not hidden, and apart from these few details, this was a good thing in my view. Sometimes the original French language is explicit: there is analysis of a French phrase “made of marble” and its English equivalent “poker face”, there are French song lyrics that remain untranslated, and French cultural references that are unexplained (from Charcot and the Salpêtrière to Varda, Sagan, Duras and the Récamier) – these add to the feeling of “Frenchness” that pervades the translation.

The “spider woman”

I couldn’t write about Louise Bourgeois without mentioning spiders. They feature heavily in all of her exhibitions, and I was fascinated to learn how she became so obsessive about them. Frémon speaks as Bourgeois, explaining that they represent her mother: “She’s always been in my drawings, in the form of a spider. People don’t usually like spiders – they’re afraid of them. Women leap onto stools and scream, and men step on them with the satisfaction of having done a good deed.” The spiders take on a form of feminist resistance, instilling fear into other women and inciting men to crush them self-righteously, but Bourgeois made them ever bigger, stronger, and, crucially, pregnant, ready to give birth to more like them. The maternal image is present throughout: her own mother, weaving, attentive, and her female spiders, heavy with the life they will bring forth (or “immoderately maternal”, as Frémon puts it). Spiders are observed, catalogued, praised, and then sculpted into her “family”, with an attention Bourgeois does not seem to extend to her own children – or perhaps this is simply not where Frémon’s focus lies. Indeed, on the book jacket, Now, Now, Louison is described as exhibiting “elusive, haunted excess”, and I thought for a while about what exactly this meant. Haunted, because it is lyrical, philosophical, almost ethereal, Bourgeois appearing almost as a spectre; excess, because this is a big story in a small package, a story of the fragility behind the indomitable force; elusive, because there is so much that is not told, because Louise Bourgeois herself is always just out of reach. Her drawings “scream in silence” while she remains mute; she is likened to an “empty house” that she wanders through; the art she made is an expression of pain, love, and the questions she never articulated; her sculptures are “self-portraits”. Yet there is rarely any more detail than this: Frémon describes her sculptures as an equation with, on one side, “pain, anxiety, and frustration” and, on the other, “wood, marble, bronze”, and then, speaking as Bourgeois, offers the following realisation: “Then one day I thought, you can always carve wood, mold clay, or polish marble better than anyone, but what good is it if you don’t tell your own story? Lovely sculptures, gratuitous, idiotic, vain, and useless if they don’t say what you have to say.” Frémon, or Bourgeois-through-Frémon, seems to be saying that the key to understanding Bourgeois is in understanding her sculptures, and yet he avoids the temptation of telling us how to understand them. That is not to say that there are no revelations at all (there is a very interesting insight into the hanging headless figure of “Single II”); rather, there is an acknowledgement that “we are what others say we are.” Neither Bourgeois nor Frémon tells us directly how to interpret her work, and this elusive understanding is deliberate: “You’ll never know if it was ecstatic. I have my own ideas on the subject. And I will continue to have them.” If there is one key to understanding how Bourgeois worked, and what her work “means”, then perhaps it can be summed up in my favourite excerpt from the book:

“Aim for beauty, and you get the vapid; you get fashion, beribboned cliché; aim for something else – encyclopaedic knowledge, systematic inventory, structural analysis, personal obsession, or just a mental itch that responds to scratching, and you end up with beauty. Beauty is only a by-product, unsought, yet available to amateurs and impenitent believers.”

Neither Bourgeois in her work nor Frémon in his homage have “aimed for beauty”, but rather, just as the personal obsession Bourgeois had with spiders gave way to knowledge and analysis, which resulted in beauty, so Frémon’s obsession with giving Bourgeois a voice has given way to knowledge and analysis of his own, and he has ended up with beauty. A beauty that will always be incomplete and unsought, but that is there nonetheless, “available to amateurs and impenitent believers” in the pages of this book. It may have imperfections but, as we are told, “perfection masks feelings”, and if this book is anything, it is a book of emotions: this poignant tribute is just as it should be.

Les Fugitives have a very exciting list of titles forthcoming in 2019, that will probably be of interest to blog subscribers. You can browse the catalogue here.

Review copy of Now, Now, Louison provided by Les Fugitives.

Alternatives to Patriarchy: Kristín Ómarsdóttir, Waitress in Fall (Carcanet and Partus Press)

I’m delighted to welcome Laurie Garrison to the blog today, with a review of Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s Waitress in Fall. Laurie is the dynamic organizer of the Women Writers Network, and you can find her full bio here.

In Iceland, Kristín Ómarsdóttir is about as famous as poets can be: she has been nominated for or won a long list of awards, including the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize; she is a successful dramatist; and one of her novels has been translated into English. Until now, however, none of her poetry has been available in English. It is therefore exciting that a selection of poems written across her entire career has now been translated as Waitress in Fall by fellow Icelandic poet Vala Thorodds, founder of Partus Press. These poems take the reader into another world, one that is rebellious, unexpected, humorous and that (I think) has more in common with French surrealism than most of the poetry being written in English at the present moment.

Image from partus.press

Take the poem “Lemon Breast”, for example. The mundane genre of cooking instructions is transformed into an erotic absurdity:

Slice the lemon into two equal halves
on the kitchen table but take
one half into your room
and squeeze a little of the liquid
over the brown
soft
half-asleep
nipple.
Lick the drops that trickle down the breast
before the lips are moved
to the top.

Lick first then suck.

When the taste fades
repeat.

Slightly cringeworthy, slightly humorous, reading Ómarsdóttir’s poetry takes me right back to my undergraduate days of studying French surrealism, especially the surrealist theatre where the odd and the unnerving were also comical and entertaining.

As I worked my way through the collection, I decided to remind myself of some of the authors and titles of surrealist theatre that Ómarsdóttir seemed to have so much in common with. So I consulted my prized collection of French books, which I knew to be basically intact despite a transatlantic move and a post-academic career purge. As I looked through the titles, I remembered Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Roger Vitrac’s Victor, ou les Enfants au Pouvoir, and Eugène Ionesco’s La Cantatrice Chauve surprisingly vividly. Ómarsdóttir’s poems do indeed have much in common with their style of writing: the characters’ absurdity, the seemingly subconscious associations and swift shifts of attention. But…where were the women writers? I started scanning to see if there was a single woman writer on my French shelf, let alone a surrealist. Marguerite Duras’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour was the only text by a woman on my shelf.

I don’t know if undergraduates are taught a more diverse curriculum in French literature classrooms these days, but we are certainly facing a similar problem in the world of translation. If we consider just how few texts become well-known enough or popular enough to be translated into English and then that women have only authored one quarter of translated texts, there is a glaring woman-shaped hole in the translation-publishing industry. This is precisely why we need a translation of poetry like Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s in the English language. She has taken a historically male-dominated form and made it very female. Her explorations of female identity do not so much challenge the status quo as annihilate it in order to rethink everything about the structure of the world.

Ómarsdóttir has virtually said as much herself in an interview with The Rumpus. In reminiscing about the types of things children read at school, where people behave as expected in a highly constructed, conservative reality, she asserts that her work as a whole is written in opposition to this: “I’m against the reality, the designed reality. I am against the structure of our world, which seems to be raised by violence”. In so many of Ómarsdóttir’s poems, violence either lurks in the background or we see clear evidence of it. In the eerie poem, “Three Poetesses”, for example, partially clothed women sitting around a table are joined by a man in a “pirate sweater”. We do not see literal violence but there is a confident possessiveness about the arrival of a man who joins them without a word.

He touches one of them and we are told that they are all dead, “though they await his kisses”. The waiting and the expectation of affection suggest a commentary on patriarchy: they are bound by the awkward relationships created by this structure. They are dead because their roles under patriarchy are prescribed and unrealistic. The man ominously carries the “touched one” off: a simple touch establishes enough dominion that he can do what he wants with her body, her mind being conveniently elsewhere. The oddity of the scene forces the artificiality of the underlying patriarchal structures to the surface: violence is not openly visible, but its consequences are clear. Significantly, the women are “poetesses” now silenced in death, their bodies at the mercy of a man.

In other poems, such as “headless morning” there is much more overt evidence of violence:

early one morning you receive in the post
the head of a man
damp with blood
on the doorstep

Being an English-language reader of these poems, I cannot help but make the connection with the sagas, where beheadings, revenge killings and other forms of violence are simply part of the fictional landscape. The poem is written in the second person, pushing the reader to consider themselves to be in the place of the receiver of the head: “who wishes me ill?/ you think at the same time as you/finger your neck”. At the end of the poem it is unclear what fate “you” have met: “the sun and the morning songs of the birds/empty what’s left of the consciousness”. The emptying of consciousness could be permanent or it might not be. In societies that are founded on revenge killings and vigilante justice, it is unclear what the fate of either the transgressors or innocents will be. Let’s bring this into a more recent historical moment, where the “you” of the poem must live since the head is delivered by the post that also brings “morning papers” and “letters in envelopes”. Iceland may be celebrated as a democracy that established the first parliament in Europe, but violence was very close to the surface at that time and remains a part of its history.

For me, Ómarsdóttir is at her most feminist when she explores relationships between lovers and between married couples. In “Protein” the speaker obsessively prepares food for her lover in a disturbingly submissive relationship where she “see[s] to it that my man has the guts and the vigour to love me”. Feeding her lover is followed by sex where the protein she has fed him is given back to her in the form of an ejaculation: “I tiptoe along his sated body until I get my portion of the workings of the energy wad/ From morning till night I look forward to the moment when he squirts into me the fluid that I do all I can to co-produce”. No mention is ever made of her role in reproduction or her pleasure in sex other than as the receptacle for his semen. She scoffs at single women: “They never prepare food, they don’t have any boyfriends”. The oddity of these associations—food and reproduction, eating and sex—again brings the artificiality of patriarchal structures to the fore.

One of the most impressive qualities of Ómarsdóttir’s poetry is her ability to envision alternatives to the relationship in “Protein”. In “Mountain Hike on a Summer’s Day”, for example, multiple women share a fiancé:

Female relatives who share a fiancé sit down on the mountain
crest, find dice in their backpacks and throw:
“He is mine, he is mine. He is yours, he is yours…”
But they don’t care who gets him. Chance rules the throw.

The women are in charge here and they subvert gendered behaviours. The relationship between husband and wife is based on chance. Patriarchal and heterosexual structures are undone: women decided the fate of a man and they undermine a presumed possessiveness of monogamous, opposite-sex relationships. There is also the strange conflation of birth and marriage in “ode” when a bridegroom is released from a minke whale:

the armpits of the lads, who on the beach
open the bride with man-sized scissors,
bawl with rage

what I remember as I tore the membrane
off my bridegroom
with long, colourful nails

The bridegroom is born from the whale, which seems to be a bride, but the speaker tears ”the membrane” off her bridegroom. The poem shifts quickly in point of view, disorienting the reader and shocking her with the graphic scenes of birth. This is a sort of group marriage, human and animal, more than two involved, carried out through a gruesome sort of violent act. We are led to ask, is this what marriage is like: a rebirth that is painful, bloody, almost too terrible to contemplate?

We need a female poet like Kristín Ómarsdóttir in the English language. She tears down the usual social structures as if they were nothing, letting us see just how odd they are in the context of other endless possibilities of unfamiliar ways of being, living and relating to other people. I hope the ‘minor’ female surrealists that I’m sure were out there, back when I was an undergraduate studying French, are now taught regularly in university classrooms. And I hope the students are taught to recognize how this form is so effective through its refusal to come to heavy, solid conclusions, preferring instead the playful, unpredictable and occasionally humorous. Indeed, for all her undoing of our comfortable reality, Ómarsdóttir leaves us with laughter in the final words of this collection:

I lie down on the ground
mmm
and laugh with the sky
mmm
laughter

A murder mystery with a difference: Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018

Man Booker International prizewinner Olga Tokarczuk returns with this crime-mystery-noir novel set in rural Poland. Translated by the immensely skilled Antonia Lloyd-Jones, recipient of the 2018 award for promoting Polish literature abroad, it was a pretty safe bet that Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was going to be amazing. Indeed, the translation is virtually flawless, and the book itself a page-turning extravaganza of understated tragi-comedy. The narrative is much more linear than that of Tokarczuk’s prize-winning Flights, and instead of the “fragments” and vignettes that peopled Flights, this is a more traditional story-telling. However, there is nothing predictable or formulaic about it for that, and it is not even “just” a story. There are philosophical reflections on life and death, acute observations of ageing and invisibility, and poignant reminders about the luxury of being able to cross borders, all of which are brought together seamlessly in a tale of vengeance, murder, and retribution in which “everything is connected with everything else, and we are all caught in a net of correspondences of every kind.”

Image from fitzcarraldoeditions.com

If you felt so inclined, you could easily read Drive Your Plow simply as a murder mystery; there is no didactic obligation to read it differently. But through her narrator, Mrs Duszejko, Tokarczuk also offers up some profound insights into the human condition (“The psyche is our defence system – it makes sure we’ll never understand what’s going on around us”), the lack of equality for women (“nobody takes any notice of old women who wander around with their shopping bags”), the elderly, (“once we have reached a certain age, it’s hard to be reconciled to the fact that people are always going to be impatient with us”) and the non-conformist (“suddenly I saw the four of us in a different way – as if we had a lot in common, as if we were a family. I realized that we were the sort of people whom the world regards as useless.”) She is scathing about the hypocrisy of social structures (including the police, the church, and the education system), but Drive Your Plow is also an indictment of animal cruelty, a reminder not to stand in judgement, not to dismiss those who are different from ourselves, and not to underestimate those we disagree with. Yet this is not a “preachy” novel (indeed, those who use pulpits – whether religious or hunting ones – tend to meet a sticky end); on the contrary, it’s thoughtful and thrilling.

As in any murder mystery, we are given several clues that we might gloss over. However, one overt clue comes after the discovery of the first dead body:

Only his right index finger refused to submit to the traditional pose of politely clasped hands but pointed upwards, as if to catch our attention and put a brief stop to our nervous, hurried efforts. ‘Now pay attention!’ said the finger. ‘Now pay attention, there’s something you’re not seeing here, the crucial starting point of a process that’s hidden from you, but that’s worthy of the highest attention. Thanks to it we’re all here in this place at this time, in a small cottage on the Plateau, amid the snow and the Night – I as a dead body, and you as insignificant, ageing human Beings. But this is only the beginning. Only now does it all start to happen.’

This is a novel of fate, of fatality, of fatalities, of fatalism. When you reach the end, you know there was no other way it could have gone: as Mrs Duszejko would say, it was all governed by the stars. It is not up to us to deem some things unimportant, Tokarczuk reminds us – the most insignificant detail or person may prove to be the key to enlightenment. I commented in my review of Flights that I believed we are given prompts for how to read it within the book itself, and this happens again with Drive Your Plow: the narrator tells us that “one must keep one’s eyes and ears open, one must know how to match up the facts, see similarity where others see total difference, remember that certain events occur at various levels or, to put it another way, many incidents are aspects of the same, single occurrence. And that that the world is a great big net, it is a whole, where no single thing exists separately; every scrap of the world, every last tiny piece, is bound up with the rest by a complex Cosmos of correspondences.” That this assertion is, primarily, about astrology, is no coincidence: Tokarczuk describes her writing as “constellation novels”, things that she throws up into space, and which the reader’s own imagination clusters together. And sure enough, when I went back over my notes, I realised that I had highlighted all the keys to the murder mystery, yet I had not managed to decode them until the end. For though we are given these clues, they are destabilised even as they are laid before us, as Tokarczuk makes a wry comment on writing itself, and on its ability to mean something other than what it says: “In a way, people like her, those who wield a pen, can be dangerous. At once a suspicion of fakery springs to mind – that such a Person is not him or herself, but an eye that’s constantly watching, and whatever it sees it changes into sentences: in the process it strips reality of its most essential quality – its inexpressibility.” I’ve noted before that Tokarczuk gave me the unsettling feeling that every original thought I might come up with had already been foreseen by her in the writing of her book, and this feeling was with me again as I thought about my reading of Drive Your Plow.

There is something deliberately old-fashioned about Drive Your Plow: certain nouns are given capitalisation (“Souls”, “Night”, “Person”, “Anger”, “Dusk”, etc), and there are near-archaic turns of phrase such as “whence they came” fairly regularly throughout. There is no mimicry of writing style, though; rather, it seems to be a nod to influences (such as William Blake, whose poetry stands by way of epigraphs to each chapter, and from whose work the title of the book is taken) and timeless subjects (such as corruption, prejudice, justice and compassion). Tokarczuk shows that inhumanity in all its forms, towards any living being, should not be commonplace, with Mrs Duszejko asking “what sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm? What on earth is wrong with us?” Yet Mrs Duszejko does not distance herself from this “us”, though she is on the edges in so many ways. Indeed, the thing that most interested me in Drive Your Plow (apart from the murder mystery itself) was the reflection on marginalised people. The narrator is an older woman, living alone, and her love of animals and belief in astrology lead those around her to label her as a “silly old bag”, “crazy crone”, or “madwoman”. She observes how the law enforcers, either incompetent or corrupt, dismiss her easily because they need no excuse other than her age and gender. Though Mrs Duszejko is undeniably individual, Tokarczuk uses her to expose universal issues of gender inequality, ageism, and the human condition, with other characters on the margins either reinforcing or contradicting her position. Take, for example, this philosophical reflection from her elderly neighbour, an invalid lesbian author:

‘You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.’
There was some truth in what she said.

Though other characters are allowed to pontificate, Mrs Duszejko has the last word on where truth lies, what is truth and what is not, what is partial truth and what is nonsense. But be careful not to trust such a narrator and believe her blindly: as she herself reminds us, “One has to tell people what to think. There’s no alternative. Otherwise someone else will do it.”

Tokarczuk is a gifted writer, and the translation by Lloyd-Jones is excellent. I’ve been truly impressed with Fitzcarraldo’s publishing choices and the quality of their translations: on the whole, they are not “light reading” – indeed, they are mirrors of Mrs Duszejko’s description of the universe, “a complex Cosmos of correspondences”, but those I’ve read so far are the kind of books that stay with you, and to which you return. Necessary books, groundbreaking books, brave books. Mrs Duszejko says that “I love crossing borders”, and that is exactly what Tokarczuk’s work does: Fitzcarraldo director Jacques Testard actively sought out a Polish author as a response to the backlash against the Polish community in the UK following the Brexit referendum, and so in reading Olga Tokarczuk, we are not only enriched by this extraordinary author, but we are also resisting xenophobia and the narrowing of borders.

Review copy provided by FItzcarraldo Editions.

Holiday reads 2018: One Night, Markovitch; We That Are Young; The Dead Lake; Pure Hollywood

I took four books on holiday with me this year; though only one was a woman writer in translation, I wanted to showcase the diverse stories that accompanied me through the glorious heatwave of 2018…

I chose one novel from an author I already liked (Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, One Night, Markovitch), one debut novel (Preti Taneja, We That Are Young), one recommendation (Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake) and one that came as part of a subscription (Christine Schutt, Pure Hollywood).

Image from pushkinpress.com

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, One Night, Markovitch (Pushkin Press, 2015), translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Earlier this year I read and loved Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions, so was fairly certain I’d enjoy her first novel, One Night, Markovitch, and chose it to kick off my holiday reading. One Night, Markovitch is the tale of two friends – the eponymous and “gloriously average” anti-hero Yaacov Markovitch, a man no-one looks at twice, and his larger-than-life best friend Zeev Feinberg, lover of women, teller of tales, owner of a magnificent moustache. Whereas no-one remembers Markovitch, Zeev Feinberg leaves legends in his wake: he is a man “whose mustache filled the valley and whose laughter reverberated throughout the entire country.” The two men have to flee their village in Eretz Israel when the butcher discovers that Zeev has been sleeping with his wife, and so Zeev’s friend, the deputy director of the Irgun, secures them places on a boat bound for Europe, where they and eighteen other men will marry Israeli women fleeing a world on the brink of catastrophe. Once safely in Israel, the new couples are to divorce; Yaacov Marcovitch, however, falls in love with his new wife, Bella, a beauty who belongs to “the Olympus of goddess-like women which would never admit Yaacov Markovitch, even as a servant.” He refuses to go through with the divorce, and this decision sets in motion a chain of events that unfold over decades, weaving together the destiny of all the characters and the choices they make. Lovers and foes are entangled and underestimated, and tragedy is never far away: “Bella Zeigerman’s mistake was more terrible than Yaacov Markovitch’s. For she was like someone who wants to cross a river she knows, saying, ‘I know it flows slowly’ and, taking no care, walks into it and drowns because it is winter and the water has risen.” Gundar-Goshen deftly blends humour and pathos – I laughed out loud at some points, but was choking up at others – and the storytelling is a thing of beauty, as is Sondra Silverston’s translation. I can see why it’s described as a fable; there is a lot about it which is a little fantastical, and on a bad day I might have found it slightly twee in places. There were no bad days on holiday, though, and so I found it utterly charming. I shall be keeping a close eye on what Gundar-Goshen publishes next.

Image from galleybeggar.co.uk

Preti Taneja, We That Are Young (Galley Beggar Press, 2017)

Next up was the debut novel from Preti Taneja, who won the 2018 Desmond Elliott prize for this modern-day re-telling of King Lear, set in the palaces and slums of India. I can only speak about We That Are Young in hyperbole: it’s epic, turbulent, majestic, furious… Jivan Singh returns to India after more than a decade spent in America. He is the illegitimate son of the right-hand man of Devraj Bapuji, the head of “the Company”, a powerful corporation at the core of Indian life; on the night of Jivan’s return, Bapuji announces his shock retirement, dividing his company up between his daughters. The two eldest are the power-hungry Gargi (“Such a shame she’s getting so plump these days”) and PR-savvy Radha, ”polished to a Delhi-girl shine”, and Jivan watches on security monitors as the family is brought together to celebrate the arranged engagement of the youngest daughter, Sita, “a barefoot girl in loose, rolled-up jeans”, the most beautiful of the three daughters, and Bapuji’s favourite. But Sita absconds, for her heart lies with environmental issues and women’s education, not with the corrupt Company that pollutes India both literally and figuratively.

Taneja has grappled with every aspect of Shakespeare’s King Lear: nothing seems forced, despite the centuries and cultures that separate the two stories. In fact, the attention to detail is so meticulous that if you thought you might be spared the scene of eyes being gouged out, think again – even that gets worked in. We That Are Young will sweep you away into another world, but there is one small thing that gnawed at me: there are a number of typos and editing errors, and these dragged me back into the everyday, taking away from that glorious feeling of being transported elsewhere while the book is open. Nonetheless, this is an ambitious and urgent novel, and an incredible debut: We That Are Young is dark, frenetic, chilling, and it swept me along like the floods in the Napurthala basti, where Jeet (the legitimate son; Edgar to Jivan’s Edmund) is reborn. Taneja is one to watch.

Image from peirenepress.com

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (Peirene, 2014), translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield

I discovered Hamid Ismailov’s work earlier this year, when I read The Devil’s Dance: when I was talking to my husband about it, he mentioned Ismailov’s The Dead Lake, which he had read and greatly enjoyed while judging the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015 (The Dead Lake was longlisted). He recommended that I read it, and I pass on that recommendation unreservedly: The Dead Lake is haunting and understated, and pulled me in right from the opening line (“This story began in the most prosaic fashion possible”). Yet there is nothing remotely prosaic about the story of Yerzhan, a young boy growing up in a small village on a bleak steppe in Kazakhstan, right at the heart of Soviet nuclear testing sites. Yerzhan is in love with his neighbour, Aisulu, and one day, on a school trip, to impress Aisulu he undresses and walks into the forbidden Dead Lake – a pool of radioactive water. Although nothing happens immediately, Yerzhan has cursed himself by entering it: he will never grow, and will remain trapped in his twelve-year-old body forever. We meet Yerzhan at the age of twenty-seven, a man in a child’s body, playing violin on a passenger train making its way across the steppe. The unnamed narrator is travelling on the train for reasons unknown, and Yerzhan tells the narrator his story; the narrator then re-tells the first-person story in the third person (from the two novels I’ve read, Ismailov’s original use of narrators seems to be a feature of his writing). The short introductory section ends on this reflection: “‘Does anything make any sense?’ he retorted, suddenly prickly again, and his question seemed to be addressed, not to me, but to this train galloping across the steppe, to this blazing steppe spread out across the earth, to this earth, adrift between light and darkness, to this darkness, which…” One individual’s experiences are set against the immensity of a majestic yet rapacious earth, and from this introduction Yerzhan’s story is set out in three parts: “Before”, “The Destiny”, and “The Salt of the Myth” – each with an alternative title composed of musical notes that echo both Yerzhan’s prodigious skills with a violin and dombra and his onward march to the final act of his story. It’s impossible not to admire Ismailov: The Dead Lake is tragic, yet never descends into melodrama, it’s a horror story without the hamming up, a star-crossed romance that has nothing trite about it. Andrew Bromfield’s translation is sensitive and stark, and Ismailov a force to be reckoned with.

Image from andotherstories.org

Christine Schutt, Pure Hollywood (And Other Stories, 2018)

There had to be a Year of Publishing Women book in my suitcase! Pure Hollywood is a collection of short stories by American author Christine Schutt. I confess that the short story genre isn’t generally my favourite (though Fish Soup may have converted me): I invest in the characters and then the page is turned on them; I start a new story still filled with thoughts about the last one; there’s always a disappointing one that I like less than the others.  I’m full of excuses for avoiding them, but I’m glad this one found me: Pure Hollywood is the antidote to vapid, happy-ever-after tales. It introduces, among others, a young widow left penniless after her (much older) comedian husband dies and leaves his wealth to his children, a fractious child whose desperate parents resort to a babysitter with tragic consequences, a snooty woman whose rudeness to a younger woman on a horse ride has (wait for it) tragic consequences, two ageing men coming to terms with the past and imminent loss of their respective wives, and a newly-wed couple who befriend a misanthropic painter with (you guessed it) tragic consequences. But though I may joke about Schutt’s penchant for eschewing a happy ending, the stories are refreshing and invigorating: they are not neat, at least not in the sense of being tied up with a pretty bow. They leave you to think and to wonder, they are written in a brutally poetic style (“He fell over the railing and cracked his skull and many other bones that gave him shape”), sharply observed (a white stucco wall, corsaged in bougainvillea”) and all too believable (“Mrs Pall-Meyer, the name suggesting a hyphenated importance, merely snorted and rode ahead”). But despite the bleak undertones of Schutt’s stories, they are far from depressing; rather, they showcase a pithy candour:

“Oh.”
The little oh was all that was left of Dan’s story, the one that played out in his head about a husband with a ponytail and his purposeful, dying wife. As far as Dan was concerned, Nancy Cork was a woman needful and deserving of more love than her self-absorbed husband could give, whereas he could give… oh.
He could not put a name to it or perhaps ever find it again.

Without a subscription, I probably wouldn’t have chosen this book, and so it highlights the valuable ways in which independent presses can influence reading choices.

So that’s my holiday reading rounded up for 2018. If you have any recommendations for summer 2019, I’m all ears!