Monthly Archives: March 2019

A Feminist Fairytale? Anne Serre, The Governesses

Translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson (Les Fugitives, 2019)

The Governesses launches the 2019 catalogue of Les Fugitives, and is the first of six exciting-looking titles they’ll be releasing this year. In this short novella, Anne Serre turns traditional fairytales on their head: we have young women trapped in a remote rambling house, a possible curse and an almost certain metamorphosis, but nothing is ever quite what you might expect. The Governesses may be told in the manner of a pseudo-classic French fairytale, but don’t be lulled by this: it is a carnal, sensuous, ravenous tale of desire and observation.

Image from lesfugitives.com

The eponymous governesses are three ethereally beautiful young women: Eléonore, Laura and Inés, and they arrive at the sprawling country home of Monsieur and Madame Austeur, ostensibly to look after the Austeur children but really to invigorate the sedate surroundings: their arrival is described as “life itself advancing.” They bring a uniquely female energy to the Austeur home, a sensuality hidden beneath their ornately buttoned dresses and paraded in the grounds of the house (but never beyond its iron gates). Though Monsieur and Madame Austeur have only four children, a flock of young boys follows the governesses everywhere, enthralled by them, occasionally entertained by them and, in the case of the older boys, encountering new feelings of lust because of them.

The narrator is, it must be said, rather coy. We are invited to view the governesses, to spy on them, to pity them, and to pursue them as they escape from view; the narrator toys with us, telling us that “it’s obvious there’s a secret in their past”, but never revealing what this might be. Drawn into this world where nothing is quite what it seems, the governesses seem demure and vapid at first glance, but don’t be fooled: they are voracious sexual predators, hunting and devouring their prey. There are several references to their teeth, which are “gleaming” and “wet”, dripping at the thought of sinking into flesh. They hunt ruthlessly, capturing their prey in a net that may be either real or metaphorical, trussing him up, bleeding him dry, and using him for their own pleasure alone. So far, so subversive:

“They loved watching a stranger arrive. There were times, in fact, when they liked that more than anything, for as long as he advanced, ignorant yet dimly aware of a summons that was never clearly formulated as such, they were all-powerful. Once he had been bound hand and foot and consumed, on the other hand, they turned back into three poor little governesses.”

The governesses are siren-like in their allure, pitiless towards their prey but, crucially, once the prey has been devoured, they turn back into the form we first meet them in, “three poor little governesses.” Some kind of metamorphosis is at play, and will come full circle at the end of the narrative; for now, the governesses leap naked through the grounds in search of men to conquer, tearing their skin on branches and grasses. They are often described as a single being, and they take on – or partially take on – various forms: they bound across the road like young deer, their skirts rise around them like wings, and at other points they are described as alien, a coven of witches, and the Three Graces. They are vampiric, and they are also creatures of the moon, but at other times they are three flesh-and-blood women who reject their archetypal role: “They had heard about love, they had heard about men and the power they wielded. It filled them with dread.”

Traditional curses are disrupted, as it is not true love that will set them free, but the pretence of true love that will allow them to dodge the spell:

“Oh, if only they could leave! Run off with this man who has happened along, using him to pass through the gates and loving him because he can take them to a place where their bonds will be ever so gently loosed at last. So that, one day, each of them will be able to live and speak in her own name, be alone in the world and free of the others at last.”

So not only are they trapped, but they are trapped together, in a spell reminiscent of punishment (is it too much to suggest even reminiscent of Sartre and his famous “Hell is other people”?) Redemption would not be through love, but through living freely without being dependent on anyone else. Yet the governesses are not powerful enough to escape the curse or spell that binds them to the house and to one another, and condemns them to be dependent on the gaze of others: the elderly gentleman across the way spies on them with his telescope, and his voyeurism makes them feel cherished, “no longer alone in the world”. They revel in his gaze, sometimes performing seductive dances for him and flashing their skin at him when the fancy takes them, and other times sticking out their tongues at him and reminding him that they decide how much he gets to see and when. Still they are not free of their own narrative: their greatest curse is not that they are trapped, but that if they are not observed, they cease to exist (remember this as you close the book at the end).

The translation by Mark Hutchinson seems to capture the spirit of the governesses, these spellbound, spellbinding beings who defy all expectations: Cécile Menon, publishing director at Les Fugitives, told me that Hutchinson and Serre worked closely together, and it shows. There were only a few details (mainly syntactical) that I stumbled over; overall this was a seamless, sumptuous read. Serre’s book, like the eponymous governesses, may seem prim and archetypal at first glance, but is surprising and bewitching beneath the exterior. It is a hymn to voluptuous pleasure, a retelling of classic tales that foregrounds female sexual desire, an enchantment of the senses. If you like dark, decadent narratives, then it’s well worth losing yourself in The Governesses for an hour or two.

The Governesses will be released in the UK on 2nd April; you can pre-order your copy here. Available in the US from New Directions.

Review copy provided by Les Fugitives.

The Man Booker International 2019 longlist: picks, celebrations, and regrets

The picks

Last week saw the announcement of the Man Booker Prize longlist, and with it a remarkable and welcome surge of women in translation: more than half of the thirteen books selected this year are by women writers. The two books I was particularly delighted to see on the longlist were Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a funny, subversive and insightful pseudo-noir murder mystery translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones for Fitzcarraldo Editions (full review here), and Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder, a glorious tumult of historical memory, friendship, guilt, families and death, with raining ash and a lot of pisco, translated by Sophie Hughes for And Other Stories (short review here, a more in-depth one to follow). Drive Your Plow and The Remainder are very different narratives, with distinct preoccupations: an elderly woman struggles to be taken seriously in rural Poland in Drive Your Plow, and three young Chileans weighed down by a past they can never experience go on the road trip of a lifetime in The Remainder. But these two books also have plenty in common: they are both brave, distinctive, brilliantly translated, and a window onto the culture they represent.

The celebrations

As you can imagine, I find it immensely heartening to see a clear move away from the some of the biases that have traditionally prevailed in literary prizes: in an article for In Other Words, Daniel Hahn wrote of the 2017 Man Booker International prize that the longlist reflected “a significant gender imbalance (as we see every year), and a significant bias towards European writers and European languages (as we see every year, too).” Hahn goes on to note that these imbalances were indicative of the overall submissions pool, and so this leads me to wonder whether the tipping away from gender bias and eurocentrism on the 2019 longlist might also reflect moves in this direction more generally. Nine languages and twelve countries are represented in the thirteen books, and here’s where they’re coming from:

Europe is not quite as dominant as in previous years, which suggests the beginnings of a shift towards greater diversity and globalisation. As for languages, Spanish is best represented with three of the thirteen books:

All of the books translated from Spanish are from Latin America rather than peninsular Spain, which also partly accounts for the more diverse geographical spread. Arabic and French tie for second place, and of the remaining six, two are Asian and four European.

It’s not only women writers who make up the majority of this list: independent publishers are the big winners, with eleven of the thirteen entries. The year when gendered and eurocentric biases are less evident is the same year that independent publishers dominate the longlist, suggesting a direct correlation between the activism of smaller presses and increased parity in the translated literature market. As MBI judge Maureen Freely noted in an article in The Guardian, “the really good independents have become the cultural talent scouts”, and The Remainder and Drive Your Plow are stellar examples of this: The Remainder is a debut novel published by And Other Stories as part of their commitment to the Year of Publishing Women, and Tokarczuk was discovered by Jacques Testard of Fitzcarraldo Editions because of his determination to seek out a Polish author as a response to the backlash against the Polish community in the wake of the Brexit referendum.

The regrets…

Though there is much to celebrate, I can’t offer a reaction without mentioning the books I wish had been on the longlist. I am fully aware that I have not read all thirteen longlisted books, and that my opinions are necessarily inflected with my own subjectivities, but for what it’s worth, I am baffled that these two did not feature on the longlist:

Disoriental (Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover for Europa Editions): this is not just one of the best books I’ve read for this project, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. A sweeping family saga set in twentieth-century Iran, Disoriental is also a personal story of exile and (dis)integration in Europe. It’s ambitious, witty, wrenching, and the translation by Tina Kover is exquisite.

Resistance (Julián Fuks, translated by Daniel Hahn for Charco Press): another story of exile and an intensely poetic imbrication of the personal and the historical. Resistance is a haunting account of Fuks’s troubled relationship with his adopted brother, and the consequences of displacement. The writing is taut, subtle, and lyrical, and Hahn’s translation is flawless.

The shortlist?

I fervently hope that both Drive Your Plow and The Remainder will make it onto the shortlist. Last year’s winner and a debut author, two fantastic books and two impeccable translations. I’ll leave you with a favourite quotation from each:

“Can it really be true? Is this nightmare really happening? This mass killing, cruel, impassive, automatic, without any pangs of conscience, without the slightest pause for thought, though plenty of thought is applied to ingenious philosophies and theologies. What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm? What on earth is wrong with us?”
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

“the heat intensifies and I push it away and the ash is falling and I push it away and the memories come flooding back and I push them away too, and I think that I could just let go, let it all out and then leave, but no, I don’t, cos if I did that I’d get lost and I’ve already got enough missing people on my hands; I’m never going missing, never ever.”
The Remainder

Further reading:

Tony offers the Man Booker International shadow panel’s official response to the longlist

Michael at Translated Lit does a roundup of the longlist

Jess and Will at Books and Bao choose their favourites, with links to reviews of several of the longlisted books

My full reviews of two other longlisted books:

Samanta Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell (Oneworld Books, 2019)

Annie Ernaux, The Years, translated by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018)

International Women’s Day: some thoughts on Women in Translation

I remember the first time I celebrated International Women’s Day: I was an earnest PhD student, my feminist sensibilities just awakening, and I went to a screening of a film about female ejaculation. Squirming in my seat, I didn’t feel like much of a feminist. Almost twenty years later, I’m far more confident about what feminism means to me, and it’s pretty simple: it means equality. Not being the same, not being better – just being equal.

But simplicity is rarely straightforward. Inequality is so ingrained in our society that it sometimes feels insurmountable, because it’s in every interaction, from the gender pay gap to the knowing eyeroll that follows the most fleeting mention of the words “feminist” or “patriarchy”. I dream of a day when we don’t have to talk about “feminism” or “patriarchy” because we’ll simply be talking about “equality” and “society”, and I dream of a day when we don’t have to talk about “women’s writing”, because it will just be “literature”.

So I have a dream…

… that one day “women” will not be a subcategory to anything. The simple fact of having to talk about “women’s writing” or even “women in translation” makes them seem somehow a subcategory of “real” writing and “real” translation. For now, we need the terms “women’s writing” and “women in translation”, because otherwise we are not challenging dominant discourses that silence pressing debates about gender parity. By using these terms, we are reminded – and we remind gatekeepers – that we still need to work actively towards equality.

One such example of activism was the commitment that independent publishing (power)house And Other Stories made to the Year of Publishing Women, which I discussed with their publicist Nicky Smalley here: in seeking out women authors, And Other Stories not only contributed to diversity in publishing, but also brought excellent literature to English-language readers that otherwise might not have made it through. I believe this commitment was a model for real change: we can’t assume that women’s voices will be heard if we do not actively make it possible, and so if we want equality then we have a responsibility to do so – whether as publishers, as booksellers, or as readers (and if you’d like some inspiration of what to read next, my virtual bookshelf has dozens of one-line reviews of women’s writing in translation).

English-language publishers who champion literature in translation are doing something radical and necessary; those who actively seek out women in translation are doing something revolutionary. Think Tilted Axis Press and their Translating Feminisms project, Comma Press publishing the first major translated collection of a Sudanese woman writer, Les Fugitives and their mission to bring French women’s writing to English-language readers, Parthian Books and their Europa Carnivale series. As Margaret Carson, co-founder of the Women in Translation tumblr (and keynote speaker at our forthcoming Translating Women conference), recently wrote for In Other Words, “remaining unknown is the greatest barrier […] There is no lack of women writers in any literary culture: the question is how to find them.” The answer might be by supporting these small but mighty publishing houses.

Translation, like feminism, is a form of activism, its very etymology a movement. And movements are about… moving. Moving across borders, moving away from stereotypes, and moving towards a common goal. Just as women’s writing is dependent on gatekeepers letting it through, so women’s rights are dependent on our voices being heard. So no more eyerolls at the mention of the f-word, and no more apologies: feminism is for everyone. We all need it, and we all benefit from it, just as we all benefit from translation, which opens our eyes to worlds beyond borders both literal and figurative. Feminism and translation both build bridges, foster inclusivity, and create connections instead of barriers. By supporting women’s voices in translation, we are coming one step closer to the equality that my unapologetically feminist heart longs for.

 

Historical horror, supernatural stories, and a gentle gem: three books reviewed

Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation, tr. Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books)
Mariana Enriquez, Things We Lost in the Fire, tr. Megan McDowell (Portobello Books)
Leonard and Hungry Paul, Rónán Hession (Bluemoose Books)

Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books, 2015)

I started the year’s reading with a book I felt sure would be a safe bet, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation (translated by Susan Bernofsky for Portobello Books). I’d greatly enjoyed Erpenbeck’s two other books in translation, the magnificent The End of Days and Go Went Gone, and so completing the Erpenbeck/Bernofsky/Portobello trilogy seemed like a good way to get my 2019 reading off to a stellar start.

And yet… I was disappointed. I simply didn’t connect with the story or the characters in Visitation. There are many themes in Visitation that are echoed in The End of Days – most notably, the progression of German history through the 20th century – but whereas in The End of Days this is viewed through a single character who lives (and dies, and lives again) through the events, in Visitation the focus is on a house by a lake in Brandenburg, which sees inhabitants (including a family of Jews and a regiment of soldiers) come and go throughout the years, and stands as a silent witness to the atrocities of the 20th century.

Visitation is as beautifully written and consummately translated as The End of Days and Go Went Gone, with many instances of Erpenbeck’s brutally poetic minimalism, such as in this extract: “Two months after Arthur and Hermine get into the gas truck in Kulmhof outside of Łodz, after Arthur’s eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before, all their assets, together with the assets remaining in Germany that belonged to their son, Ludwig, who has emigrated, are seized…” The house with its specially designed walk-in closet is also suitably spooky, and there are some understated one-liners brimming with personal and historical tragedy (“then she takes off her shoes forever and goes to stand on the board to be shot”) and lyrical comments on 20th-century German history (“even this dutiful German official had known that home would never again be called Bavaria, the Baltic coast or Berlin, home had been transformed into a time that now lay behind him, Germany had been irrevocably transformed into something disembodied, a lost spirit that neither knew nor was forced to imagine all these horrific things.”) So it’s not that I disliked Visitation, but it didn’t engage me in the way that The End of Days and Go Went Gone did. I found it hard to maintain interest in (and thus enthusiasm for) the story/stories, and the house itself failed to move me. It’s always worth reading Erpenbeck, so I wouldn’t advise against reading Visitation, but I did feel that it had almost been a practice run for the utter brilliance of The End of Days.

Mariana Enriquez, Things We Lost in the Fire, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Portobello Books, 2017)

Two things that don’t normally appeal to me are horror stories and the supernatural, so Things We Lost in the Fire (a collection of supernatural horror stories) wasn’t an obvious choice for me. Yet it has received consistently excellent reviews, and with good reason: Mariana Enriquez writes characters and situations that are universally recognisable, and twists them deftly yet mercilessly into your worst nightmares. You’ll know from my reviews of Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream and Mouthful of Birds how much I admire Megan McDowell’s translations, and her translation of Enriquez’s short stories is perfectly controlled and dark, showcasing her own admiration for “writers who can combine the transgressive joy of horror with literary depth and original style”.

Things We Lost in the Fire is about as perfect an example of the art of short story writing as I’ve seen. Each story is exquisitely crafted: the details are full while being minimal, the characterisation impeccable, and the descriptive sections vivid yet concise. I’m going to focus on the two stories that I enjoyed the most: the first was ‘Under the Black Water’, with its themes of environmental pollution, deformed children, and the monsters we unleash on the world. A female district attorney known for her integrity is following up leads on a slum murder case when the victims seem to rise from the dead – indeed, from the depths – and we are invited not only to see a grotesque reality we might prefer to ignore, but question our own complicity in this reality for the fact of having ignored it. If this doesn’t reel you in, perhaps a quotation will: “She had no time to react; the priest was drunk, but his movement when he grabbed her gun was surprisingly fast and precise. She couldn’t even fight back, nor did she see that the deformed child had turned around and started screaming mutely. His mouth was open and he screamed without a sound.” You’ll have to read it to find out what fate awaits the priest, the DA, and the child.

The other story that really stood out for me was the title story, ‘Things We Lost in the Fire’, in which women protest against their life of silence and suffering by setting themselves on fire. Self-immolation spreads as if by contagion, women burning themselves to confront male violence and a society that tells them how they should be. But this is not necessarily presented as a positive thing: while one burned woman describes it as “a new kind of beauty”, the pain – and deaths – resulting from this macabre struggle for control and agency are also detailed. And when the “bonfires” become commonplace, society simply accepts the shift, the protagonist’s mother so chillingly committed to the cause that she would offer her daughter up in sacrifice. Nothing is straightforward or black and white in Enriquez’s stories, and that’s why, though I wouldn’t have expected to be championing a collection of horror stories, I found Things we Lost in the Fire to be excellent.

Leonard and Hungry Paul, Rónán Hession (Bluemoose Books, forthcoming 2019)

And now for something completely different… my Twitter friend, Rónán Hession, is releasing his debut novel this month with independent publisher Bluemoose Books, and I had the joy of reading an advance copy of this anthem to gentleness and quiet humour. I first encountered Rónán during Women in Translation month last August, when we both read and loved Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup (translated by Charlotte Coombe for Charco Press, and reviewed here), and we’ve exchanged many comments about our women in translation reading ever since. I was slightly nervous about reading his own work (if I wasn’t crazy about it, wouldn’t it be terribly awkward?) but I didn’t have to deal with that, because it is a SUPERB debut. Through his two main characters (the eponymous Leonard and Hungry Paul), Hession finds pathos in the everyday, turning the humdrum into something magical.

We meet socially awkward Leonard just after his mother’s death, at a time when the family of his best friend (Hungry Paul) is preparing for the wedding of Hungry Paul’s older sister, Grace. Hession combines instances of the unsaid (we never find out why Hungry Paul got his nickname, and he may or may not be autistic, but the word is never used) with others of great detail (I never thought accounts of board game marathons could be so compelling, and just wait for the moment when an irate Hungry Paul takes a past-its-use-by-date tin of Roses chocolates back to the supermarket), and writes every page with immense warmth; to read Leonard and Hungry Paul is to live a while in their world. I love that Rónán was unafraid to write a book where nothing “happens” as such – because life is happening on every page, and this is one of the most life-affirming books I have read in a long time. Its gentle tone harbours some profound insights (“It may well be that if you truly want to open a heart, you need to break it open”; “We are never entirely outside of life’s choices; everything leads somewhere”), and by the end I had tears streaming down my face. I didn’t want to say goodbye to these characters, I cared about them: I wanted to tell Hungry Paul that the “strange pocket-within-a-pocket that denim jeans have” is called a coin pocket (this knowledge would have saved him from a great childhood humiliation) and hug Grace when she realised that “it was possible to make someone feel so loved at the very moment you are letting them go.” Gentleness and kindness are under-rated qualities, and they abound in Leonard and Hungry Paul: the characters may be fictional, but a real person wrote them, and that makes me feel just that bit better about the world.

As always, thank you for reading, and I’ll be back on Friday for a special International Women’s Day post!