Category Archives: Review

Review: DAUGHTERS by Lucy Fricke

Translated from German by Sinéad Crowe (V&Q Books, 2020)

The new English-language imprint of V&Q Books offers another belter for its launch: following on from last week’s review of Paula (Sandra Hoffmann, translated by Katy Derbyshire), today I’m looking at Lucy Fricke’s Daughters, a book that manages to switch effortlessly between grief and humour and which, in a superb translation by Sinéad Crowe, is one of my favourite books so far this year.

Meet Betty. She’s a writer, recently turned 40, single, grieving, recovering from depression but clear-sighted enough to know that she won’t give up alcohol and adventure to aid her recovery. Betty is our narrator, and one of the most riotously caustic literary companions you’re likely to meet. Betty is best friends with Martha, who is a few years younger and desperately trying to have a baby with her husband Henning (who Betty thinks is the best thing to happen to Martha, though Henning himself considers Betty to be a nefarious influence on Martha). Betty and Martha are going to take us on a madcap road trip through Western Europe, for reasons that start out seeming fairly clear and become more complex as the story unfolds.

As well as a common loss that recurs as a leitmotiv through the narrative, Betty and Martha have another significant connection: they both have disappointing, absent, and pretty useless fathers. More than that: they are both still helplessly bound to those fathers – whether by a sense of duty or by genuine affection – and it is the fathers who become both the instigator and the destination of the daughters’ journey.

The journey itself originally comes about because Kurt, Martha’s terminally ill father, announces that he has booked himself into a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland, and his last request is that Martha take him there because, as Martha puts it, “it’s not enough to get his own daughter to pay for him to die, but he expects me to drive him there too.” Still reeling from a recent accident, Martha feels unable to drive herself, and so ropes in Betty to act as chauffeur and chaperone for a journey that should be morbid but is truly hilarious.

The gang never make it as far as Switzerland. There’s a detour (romantic intrigue and promises broken), an accident, and a clue to the whereabouts of another father long presumed dead. Daughters is a fast-paced and eventful journey that packs an emotional punch, but tragedy is always underscored with humour: for example, of Kurt’s final trip, Betty’s stance is that “the thought of making one’s final journey in a Golf depressed me. I ordered a second pint and a shot”; faced with a set of tall bronze doors, she reflects that “if the doors of heaven are anything like that, I’ll never get in”, and of desperate new beginnings she opines that “At every new stage of life you end up back at Ikea, where every hope begins and ends.”

With two forty-ish women falling apart and taking to the open road, this book could very easily have fallen into tropes of gender and facile stereotypes (there is even an overt reference to Thelma and Louise), but the beauty of Fricke’s narrative direction is that it sidesteps all such conventions. Yes, there is an almost-final scene that could have felt contrived in other hands, but Fricke brings together her various narrative threads so skilfully, and smashes the picture-perfect ending so deftly, that she is always one step ahead of expectation. The friendship between the two women is multi-dimensional: they have a quiet complicity as well as a common grief; each is the only one the other can count on to offer unconditional support, yet they are fully aware of one another’s flaws (Betty is selfish, sensitive only in matters that concern her, whereas Martha “had a tight grip on herself … so tight that she was in danger of strangling  herself”). Above all, their bond is very human: Betty says of Martha that “There was no one else in the world with whom I could laugh so uproariously at misfortune” (as literary companions go, one could say the same of Betty herself).

Sinéad Crowe’s translation is edgy and full of verve, and nowhere more so than in the range of lexical expression she uses to reproduce Fricke’s humour: Betty is a “left-eyed bawler”, dangling in Kurt’s car is “a fir-shaped air freshener that had given up the ghost long ago”, and teenage dreams come to an abrupt end with the realisation that “we’d wanted to be champion race-car drivers, and now, twenty years later, we couldn’t even get out of a northern Italian car park.” Crowe excels in communicating Fricke’s sardonic wit, but also allows the pathos to come through in plaintive sentences such as “I had no idea how tenacious grief can be”, “neither of us talked any more about the powerlessness and unhappiness that hounded us every day and were slowly eating away at us”, or the one that most moved me: “Love began with you.”

I love the translator’s notes at the back because, as with Paula, it is revealed after the fact that this seemingly effortless prose is the result of much deliberation. It’s not that I (ever) want the translator to be invisible – hence my love of translator’s notes, and joy every time I see a translator’s name on a book cover – but rather that I prefer it if the process of translation – the brow-furrowing, synonym-searching, come-back-to-it-later or try-it-out-loud to see how it sounds and all the other countless demands that getting to grips with writing a text in another language entails – doesn’t jump out at me as I read. To me, the magic of a great translation (and a great translator) is making a complex task appear effortless. Both Katy Derbyshire with Paula and Sinéad Crowe with Daughters pull that off; I highly recommend that you give V&Q’s new women in translation a whirl.

Review copy of Daughters provided by V&Q Books

Review: PAULA, Sandra Hoffmann

Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire (V&Q Books, 2020)

This week sees the launch of German publisher V&Q’s English-language imprint: spearheaded by Katy Derbyshire, the new imprint brings some of the most exciting new fiction in German into English. Two of the three launch releases are by women writers, and so this is the first in a two-part V&Q bonanza: today I’m reviewing Paula by Sandra Hoffman, translated by Derbyshire herself, and next week I’ll be talking about Daughters by Lucy Fricke, translated by Sinéad Crowe.

Paula is Hoffmann’s attempt to understand a woman who was stiflingly close to her but yet remained distant. Her maternal grandmother (the eponymous Paula) is a troubled and taciturn woman who has never revealed the identity of her child’s father: a devout Swabian Catholic, Paula is typically depicted with one hand in her apron pocket, worrying her rosary beads as she works her way through the prayers that are the silent soundtrack to her granddaughter’s life and narrative. Imprisoned in a silence that takes over the house and leaves her adrift into adulthood, Hoffman sets out to reclaim words never said, and so to understand Paula, “as though all the unspoken words were seeking ways out of that mute body and into the room, forging the way to you.” She is clear from the start that her imagination will fill in the blanks of a story she only knows in fragments (“I am an unreliable narrator”, she warns us and, later, “memory is inconstant”). As well as words, Hoffmann considers the importance of photographs in reconstructing memory (or in constructing it where it is withheld). Static images of a moment fixed in time allow the person viewing the photograph to impose a story on them, but in the end they too are wordless and can never create a story beyond the moment that they capture. Fiction, then, becomes Hoffmann’s only recourse to “close gaps between image and image, fragment and fragment.”

I appreciated the truthfulness of the blanks and gaps, for there is no plausible way that Hoffmann could offer a full backstory of someone who, as she acknowledges, “took her whole life to the grave”. Yet this all-pervasive silence is harmful, persisting doggedly even when the young Hoffmann was taken to family therapy because of the eating disorder that the deliberate silence passed down through generations has triggered. Hoffmann’s narrative is prompted by her need to know who her grandfather was, to break through the schweigen (a word I’m delighted to have discovered – it opens the text and features in the excellent translator’s note), but this is impossible as Paula died without revealing her secret, and left no posthumous clue. We only know fragments – for example, that Paula was engaged to a man who died in the war (but could not have been the father of her child), or that she drowned her sorrows in plum brandy when Hoffmann’s mother was young – but we never get to know Paula beyond the melancholy of a life half-lived, and which is perhaps best summed up in this reflection: “It was as though her laughter forbade itself, as if taking joy from life was forbidden, as if she had sinned so severely against her God that only prayer helped now.”

Paula has devoted her life to prayer, and this religious devotion is passed down to her granddaughter in the form of guilt and shame: as a child, Hoffmann becomes obsessed with saying five flawless “Our Fathers” to cancel out any involuntary negative thoughts she may have had about her grandmother, convinced that otherwise something bad will happen because of the bad thoughts. In this sense, Paula functions as a kind of malevolent deity, who her granddaughter believes is all-seeing and all-knowing: Paula is a difficult presence, suffocating and invasive in her silence, and fostering Hoffmann’s fear that “she’ll make me turn into her, she’ll make sure there’s no difference between her fear and mine, between her prayers and mine.”  As secrets and silence swell around her, the young Hoffmann feels that there is no room in the house for her, and envies friends who have a space of their own with no grandparent constantly lurking outside their bedroom door. Ultimately, then, she creates her own “territory” by writing: writing is not only an attempt to understand her grandmother, but also to free herself from Paula, to understand the difficult closeness of their relationship and to come to terms with it.

The translation is, unsurprisingly, excellent. Derbyshire is a skilled linguist, sensitive to the nuances between her two languages and attuned to questions of register, syntax and lexical variety. Some of my favourite instances of word choices include verbs such as “clouds scud above us like flags”, “Up on the slope a fox skulks past”, but really you could open this book at any page and find a beautifully crafted sentence, paragraph, thought or thread. Derbyshire writes in her translator’s note about finding Hoffmann’s “voice” in English (this is particularly important for the opening section of the text, but save the translator’s note for after you’ve read the book – it’s well worth reading it once you’ve absorbed Paula rather than pre-emptively before you spend a few hours with Hoffmann’s family), and though I can’t read the original German, there is something distinctive and consistent in the melancholy, the care, the images, and the crystallisation of years of pain in single breathtaking sentences that mark this out as a superb translation.

I’m delighted that Paula has found its home in English, and hope that the new imprint of V&Q Books will continue to bring us great women’s writing from German; in the meantime, I’ll see you back here next week to talk about Daughters.

Review copy of Paula provided by V&Q Books

Review: THE LYING LIFE OF ADULTS, Elena Ferrante

Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2020)

I’m going to start this review with a confession: until last month, I had never read anything by Elena Ferrante.

Okay, I’ve got that off my chest.

The Lying Life of Adults is a stand-alone book that has yet to receive the attention and hype of the Neapolitan Quartet: I approached it as a blank slate, hoping for an engaging and engrossing story that would sweep me away into its universe. And, for the most part, that’s exactly what I got.

The Lying Life of Adults is narrated by Giovanna who, at the time the narrative is set, is a thirteen-year-old girl from an affluent family, living in a beautiful home high above Naples. Her parents are successful yet modest, and their house filled with love. Yet this idyllic appearance masks hidden truths that Giovanna unravels slowly after overhearing a chance conversation between her parents that sets her on a path down to the depths of the poorest areas of Naples, where she meets her estranged aunt Vittoria and is drawn into Vittoria’s brash, chaotic and passionate life.

Giovanna’s father, Andrea, distanced himself from a family that he has always depicted as an emotional succubus, determined to control him and hold him back. When Giovanna, on the cusp of an uncomfortable transition into adolescence, overhears him telling her mother that Giovanna is getting “the face of Vittoria”, she becomes obsessed with her appearance, brooding over a genetically unavoidable meanness of spirit that she feels certain is becoming etched on her face so that she will resemble the caricature of the aunt she has never met. Vittoria is presented as a shadowy and malevolent figure who presides over all Giovanna’s childhood fears, and Giovanna’s decision to confront Vittoria does nothing to free her from this reign of terror: instead she is drawn into another version of events, one in which her father is not the honest, kind, upstanding man that she has always believed him to be. Giovanna’s decision is the catalyst for an irrevocable shift in the lives of the whole family: caught between two versions of truth, two versions of Naples, and two versions of herself, Giovanna’s comfortable world will be rocked to its core and life changed forever.

I’ve come to realise that Goldstein favours a translation that lets the original language show through: I confess that syntactical or lexical calques can jolt me out of the storytelling universe, but given how accomplished the rest of the translation is, I can only assume that these are deliberate choices. Conversely, I greatly appreciated Goldstein’s approach to dealing with places and dialect: I much prefer for street names and, for example, the names of dishes or delicacies, to remain in the original language, and this is the method that Goldstein favours. As for the instances of dialect, I don’t know whether or not they appear in Neapolitan dialect in the original text, but Goldstein deals with conversations in dialect very sensitively, avoiding any kind of adaptation and instead dealing with them in a more subtle way (I can’t give examples as I was reading an uncorrected proof, so you’ll just have to either trust me or read it for yourself and see if you agree!)

In short, The Lying Life of Adults offers a maelstrom of affairs, unrequited love, beauty, death, promises broken and appearances shattered – and, to top it all off, a bracelet that could be either a lucky charm or a curse. It is, purely and simply, a “good read” – fun, engaging, but also with some serious edges and reflections on adolescence, relationships, loss of innocence and the shifting notions of “truth” and “memory”, highlighting how these are always subjective and never the same for two people. It’s sure to be a great success, and deservedly so.

Review copy of The Lying Life of Adults provided by Europa Editions

 

Review: DEAD GIRLS by Selva Almada

Translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Annie McDermott (Charco Press, 2020)

After the success of Selva Almada’s English-language debut The Wind That Lays Waste (translated by Chris Andrews, published by Charco Press in 2019, and reviewed here), this autumn Charco brings us her next translated work, the journalistic fiction Dead Girls. The pairing of Almada with Annie McDermott as translator is an unmitigated success: McDermott translates with characteristic linguistic verve and sensitivity to detail, respecting the delicate stylistic balance between journalism, memoir and fiction that characterises Almada’s exposition of casual femicides in Argentina. Dead Girls explores questions of social justice, of gender inequality, and of the danger that women can be silenced by brutal means just for spurning a man’s advances, for the dishonour of being slandered or, as we are reminded, “simply for being a woman.” The “interior” or provincial Argentina that Almada describes is a small-minded and misogynist place where violence is commonplace, transvestites and homosexuals are not welcome, and women are dominated, abused, or held in contempt, a place where “horror could live with you, under your roof.” Almada explains that not only was this normalisation of gendered violence accepted, but also guilt was laid squarely at the feet of the victims: “if you stay out late you might be raped, if you talk to strangers you might be raped, if you come back from a dance by yourself you might be raped. If you were raped, it was always your fault.”

Almada focuses on three young women or girls who were murdered in the 1980s, and whose killers have never been brought to justice. Andrea Danne was stabbed in her own bed, María Luisa Quevedo was raped and strangled before her body was dumped in some wasteland, and Sarita Mundín’s decomposing body washed up on the banks of the Tcalamochita river (or, rather, the decomposing body of a young woman was washed up, it was deemed to be Sarita, and the investigation was closed). Three girls aged between 15 and 20, three of many whose deaths go unsolved and unpunished. Almada retraces their final days, and aims to reconstruct not just their last moments, movements and conversations, but the entire universe that the girls inhabited, to better understand, scrutinise, and denounce how their fate came to pass.

Almada intertwines her investigation with memories of her own childhood growing up in a similar community in provincial Argentina, questioning the things she too took for granted or assumed were “normal” – from the absence of telephones to the women being controlled by husbands, fathers and brothers. She sets out to find out what she can, via a combination of research through newspaper archives and interviews with people who knew the girls. But even here she is met with silence – Sarita’s confidante chooses “not to reveal her pain, which is hers alone, something intimate that she defends tooth and nail”, Andrea’s sister “prefers to remain silent”, and María Luisa’s brother is evasive, finally meeting with Almada only to disappoint her in the lack of light he can – or wants to – shed on the case.

Faced with a silence that carries through into the present, Almada seeks answers elsewhere: the particular idiosyncrasy that makes this piece so individual is Almada’s decision to consult a medium, in an attempt to communicate with the dead girls beyond the grave. This is a brave and innovative twist on journalistic fiction, and one which gave me goosebumps as I read, but which ultimately represented a slight anti-climax: in her final visit, the medium tells Almada to let go, and to let the dead girls “go back to where they belong.” This did feel a little too convenient – there is no neat ending, and so the medium offers one that feels discordant with a text whose objective was “to gather the bones of these girls, piece them together, give them a voice and then let them run, free and unfettered, wherever they have to go.” The gap between “wherever they have to go” and “back where they belong” was, for me, the one disappointment of the piece, but it must be said that Almada herself is more poetic and less conclusive in the way she takes leave of her three dead girls – but as always, I’ll leave you to discover the ending for yourselves. Dead Girls is an important and moving work that invites us to reflect on cultural practices that we would like to think are distant in both time and place, but which are frighteningly recognisable. This is not a book that will make you feel at peace with the world, but that is precisely where its strength and persuasion lie.

Review copy of Dead Girls provided by Charco Press

Review: Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

Translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador Books, 2020)

Breasts and Eggs is a spectacular and delicate exposition of what it is to be in a woman’s body when that body is eternally viewed as either a commodity, a conduit for male pleasure, or a reproductive vessel. The breasts and eggs of the title indicate difficult decisions about breast enhancement surgery and fertility for two sisters over the course of a decade, and Kawakami’s characterisation, dialogue and plot development are exquisite. English-language readers may have seen a glimpse of this in Kawakami’s previous novella, Ms Ice Sandwich, translated by Louise Heal Kawai (Pushkin Press) – I loved the beguiling awkwardness of the narrator in that novella, and Breasts and Eggs echoes this diffidence (an excruciating coffee date with a potential sperm donor is one of the squirm-in-your-seat highlights) while still offering an entirely new perspective on relationships. Bursting with the quiet tragedy of unfulfilled hopes, daily life for those without means, and longing for a person never met, this is a novel that both reflects on the life of ordinary people and thrums with their expectations and disappointments.

We meet narrator Natsuko one sticky summer, when her older sister Makiko is visiting Natsu in Tokyo with her adolescent daughter Midoriko in tow. Midoriko has taken a vow of silence where her mother and aunt are concerned, corresponding with them only via a notebook (and even then, in the most taciturn of epistolary communication). Makiko’s visit is not purely social: she has spent months researching the best way to have breast enhancement surgery, which she believes is the key to a more successful life. Makiko works as a hostess at a bar in the sisters’ hometown of Osaka, and is painfully aware that her advancing years mean that she is no longer at the top of this already fairly inglorious game. Makiko’s obsession with her breasts is desperate: she has already dedicated herself to painful, expensive and time-consuming methods of bleaching her nipples to make them pinker, indicating not only the idealised traps of gender, but also those of western culture.

We get to know Midoriko through Natsu’s observations of her niece, but also through snippets of her journal, which are presented to us out of time until the point that Natsu gives in and reads Midoriko’s journal. With Natsu, Makiko and Midoriko unable to find ways to connect to one another, the climax of their silent stand-off is perfect in its breaking of silence, hearts (and eggs), jagged words painfully egested so that we see the private pain that both Midoriko and Makiko share in isolation, each until now unable to understand the other. It is in scenes such as this one that the translators Sam Bett and David Boyd excel, communicating profound emotion with few words. The entire novel is understated, recounting significant personal upheaval and tragedy without ever descending into melodrama, and Bett and Boyd render this very well in a prose that strikes a deft balance between lyrical and contained.

Natsuko allows us insights into her childhood, raised by her mother and grandmother in near-poverty. Makiko’s greatest hope for her own financial security is her hostessing job, and Natsuko is an aspiring writer – a precarious position in a male-dominated industry, but one which introduces us to some fabulous supporting characters in literary agent Sengawa and radical writer Rika. The insights into Natsu’s circumstances offer an excellent view of creative life, showing a writer who does not have the luxury of time or the privilege of space in which to write; equally, they offer fresh perspectives on being a single woman in a world where others loudly and ostentatiously define themselves by their relationships.

Breasts and Eggs is also about bodies – Makiko’s ageing body, and her belief that by having it surgically enhanced her life will be better; Natsuko’s body, devoid of sexual contact by choice, and her deeply internalised need to have a child. It is about relationships, but not conventional ones, and indeed the narrative seems set on resisting all expectation and stereotype. It resolutely refuses to fall into tropes of defining what working-class womanhood “is” (though, as we see in one gloriously sardonic scene, it is definitely not about eating in trendy galette restaurants) – rather, it’s about everyday dreams and extraordinary bonds. Above all, Breasts and Eggs is a story of quiet tragedies: unfulfilled hopes, daily life for those without great means, the people we lose (whether through death or by growing up and apart) and the longing for a person never met – whether an anonymous parent or an unconceived child. It is ambitious in scope and beautiful in expression, and quite simply one of my favourite books so far this year.

Review copy of Breasts and Eggs provided by Picador Books

Review: Guadalupe Nettel, Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories

Translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Suzanne Jill Levine (Seven Stories Press, 2020)

This collection of short stories from acclaimed Mexican author Guadalupe Nettel is the second release from the new UK imprint of Seven Stories Press. In it, Nettel blends the familiar with the strange in a body of stories that offer a kaleidoscope of unexpected perspectives: a photographer’s fascination with an overlooked body part becomes a dangerous obsession, an awkward date is observed from the building across the street, a man’s regular visits to his local botanical gardens have devastating consequences for his marriage, an adolescent girl is foiled in her quest for True Solitude, an olfactorist follows the trail of a desperate woman, and a young woman develops a nervous habit that leads her to a mental asylum.

The locations for the stories are disparate – from Mexico to Japan by way of Paris, with some offering no obvious location – and characters are estranged not only from those around them, but also within and from their own bodies. In the opening story, “Ptosis”, a photographer’s fascination with eyelids leads to him becoming the official “before and after” photographer of a leading cosmetic surgeon. Eyes are viewed in close-up throughout this story, in poetic phrases that throb with the threat of permanent damage. People with imbalanced, misshapen or droopy eyelids pass through the photographer’s doors, each looking more “normal” in the second photo shoot until he comes to the disquieting realisation that “if you look closely, especially when you’ve seen thousands of faces amended by the same hand, you discover something atrocious: somehow, they all look the same. As if Dr. Ruellan had imprinted a distinctive mark on each patient, a faint but unmistakeable stamp.” The photographer becomes obsessed with one particular patient, whose imperfect eyelids come to represent the source of her individuality and attraction; his mission then becomes to save his muse from going under Dr Ruellan’s knife. At once an edgy exploration of insecurity and voyeurism and an indictment of homogenised notions of beauty, this is an excellent story to start the collection.

In “Bonsai”, an obsession with botanical gardens and the different plants in a greenhouse drives a wedge between an apparently happily married couple. Taking care of plants is a commitment, says the gardener at the greenhouse, but the narrator finds himself able to care for only one kind of plant – his cactus-like self, rather than his “climbing vine” wife. Once he identifies their plant characteristics, their fundamental incompatibility becomes clear to him: he is an outsider, defensive and prickly, while she has a “quiet way of infiltrating any space and taking possession of my life.” The story is narrated with the biological precision of a botanist, a kind of seemingly scientific observation that is echoed in a more disturbing way in “Petals”. In this story, an olfactorist who observes and analyses the traces women leave behind in bathroom stalls becomes obsessed with a woman he calls La Flor. He identifies La Flor as exceptionally delicate, a woman whose traces indicate an ephemerality and state of decay that bring him to a near-climax: “It was as if her whole life had slipped out from deep inside her. The image struck me as so intense that I had to raise my face for a few seconds to breathe.” It’s deeply and ingeniously uncomfortable how he follows this vulnerable woman, learns about her from the traces she leaves behind in toilet stalls, and arrives at a state of teeth-grinding ecstasy when he is finally present for “the moment of production”, listening to her urinate in a neighbouring stall. This tense and disturbing story was, for me, the stand-out one of the collection (particularly its ending, which I shall leave you to imagine or discover for yourself).

The title story, “Bezoar”, takes its name from a myth about a long-haired woman holding a gemstone. According to this legend, in a faraway place there existed a stone or ball of hair with healing powers – the bezoar. The bezoar was “the remedy for all poisons and also the stone of perfect calm”, and though here it is used to represent the relief felt by a compulsive woman when her compulsion is satisfied, it also stands as a motif throughout all of the stories, in which protagonists search for a sense of calm and fulfilment – which usually remains tantalisingly out of reach, or is realised in a way that is not entirely as they expected or hoped.

The narrator recounts – in a therapy diary that she writes from her room in an asylum – how, as an adolescent, she became obsessed with the hair follicles she observed when she pulled out strands of her hair, and thus began a traumatic lifelong habit of removing entire patches of hair from her scalp: “Like the survivor of a shipwreck, dragged by the whims of the waves, I let myself be swept along by habit. I constantly felt humiliated, victimized by an abuse I inflicted on myself without knowing why.” Rejected by those around her but eventually making a career as a model (which she sabotages by her persistent self-inflicted shedding of locks), she falls in love with the only person she can truly connect with – someone who has an obsession that rules his life in the same way her hair removal governs hers. But he swiftly comes to represent her worst fears, as their co-dependent relationship spirals out of control; as is the case elsewhere in these stories, the tension in the narrative mounts towards a seemingly inescapable climax.

Many of the stories in Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories are about love, or at least about relationships, but always from a perspective of subversion or alienation. “Unsettling” is the perfect word to use in the title of the collection, but the stories are not unsettling because of any dabbling in supernatural or horrific subjects. Rather, they are unsettling because they are only a whisper away from very recognisable situations, and reveal how uncomfortably close any one of us might be to enacting or being on the receiving end of the variously defensive, pitiful or harmful behaviour of Nettel’s protagonists. That the stories are narrated in the first person makes this even more unsettling: we are invited to view events from the perspective of disturbed and often disturbing individuals, outsiders who maintain a delicate balance between beauty and depravity. In terms of form, the stories are very well contained and developed. Nettel is judicious with her use of words (in both precision and quantity), and the translation by Suzanne Jill Levine is appropriately spartan and evocative (I think my favourite line of the translation was this: “my mother ran about from one end of the room to the other like a fly looking for an escape route and smashing against the windows instead”). There is a consistency in the translation, which I imagine mirrors a consistency in the original, for using reserved, almost detached language, avoiding anything theatrical or too emotional. This is an unsettling collection indeed, but one which finds beauty in extraordinary places.

Review copy of Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories provided by Seven Stories Press UK

Petra Hůlová, Three Plastic Rooms

Translated from Czech by Alex Zucker (Jantar Publishing, 2017)

Three Plastic Rooms is narrated by an ageing prostitute, and is an extended internal monologue that offers insight into her musings on the world, her life, and her profession. The opening line erupts with contempt (“I wonder if anyone ever gives her a grinding down to the bone?”) and sets the tone for around 160 pages of raw narrative vitriol. No-one is spared from this rage: other sex workers are judged, clients are held in contempt (especially the officers of the law who visit her by day to check nothing illicit is going on and by night to indulge in the services she offers), women are to be pitied for the domestic servitude that is their lot and criticised for accepting it as their only option (for, after all, “counting bills offers a woman more than enough self-gratification”), and above all our narrator is scathing about a society that pushes people – especially women – into a limited range of time-worn possibilities. The narrator herself defies expectation and stereotype: she offers a service, but notes that her clients come to her for “a bit of humanity”, and acknowledges life’s hardships but refuses to surrender to self-pity (“Let others be unhappy, if those are the stories they want to write”).

The translation is clearly a major feat: there are linguistic leitmotivs that Zucker retains in the translation – for example in the prefix “e-”, which is used where sometimes “digital” would be a more obvious collocation, but where switching to “digital” would dilute the repetition (and, to be clear, “digital” wouldn’t work in all cases), but my favourite feature was the hilariously deadpan concatenation of nouns and phrases to describe different sexual references. Here Zucker revels in the range of linguistic possibility: “bangstick” was one of my favourite offerings for penis; there is no ejaculation when a jizzing or a creaming could occur instead; as for sex toys, well, I’ll hand over to Zucker’s translation to show you his full use of outrageously colourful synonyms: “No dildo, no vibrator. No self-erecting quiverstick, manless wang, pond paddle, sleepytime tingletron, ticklepink for beddy-bye”, and the character of our irascible narrator comes out not only in the tirades that are as tireless as her paid performances, but also in the linguistic idiosyncrasies of single words (“if there is a hell, then fwoop, down they all go”).

This all seems gloriously effortless, but the translator’s note at the end is particularly interesting, as Zucker notes how Hůlová plays with language and uses it in innovative and unexpected ways. To read his translation, it is not evident that there was so much agonising behind it – which is a sign that it’s been done well. Even the occasional thing that struck me as a little odd – such as the gendering of genitals in English, to reflect the use of grammatical gender in Czech – is explained convincingly in the translator’s note, so that even if it might not be quite what you might expect, it becomes clear what the text would lose if this aspect were omitted from the translation. So the “hammers” are feminine (which sheds a whole new light on the cover illustration!) and the “sticker-inners” are masculine.

Morality is similarly inverted and subverted throughout the narrative, most memorably in the way the narrator describes the services she offers to clients attracted to minors. By satisfying their desires in the conveniently wipe-clean environment of her three plastic rooms, she postulates, she is saving an anonymous real-life 14-year-old from being subjected to the urges of the men in question (“what says martyrdom more than the love of a mature woman, saving fuckable babies by luring the enemy to her?”). It is, however, not until the final paragraph that we finally see the context for the vitriolic torrent that constitutes the narrative – and it’s a twist that took me by surprise. Once it hit me, I looked at everything in a different light – and that was the great triumph of the story. Three Plastic Rooms is unrelenting in both language and content, but beneath the sex scenes as foul as the language used to describe them it throbs with a rawness and a black humour that render this unlikely anti-heroine an addictive narrator.

Review copy of Three Plastic Rooms provided by Jantar Publishing

 

Review: Maria-Mercè Marçal, The Passion According to Renée Vivien

Translated from Catalan by Kathleen McNerney and Helena Buffery (Francis Boutle Publishers, 2020)

This is a very different kind of novel from those I normally read for Translating Women, and will be a treat for anyone who enjoys creative biographies. The Passion According to Renée Vivien represents a literary project to uncover the hidden life of Renée Vivien (the literary pseudonym of Pauline Tarn).  Renée Vivien was an English-born poet who wrote in French in the early twentieth century, whose poems are particularly notable for their explicit revelations about her amorous relationships with women, who lived in a “palace of pain” and longed to escape from life, and whose legacy has been “demolished by the victorious blows of mediocrity and stupidity.” Originally published almost thirty years ago, The Passion According to Renée Vivien is a ground-breaking work in Catalan literature, taking on the traditional “academy” from the marginalised perspective of a woman writer – and not just a woman, but a woman who openly proclaims her love for other women, a poet whose name “shines … with its own light amid a tradition that certainly existed but only underground, the victim of invisibility and silence.”

Herself an openly feminist and lesbian author and activist, Maria-Mercè Marçal became obsessed with the idea of lifting Renée Vivien out of the exile which is “the common lot of poets” – an obsession that she transfers to one of the main active voices of the text, Sara T. The decision to create fictional biographers is a clever one: this is no dry, objective account of Vivien’s life, but rather a vivid, impassioned quest to uncover her mystery and her legacy. The Passion According to Renée Vivien is full of beautiful aphorisms (“After all, perhaps glory is just a posthumous form of love: the only form with the capacity to raise the dead”), and Marçal sets out to give voice to an overlooked figure from recent literary history by writing a book about “women who, like me, yearned for deep-rooted changes in the world.”

This polyphonic text is part documentary, part biography and part love song to its subject. We discover much of Pauline’s life through the eyes of Sara T., a 1980s Catalan documentary maker who becomes obsessed with giving voice to Pauline, and in particular Sara reveals the difficulties of piecing together all the details of Pauline’s life to make a coherent whole. The other main source of information is Salomon R., a museum curator, and we also have letters from Pauline’s lovers, as well as a more objective and omniscient third-person narrator from Pauline’s own era, through whom we gain insight into her personal circumstances through observations of her entourage and conversations between courtesans. Though in some ways contemporary readers might find the main narrative’s milieu less recognisable because of the relatively privileged lifestyle it details (for example, one character’s great dilemma regards her “unresolved doubts” about an ivory statue in a museum, and Renée herself “had the fortune to be able to torment herself with only metaphysical problems”), the timeless and universal qualities of love, loss, desire, jealousy, sorrow and despair prevent the text from feeling dated or unrelatable.

My over-riding impression of the translation was that much time, energy and (if I may borrow from the title) passion has gone into making this work available to English-speaking audiences: it’s clear just how much both translators care about this project. The writing is lyrical and eloquent, almost old-fashioned in its language choices, but not dated. It evokes a time of formality in turn-of-the-century Paris, and manages to sustain a formal and authentically period-appropriate narrative style throughout its 350 pages. This formality is also partly owing to a delicate attention on the part of the translators to favour terms that have French etymology, reflecting through this choice Pauline’s own writing “against” English. In the whole book there were only a couple of instances when I thought something more modern might have crept in, but this may well be my own ignorance of when expressions became current in English – or it may reflect potential anachronisms in the original Catalan. Overall, there was something very nostalgic for me about reading this book: its turn-of-the-century style and references to 19th-century writers and culture took me back to my years studying French literature, and locating much of the narrative in Paris is always a way to tug at the nostalgia for me. All it takes is the street names and in my mind I’m already there – so my only regret in that sense was the anglicisation of some of the street names – a number of the more recognisable ones remain in French, but elsewhere there are references to, for example, “Vendôme Square” and “the boulevard of Paix”, which for me snapped the nostalgic connection. But that’s an entirely personal reaction, and for readers who don’t know French – or don’t know Paris – then this might, conversely, bring them closer to the text, particularly given the strategies of writing “against” English that I mentioned earlier.

I’ll leave you with a little scoop that for me was the most fascinating thing about this novel: thanks to an interview with translator Helena Buffery (which you can read here in full next week), I discovered that the final chapter of The Passion According to Renée Vivien is made up entirely of fragments of Renée Vivien’s poetry. This section is breathtakingly beautiful, and the book is worth reading for this alone – not only its beauty, but also the skill of weaving together the (French) fragments to make a narrative (in Catalan) that is now translated into English. Within the fictional biographer’s task, we are told that “her verses were the autobiography of her soul”, and so it feels appropriate to give the last word to Renée Vivien, via Marçal, in a rendering by Buffery and McNerney:

“I am of those laid low by light. Under the implacable face of day, memories devour me like abject vermin. And at dusk when I hear the groaning of the unfortunate land, I have felt in excess the horror of having been born. Who, then, will bring me the hemlock in their hands? Night slithers, slowly and subtly, toward the opal of the hill. The soul resuscitates in the tenebrous shadows.

… I will hurl myself into your eyes, where sadness rhapsodizes.

… Here, words do not hurt, Let us keep the doors closed. Souls without hope have the solitary pride of islands.”

Review copy of The Passion According to Renée Vivien provided by Francis Boutle Publishers

 

 

Review: Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, Camille Laurens

Translated from French by Willard Wood (Les Fugitives, 2020)

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is a work of non-fiction that delves into the life of Marie van Goethem, the young model for Degas’ famous sculpture Petite danseuse de quatorze ans (Little Dancer Aged Fourteen). In it, Camille Laurens takes us back to Paris in the Belle Époque, but exposes a sordid underbelly beneath the glittering façade.

Though the Palais Garnier opera house evokes opulence, elegance, and sumptuous fin-de-siècle decadence, Laurens takes us quietly and carefully through the reality behind the curtains. The petits rats, young girls who were sold to the ballet and earned a pittance, were put through physically demanding training routines while barely having enough to eat; if they were expelled because of absence, insolence or lack of progress then they were still yoked to the opera, compelled to pay for the years of “education” and remaining in a contract that was close to slavery. Many were sold in other ways too: Laurens notes that “as soon as the girls reached adolescence they acquired a blank gaze and a look of resignation, entering a life of prostitution without ever having been children.”

In 1880, Marie Van Goethem was one of the Opera’s petits rats, sold with her sisters to the opera house, a lonely girl whose fate concerned no-one. She supplemented her pitiful income by posing for painters and sculptors – including Edgar Degas, “her frail body now turned to bronze” by the artist His immortalisation of her did not, however, give her a voice or an identity, but rather ensured that “she would die less completely than the other girls”, seen across the world and through the generations but never known or understood. Tied in with Marie’s modelling for Degas is a topic that influenced much French literature of the period: physiognomy. This new “science” was believed to enable the educated or “initiated” to distinguish certain characteristics about people from their physical appearance – essentially, proponents believed that they were able to designate a person criminal or lacking in morals because of features such as a prominent forehead or high cheekbones. The luminaries of the day needed scant licence to exaggerate this, condemning people from the lower classes because of their appearance and supporting their prejudice with a “science” that amounted to little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy: “The ruling classes needed to be reassured about their privileges. Small wonder that they clung to theories that ‘proved’ the natural superiority of the bourgeoisie over the working class, the rich over the poor, whites over blacks, and men over women … Social hierarchy was justified by nature itself, with rich white men at the apex and other races, women, and the poor in the lower depths.” Though we may have moved beyond physiognomy, some of Laurens’s depictions of its uses are strikingly and terrifyingly contemporary.

Throughout the reconstructions in Little Dancer Aged Fourteen we gain intimate insights into Degas’ life and artistic process. In particular, Laurens lingers on his commitment to eschewing superficially glamorous representations of ballet in his paintings and focus instead on the rehearsal space, the physical hardship to which the dancers were submitted, showing “not the mythical dancer but the humdrum worker.” However, Laurens resolutely refuses to shine a purely flattering light on the artist’s intentions. She openly refers to his own prejudices – which were backed up by advances in studies of physiognomy – detailing how his exaggerated courtroom drawings of suspected criminals were designed to “reflect theories of social delinquency that he subscribed to.” On the basis of this, Laurens suggests that he did the same to Marie, coarsening her features between his initial sketches and the finished sculpture and changing her face “to give it the hallmarks of a savage, quasi-Neanderthal primitivism, a precocious degeneracy.” This alarming representation of women, and in particular a young woman with no rights, no voice and no agency of her own, may have been intended to unsettle and question, as Laurens suggests, but it also perpetuates the social hierarchies mentioned above, and makes this attempt to give Marie back a place in history all the more historically and socially important.

Towards the start of the book there were a few examples of syntax that stood out to me as awkward, but aside from this the translation by Willard Wood rapidly developed into a careful non-fiction narrative, understated and yet lexically rich, a piece that evokes the Belle Époque while simultaneously remaining contemporary. Overall, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is a particularly interesting kind of non-fiction. It blends an almost academic research (in the acknowledgements Laurens does note that the book is an offshoot of her doctoral thesis) with references that bring us back into the now – and the result is a piece that raises more questions than it answers, but in doing so shows how very contemporary the concerns of the work still are: the classism, prejudice, poverty and exploitation of women over a hundred years ago are uncannily close to our modern experience.

As for Marie van Goethem, frustratingly little about her actually comes to light, for the information is simply not there to uncover. She has disappeared in history, an insignificant and impecunious petit rat who is remembered only the way Degas presented her, offered up for the interpretation of art lovers the world over. If Laurens does not manage to reinstate Marie, or to give her a story or a voice (I was glad that she consciously refrained from inventing these in their absence) she does nonetheless succeed in questioning the place and period that condemned her to this disappearance. Though at times Little Dancer Aged Fourteen seemed more about the artist than the muse, by shining a light on Marie’s absence even as her likeness is tangibly present throughout the decades, Laurens pays the only kind of homage possible to a young girl without a future: though Laurens attempts to discern Marie’s inner emotions as she posed for Degas, to understand her thoughts and her inner world rather than simply the artist’s intentions, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is all the more poignant for the author’s acknowledgement that “what is missing is her soul.”

Event review: Holiday Heart book launch

It was a great honour last week to chair the virtual launch of Holiday Heart, interviewing author Margarita García Robayo and translator Charlotte Coombe for a wonderful event organised by Carolina Orloff and Jules Danskin of Charco Press. I’m writing up some of the main points into a little piece here, so that those of you who missed the event can get a flavour of what was discussed, and those of you who were there can relive it! For a limited time you can also watch the interview on Charco’s website.

Charco’s director Carolina opened the live session by talking about Margarita’s “universe”, her unique mission and way of understanding the world, her talent for making us laugh with her wry, brutal humour and making us feel uncomfortable at the same time because of the way that she portrays reality. In the interview, Margarita expanded on this idea of a “universe” by explaining that her books are all pieces of a bigger literary project: whereas Latin American literature often deals with things that the region is known for, such as political violence, she made the point that it hasn’t necessarily dealt with the particular social “strip” that she focuses on – the middle class or the “in-betweeners” in terms of class. Holiday Heart is an attempt to portray the damaged and damaging Latin American middle classes by presenting uprooted characters looking for a sense of belonging, and this is the environment in which Margarita grew up: it was not an equal society, but she believes that no-one is an innocent victim of their government. Rather, we must all look to ourselves to identify the ways in which we perpetuate this inequality.

When I asked Margarita more about her main characters (the rather unpleasant Pablo and Lucía) she responded that, controversial as it might sound, she doesn’t see Pablo and Lucía as unlikeable, or rather not as purely unlikeable. They are, she suggests, simply unsatisfied people who are over-exposed – and if we were to put such a magnifying glass over anyone, we’d find flaws we didn’t suspect they had. Lucía doesn’t think of herself as racist, but is so dissatisfied with her own life that she hasn’t even noticed her son’s behaviour (which is a mirror of her own), and it is only when he makes loud racist comments in public that she is forced to confront her own behaviour. When Holiday Heart was released in Latin America, it made people question themselves and think “Do I talk/ think like that?” – and this is where its great power and provocation lies.

While Charlie did not find it difficult to inhabit the minds and thoughts of those characters as she was translating (her feeling being that their flaws come from their insecurities – their rootlessness and how they project that onto other people), there were sections that were difficult for her to deal with as she was translating. In particular, she found the sections about black people hard to translate, as well as the sections where Pablo sexualised his student and those which discussed “brown-ness”. However, Charlie noted how important it was not to dilute these issues, and to maintain that challenge to readers: though her instinct might have been how to make certain sections more culturally sensitive, her job as a translator is to convey Margarita’s intentions. Charlie also made a particularly interesting point about how a translator has to think more about who’s reading than a writer might, constantly keeping in mind the question “who am I writing for?”

When I asked both Margarita and Charlie how it felt to have this book come out not only in a time of global crisis, but also at a moment when anti-racism movements are making international headlines, they both considered this to be a good thing: Charlie feels that seeing characters with these particular flaws forces readers to confront such prejudices instead of pretending that they don’t exist, and Margarita suggested that to read a book in a negative way because it contains characters that we don’t agree with is a very limited and sad vision of literature, and went on to insist that she will never modify or erase things just because they make people feel uncomfortable. She is presenting reality: many people who wouldn’t think they are racist are in fact racist, just as many men and women who say they’re feminist aren’t really feminist – and we often don’t recognise this until it explodes in our faces.

Margarita ended the interview with an insightful observation for translators and readers alike: the absence of empathy prevents full comprehension. If we focus only on the negative aspects of the characters, then we miss some of what she’s trying to do. This to me summed up what makes Margarita such an important contemporary writer: just as in life an absence of empathy will prevent us from understanding others and feeling connected to the world around us, so in literature this absence will prevent us from understanding what a book is doing or saying, and will prevent us from understanding the context it comes from. If we only read books in which we see our ideals reflected, we will only reinforce our own sense of innate “rightness”, and never understand the multiplicity of experience and perspective that makes up our world. I truly believe Margarita García Robayo to be not just a good writer but a great one, and am grateful that with Charlie’s translation and Charco’s mission her work can reach more readers, as it deserves to.

I will be on holiday for the next few weeks, but have prepared several posts to publish automatically while I’m offline! Here’s what you can look forward to until my return:
Review of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, Camille Laurens, tr. Willard Wood (Les Fugitives, 2020)
Review of Three Plastic Rooms, Petra Hůlová, tr. Alex Zucker (Jantar Publishing, 2017)
Review of The Passion According to Renée Vivien, tr. Kathleen McNerney and Helena Buffery (Francis Boutle Publishing, 2020)
Interview with Helena Buffery, co-translator of The Passion According to Renée Vivien

Happy reading, and have a wonderful summer!