Review: THE FOOL AND OTHER MORAL TALES by Anne Serre

Translated from French by Mark Hutchinson (Les Fugitives, 2021)

After publishing the uniquely provocative exploration of unconventional sexuality The Governesses in 2019, Les Fugitives return with another collaboration between Anne Serre and Mark Hutchinson: The Fool and Other Moral Tales. The Fool in question is from a tarot pack, and this was my stumbling block: I have no knowledge of or interest in tarot, and I felt rather lost in the first two stories. In fact I felt a little ignorant: I was able to appreciate how stylistically accomplished both the tales and the translation are, but beyond that I didn’t find any connection. In a bizarre twist, this turned around completely in the final tale, “The Wishing Table”, which was the one I thought I’d struggle with the most (“The Wishing Table” is narrated by a woman who grew up in an incestuous family, and it’s safe to say this is not a premise I found particularly appealing – but read on, because that’s what I did, and it was worth it!)

“The Wishing Table” is the longest story in the collection and when, near the start, I read the section that followed the announcement “They did things to us that it’s absolutely forbidden to do with children”, I did wonder whether I would make it to the end. There’s nothing comfortable about this story, but that’s where its brilliance lies. If I found the first two stories a little hard to follow, I think it’s because they’re deliberately destabilising, entwining the mundane and the magical, the philosophical and the fantastical: in the end I realised that this destabilising, shifting quality is precisely intended to reflect the shifting of the tarot cards, changing fates and paths as they are revealed and obscured. I didn’t revisit these first two stories in light of the third, but I do think that “The Wishing Table” is the one that really makes this collection.

The daughters are certainly not presented as victims: they are fascinated with their parents’ sexual bodies and the pleasure that can be gained from them (usually as willing recipients of sexual acts, occasionally as instigators). Nor are the parents depicted as immoral or sadistic: the narrator says of her mother that “As I’m sure you’ve understood, the idea that anything untoward was going on in her house had simply never occurred to her. She thought that this was what life was like.” A series of minor characters also join in the family’s “love feasts” (whether on solo visits or partaking in orgies), including a man the narrator repeatedly cavorts with in his car. There is something quite dark and disturbing about the parents sending their daughters off in the cars of men they barely know, but Serre disrupts any conventional reading of this by detailing the pleasure the narrator takes in the sexual acts in which she and her family engage. Indeed, her voracity for sexual pleasure is mirrored by her voracity for reading, connecting the two in ways that are harmonious with the collection’s focus on the union of the carnal and the cerebral.

“The Wishing Table” is full of polished surfaces: the large mirror in the hallway where Maman contemplates herself for hours, and especially the vast dining room table on which much of the incestuous activity occurs. This surface is the anchor that keeps the narrator sane while the other members of the family lose their minds, but it is also the surface that, years later, cracks and leaves her feeling “as if that table, instead of being a thing of joy and of frenzied, passionate delight, had been a sacrificial altar, as if I’d been amputated there, tortured and dismembered, but back then had somehow dreamed my way through it all.” This realisation is prompted by the movement towards a more orthodox relationship, yet Serre refrains from making pronouncements on the narrator’s psychological development.

The story unfolds in a compelling way, drawing us into the family’s unorthodox homelife and then describing how it all disintegrated, small shifts preventing the individual members from sinking single-mindedly into the “wishing table”. The darkly fairytale scenario then twists to a more recognisable coming-of-age story, but the movement between places is always vaguely magical or dreamlike, recalling again the shifting of the cards. After the enchanted state of childhood, the early adulthood is much more grounded in a world outside the family home, the latter becoming locked in the bois dormant of the narrator’s memory (and which her sister locks away even more deliberately, as the narrator discovers when the two women meet later and try to salvage some kind of relationship with one another).

Hutchinson’s translation is full of lexical gems, and the style, which is at times deliberately arcane (and always shamelessly literary) is very reminiscent of The Governesses – the French original is (to my mind, at least) almost visible beneath the text in the register and syntax, but in a way that offers the stories as simultaneously very rooted in their source yet entirely portable. There is the occasional reference that you’d have to know French language or literature to fully appreciate, but not “getting” these references wouldn’t mar appreciation of the stories. Hutchinson and Serre worked closely together to bring this collection of “moral tales” (published separately in French) into one volume in the English translation. The result of their collaboration is a stylistically accomplished and thematically explosive collection of stories that are at once contemporary and timeless.

Review copy of The Fool and Other Moral Tales provided by Les Fugitives

Review: ACROBAT by Nabaneeta Dev Sen

Translated from Bengali by Nandana Dev Sen (Archipelago Books, 2021)

Acrobat is a collection by Bengali poet Nabaneeta Dev Sen, some translated by the poet herself before her death, but mostly translated into English by her daughter Nandana Dev Sen as a poignant and passionate exchange between mother and daughter. As a collection, the poems are vibrant and full of longing – whether for love, for children, for lost youth, or for prolonging life.

As I was reading Acrobat, I felt I probably wasn’t the “right” reviewer for it. I don’t know whether this was because of the point at which I was reading it, or whether it was more to do with my own lack of confidence in understanding poetry. In any case, in my review I’ve decided to focus on the poems that I liked best, the ones I found most beautiful or moving, with the acknowledgement that this constitutes an entirely subjective and inexpert response, and might cover only a fraction of what the collection could mean or represent.

The first stanza that made me stop and read again was this ending of “The Lamp”:

“Just one more page left
one more paragraph, one more sentence—
give me one more word, dear nurse,
just one more day.”

Many of the poems deal with this desire to hold on to life, to live each moment fully and to catch it in a poem; “Time” talks of five minutes stretched into a lifetime, “Unspoken” understands “forever” as “today”, “Right Now: Forever” exclaims that “Time has not the power to extinguish me”, and “In Poetry” urges us to “Stay alive … Stay awake in every line”. This was the theme that most stood out to me through the collection, and it is particularly plaintive given that this is a posthumous publication: time is also presented as relentless, a snatcher of youth and a cruel harbinger of decay.

This multifaceted approach to theme is also present in the representations of love: it is by turns joyful (“Beyond it all,/ Stands a mountain of laughter, of joy./ On that mountain, I will build a home with you/ One day”), painful (“He leaves his footprint in my eye”), tender (“Let my heart/ nurse your aching body”) and wistful (“We would meet, that was the plan. /Look, my love, I am still here”).

If love is a celebration, a tenacity, and an emotion experienced in the present, it is also a fear, a bitterness, and the painful awakening of memory, such as in the very brief poem “Sound: Two”:

“Like an old alarm clock
You start ringing in my heart
I shut my ears tight”

This rejection of love, or closing of the heart, is echoed elsewhere in the collection: “That Girl” is a case in point and was one of my particular favourites, but also epitomises what I mean when I say I’m not sure I was the right reviewer for this collection. I think “That Girl” is beautiful, profound, and extremely moving, but every time I try to write why, my words feel inadequate. My best attempt is to say that it’s about youth and the conflicting sensations of fear and power that it brings, about the walls we build around ourselves and what we lose because of it, and it’s about time catching up with us, a life breathed out and sighed away in the space of a couple of pages.

I think the conclusion I’ve reached is that for me poetry is something I respond to with my gut rather than my mind. Overall I preferred those poems where a rhyme wasn’t sought in the translation, and I liked best the pieces that blend the ferocity and tenderness of love and yearning that for me defines the collection. Acrobat is moving in both content and context: translated with great heart by the poet’s daughter and published posthumously, it is a two-way love story between generations and a celebration of life in all its complexity and contradictions.

Review copy of Acrobat provided by Archipelago Books

Review: THE SON OF THE HOUSE by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia

Europa Editions, 2021

First of all, subscribers might have noticed that the blog posts have been coming less frequently lately, and I’m sorry for this. As long-term readers will know from my open letter last year, I had hoped to carry on as normal during the pandemic, despite the added time restrictions that came with balancing work and homeschooling. As the months have gone by and things haven’t eased up, I’ve had to significantly reduce the number of books I read and review. I have my reviews backlog down to four books, so there will be a few in quick succession now and then a break again for part of the summer; I’m grateful for your patience while the posts are less regular.

I hope you’ll enjoy the review I’ve got for you today: it’s a slightly different review than usual, in that the book isn’t a translation. It’s by Nigerian debut author Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, and is written in English. This actually raised some interesting questions as I was reading it, as there were frequent turns of phrase that stood out to me as a different kind of English than UK English, and this made me fall down a rabbit hole: I asked myself whether if it were a translation it would come under easy fire for not being “authentic” in English, whereas authenticity can be just as much about the source context as the target context. Anyway, I didn’t reach a conclusion on that, but it made me think about how translations are judged in terms of linguistic quality (including by me) and what biases we might bring to it when we talk about “quality”, and so I thought I’d throw it out there so you can join me down the rabbit hole!

The Son of the House follows the lives of two very different women who, for the most part of the narrative, are entirely unaware of what binds them together. Three separate stories unfold: first there is the framing narrative, in the present day, when Nwabulu and Julie find themselves together in a sticky situation. Then as they tell their stories to one another, we are transported back first to Nwabulu’s miserable and abusive childhood, then later her attempts to find autonomy and her love affair with Urenna, the son of a rich family, and the pain and humiliation that relationship ultimately brings her. Next we delve into Julie’s past: she is educated and therefore respected as a professional, but single and therefore not valued as a woman. This state of affairs, and the age she finds herself at, force her to resort to desperate measures in order to marry a man she barely tolerates. Finally, the two back stories come together when the women fall victim to what the blurb for Son of the House describes as “dramatic events straight out of a movie.” I confess this wasn’t a line that pulled me in (I’m not a fan of improbably sensational tales), but the dramatic events referenced were, I thought, entirely believable – the bigger suspension of belief has to come regarding the connection between the two women. I managed not to be too cynical, though, as I reminded myself how often “real life” brings enormous coincidences of people and place, and the coincidence in question is well thought through in terms of narrative development. I don’t think it’s intended to be any significant mystery or revelation, as I guessed it almost instantly (and I am notoriously terrible at guessing correctly when it comes to plot intrigue). So although I still won’t mention the details because NO SPOILERS, I suspect you’ll figure out fairly swiftly what connects the two women, and then you can just enjoy reading about how they each arrived at the point they find themselves when the narrative opens.

The focus on women underlines the many cultural and social restrictions they face in their daily lives, and how these change (or not) in the course of several decades: this focus reflects Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s work as a lawyer working against gendered violence, and shows how social status and wealth can never truly protect women from being reduced to objects and targets. The women are helpless in the face of men’s lies and machinations, and too often other women are complicit in their condemnation, the frustratingly facile phrases “because he is a man” or “because you are (just) a woman” so frequently used to legitimate life-altering injustices. The civil war and its aftermath is an omnipresent backdrop, but cleverly woven into the narrative without any obvious agenda. Similarly, the perilous circumstances in which the women find themselves is not just a narrative device to entangle their fates, but also a comment on the fragility of freedom for women in Nigeria. The Son of the House is an extremely enjoyable novel: it offers intrigue without relying too much on mystery or suspense, and the humanity of “two women doing their best in their world” radiates as much in Nwabulu and Julie’s moments of ignominy as in their moments of glory.

Review copy of The Son of the House provided by Europa Editions

Gŵyl literary festival: Translating Women part 2

I was so happy to be invited back to speak at the Gŵyl Haf literary festival this year. First organised by Caitlin Van Buren in 2020, Gŵyl is an online festival celebrating all aspects of literature in translation, and is a wonderful and positive space for conversations to take place (you can see last year’s Translating Women event here!)

I got to talk about the four books I’ve most enjoyed reading in the past year: from fantastical beasts to righteous wrath, a hilarious road trip to a heartbreaking family saga, find out my top picks for this strange year AND, as an added bonus, the two books that define the “comfort reading” habit I’ve developed during the repeated lockdowns!

In more general terms, you can hear me talk about how geopolitical bias affects what gets through to us in translation, and how barriers are multiplied for women, especially women who don’t belong to dominant groups in terms of age, class, race and other characteristics. We also talked about risk in publishing, and how to balance the need to publish more diversely with the need to remain financially viable. These are things I don’t talk about a great deal on the blog, but that I’m working on for the book I’m writing on gender and activism in the UK publishing industry, which I was also invited to talk about. So you can hear all about the amazing publishing houses I’m writing about and what I hope to achieve with my research.

I hope you’ll enjoy this talk as an alternative to my usual blog posts, and don’t forget to check out some of the other great sessions at Gŵyl!

Happy viewing, and thank you as always for reading along with me.

Review: HEAVEN by Mieko Kawakami

Translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador Books, 2021)

Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs (also translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd and released in the UK by Picador Books) was one of my favourite releases of 2020; prior to that I had loved the offbeat humour of her novella Ms Ice Sandwich (translated by Louise Heal Kawai, Pushkin Press 2017), and so a new Kawakami was guaranteed to be an exciting event for me.

Heaven was one of my most anticipated books this year, and it does not disappoint. It is a spare yet complex portrayal of teenage bullying, told from the perspective of a an unnamed male narrator with a lazy eye who is subjected to horrific physical and psychological torment from a group of boys in his class. He begins to receive anonymous notes slipped inside his pencil case or taped to the lid of his desk, the first one simply reading “we should be friends” (as a particularly nice touch, Picador sent out with the review copies pencils with this motto engraved on them). Curious and a little nervous, eventually the narrator agrees to meet up with the author of the notes, and from this strikes up a friendship with Kojima, a girl who is also bullied at school, and in whom he finds a kindred spirit, a friend in need, and someone who finally understands both what he suffers and why he does not fight back.

In addition to the wonderfully written relationship that develops between the narrator and Kojima, there are plenty of other aspects to the characters’ lives (an impressive amount, actually, given how slim this novel is). The narrator lives with his (absent) father and his stepmother, who is more of a parent to him than his father seems capable of or interested in being; Kojima also has an interesting and non-standard family story, and with both teenagers there is a subtle analysis of how we become who we are, and how events, circumstances and afflictions shape us.

Kawakami does not shy away from the cruelty that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another, and nor does she offer any crass kind of redemption in which the bullies realise the error of their ways. If anything, the only kind of resolution that we get about Ninomiya and his gang is that they are cruel for the sake of being cruel, and that no amount of attempts to make them realise the consequences of their actions is going to make them suddenly develop the empathy they lack. Apart from two notable scenes, we don’t see the bullies outside the school environment – they don’t need to be multifaceted characters with problematic lives of their own, because we see this story through the eyes of the bullied child, and to him they are simply the perpetrators of his daily misery. He has one attempt at a reckoning with one of the ringleaders when he bumps into him in a different location, but his efforts to make the bully aware of the effects of his actions are met with indifference. And the second time that the bullies enter the fray outside of the school setting is the almost-final scene, the apex of their crusade of humiliation, in which the narrator will be stripped of everything he cared about.

The teachers all seem entirely unaware of (and unwilling to notice) the drama that is played out in the schoolroom each day: this is a daily nightmare from which the narrator has no escape. His desperate private wishes that Ninomiya might not notice him, or might forget him, are heartbreaking (“I was crying because we had nowhere else to go, no choice but to go on living in this world”): this boy wants to be invisible, to blend into the background, and yet both his physical defect and the way in which he has been singled out as a target make this impossible.

There are scenes in Heaven that made me wince, and feel a terror at the simple fact that such deliberate humiliation can and does happen: the callous brutality of the teenage bullies is something that Kawakami excels at portraying. Even more impressive, though, is the way in which she communicates the reactions of the bullied child. It must be incredibly hard to write from the perspective of an adolescent without conferring on the character the wisdom and experience the adult author has gained, and Kawakami manages this superbly. There is something very real about the depth and intensity of their thinking process and their attempts to articulate what is happening to them, and the co-translation by Sam Bett and David Boyd is believably adolescent but never in the cringe-worthy manner of how an adult thinks a teenage boy would speak.

Perhaps one of the most striking things about Heaven is how different it is from Breasts and Eggs, and how versatile Kawakami is as a writer. There are recognisable traits, such as the focus on characters who don’t fit into standard expectations of “normality”, and the ability to convey so much detail in relatively few words, but the situation and plot are entirely new (which, however much I might love what an author has done before, is always a good thing in my view). Similarly, Bett and Boyd translate in a way that communicates the stylistic similarities or idiosyncrasies, but without producing a “flat-pack” translation, showing their understanding of and attention to what makes this book both recognisable and unique (including the particularly beautiful short sentences the narrator uses to try to understand his reaction to his growing intimacy with Kojima: “She liked my eyes. The memory stood on my chest. It was good and bad at the same time”). There is also a superb translation of wordplay involving the phrase “someday best” (a term I want to adopt and use regularly); in fact, the only negative point about reading Heaven was the way the Bryan Adams power ballad with the same title would not leave my head every time I picked up the book.

In fairness, though, the earworm isn’t Kawakami’s fault. And it would be a bit mean of me to blame Bett and Boyd, especially since the title is important in more than one way.

The ending of Heaven is not at all what I was expecting (also a good thing in my opinion – I don’t like predictable narratives): it made me see certain key sections and dialogues in a new light, and left me thinking about both the narrator and Kojima well after I closed the cover. This is a truly wonderful book: discomfiting, unsettling, and entirely unique.

Review copy of Heaven provided by Picador Books

Review: SHOCKED EARTH by Saskia Goldschmidt

Translated from Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett (Saraband Books, 2021)

I’m going to go out on a limb straight away, and declare this one of my favourite books of 2021: it was one of those rare books that I kept thinking about while I wasn’t reading it, and couldn’t wait to get back to when I had some reading time. It’s an absolute cracker, and I’m excited to tell you why.

Shocked Earth is the story of a farming family in Groningen province. We meet three generations of the Koridon family: Zwier, the grandfather, a quiet and undemonstrative man who nonetheless is capable of deep affection; Trijn, his daughter, who never wanted to work on the family farm but after an ill-fated bid for freedom returned and never left; Femke, Trijn’s daughter, who wants to move into organic dairy farming but meets intransigence from her mother. After some background about Trijn’s childhood, her disastrous bid for independence via an ultimately abusive relationship with Femke’s father and her subsequent return to the family farm, the main focus is on Femke in more or less the present day. Femke wants to turn the farm into an enterprise that will “work with nature rather than against it”, while Trijn is adamant that this would be a sure path to financial ruin, and Zwier is reluctant to abandon the traditional methods that have shaped his life’s work. Femke is introverted and reserved, but when she meets Danielle, an “offcomer” who shows her what desire is, it is “as if a small animal had broken free inside her.” Needless to say, Trijn is about as enthusiastic about Femke’s romantic choice as she is about her plans for the farm, and the two women skirt around each other with shards of resentment and unarticulated reproaches constantly driving between them.

As well as the generational conflict, there is an ever-present threat in the form of quake damage caused by gas extraction: the government has realised that it can make a significant profit from gas that has been discovered beneath the clay lands, yet refuses to acknowledge – let alone compensate – the damage to lives and livelihoods caused by its actions. The Koridon family has lived in fear for five years, ever since “that evening when the joists and rafters cracked and the tea whirled in the cups, that evening when the floor tiles cracked, the ceiling lamp lashed wildly back and forth, and the pull bell moaned as if the devil himself was shaking it,” and yet the painfully slow process of trying to get official recognition of the damage they have suffered is stymied by bureaucratic red tape and administrators doggedly insisting that the farm is subsiding owing to poor maintenance. The threat of the next quake hangs over the narrative, and when it comes it’s going to turn the Koridon family’s lives upside down (more than once).

The two main threads – tension within the family and the threat of losing the farm – are delicately interwoven throughout. The family’s story is also closely connected to the land, and so to questions of ecological sustainability and damage to the earth. This is a book that is simultaneously about big issues and everyday people, and in which profound truths appear when you least expect them, whether in Zwier’s comment to Femke that “People always need to make others feel smaller. So they can look bigger” or in Goldschmidt’s observation in a particularly harrowing episode that “too much importance is placed on money and not enough on care … the individual is defeated by the system, compassion by self-interest, imagination by inflexibility, quietness by tumult, love by fear, humanity by cruelty”). And if the frustration with the administrative procedures, the inability of the Koridons to articulate their emotions when it most matters, and the disappointing behaviour of the minor characters are not enough to draw you in, you can also look forward to a Dead Bird Museum, a rebellion, and an unexpected outcome when a law is inadvertently broken. The thing that pulled me in most, though, was the heart of the story. Despite the characters’ coldness and their difficulty expressing emotions, and despite the almost unremittingly bleak landscape, Goldschmidt manages to make Shocked Earth full of warmth and feeling. It takes quite a lot for me to cry at a book – welling up isn’t so rare, but needing to put the book down because I can’t see the pages through my tears doesn’t happen often (The Eighth Life and The Little Girl on the Ice Floe are recent exceptions) – but there was one part when I wept so much my seven-year-old daughter got out of bed to check I was okay. No spoilers, so I’ll just say that it was page 266, and hope you read it for yourself.

Antoinette Fawcett’s translation is extremely accomplished – the ominous threat is delicately conveyed throughout, as is the tension in the farm, and in particular Fawcett excels at describing the sights and sounds of the countryside in all its lowering greyness (and occasional Spring promise). While at times the descriptions are poetic (“Then she pushes the barrow down the lonning. The sweet, heavy scent of May blossom and cow parsley, the magenta-coloured clover flowers and purple foxtails, the great tits twittering in the poplars, the yellow wagtails on the fields, the meadow pipits yoyoing, the swallows skimming along the ground, the crows cawing, and the soft summer breeze all pass her by”), at others reality crashes in (“The sharp stench of cow shit announces the spring”). The range of farming vocabulary is admirable (and, for this urban reader, extremely instructive) and the tone is dramatic enough to convey the immensity of both the landscape and the situation, but stops before getting mawkish (“And high above this apocalyptic scene, where a hundred and fifty years of history is being guzzled down, bite after bite after bite, a buzzard is circling, mewing, lamenting”). There are a couple of expressions I found a little odd (a dog’s tail “wagging without cease”, and the slightly awkwardly formulated question “what do you take in your coffee?”), but these were so few and so minor that they did not detract from the evocative and detailed storytelling. I also really appreciated the translator’s note at the end, which engages carefully with the importance of context to linguistic choices; Fawcett also makes an observation that strikes me as getting right to the heart of why this book is so moving: “the fate of one particular family in a remote corner of the Netherlands is absolutely linked into the fate of humanity as a whole.” I may have little in common with Zwier, Trijn and Femke, but the problems they face – personal and political – are the problems of humanity, and this book’s humanity is precisely where its power lies.

Review copy of Shocked Earth provided by Saraband Books

Review: YOU’RE NOT DYING by Kathrin Schmidt

Translated from German by Christina Les (Naked Eye Publishing, 2021)

Kathrin Schmidt’s You’re Not Dying is a prize-winning best-seller in Germany, where it was first published in 2009, and today the first English translation (by Christina Les) is published. The release of You’re Not Dying also represents the first foray into translated literature for independent press Naked Eye, but the “firsts” aren’t the only thing of note about You’re Not Dying. This is the story of a woman waking from a coma to find that she cannot move her right side, cannot speak, and has lost many of her memories. Helene has suffered a stroke, and You’re Not Dying is the story of her readjustment to life as a disabled person. In the many books I’ve read in the three and a half years since embarking on this project so few have dealt with disability, which in general is under-represented in literary fiction. You’re Not Dying approaches its subject sensitively, but with a ferocity of emotion that felt to me very realistic (indeed, it is based on the author’s own experience), tapping into deep-seated fears of disempowerment, dependence, and the way life can be redefined in an instant.

The narrative is arresting from the very first pages, with Helene waking up and trying to make sense of where she is, and what has happened to her. The sense of disorientation, dulled by medication, is quietly terrifying: “She’s got something in her mouth. She can’t close her mouth at all. She wants to ask the woman what she can see stuck in her mouth, but the woman takes her arm and connects it to a tube. Some kind of network? So they can control her remotely?” Helene learns that she has been in intensive care, in a coma, but the details of the damage to her body trickle through slowly, in the same way that her memories – both good and bad – return intermittently: “Her memories drag themselves along, slowly and deliberately dragging what used to be along with them.”

Helene’s mind can formulate words, but when she tries to articulate them in any kind of understandable configuration she becomes confused, the words stubbornly refusing to follow the order into which she has painstakingly arranged them in her head. That her mind is still working at her usual speed while her speech fails her is communicated powerfully, as is the loss of her days (“Twenty minutes have passed. Twenty minutes of life.”) Helene has to deal with the abjection of needing help to go to the toilet and to get dressed, of being fed or, as she gets a little movement back, of spilling food down her face and clothes when she tries to feed herself, and of realising that she has a near-constant trail of saliva dangling from her mouth that she can neither control nor wipe away.

The depiction of dependence and the stripping of dignity that physical suffering brings is deliberately uncomfortable, but one of the most stuff-my-fist-in-my-mouth horrifying episodes was Helene’s day release back home, when her husband Matthes wants to rekindle their former passion and Helene cannot physically or verbally tell him she does not consent. Indeed, as Helene starts to piece back together the various identities and relationships that defined her pre-stroke life, she remembers that she had been on the point of leaving Matthes; not only this, but she had begun a hesitant though passionate relationship with Viola, a transgender woman whose own emotional traumas and social othering are also carefully examined as Helene tries to reach a place in her memory that will explain the broken recollections of Viola to her. Though Viola’s story is interesting in its own right, the most emotional aspect for me was the way in which Helene remembers powerlessly, unable to let Viola know what has happened to her and knowing that, given the way she parted from Viola after their last meeting, her silence will be taken for a lack of care.

Christina Les translates You’re Not Dying with sensitivity and pathos: I have long believed that empathy is one of the keys to good translation, and Les demonstrates this in bucketloads. Her translation allows Helene to speak – in her newly broken way, of course – and to go to the limits of her memories, sadness and anger. The translation is written extremely carefully, but without seeming laboured: from individual word choices down to cadence and syntax, Les has perfectly pitched this multi-layered story of extraordinary events and everyday trauma. Perhaps what I appreciated the most in You’re Not Dying was the refusal to make it a redemptive narrative: Helene’s misfortune does not somehow make her a nicer or less cantankerous person, though there are some amusing episodes when we gain insight into her unwillingness to suffer fools gladly. She does not find that disability gives her a better perspective on the world, a better experience within it, or a renewed hope for the future. Her relationships do not magically mend or become less complicated, and neither is there a miraculous recovery: Helene’s progress is faltering, and there is no guarantee that she will ever return to the life she had before her stroke. Though I preferred the first part of the novel (Helene’s realisation of and reaction to what has happened to her), to the second part that goes into more detail about her life before the stroke, in the last paragraphs we finally witness the point at which Helene’s life changed forever, and it was worth the wait.

Review copy of You’re Not Dying provided by Naked Eye Publishing

 

Recent reads: Elena Ferrante and Rónán Hession

Over the Easter week I read a couple of books that had been sent to me as gifts, and so I’m taking a break from my formal reviews this week to talk to you about my two “holiday reads” – one of the best-known works of contemporary translation, and the follow-up to a brilliant debut.

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, tr. Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2020; originally published 2012)

Okay, I’ll admit it: I didn’t especially want to like Ferrante. I’m not generally drawn to already-famous authors, and (possibly because whenever I say I read “women in translation” the stock response is often “oh, so you must like Elena Ferrante?”) I felt obstinate and contrary about reading Ferrante’s work until Europa sent me The Lying Life of Adults last year. I enjoyed the stand-alone novel and my introduction to Ferrante, but it’s no exaggeration to say that embarking on the Neapolitan Quartet is something I’ve been putting off for years. So… how did it go?

Well, if you’ve ever watched The Big Bang Theory, my experience of reading My Brilliant Friend was something like the time Sheldon tried to ramp up his irritation levels by listening to Taylor Swift but…

“turns out I love her”. Indeed. Turns out My Brilliant Friend is entirely deserving of all the hype. The storytelling manages to be both intimate and vast, focusing on individuals and relationships but spiralling out towards an entire community and city, and locating the region within its country’s history. After the prologue (set in the present, with the narrative then rewinding by several decades – a technique I particularly enjoy) it took me a while to get properly into the story – there is an impressive cast of characters (and, mercifully, a handy character guide at the start of the book) and though the childhood sections were necessary for background and introduction to the characters, their way of life, and their place on a generational continuum within the community, the point when I really got immersed in the story was when the two protagonists Lenù and Lila start to grow up. This is when Lenù, the narrator, begins to develop an awareness of the boundaries of her world, and the ways she both does and does not want to escape. The true focus is, of course, on Lenù’s “brilliant friend” Lila, a girl whose presence makes Lenù feel that she is truly present in the world, for “only what Lila touched became important.” This is a beautiful story of friendship and rivalry, working-class hardship and middle-class aspiration, social expectation and adolescent desire: if you’ve already read it then I can only add to the superlatives attributed to it and if, like me, you’re late to the Ferrante party, then I highly recommend you head on in.

So there it is: I’m a Ferrante convert. There is a small catch: I’ve written before about Ann Goldstein’s translations, which I find linguistically rich but occasionally jarring. It was in reading My Brilliant Friend that I realised why: at times I feel as though the story is being told to me by an Italian who hasn’t quite grasped English syntax. This clearly isn’t an impediment to communication of the story (or worldwide success), but in terms of translation it’s not my preferred approach. Nonetheless, this is a beautiful and (mostly) engagingly narrated story, heartbreaking in its daily sorrows and told with a keen eye for both intricate detail and general observation. My experience of reading it was true escapism; I felt quite bereft when I reached the end, and will certainly be reading the rest of the quartet.

 

Rónán Hession, Panenka (Bluemoose Books, 2021)

A rare thing for me: reading a book that’s not a translation, and not written by a woman. For this to happen it has to be a pretty special book, and if you haven’t already discovered Rónán Hession, he’s certainly a pretty special writer. His debut novel, Leonard and Hungry Paul (Bluemoose Books, 2018, reviewed here), was a runaway success, and deservedly so: its gentle warmth and understated humour were absolutely delightful, and it’s no surprise that it found its way into so many readers’ hands and hearts. With Panenka, Hession gives us something very different but no less remarkable. The heart of the novel is Joseph, a former footballer whose nickname “Panenka” is “his sadness and his story.” We meet him as he is in the grip of a debilitating headache attack that he calls “the iron mask”, and it is quickly revealed that this is a symptom of a terminal illness. In the time he has left, Panenka carries on with what he has made of his rather unspectacular life – a renewed closeness with his daughter Marie-Thérèse (an anxious supermarket team leader recently separated from her husband Vincent), an affectionate relationship with his seven-year-old grandson Arthur, a (non-football-related) job that we don’t discover much about until a dazzling final scene, and a group of affectionately antagonistic acquaintances he meets with regularly at Vincent’s, a café-bar run by his ex-son-in-law. This is a small town, and Panenka stayed there even after his footballing career was cut short by a mistake to which fans – then and ever since – have attributed the decline of the local football team, whose glory Panenka had apparently been destined to secure.

Hession’s passion for football shines through, but in a way that is entirely inclusive, and not at all off-putting to those of us less well acquainted with the beautiful game. The dissection of match performances between the gang at Vincent’s is, like all of Hession’s dialogue, perfectly observed – one of the great strengths of his writing is that it always makes me feel I’m amongst friends. In fact, if there was one criticism I could make (and you’d have to push me hard to make it) it would be that the dialogues are so perfect – none of the retrospective “why did/didn’t I say that?” angst is necessary for these characters (but then, inarticulate dialogue wouldn’t make for great reading, so this isn’t really a criticism at all). In fact the characterisation is superb, with plenty revealed about the characters but much also held back, in a way that reflects how we’d get to know people in real life. When I read Hession’s writing I can’t help imagining him observing conversations and behaviour as the years go by, so recognisably human are his characters and their interactions. There would have been plenty of opportunity for facile or schmaltzy resolutions to the various broken or fragile relationships, and Hession steers clear of this in a way that shows great tenderness for his characters. And the final scene… no spoilers, as ever, but you might want to keep a tissue handy.

 

 

Review: NERVOUS SYSTEM by Lina Meruane

Translated from Spanish (Chile) by Megan McDowell (Atlantic Books, 2021)

In Nervous System, Lina Meruane returns to the obsessions with a failing body that preoccupied her earlier work, the uncomfortably brilliant Seeing Red (also translated by Megan McDowell, published by Atlantic Books in 2018). In both books, Meruane explores how a body pushed to its limits clings to life: in Seeing Red, the protagonist is suffering from a degenerative ocular condition that makes her eyes fill with blood, and in Meruane’s latest novel the main character is suffering from a disease of the nervous system. If the tension between inside and outside the body in Seeing Red was almost cannibalistic, in Nervous System illness is treated differently, the interior observation of the body’s limits aligned with the infinite reach and renewal of the cosmos.

The main character, Ella, is trying to write her doctoral thesis on black holes, and feels unable to complete it. She wishes she could have an acceptable pretext for taking some time off, such as an illness severe enough to prevent her working but not dangerous enough to kill her; this wish is fulfilled when shooting pains in her arm turn out to be a degenerative disease affecting her nervous system. Ella’s doctoral research takes on new meaning as her nervous system is mapped out before her like the solar system: connected, fragile, and immensely complex. Ella comes to embody the matter that she studies: she is obsessed with “stars that had already lost their light and collapsed in on themselves”, and is herself presented as exactly that. She is at once a dreamer who “dreams of bottling shooting stars” and a fatalist, convinced of her own inability to carry out her research or to function in the world. The vocabulary consistently reinforces the parallel between Ella’s body and the cosmos, yet this is not to designate Ella as extraordinary in any way (indeed, Ella’s name means “she” or “her” in Spanish, and her boyfriend is named El – “he” or “him”), but rather to show her connectedness to everything in her universe: her family, her past, her country (both the one she was raised in and the one she has moved to), her relationships (the hole at the centre of the galaxy is “a navel so dark no-one has ever seen it”, the galaxies that cannibalise each other a subtle metaphor for Ella and El’s own relationship), and everything that formed her and that she helps to form.

Ella has always suffered from the knowledge that her mother died in childbirth, and that her older brother forever holds her responsible. She is sharp, brittle and full of self-doubt, struggling to live her life when her body fails her, but refusing to be defined by its difference. She is “always trying to mend the fracture of childhood”, orbiting around the varyingly stable points in her life as she tries to make sense of her path. The language describing these connections is rich, by turns (and sometimes simultaneously) savage and delicate: El is “skinny as a dagger”, Ella’s birth mother is “the body that had held her before sending her out into the world.” Megan McDowell maintains this tension in the translation with a rich lexical range and many memorable expressions. Right from the second page there was a sentence I couldn’t stop returning to (about birds frazzled on electrical wires), both in and out of context: “Those bodies, possessed by the light.” The banality of the everyday is tied to the infinity of the universe in both content and language: when there is a nationwide power cut, the country becomes a “giant black hole”, and the protagonist remembers a time when her house had been full of “long skinny nebulous candles, wrapped in blue paper or tied with string, ready for emergencies.” The italicisation of expressions that are either contextually or syntactically unexpected is a feature of the narrative, and McDowell excels at rendering these in ways that stand out but never seem inappropriate (for example: “Her nervous system kept the memory failed twisted useless of an injury and went on reliving it”).

Ella’s illness is not only aligned with the cosmos, however, but also to life on Earth: “infection” from immigration is life, whereas immunity to it is death, and there are warnings that seem medical, but are really social comments. Observations on immigration (“It’s no longer a state secret that the cadavers belong to recent immigrants and that they aren’t the only ones: others are discovered during the excavation for the foundation of a building, and in a mass grave beside the river with shovels swastikas knives banners proclaiming death to migrants”) sit alongside important perspectives on gendered violence (“because even before that night another man had come at her. In a bend of the past. In her own country … He held her neck, pressed her face against the wall crushed snails warm slime. On her thighs some rough fingers multiplied and tore at her underwear, went into her like slippery worms, covered her nose so she’d open her mouth”) and on the inhumanity of the healthcare system (“Into the trash went the tattered crab and the whole maternal breast”). Connections and consequences are also foregrounded in comments such as this one on the unseen effects of social rehabilitation and progress:

“The tower rebuilt after the attack that brought it down had powerful beams pointing up to the sky, to illuminate the route of so many lost souls. Those rays interrupted the migratory routes of birds, and thousands of them got tangled up in the light, whirling around drugged hallucinating interrogated by bright spotlights, noisily flapping their arrhythmic wings. Trapped in the light, they finally fell from the air at dawn.
Birds with failing hearts exploding on the pavement.”

The alternative perspective shown here is characteristic of Meruane’s writing: accepted narratives are questioned and subverted without being overly political or moralising. The perspective throughout Nervous System is, simply, one of connectedness: though it has an almost linear story at its heart, it is forever circling and returning to its primary preoccupations of the apparent dualities of health and fragility, enormity and banality, violence and tenderness. Its great accomplishment is that the connection between the individual body and the cosmic one is maintained throughout without ever seeming forced, and this carries through in McDowell’s translation: Nervous System is clever without being pretentious, introspective without being self-indulgent, and grand without being grandiose. This is an intelligent and profound follow-up to Seeing Red, and is sure to appeal to admirers of Meruane’s work as well as those discovering her for the first time.

Review copy of Nervous System provided by Atlantic Books

Review: POETICS OF WORK by Noémi Lefebvre

Translated from French by Sophie Lewis (Les Fugitives, 2021)

I have to start this review with a confession: I was a bit nervous about reading Poetics of Work. The nerves stemmed entirely from the knowledge that Lefebvre is not known for being an “easy read”, and I read Poetics of Work at a time when ease seemed as desirable as it was unattainable. Yet my fears were unfounded: yes, this is a challenging book, one that made me think deeply about the issues it tackles, but this happened in an exhilarating, uplifting way. I want to kick off by quoting from the beginning of the book, as in the first paragraphs there is a perfect crystallisation of its main concerns:

“The wind was in the north and the planes were circling, the shops were open for the love of everything under the sun, riot police were patrolling four by four and junior officers by threes out in the street.
There isn’t a lot of poetry these days, I said to my father.”

Poetic expression, social comment, anti-establishment feeling, and an omnipresent father. These are the key elements of Poetics of Work, a manifesto on the value of being a writer and thinker in an age of commodification, in which Lefebvre attempts to carve out the possibility of “work” not having to be measured by hours in an office, salary earned, or “usefulness”.

The father thinks that poetry is of no earthly good when wars rage, suicide bombers detonate, debt abounds and society is merrily heading to hell in a handcart. The narrator manages his patronising tirades with admirable sang-froid, and deftly deflates his hubris without ever being cruel: “My father was about to leave for Notre-Dame-des-Landes or for the Larzac or Calais or the Vercors or Ventimiglia, basically for somewhere to do something.” The father might be considered “useful” in this modernity that has no place for poetry, but the narrator has the measure of what this “usefulness” really is.

There are some timely reflections on the role of art: can it ever entail true freedom of expression if there is so much expectation on the function it ought to perform, and what it should “do”? Yet this is not an introspective or self-indulgent essay: firstly, a dry humour underlies every observation (look out for the “conspicuous hat with a radical bobble”), and Lefebvre has much to say about modernity, rape culture, and the notion of “freedom” (“imagination was being blocked and thought paralysed by national unity in the name of Freedom, and freedom co-opted as a reason to have no more of it”). In this vein, there are several observations on the insidious nature of state control, with more than a hint of wry humour in the expression, as in this dialogue between the narrator and their father:

“‘Are we at war, Papa?’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘I don’t know, all these soldiers outside the shops.’
‘Then it must be war.’

‘But people are still shopping in the sales.’
‘So we can’t be at war.’

‘The police are checking handbags and ID cards.’
‘That means it’s war.’

‘But there are no tanks or any shelling on our good city of Lyon.’
‘It’s not war, then.’

The father is a repellent figure, an egocentric, bombastic, soul-crushing misogynist who is quick to point out the narrator’s “chronic hopelessness” owing to an inability to fit in with capitalist society. Lefebvre’s narrator never explicitly questions why this inability should mean that they are reduced to being “unfortunately and perhaps incurably nothing but a sad loser”; the success of this treatise is that it never tells its reader what to think, or how to interpret it.

Lewis recently published an interesting piece in PEN Transmissions, in which she admitted a “dirty secret” that she had translated the entire text without realising that the narrator was not given a gender. The immense work that must have been done by Lefebvre to write a gender-neutral narrator in French must have been so delicately done to appear this effortless, and there is nothing in Lewis’s translation that diminishes this. In fact, my own dirty secret is that I spoke with Sophie a couple of months before that interview was published, and she said that she had recently translated a text in which she didn’t notice the un-gendered narrator – and I *still* didn’t realise while reading Poetics of Work that this was the text she had been referring to. When I read the interview I was about half-way through the book, and was able to switch from blissful ignorance to an active admiration of the careful non-disclosure of gender throughout. For this is not a book about being (or not being) a woman, or about whatever we might understand that to mean: it is a book about finding poetry in a world that seems hell-bent on destroying it, a modernity “whose beauty will be revealed in the smog of its exhaust, in its everyday privations, in the dogs that chase their living in the soughing rain or the sinking glare of the unimportant streets…” That Lewis captures the poetry in the banality is a testament to just how accomplished this translation is: Lefebvre is an extremely agile writer, and Lewis has kept up with every move in her translation. In particular, the final two lines are absolute perfection: clever, shrewd, and amusing. Poetics of Work is as political as it is philosophical; it engages with authority and influence, questioning how we become what we are both individually and collectively. It manages to be simultaneously laid-back and urgent, and is a gorgeous manifesto of poetic resistance.

Review copy of Poetics of Work provided by Les Fugitives