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

Interview with Guadalupe Nettel, author of Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories

I recently reviewed Guadalupe Nettel’s new collection, Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine, Seven Stories Press, 2020), and this week am delighted to bring you an interview with Guadalupe herself, offering insights into the themes and inspirations for Bezoar.

All of the stories in Bezoar deal with obsessions – from seemingly innocuous ones to those that can take over a life and set it on a different course. Did you deliberately write with this common theme, or is it a coincidence that there are echoes between the various stories?

Bezoar is a personal reflection on beauty, the beauty of anomaly. I’ve always felt drawn to uncommon people. For me, monsters are the absolute incarnation of beauty in its most authentic and most unpredictable form: brave and fragile beings who – whether voluntarily or involuntarily – oppose conventional models. But I didn’t choose characters that are completely out of the ordinary. Rather, I wanted to shine a light on compulsions and obsessions, the perverse tics and characteristics of ordinary people, the people we come across every day, ourselves even. We all have some aspect of our personality that we’d like to hide at any cost. As William Shakespeare said: “We renounce what we are to be what we hope to be.” However, I’m convinced that this thing that we try so hard to keep hidden is the source of our true beauty. I’d like it if in reading these stories, people – especially those who find themselves physically or psychologically repulsive and who are constantly comparing themselves to images of beauty and perfection in the media – started to see themselves differently; I’d like it if these stories made them want to embrace the characteristics that make them unique.

Photo credit: Mely Avila

Many of your narrators and protagonists are outsiders, whose life and experience is characterised by solitude – desired or enforced – and who exist in some way outside of conventional relationships, experience an estrangement from their own bodies, or inhabit their bodies in uncomfortable ways. What made you want to offer these perspectives in particular?

By the age of twenty I knew that I wanted to write about outsiders; about people who stand out from the crowd because of both their physical and psychological characteristics; about the blindness that is always looming over me, creeping up on me; about madness and things that others don’t tend to want to see. Without a doubt I’m an obsessive woman: I brood over my subjects ad nauseum.

Solitude is a theme that has marked my life. The solitude of the teenager, of the patient, the elderly person, the solitude of grief, of abandoned children, of people who, for one reason or another, live on the margins of society, but also the solitude of the many people who live isolated in big cities, without friends or family. I feel deep empathy for people who experience solitude, whether involuntarily or by choice. At the same time, reading is a powerful way to cope with solitude. Sometimes, when we read the right author for us at the right moment of our lives, even if it’s a Japanese writer from the 12th Century, we can feel identified and understood in a way that even our best friend can’t understand us. Fiction opens our minds, it makes us learn about other societies and cultures, imagine places where we haven’t been and like people that we never imagined we would understand. Not to mention past times or the different futures that humanity could face.

Some of the characters are also voyeurs, though not always in a conventional sense, and their voyeurism is very much connected to the cities they inhabit. Were there real people and/ or places that inspired these characters?

All these characters are inspired by friends, people I know, siblings or even myself. The second story, where a girl is spying on her handsome neighbour from the window while he is trying to get in bed with another girl, was inspired by a Cuban friend who taught me how to be a voyeur in NYC. At the beginning I didn’t understand anything I saw in the window, but he taught me how to decipher it: Do you see that vertical line?” He asked. “It’s a curtain. And that horizontal line on the left? The arm of a guitar. The red circles underneath are a woman’s toenails.” Writing is a kind of voyeurism. You start with snippets you overhear, images you see, and then you complete the story.

Of course the origin of these stories was influenced by the cities in which they were written. Some of them were written in the north-east of Paris. The story that opens the book is set near Place Gambetta. It’s about a photographer who specialises in taking pictures of people’s eyelids. A lot of people have asked me how I managed to come up with such an absurd premise, and my answer is always that this person exists or existed in real life.

“Bezoar”, the title story, was written in Barcelona, where I lived for some years, but I didn’t want the place to be too recognisable and so I mixed it up with memories from a recent trip to Portugal. It was inspired by a particularly obsessive period of my childhood when I used to compulsively pull out my hair.

My three stand-out stories from the collection were “Petals”, “Ptosis” and “Bezoar”, all of which feature men who become obsessed with fragile women they want to save, but who they ultimately fail. Was this a deliberate theme that you wanted to explore?

I think that when I wrote these stories I was coming to terms with something which at that point was fundamental and painful for me: no-one can save another person if that person doesn’t want to be saved, and doesn’t give themselves over to being saved, no matter how much love we give them, no matter how much attention, interest or affection we bestow on them. Everyone has their own way of living, and no-one else can interfere with that. On the other hand, often what we consider to be the “right path” might not be the right path for others. In “Ptosis”, the photographer wants the girl to keep conforming to his ideal of beauty, but all she wants is to be like everyone else. Trying to impose a model of beauty or behaviour on someone is an extremely violent act.

The title story is taken from a myth about a healing gemstone that is also a ball of hair. Why did you choose this image/ legend around which to construct a story, or a collection of stories?

It’s a myth that human beings believed in for centuries, and now we find it completely absurd. There are bezoars in the Met Museum in New York, and I imagine in other museums across the world as well. The fact that a ball of hair can be seen as a precious jewel shows that it’s our own imagination that gives objects their value. But what interests me most about this object is what people want from it: an end to their suffering. What does it matter if it’s only a ball of hair, if this stone can bring peace and heal our illnesses or pains? That’s what we’re all ultimately searching for, and I find that very moving.

“Unsettling” is a superb word to describe these stories – I was expecting something possibly supernatural, but they are unsettling precisely because they are only a hair’s breadth away from common realities. Where do you draw inspiration for these stories, and why is it important for you as a writer to “unsettle” or disturb?

As I said earlier, literature opens our minds, but this doesn’t always happen in a gentle and painless way. When we move away from what’s familiar to us, it’s normal to feel some discomfort. I think that if this book is unsettling, it’s because when we talk about how other people are strange, it’s almost impossible not to think about how we are too. Even readers who thought they were completely “normal” realise that they too, or their loved ones, might be a little monstrous and have been trying to hide it their whole life.

How do you cope writing such unsettling stories in the first person? I’m thinking of what it would take to produce creepy phrases such as “I chose to discover women in the only place where they don’t feel observed: bathroom stalls” – is there a single approach that you take, or does it differ between stories?

It comes naturally. All my characters are outsiders in one way or another. When I was a child, I often felt judged and ashamed because my eyes were “abnormal” – I was born with a congenital cataract and other problems in my right eye – and as a result of seeing with just one eye, I moved and behaved differently to other people. So I identify with the figure of the outsider. I don’t think I could bring a character to life if he or she wasn’t in some way a freak.

Were you involved in the translation process? More generally, how does it feel for your work to travel between languages and cultures?

When I can speak and understand it, it always gives me a bit of a shock to read myself in another language, but I find it amazing. To be translated into other languages and to be read by readers from different countries is an immense privilege.

Translation is an extremely delicate process. If it’s bad or careless it can be very damaging. It’s not like a badly subtitled film where you have not only the words but also the mise-en-scène and the acting, and so you can immediately identify incongruities in the translation. In literature, language is everything! Literary translation has to be one of the most difficult and admirable professions going.  If the translation is into a language I understand, like English, I try at least to read the translation and collaborate as much as possible with the translator: answer their questions, deal with any doubts they have, make suggestions and correct potential errors. But I also try to respect their own style and interpretation.

Translation of those sections originally written in Spanish: Helen Vassallo, 2020

 

 

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

 

Interview with Helena Buffery, translator of The Passion According to Renée Vivien

Last week I reviewed María-Mercè Marçal’s The Passion According to Renée Vivien; I’m delighted to bring you today some intimate insights into the translation of this novel from Helena Buffery, who co-translated it with Kathleen McNerney.

How did you discover this novel, and what made you want to translate it?

Helena Buffery: The novel was one of the earliest contemporary Catalan texts I read when it first came out in the 1990s and really impressed me at the time for the audacity of the writing: this is a novel that takes on the Republic of Letters and explores it from the margins, creating a rich, polyphonic, and spatially and temporally diverse world from the fragments and traces of a (meticulously researched) life. It reads beautifully; culminating with the breathtaking final chapter, which I could not quite believe was constructed entirely from fragments of Vivien’s poetry (but I can now promise you that this is the case). Back then, when I had the time to travel quite regularly to Paris and Barcelona, I was fascinated by the different perspectives the novel offered on quite familiar spaces.  I remember being transported into a richly nuanced, complex and believable world.

I returned to the novel more recently as someone with a great deal of interest in the way minority literatures (and particularly Catalan literature) travel, and having written on these issues from the perspective of cultural (in)visibility and (un)translatability. Given the recent increase in translations of Catalan literature and also of Iberian and Latin American women’s writing, I was very interested in exploring why a figure as important María-Mercè Marçal – a supremely charismatic and openly lesbian poet, translator, feminist thinker, essayist and activist to whom numerous Iberian writers profess their debt – had such a limited presence in English (beyond poetry magazines and anthologies).

Why do you think such an important and recognised piece of work hasn’t been published in English before now?

I think a significant factor is the subject matter, the fact that it is by a Catalan author but not explicitly about Catalan culture (no Barcelona, no Civil War, little reference to any Catalan landscapes). Another factor, I believe, is that it is written against English (understood, as in the sense of Vivien’s own process of self-translation, as a form of resistance and rebellion against the normative, the hegemonic, the neo-colonial). Having looked more closely at the German, Italian and Spanish translations, I began to consider the possibility of translating elements of the novel (as I think many of the chapters work as stand-alone pieces, in the manner of sketches or even short stories), and it was then that I bumped into Kathleen McNerney at a conference on Marçal in Cambridge and learned that she had begun translating the novel many years before, but had been unable to find a publisher. Kathleen is widely recognised as a pioneer translator of Spanish and Catalan women’s writing – she began translating Marçal back in the 1980s (selected poems from Bruixa de dol/Witch in morning appeared in the Catalan Review in 1986), and collaborated with her in events on feminist writing in Barcelona. We corresponded for a while before agreeing to co-translate; Kathleen was in touch with the Maria-Mercè Marçal Foundation to enquire about rights and permissions, and then was able to secure a series of writing retreats to work on the novel.

Once you had made the decision to embark on this project, how did you and Kathleen McNerney approach the co-translation?

We agreed to split translation – with one of us (me in the end) focusing initially on Sara T.’s narrative and the other (Kathleen) translating the other voices. We then swapped and revised each other’s work, as well as meeting together in Barcelona and Cork to discuss overarching issues (how to translate certain key terms, what to do about the intertextual references, the translations of the poems, and so on). Once all the pieces were together, I took responsibility for editing and correcting the whole text and ensuring cohesion. This was very much helped by the fact that I am very familiar with the Maria-Mercè Marçal archive in Barcelona, so I have read all of the notes, readings and drafts that are preserved as traces of her creative process, and I also undertook further research on the different voices included in the novel. In some cases, such as the prologue and first chapter, for instance, this led to quite extensive adjustment, in order to bring out the subtle irony that pervades the Catalan original (Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway was the key inspiration here). In other cases, such as the exquisite Kerimée chapter, the writing is pretty much entirely Kathleen’s.

This is a translation from Catalan, but about a French context. How did the multi-lingual features influence your translation?

We agreed to deliberately interventionist translations in parts. On the one hand, we opted to preserve fragments which appeared in other languages (including fragments of Dante). On the other hand, we compensated for the disappearance of Catalan in translation by augmenting the plurilingualism of the text in parts. The decision to source the French originals for certain fragments and quotations in the Sara T. narrative, for instance, was a decision taken jointly in order to make it clear that Sara T. is translating, and often reflecting consciously on the process of translating, from French – hence, for instance, the indecision between “sorrowful” and “painful” to render “douloureux”, when in Catalan that hesitation is simply expressed using a comma the first time it appears. In some ways, the inclusion of fragments in French that Sara T. is trying to translate allows us to remind everyone that she is not French herself, but Catalan. This was important to us, given the impossibility of keeping Marçal’s exquisitely creative translations of Vivien’s poems – it would have added too much to the length of our version. Even so, it would be great to be able to publish all of the different versions in parallel one day! You’ll also have noticed that there are numerous places where we have gone for words with Old French etymology in order to keep the sense of a process of writing against English I mentioned before. Words like blame, regret, verse, vanquished, damsel, coquetries, insouciance etc… and even the more unusual “badinage” which I use in the prologue to translate the Catalan “asteisme” (asteism). I decided that “asteisme” was sufficiently marked in Catalan to warrant an equally marked choice in English.

Another significant intervention was my introduction of recurrent references to trial and error with each use of the word choose (“triar” in the original Catalan). These are intended to prepare for the word-play on “triar”-“trair” (“to choose” versus “to betray” – or as I have it, “trial” and “betrayal”) in Sara T.’s meditations on the nature and (im)possibility of desire. But they also fit in with the constant reference to trials and betrayals in Vivien’s hagiography of martyred queens, and with meta-reflection on the (im)possibility of translation and representation: traduttore, traditore, the translator as traitor. I also quietly corrected incorrect references to dates (such as Barney’s birthday), place-names and so on, where I thought the error was just a slip. In some cases, the errors aren’t so much errors as a reflection of the sources available on Vivien in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Francis Boutle Publishers focus on books from minority or minoritized languages; was this why it was important to you to publish The Passion According to Renée Vivien with them?

We approached Clive Boutle primarily for the really obvious reason that he is the first publisher to have brought out a book by Marçal in English – her posthumous The Body’s Reason. I also really liked the edition of Josafat that he did with Peter Bush, a text which I don’t think many publishers would have taken the risk to publish. It felt right to take the novel to him, even though in many ways Marçal deserves to be included alongside other great twentieth-century feminist authors. I myself sourced the image for the cover, in the Smithsonian archives, inspired by the exploration of the limits and possibilities of visual representations that threads through the novel. It was painted – more properly sketched in pastels – by Natalie Clifford Barney’s mother. Clive Boutle is responsible for the rest of the design and formatting, and for helping me to be brave enough to re-paragraph the novel in order to introduce more breaths when reading. Incidentally, we were very conscious of the poetry all the way through; this is a novel that can and deserves to be read aloud. I was very attentive to breaths and cadences; partly, I suppose, because I generally work on theatre and performance. There is a strongly performative, carnivalesque side to this novel too: ultimately, it is all about bringing words to life, about putting flesh on Vivien’s words. We hope that The Passion of Renée Vivien will travel to the many different readers it deserves.

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