Monthly Archives: April 2021

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

Review: SIMPLE PASSION by Annie Ernaux

Translated from French by Tanya Leslie (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021)

Simple Passion is the story of an all-consuming love affair: in it, Ernaux details the way in which her obsession with her lover takes over every aspect of her life, so that both daily events and more significant ones become no more than moments that punctuate the rhythm of this obsession. The original French (Passion Simple) was the first book by Ernaux I ever read, during my first years working at university twenty years ago. I remember finding it challenging to present the story in a class: its focus on the (willing) near-enslavement to a man’s availability (“I would have liked to have done nothing else but wait for him”) seemed to run counter to every feminist awakening I was undergoing, and I felt then that it was in danger of falling into a cliché Ernaux herself points out (“I couldn’t watch television or leaf through magazines; all the advertisements, whether for perfumes or microwaves, show the same thing: a woman waiting for a man”). Many years later, I approached the newly-released English translation with more nuance, and certainly with more empathy and compassion. Part of this comes from being more familiar with Ernaux’s oeuvre as a whole: her exposure of what it is to be a woman from a particular background at a particular time in history (A Girl’s Story), her chronicling of the twentieth century in The Years, her intimate portraits of her family (A Man’s Place) and her own experience of illegal abortion (Happening), calling attention to the experience of so many women who suffered in the same way because of a lack of autonomy over their own bodies. Like these other texts, Simple Passion is, quite simply, an account of a certain recognisable personal or collective experience.

Part of the reason I struggled with this two decades ago is that Ernaux and others of her generation suffered from a lack of control over their reproductive bodies, and fought to gain this control – and it seemed to me that Ernaux did this only to then submit control of her emotions to a man (a married man at that, and who had no intention of leaving his wife). But emotions, by definition, defy logic or ideology. This is not necessarily an un-feminist story, but rather an excruciatingly honest one that admits human fallibility and complexity, qualities that Ernaux fears will be judged when exposed. This fear illustrates a vulnerability in her writing that I now find extremely moving, particularly in reflections such as this one: “Sometimes I wonder if the purpose of my writing is to find out whether other people have done or felt the same things or, if not, for them to consider experiencing such things as normal.”

There are certain aspects of this story that will be familiar to anyone who has experienced strong emotions (which, I would think, means everyone): songs taking on new meaning because the lyrics seem to articulate the experience of the listener, being caught between the conflicting emotions of wanting to escape a difficult situation and the reality that living without it is unthinkable (“I longed to end the affair, so as not to be at the mercy of a phone call, so as not to suffer, and then realising at once what this would entail, seconds after the separation: a succession of days with nothing to hope for”), and elaborate plans are laid just to have the objective of finding some kind of connection to the lover (“On the plane, on the way back, I reflected that I had travelled to Denmark simply to send a postcard to a man”). It is not only clichéd representations of women that Ernaux feels herself reflected in, but also “the outcasts lying on benches, the clients of prostitutes, or a passenger engrossed in her Mills & Boon romance”: this is not a passive role that she has accepted, but something stronger than her and which leaves her adrift from “normal” everyday experiences.

Simple Passion is also a very engaging story: though it’s not an intricate or plot-twisting narrative, it’s a compelling and intimate revelation of human emotion and passion. For the time that she and A. are lovers, there is simply nothing else of consequence, and her obsession becomes potentially destructive: pastimes are “a means of filling in time between two meetings”, the all-too-brief encounters mean that “I experienced pleasure like a future pain,” and she even wonders fleetingly whether A. might have given her AIDS because “at least he would have left me that.” Tanya Leslie’s translation is, as usual, extremely accomplished. Ernaux has a very distinctive style: if I had to sum it up, I’d go for the seemingly oxymoronic term “expressive objectivity”. By this I mean that Ernaux writes deep and intense emotions with an observational composure that borders on detachment; both Leslie and Ernaux’s other regular translator into English, Alison L. Strayer, are delicately attuned to this, and both render it very well in English. Indeed, Ernaux likens the way she approached this love affair to the way she approaches writing: “the same determination to get every single scene right, the same minute attention to detail.” Such minute attention to detail is evident in the translation, which clearly and carefully conveys the core of the original: Simple Passion is not about A., who in fact seems entirely generic and unremarkable from the little we discover about him. Rather, it is about the feelings he awakens, the power he exerts, and the impossibility – at least for a time – of imagining life without his touch. A. is the part that Ernaux keeps to herself, but she gives her passion in both its senses – her desire and her suffering – in this brief, raw “offering, of a sort”.

Review copy of Simple Passion provided by Fitzcarraldo Editions