Monthly Archives: May 2021

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.