Category Archives: Review

Recent reads: Elena Ferrante and Rónán Hession

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rónán Hession, Panenka (Bluemoose Books, 2021)

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

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

 

 

Review: NERVOUS SYSTEM by Lina Meruane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy of Nervous System provided by Atlantic Books

Review: POETICS OF WORK by Noémi Lefebvre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy of Poetics of Work provided by Les Fugitives

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

Review: THE PEACOCK by Isabel Bogdan

Translated from German by Annie Rutherford (V&Q Books, 2021)

A funny, feel-good comedy of errors featuring characters ranging from the eccentric to the neurotic, a rambling castle in the Scottish Highlands, and a peacock gone rogue? Yes please. The Peacock felt like the book I’ve been waiting for – something to lift me out of the difficulties of the year, and into a hilarious world of well-meaning duplicity, guilty consciences aplenty, and team-building gone awry.

Lord and Lady McIntosh live in a remote and dilapidated castle, making their living from the Laird’s academic work (though, as Bogdan gleefully reminds us on several occasions, his Classics specialism is no match for the Lady’s engineering background when it comes to dealing with the pragmatic reality of a house crumbling around them) and the rental of holiday cottages on their estate. When a group of bankers from London want to rent out a larger space for a weekend of team-building, the McIntoshes’ housekeeper dusts off a ramshackle wing of the castle, but inadvertently breaks her ankle while dancing to ABBA with her Henry vacuum cleaner, rendering her incapable of finishing the extensive cleaning operation. This is the kind of slapstick that abounds in The Peacock, and with the housekeeper incapacitated, the Laird and Lady must prepare for their guests from the Big Smoke alone, with hilarious consequences.

So the housekeeper needs help tying her shoelaces, the shower in the guest wing emits the barest trickle of water, the goose leaves her droppings everywhere, and one of the peacocks sees anything blue and shiny as a rival that must be attacked instantly. The uptight bank boss arrives in an immaculately polished blue car (you can see the imminent peril) and promptly steps in goose poop. Her team are dismayed to find they are sharing not only the inadequate shower but also bedrooms (and must navigate – with varying success – the hazards of bunk beds: “Lying on the floor in his pyjamas in front of the boss and blubbering because he’d fallen out of a bunk bed and couldn’t get up. It didn’t get much more mortifying than that”), but at least the cook they brought with them provides a steady stream of comforting food. Just don’t ask too many questions about the plucked bird hanging in the larder. The young psychiatrist charged with leading the team-building exercises has a tough task ahead of her, and it’s about to get even tougher when there is a mutiny, the discovery of a hastily-concealed shotgun, a murdered bird and a snowfall so severe that they are stranded in the castle. With a power cut. Thank goodness for the al fresco hot tub, where new complicities will be formed…

The atmosphere is one of wild abandonment, but it is carefully constructed, full of ironic one-liners and to-the-point character sketches (“the boss had a particular knack for making her opinion extremely clear”; “Andrew didn’t speak about his inner conflicts. Jim didn’t have any”) and well thought through to make the improbable and the absurd entirely believable. Annie Rutherford’s translation is spot-on: it has meticulous attention to language in context (I was particularly delighted to see the phrase “a lick and a promise”, an expression I remember so vividly from childhood), yet maintains the glorious mayhem that characterises the story. I also really enjoyed the translator’s note at the end: this is a feature of V&Q Books, and a very welcome one, offering insight into the challenges and resolutions of the translation process. The Peacock is a best-selling, blockbusting book that sits well within the V&Q catalogue and is translated with humour and versatility. If you’re looking for some escapist enjoyment, then look no further.

Review copy of The Peacock provided by V&Q Books

Review: NIGHT AS IT FALLS, Jakuta Alikavazovic

Translated from French by Jeffrey Zuckerman (Faber & Faber, 2021)

Night as it Falls is the debut novel by French-born Bosnian-Montenegrin writer Jakuta Alikavazovic, and follows its main characters Paul and Amelia through a passionate relationship, an abandonment, a reunion, and a final separation. Amelia is the “official” mystery of the novel – a woman so remarkable as to be almost mythical, but whose personal struggles and destructive tendencies render her incapable of fully experiencing contentment. Amelia is an almost unremittingly selfish character; I didn’t warm to the description of her given in the blurb (“one of those people who destroy everything and call it art”), instead preferring later descriptions of Amelia (“the woman who had grown up too fast”; “caught in the walls like a bullet shot many decades ago, a bullet which still pressed on, imperceptibly”).

If Amelia is a mystery, there are also plenty of silences with respect to Paul’s past: we learn that his father had given him this name so that it would sound completely French, a camouflage to go unnoticed, and that Paul knows little about where he comes from other than that it is “a place that he both was and wasn’t surprised to hear regularly invoked as an example of an urban disaster.” There is also an incident later on, when Paul overhears a conversation between his daughter and his father that at first he thinks is baby talk, and then realises is his father’s first language, a language he never passed on to Paul, a language he deems safe for his granddaughter, a generation later.

The blanks in Amelia’s past are, however, more explicit: her mother was more committed to her resistance poetry than to parenthood, leaving as legacy a box of documents that is Pandora-like in its housing of “every horror, every injustice”, and which Amelia refuses to open. The blanks are also the impetus for Amelia’s flight to Sarajevo, as she goes in search of a history that belongs to her and from which she is distanced; yet we do not learn much about this time or her discoveries. Much in Night as it Falls is about what’s not said, and this left me feeling shamefully ignorant: overall, the novel is not as instructive about Bosnia’s recent history as I was expecting, but perhaps that’s my failing for unconsciously expecting that. Just because a woman goes chasing her ghosts in Sarajevo, it doesn’t mean that the book should be about the war those ghosts inhabit. I did, however, really appreciate occasional insights such as this one: “A city shelled for nearly four years, snipers on the roofs, blood in the streets, and, ten years later, cemeteries everywhere, in the stadiums, in the parks; cemeteries and oddly healed wounds; children who would become adults unable to sleep with windows open, or with windows shut.”

Much is left unsaid between the characters too: silence generates some fundamental misunderstandings that are painfully believable. This is also true of the characterisation more generally, which is extremely consistent: all of the characters behave believably, however disappointing that might be to the others. Landscapes throb with a pain that mirrors the internal struggles of the characters, and if Paul and Amelia are closely tied to the cities they inhabit, then it is appropriate that another fascinating character, Albers, makes her living (and her notoriety) studying the notion of the city. Indeed, the supporting characters are easily as fascinating as the protagonists: the other character I really warmed to was Louise, the daughter of Paul and Amelia, whose transition into adulthood is intimately connected with Albers’ fate.

Amelia’s end is announced in the early pages of the book (indeed, the opening line is “Paul was in bed with Sylvia when he found out what happened to Amelia Dehr”), with the means revealed in the early chapters and so it’s no spoiler to mention it here: she jumps out of a window. Despite knowing this from the outset, the development of how she came to that point is full of tension, and is mirrored by a mid-novel announcement of Albers’ fate, the details of which shift into sharper focus later on. I enjoyed this storytelling technique, but the thing I found most interesting while reading Night as it Falls was the slippage between the novel itself and my own expectations. In the end, it wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated: it was very western European in its focus and form, whereas I had assumed it would be more about Bosnia; despite living through historical atrocity, the characters are mostly introspective, whereas I had expected them to be more outward-facing. But why shouldn’t Alikavazovic write about a privileged woman having an internal crisis? It was my own expectation that this novel would be about historical tragedy, and if I experienced some disappointment in the divergence between my expectations and the reality, this is not a criticism of the book itself. The wars in the former Yugoslavia remain a blurred backdrop to the narrative, yet someone who is better informed about them than I am might find more of a connection between the circumstances and the characters. Night as it Falls is a formally exquisite book, each word carefully balanced and with many echoes throughout the narrative, and Jeffrey Zuckerman’s sensitivity to this in the translation makes it worth reading for its formal properties alone. It is also well worth reading for the psychological portrait of its characters, the relationships between them, and the ability to maintain tension when the dénouement has been announced at the start. This is a book to be read for what it can offer in terms of human portraits rather than geographical or historical insights, but no less impressive for that.

Review copy of Night as it falls provided by Faber & Faber

Review: SELF-PORTRAIT IN GREEN by Marie NDiaye

Translated from French by Jordan Stump (Influx Press, 2021)

I’ve been reading and enjoying Marie NDiaye’s work for twenty years, and for me Self-Portrait in Green is something of a landmark: the first time I’ve read her in English. The style is very recognisably NDiaye (a testament to Jordan Stump’s careful translation), and many of the themes and leitmotifs also resonate with much of NDiaye’s œuvre. The surreal encounters echo uses of the fantastic elsewhere in her work, and both the absent, thoroughly disappointing father and the disintegration or dissolution of the female subject, sometimes unconvinced of the material substance of her own existence, will be familiar to those who’ve read NDiaye before. Yet NDiaye is clear that in her fiction she does not write about herself, and so the resemblances between her “self-portrait” and her fiction indicate that however close we might think we’re getting with this “memoir”, we’re only seeing a small part of a much bigger picture. Indeed, Influx’s press release describes Self-Portrait in Green as “a subversion of the memoir”, and this blurring of genres is particularly interesting. Even the title is evocative in this respect: the French “autoportrait” (“self-portrait”) is a more obvious twist on “autobiographie”/”autobiography”, but even if this subtlety doesn’t translate linguistically, we are still prompted to consider the difference between an autobiography, or assumption of a “truthful” developed and chronological account of the author’s experience, and a self-portrait, which captures only a moment or a stage of life.

The narrator goes about her daily life – dropping her children at school, visiting relatives – though this life seems anything but ordinary. It is on the school run that we witness her first encounter with a woman in green, who is standing in a garden beneath a banana tree: in this banal-turns-supernatural encounter, the woman seems visible only to the narrator. The second woman in green is a cruel schoolteacher from the narrator’s childhood who comes to her in memory, and the third is the woman she mistakes for her friend Cristina, an encounter you can read in last week’s post. This extract was particularly interesting to me, as its overlap between the quietly mundane and the asphyxiatingly surreal is reminiscent of other works by NDiaye, a  nightmarish quality of being in a perfectly normal situation and yet everything seeming wrong, off-kilter (at one point the narrator even wonders to herself “is this all really real?”) The sense of being out of focus, or the focus being in an unexpected place, or one person seeing what another does not, is also a clever play with the genre of a written “self-portrait”, the contours shifting according to who is viewing. Neat answers are not given, with the narrator herself often uncertain about what she has seen and how to interpret it: this is a book that pulls its reader into a universe that, if not exactly parallel, is both familiar and destabilising – one that, like a portrait, needs to be viewed from both up close and at a distance in order to come into focus.

Other women in green include the narrator’s rapidly ballooning stepmother, who was once her close friend, a suicidal wife, or the projection of a child twenty years from now – and sometimes (or rather, just once) they may not even be dressed in green… Relationships in Self-Portrait in Green vary from the apathetic and the pitiful to the vampiric and hypnotic, and if the women serve as some kind of mirror for the narrator, then perhaps they are at once the conflicting desires inside her own heart and a projection of the lives she could have lived. They are certainly ubiquitous, and despite their unsettling effect on the narrator, they are necessary to her: “they decorate my thoughts, my invisible life, I need to remember they’re there, at once real beings and literary figures, without which, it seems to me, the harshness of existence scours skin and flesh down to the bone.”

The translation is attentive to NDiaye’s style, even if it lacks a little of her trademark concision, the economical lyricism that characterises so much of her work. The vocabulary is rich, though occasionally a little more formal in the English than in the French equivalent, owing to different fields of vocabulary usage between the two languages. Nonetheless, this is a careful translation that is respectful of the author and shows a deep acquaintance with her œuvre, and it deals particularly well with the surreal aspects of the text (as you can see from last week’s feature). In particular, the black thing that moves too quickly to grasp features both in this early section and in a chilling final scene: it comes from (or may be) the Garonne river, a pulsing presence that runs ominously through the fragments of narrative. Early on the river is described as “brown tonight, heavy, almost bulging”, and the town waits nervously but passively for the banks to break and the flood to come: if there is something inexorable about the swelling and pull of the river, so too the novella wields a destabilising and hypnotic power, hinting at dark things beneath the surface.

Review copy of Self-Portrait in Green provided by Influx Press

Review: HAVANA YEAR ZERO by Karla Suárez

Translated from Spanish (Cuba) by Christina MacSweeney (Charco Press, 2021)

I’m always excited to receive a new book from Charco Press, and they kick off 2021 with a Cuban detective story brimming with lost fame, plot twists, basic mathematics and romantic entanglements.

Havana, 1993: Cuba’s Year Zero. It is “the year of interminable power cuts, when bicycles filled the streets and the shops were empty”, and our narrator (who gives herself the pseudonym Julia) describes her life and the narrative intrigue as follows: “I was thirty and had thousands of problems. That’s why I got involved, although in the beginning I didn’t even suspect that for the others things had started much earlier, in April 1989, when the newspaper Granma published an article about an Italian man called Antonio Meucci under the headline ‘The Telephone Was Invented in Cuba’.” Julia is enlisted by her former professor (and former lover) Euclid to help track down an original document that will prove Meucci, and not Alexander Graham Bell, to have been the inventor of the telephone. The catch: everyone who knows about the document has a vested interest in concealing its whereabouts, and each person suspects another of foul play. Thus begins a science- and rum-fuelled bounty hunt, in which friends will turn out to be foes and rivals might just be allies. Julia’s allegiance shifts variously between Euclid, her lover Ángel (whose true connection to Euclid will be revealed later in the narrative), and a garage-dwelling author named Leonardo – but each of these decidedly unreliable men also has a weakness for both Barbara, the overly friendly Italian researcher and Margarita, the spectre who haunts Julia’s happiness “like a hand moving things around beneath the Ouija board”.

Confused? Don’t be. Suárez will guide you through this labyrinth with mathematical precision and a whole lot of heart. The novel is instructive and meticulously researched, yet the sections in which we learn about Meucci’s life, his ambitions and his ignominy, never feel shoe-horned in; rather, his story is woven into Julia’s, as she gets closer to the man each time the elusive document is pulled from her reach. There is also a lot to learn here about Cuba’s “special period” and the daily deprivations that became commonplace, as well as the black hole of global aid (“the friends from overseas, the Soviet Union and almost the whole socialist bloc, had disappeared off the map, leaving us practically alone, floating in mid-ocean, and with the United States just ninety miles away”). But most of all this is the story of a woman fighting to survive, and of the people who elevate and devastate her along the way.

The style is interesting and engaging: Julia combines her scientific obsession with her social observation (“There’s a mathematical rule: your students’ stupidity is directly proportional to your mood; the worse you feel, the denser they become”; “like fractals, we reproduce the worst of ourselves and aren’t even aware of it”) and frequently uses second-person address, including regular direct questions that create intimacy (“without warning, everything had changed. Absolutely everything. Get it?”; “We were living in chaos. Right?”). There were a couple of details that interrupted the narrative flow a little, whether a syntactical slip (“Why was I at there?”) or a section of switching between formal and informal second-person address that I found confusing on first read, but overall MacSweeney’s translation is a patient and humorous rendering of Suárez’s precise yet emotional style. Character descriptions are amusingly succinct (“Leonardo was one of those people who need no encouragement to talk; in fact his words seemed to be permanently stationed just outside the door, waiting for a moment of carelessness to barge in”), and Julia’s comments on her own lifestyle are as wry as her observations of Cuba, men, her students, and human nature more generally (“I make it a rule never to go to bed with two men on the same day. Unless it’s at the same time, but that’s another matter. The thing is that I hadn’t planned for the night to end that way. It’s infuriating.”)

As usual I’ll avoid spoilers, but I must just say this: the ending of Havana Year Zero is GENIUS. It makes the frustration of all the twists and turns entirely worthwhile, and gave me a feeling of immense satisfaction as I turned the final page. This is an interesting and innovative debut novel, combining scientific research and detective fiction with a generous dose of humour and warmth.

Review copy of Havana Year Zero provided by Charco Press

REVIEW: Cécile Coulon, A Beast in Paradise

Translated from French by Tina Kover (Europa Editions, 2021)

A Beast in Paradise is the English-language debut of Cécile Coulon, and deals with the tragedy and determination of a farming family in rural France. The opening is a scene of bucolic tranquillity: “On either side of the narrow road snaking through rich green field, the green of storms and of gras, flowers – enormous, pale-hued, fragile-stemmed flowers – bloom all year round. They run alongside this ribbon of asphalt until it joins up with a path marked by a wooden stake, capped by a sign reading:

YOU HAVE REACHED PARADISE”

We are invited into Paradise, a sprawling farm whose topography is mapped out for us in the first two pages, until we encounter an elderly lady with a long memory standing in the empty pigpen. The idyll is broken in the final line of this first chapter, in a style that will come to be recognisable as one of the contrasts that characterise Coulon’s storytelling: “one beast comes here each morning, to mourn.
Blanche.”

Then a flashback begins, first to a key episode in Blanche’s adolescence and then to her childhood. Presiding over Paradise is Blanche’s grandmother Émilienne, whose dedication to the farm and its occupants – both human and animal – holds the family together and gives them a purpose: in Paradise, “everything began and ended with her.” When her daughter and son-in-law are killed in a car accident on the perilous hairpin bend leading to the farm, Émilienne is left to raise their infant children Blanche and Gabriel. Her own devastation is rarely mentioned: Émilienne is a woman who raises herself up and marches on.

In addition to her grandchildren, Émilienne takes in a young man named Louis who starts to work on the farm after the death of Blanche’s parents. Louis is systematically beaten by his father and one evening flees to Paradise in search of a refuge that he assumed would be only temporary, but which Émilienne calmly makes permanent. Louis becomes her trusted farmhand, as devoted to Paradise as Émilienne is. Paradise is a haven, but also a succubus, a place that lives inside its inhabitants as much as they dwell within it: Émilienne is part of the herd; Louis’ greatest connection to Blanche is their shared attachment to Paradise, “consuming, voracious, untameable”; even Gabriel, the only one who eventually summons up the strength to leave, is cursed with a black tree that had “taken root inside him in early childhood, a tree watered with fury by his parents’ deaths.”

Headstrong Blanche and sickly Gabriel are marked out as different because of their family tragedy, and have few friends at school. Though Gabriel has an interesting story arc in his own right, the focus is on Blanche: this is a girl who circumstances have “turned into a warrior at five years old.” As the children stumble into adolescence, Blanche’s proximity awakens feelings in Louis that she recognises but can never reciprocate – she only has eyes for Alexandre, the golden boy of the class. This is the love story that will raise Blanche up and then knock her down, and which forms the majority of the novel’s intrigue. Alexandre is wholly undeserving of Blanche, an unremarkable man with “big ideas, big dreams and little words” who has erected around himself a hubris of brilliance that fools everyone but Louis. Yet Louis, whose feelings for Blanche are widely known, is assumed to be simply jealous of Alexandre, and all his warnings go unheeded.

The great strength of the narrative is the way in which it builds up the tension towards the dénouement: in reality, years pass with very little happening, yet there is something compulsive about the awareness that something dramatic is looming. The balance between bucolic idyll and emotional and physical ferocity is also a key feature, and one that is particularly well rendered in Kover’s translation. Deep emotions burst out of careful restraint, and in these moments the expression is exquisite (“Her body remained upright through pure reflex, but inside, her whole soul, the soul made up of all the ages she had been, all the experiences she had had, caved in”). Indeed, the entire novel is sensitively translated, particularly the shifts in tone but also the smaller details of vocabulary: the path to Paradise is “pocked with brown puddles”, tiny insects go “skittering” up Blanche’s arms, one character “soils another with shame.”

The feature I most enjoyed about A Beast in Paradise, however, was the question over who the beast is – and what we understand by “beast”. The word appears in various contexts, and the perspectives on monstrosity are extremely clever: I got entirely the wrong idea about who was going to do what to whom, and so as the events developed I found myself spellbound by a story I hadn’t anticipated at all. Most of all, each time I put this book down I really looked forward to getting back to it. A Beast in Paradise is one of those books that reminds you that you don’t have to “relate” to characters – they can be completely different from you, and still draw you in. In particular, the build-up to the final revelation is outstanding, and after I’d finished reading I was left thinking about it for days. This is a story of ordinary lives and extraordinary pain, and a superb English-language debut.

Review: THE ART OF LOSING, Alice Zeniter

Translated from French by Frank Wynne (Picador Books, 2021)

Alice Zeniter’s multi-generational narrative The Art of Losing deals with the troubled legacy of the Algerian War of Independence, focusing on one family’s difficulties in coming to terms with the unnamed experience and unresolved traumas that are handed down through generations. Multiple historians have noted that this is an impossible-to-summarise period, and so there is a certain amount of necessary generalisation in the interests of maintaining momentum in plot and narration; this is, however, deftly executed, such as in this section from the opening pages: “The plural history of Algeria does not have the heft of the Official History, the one that unites. And so, French writers pen books that absorb Algeria and its histories, transforming them into a few brief pages in their histories … a history in which progress is made flesh, takes shape and shines forth.”

The Art of Losing sweeps through colonised rural Algeria, French immigrant camps, and contemporary Paris, its protagonists dislocated from every “home” they try to inhabit. The narrative opens in the present day: Naïma works in a Parisian art gallery, and carries an unspoken family legacy that gnaws away at her, and which she longs to understand. To do this, she has to go back to her origins, and this is where the flashback that makes up most of the novel begins. Naïma’s grandfather, Ali, owns an olive grove in Algeria. He fought for France in the Second World War, frequents a veteran’s club, and has a successful life until the arrival of FLN (National Liberation Front) in the village turns their lives upside down. Uncertain about the promises of the FLN, Ali prefers to observe from the sidelines, but his inaction rapidly marks him out as an enemy, until he is left with no choice but to protect himself by becoming one.

Under threat in Algeria for real or perceived collaborations with the colonisers, Ali must escape with his family on a boat to France, where he is promised he will be looked after. Once there, “France” amounts to a resettlement camp, cold and inhuman, offering no possibility of integration into the country that is supposed to be their home, because “for these people to forget an entire country, they would have had to be offered a new one. But the doors of France were not thrown open to them, only the gates of a camp.” Declared an enemy of the homeland they will never see again, Ali and his family are emotionally anchored to Algeria and administratively adrift in France: even when they leave the resettlement camp and have a home of their own, their world is restricted to the apartment, the factory where Ali works, and the supermarket. France is for them a France of the periphery, a France of utility, a “trap in which he [Ali] has lost himself”.

In the next generation, the focus is on Ali’s son Hamid, forced to grow up too soon, and to help his parents navigate life in France. Language creates a gulf between the generations, Hamid rejecting his native Arabic as he associates it with the family’s inability to integrate. As Hamid grows further away from his parents, so the gulf between his past and present increases, until his memories become “twisted shards … refashioned by years of silence.” Aware that neither the Algeria of his childhood nor the France of settlement camps and “relocations” represent any kind of promised land, Hamid carves out his own path and rejects his heritage, not passing on his language to his children. This leaves his daughter Naïma unable to communicate with her grandmother; reluctantly, she decides to rebuild the stories of her family’s past, fearing that the absence might turn out to be more comfortable than what she might uncover. Naïma embarks on a return to her origins that she hopes will reassemble the shards of memory and legacy passed down to her, and fill the silences that she has inherited: “between these slivers – like caulk, like plaster oozing between the cracks … there is Naïma’s research, begun sixty years after they have left Algeria.”

As you can probably tell from the extracts I’ve included here, Frank Wynne’s translation is excellent: there is a lot of drama in this novel, and it could easily have turned to melodrama with overly literal translation. Wynne’s attention to understatement is admirable (“Ali dreams of all the things his son might be. Suddenly, a white-hot blast filled with shards of glass sends him sprawling”); the dialogues flow smoothly and believably, and the descriptions are lavish but never over-the-top. There are comic backhanders (“This union brings him two daughters – a terrible disappointment, the family mutters by the bedside of the mother, who promptly dies of shame”) and many examples of impeccable lexical choices (“It is like the shriek of nails on a blackboard”, “They use words that wound and seethe”, “war cleaves [the family] like a ploughshare splitting a mound of earth, scattering it in little divots of farewell”).

There’s only one thing I didn’t much like in The Art of Losing: the title. It comes, of course, from the poem by Elizabeth Bishop; it certainly is appropriate to the subject matter, but the moment when the poem itself makes its appearance felt a little contrived. Overall, though, The Art of Losing represents an important contribution to the legacy of the Algerian war, a meditation on a cultural divide that persists today, and an embodiment of the claim within its own pages that fiction and research are equally necessary to shed light on this, because “they are all that remains to fill the silences handed on with the vignettes from one generation to the next.”

Review copy of The Art of Losing provided by Picador Books