Tag Archives: Les Fugitives

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: Esther Kinsky, GROVE and Jean Frémon, NATIVITY

Esther Kinsky, Grove, translated from German by Caroline Schmidt (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Grove is a story of mourning: the narrator has recently lost her love, and travels to places both familiar and unfamiliar to her in order to work her way through her grief. She visits cemeteries and attends unnoticed the funerals of strangers, observing death and the mourning of others as a way to cope with the pain of her own loss. She notices grief where it might previously have gone unobserved, underlining how loss can change everything in our perspective on the world. The narrator becomes herself like the herons she observes at one cemetery: “guardians of the dead who kept watch at a proper distance, unobserved attendants to the gathered mourners.”

This kind of voyeuristic introspection (I know that sounds weird – it’s the best description I can come up with) wasn’t the highlight for me, though; I responded much more viscerally to the narrator’s intermittent references to her own mourning. There are plaintive comments that describe grief vividly and yet without melodrama: it is acknowledged that there is “no consolation in bereavement”, and that an insurmountable loss makes things that once were simple seem impossible: “Each morning I had to learn everything anew”. Similarly, the instinctive connection between memory and objects is sensitively detailed (“For years these memories were stored somewhere in my head and now they surged up only because here, at this place, I came across the missing negatives that must have been tucked away in the unused side pocket for a long time”), as is the way in which memory changes over time: “As time passed after my father’s death, he became even smaller in my mental picture of this walk along the river, and his suitcase ever larger, into which he had stuffed who knows how much of his life that he had never found a name for.” These glimpses of the narrator’s own emotion were the parts that really appealed to me in this otherwise understated narrative of grief.

The translation by Caroline Schmidt is stylistically beautiful, capturing the wistfulness and the precision of the narrator’s observations. In particular, the descriptions of nature regularly contain a single descriptive verb that makes it clear how well Schmidt has “got” this narrator: “Scattered cyprus saplings buckled over, as if in pain”; “A violent thunderstorm broke the heat that had crouched above the landscape.” There is no dialogue in Grove, or overt interaction with other characters in the present; the narrator speaks very formally (objects are weighted “qua testimony”, a town sits “atop” a hill), and there are occasional arcane phrases (“a languid summer that augured ill”) and uses of syntax (“idle lists of a forlornness that knows not what to do with itself”). This lends a gravity and formality to the narrative that is maintained admirably by Schmidt, whose translation also includes plenty of references to nature that I didn’t recognise even in English (a red-backed shrike creaks in a bush, while cliffs form tuffs on the coastline and a water ditch is lined by canebrake). I always like learning new words, and Grove was certainly the book for that. While it wasn’t “my” kind of book, it did make me think about myself – specifically about how we have to listen to what other people need us to be when they’re sharing their pain. I may not have felt a close connection with the narrator, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the shortcomings are with her.

Jean Frémon, Nativity, translated from French by Cole Swensen (Les Fugitives, 2020)

This short essay from Les Fugitives is the second offering from Jean Frémon and Cole Swensen and, like the first, represents a kind of homage to Louise Bourgeois. 2018’s Now, Now, Louison was a fictionalised biography of Bourgeois by Frémon, who was a friend of hers, and Nativity features five original pieces of art by Bourgeois that she painted in watered-down gouache to accompany this reflection by Frémon on the representation of Jesus in art.

Frémon’s focus is on a painting being commissioned hundreds of years ago: the fictional painter is given the task of painting “a large Nativity on a single panel” for a palace chapel, and must succeed in representing divinity made incarnate. The painting is not solely for decorative purpose: it should not only inspire those who already read the Bible, but also serve as an instruction those who cannot read and write. His artwork must, therefore, make it clear that the baby in the painting is the son of God. Traditional depictions of the baby Jesus achieve this variously by painting a golden aura radiating from him to show that he is no ordinary child, revealing his mystery in the awe-filled faces of those gathered around, or filling the tableau with angels and kings to demonstrate the significance of his birth; this painter decides instead to dispense with the swaddling clothes, believing that the key to showing the child’s divinity lies in his nakedness. This is also, of course, the most basic sign of his humanity, thereby instructing all those who view the painting that the son of Mary is also the Son of God.

Frémon discusses the Nativity analytically, and Swensen translates with great poise, subtly communicating two key things in particular: firstly, that Frémon’s decision to focus on a painter and his mission brings something very personal to the history encompassed within this short essay and secondly, that the women are notable by their absence. The painting is commissioned by a man, of a man, about the Son of Man, but the illustrations offer a different perspective. The five paintings by Bourgeois are made up of red brushstrokes, and depict the more human side of the Christmas story: a child swelling in the womb, a birth, a hungry newborn.

In four of the five paintings, the mother is as present as the child, and these invite as much reflection as Frémon’s prose. Heavily pregnant, she has just undertaken a gruelling journey, and then gone into labour and given birth in a stable. While I entirely understand the focus on the child – whether divine or human – it’s the depictions of Mary that I’m always drawn to, and they could easily have been absent from this essay just as they are absent from much discourse of the Nativity. The artwork by Bourgeois fills this void: among other images, she traces in blood-red strokes a view such as the one that Joseph – as de facto midwife – might have had.

The reflections are compelling and lucidly composed; in contrast the representations offered by Bourgeois are carnal, showing that for all the divine wonder of the Nativity, it is also the story of a first-time mother giving birth in extraordinary – and probably terrifying – circumstances. At the start of the essay, the canon commissioning the painter explains that “we depend on the imagination of painting to prove reality”, and the prints by Bourgeois do exactly that: this is an distinctly humanised view of the Nativity, and an interesting alternative Christmas story for you to seek out this year.

Review: Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, Camille Laurens

Translated from French by Willard Wood (Les Fugitives, 2020)

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is a work of non-fiction that delves into the life of Marie van Goethem, the young model for Degas’ famous sculpture Petite danseuse de quatorze ans (Little Dancer Aged Fourteen). In it, Camille Laurens takes us back to Paris in the Belle Époque, but exposes a sordid underbelly beneath the glittering façade.

Though the Palais Garnier opera house evokes opulence, elegance, and sumptuous fin-de-siècle decadence, Laurens takes us quietly and carefully through the reality behind the curtains. The petits rats, young girls who were sold to the ballet and earned a pittance, were put through physically demanding training routines while barely having enough to eat; if they were expelled because of absence, insolence or lack of progress then they were still yoked to the opera, compelled to pay for the years of “education” and remaining in a contract that was close to slavery. Many were sold in other ways too: Laurens notes that “as soon as the girls reached adolescence they acquired a blank gaze and a look of resignation, entering a life of prostitution without ever having been children.”

In 1880, Marie Van Goethem was one of the Opera’s petits rats, sold with her sisters to the opera house, a lonely girl whose fate concerned no-one. She supplemented her pitiful income by posing for painters and sculptors – including Edgar Degas, “her frail body now turned to bronze” by the artist His immortalisation of her did not, however, give her a voice or an identity, but rather ensured that “she would die less completely than the other girls”, seen across the world and through the generations but never known or understood. Tied in with Marie’s modelling for Degas is a topic that influenced much French literature of the period: physiognomy. This new “science” was believed to enable the educated or “initiated” to distinguish certain characteristics about people from their physical appearance – essentially, proponents believed that they were able to designate a person criminal or lacking in morals because of features such as a prominent forehead or high cheekbones. The luminaries of the day needed scant licence to exaggerate this, condemning people from the lower classes because of their appearance and supporting their prejudice with a “science” that amounted to little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy: “The ruling classes needed to be reassured about their privileges. Small wonder that they clung to theories that ‘proved’ the natural superiority of the bourgeoisie over the working class, the rich over the poor, whites over blacks, and men over women … Social hierarchy was justified by nature itself, with rich white men at the apex and other races, women, and the poor in the lower depths.” Though we may have moved beyond physiognomy, some of Laurens’s depictions of its uses are strikingly and terrifyingly contemporary.

Throughout the reconstructions in Little Dancer Aged Fourteen we gain intimate insights into Degas’ life and artistic process. In particular, Laurens lingers on his commitment to eschewing superficially glamorous representations of ballet in his paintings and focus instead on the rehearsal space, the physical hardship to which the dancers were submitted, showing “not the mythical dancer but the humdrum worker.” However, Laurens resolutely refuses to shine a purely flattering light on the artist’s intentions. She openly refers to his own prejudices – which were backed up by advances in studies of physiognomy – detailing how his exaggerated courtroom drawings of suspected criminals were designed to “reflect theories of social delinquency that he subscribed to.” On the basis of this, Laurens suggests that he did the same to Marie, coarsening her features between his initial sketches and the finished sculpture and changing her face “to give it the hallmarks of a savage, quasi-Neanderthal primitivism, a precocious degeneracy.” This alarming representation of women, and in particular a young woman with no rights, no voice and no agency of her own, may have been intended to unsettle and question, as Laurens suggests, but it also perpetuates the social hierarchies mentioned above, and makes this attempt to give Marie back a place in history all the more historically and socially important.

Towards the start of the book there were a few examples of syntax that stood out to me as awkward, but aside from this the translation by Willard Wood rapidly developed into a careful non-fiction narrative, understated and yet lexically rich, a piece that evokes the Belle Époque while simultaneously remaining contemporary. Overall, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is a particularly interesting kind of non-fiction. It blends an almost academic research (in the acknowledgements Laurens does note that the book is an offshoot of her doctoral thesis) with references that bring us back into the now – and the result is a piece that raises more questions than it answers, but in doing so shows how very contemporary the concerns of the work still are: the classism, prejudice, poverty and exploitation of women over a hundred years ago are uncannily close to our modern experience.

As for Marie van Goethem, frustratingly little about her actually comes to light, for the information is simply not there to uncover. She has disappeared in history, an insignificant and impecunious petit rat who is remembered only the way Degas presented her, offered up for the interpretation of art lovers the world over. If Laurens does not manage to reinstate Marie, or to give her a story or a voice (I was glad that she consciously refrained from inventing these in their absence) she does nonetheless succeed in questioning the place and period that condemned her to this disappearance. Though at times Little Dancer Aged Fourteen seemed more about the artist than the muse, by shining a light on Marie’s absence even as her likeness is tangibly present throughout the decades, Laurens pays the only kind of homage possible to a young girl without a future: though Laurens attempts to discern Marie’s inner emotions as she posed for Degas, to understand her thoughts and her inner world rather than simply the artist’s intentions, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is all the more poignant for the author’s acknowledgement that “what is missing is her soul.”

Review: Nathalie Léger, Exposition and The White Dress

Earlier this year, Les Fugitives published the final book in a trilogy of studies by Nathalie Léger. The first, Suite for Barbara Loden, translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon, marked the launch of Les Fugitives in 2015 and became the cornerstone of their publishing identity. Exposition, translated by Amanda DeMarco, was published in December 2019, and The White Dress, translated by Natasha Lehrer, in March 2020.

Exposition, translated from French by Amanda DeMarco (Les Fugitives, 2019)

Nathalie Léger is a museum curator, and her published works blend biographical study with personal reflection. In the opening pages of Exposition, Léger recounts her decision to curate an exhibition on the Countess of Castiglione, a young and beautiful Italian aristocrat who was a sensation at the French court of Napoleon III. Léger’s determination to curate an exhibition that focuses on a subject rather than on objects is a pattern of hers, and reflects her belief that there are far more stories to uncover about a person than an object. Her exposition of La Castiglione constitutes a discovery of the other that offers a path to discovery of the self, albeit an uneasy one: Léger is progressively consumed by her own project, noting that it has “already surreptitiously gobbled me up,” to the point that towards the end of the text when La Castiglione is imagined as saying “c’est moi,” this could also be Léger’s own voice.

La Castiglione is a figure onto whose countenance is projected the image that others have of women, imprisoned in her beauty and the role it forces her to inhabit. Having herself photographed was, Léger suggests, not a vanity project, but a means to “construct, under the guise of frivolity, what Poe called ‘the chamber of melancholy.’ To hold on, to silently hold on.” The photographs are an attempt to take control of a life shaped by others, and so the photographer’s studio becomes “a mythical space in which her empire silently expanded and where her legend was written.” Léger’s goal – at least in part – is to give La Castiglione her own agency, a legend in which she is the subject controlling her image rather than the object reflected in that image.

The translated title is well chosen by Amanda DeMarco: the French exposition means an exhibition but also an exposing, a laying bare, and this is the more important of the two meanings in Léger’s narrative: the exhibition is a means to an exposition. She muses on what a photograph can achieve – does it capture an essence, or just a moment? The countess, Léger concludes, is just “a mass of absence” behind the lifelong tableau vivant of her captured image. Imprisoned in other people’s perceptions of her, la Castiglione exists only for the gaze of the other, and so her only victory can be that she is not truly there, forever absent from her own image. Léger also lingers on representations of women through literary and visual history, and on what it is to be a woman. We witness her reflections on her own relationships and intimacies with women – particularly her mother, another woman about whom she knows little and who she wants to discover through photographs of times past.

The White Dress, translated from French by Natasha Lehrer (Les Fugitives, 2020)

Is it a coincidence that the first photograph of La Castiglione was entitled The Black Dress? Perhaps. But it is a fitting coincidence, as Léger ends her triptych with The White Dress. This takes as its subject Pippa Bacca, an Italian performance artist who undertook a hitchhike from Milan to Jerusalem wearing a wedding dress. Her journey was part of a “beautiful, and a little mad” performance for peace in countries affected by war or conflict, Bacca “a bride setting out beneath an overcast sky on an improbable journey to save the world.” Pippa Bacca never finished her journey: she disappeared in Istanbul. She was raped, murdered, and left naked in some bushes, her body already decomposing by the time she was found. Pippa’s story is entwined with a deepened reflection on Léger’s fragile and strained relationship with her mother, and the responsibility that Léger feels to both women to tell their lives. Pippa’s voice was cut short by her violent end, her murderer even appropriating her gaze by taking her video camera and using it to film his own life; Léger’s mother is similarly voiceless, having “never known how to say what she wanted, rendering daily life an endless struggle.”

Léger plans to interview Pippa’s mother, but struggles with the ethical implications of her own quest, turning back because “I had nothing to offer a mother in mourning, I was only going to take something from her, devour her heartlessly.” Instead she shifts focus from a mother who has lost a daughter to another – her own – who sacrificed hers on the altar of her marital abandonment (“we were dragged along with her in the wake of her sadness.”) For both Pippa Bacca and Léger’s mother, the wedding dress symbolises their own personal misfortune, the burden and perils of womanhood, and the pressures of conformity.

Léger struggles with the weight of all this sorrow, as she tries to navigate the horror of Pippa’s final journey and the responsibility of her mother’s never-ending one. She claims that “my feeble heart means I can’t carry more than one pain at a time,” and yet she manages to achieve just that: Léger not only immerses herself in her quest, but in so doing creates a symphony of Pippa’s story and her own life, examining the symbolism of the white dress, and the fate to which the actions of others (usually men) condemn women. Does Léger’s mother, denied “words, attacks, justice” in her divorce case and left with only tears, have any more control over her life than Pippa did? Like La Castiglione, Léger’s mother is imprisoned in the way others perceive her, but not truly there: as Léger reminded us in Exposition, “you can die a hundred deaths from not being loved.” And is it better to die believing in freedom and peace than to live consumed by resentment, frustration and regret? Léger does not offer answers, but rather a meditation; in this respect, The White Dress is a culmination of both Léger’s project and her pensive style, which is rendered by Natasha Lehrer in a graceful and attentive prose that shifts unobtrusively from the meticulously objective to the intensely personal. The tension between the story of the mother, confined to an unfulfilled life in a stifling home, and Pippa’s fateful wanderings in a dangerous outdoors, shows that women are still not free in any sphere, and makes a quietly valuable contribution to literature, biography and feminism.

Review copies of Exposition and The White Dress provided by Les Fugitives

While stocks last, order any two books from Les Fugitives to receive a free limited edition copy of the anthology Detour/Détours.

20 books to watch out for in 2020

2020 looks set to be an exciting year for women in translation: if, like me, you’re thinking about what your reading year will hold in terms of new releases, here are 20 books to look forward to this year by women from around the world. From dystopian alternate realities and speculative fiction to a feminist retelling of ghost stories and wickedly wry reflections on modern life, this is an eclectic and exhilarating mix of personal and political literature that includes novels, short stories, fiction, memoir, autofiction and speculative fiction. Dive in and enjoy!

I have a renewed gift subscription to Tilted Axis Press this year, and so I was excited to see that 2020 looks set to be a bumper year for the press, with five of their six titles (their biggest annual catalogue to date) being by women in translation. I can’t wait for the first release, Matsuda Aoka’s Where the Wild Ladies Are, “a contemporary feminist retelling of traditional ghost stories by one of Japan’s most exciting writers” translated by Polly Barton, and am also impatient for the new Yan Ge novel, Strange Beasts of China, translated by Jeremy Tiang (I loved The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, translated by Nicky Harman for Balestier Press and reviewed here), as well as the UK publication of Duanwad Pimwana’s Arid Dreams, translated from Thai by Mui Poopoksakul. You can read publisher Deborah Smith’s take on all of the 2020 Tilted Axis titles here.

And Other Stories continue to fly the flag for women in translation this year: first off, later this month we can look forward to Rita Indiana’s second novel, Made in Saturn, translated by Sydney Hutchinson. I’m champing at the bit for this; Indiana’s first novel Tentacle, translated by Achy Obejas, was my surprise hit of 2018, and Made in Saturn is described as “a hangover from a riotous funeral, a rapid-fire elegy for the revolutionary spirit, and a glimpse of hope for all who feel eclipsed by those who came before them” – it promises to be as electrifying as Tentacle. Later in the year we can expect the next Lina Wolff, Many People Die Like You, a “wicked, discomfiting, delightful and wry” collection of short stories (translated again by Saskia Vogel, who did a magnificent job with Wolff’s The Polyglot Lovers last year), and a new-to-me Salvadoran writer, Claudia Hernández, whose novel Slash and Burn, “a suspenseful, slow-burning revelation of rural life in the aftermath of political trauma,” is in the very capable hands of Julia Sanches.

Fans of Margarita García Robayo and Selva Almada are in for a treat, as Charco Press are bringing us their next novels! There probably isn’t a corner of the internet where I haven’t professed my love for García Robayo’s Fish Soup (2018); the follow-up is Holiday Heart, a novel about a disintegrating marriage, translated again by the very talented Charlotte Coombe. As for Selva Almada, The Wind That Lays Waste (tr. Chris Andrews) was an excellent debut (and won best first book of the Edinburgh International Book Fair 2019); Almada’s second offering Dead Girls is a journalistic novel about femicide, and the cherry on the cake is that it will be translated by Annie McDermott, whose previous work for Charco is top-notch. Charco will also be publishing the debut novel of Chilean author Andrea Jeftanovic, Theatre of War (tr. Frances Riddle), which marks Jeftanovic’s first appearance in English and Charco’s continued championing of women authors from across Latin America.

In March, Comma Press will be releasing a landmark collection in collaboration with Wom@rts and Hay Festival: Europa28 brings together 28 acclaimed women writers, artists, scientists and entrepreneurs writing about the future of Europe in a “powerful and timely anthology [that] looks at an ever-changing Europe from a variety of different perspectives and offers hope and insight into how we might begin to rebuild.” Sophie Hughes edits with Comma’s Sarah Cleave, and Europa28 features a stellar cast of writers and translators.

And speaking of Sophie Hughes, her translation of Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season for Fitzcarraldo Editions will be released imminently! Hurricane Season is “a formidable portrait of Mexico and its demons” that, I believe, opens with the line “The Witch is dead.” Hurricane Season is one of my most anticipated books of 2020 – this time last year I mistakenly thought it was coming out in 2019, so I’ve been looking forward to it for a looooong time and I CAN’T WAIT. (*update*: I just received my copy, and the first line is not “The Witch is dead”, but it’s even better – if a book can be judged on its first page alone then I can say right now that this is AMAZING). Then in April Fitzcarraldo will be bringing us the next Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Place (translated by Alison L. Strayer, who also translated The Years) – and will be releasing it on my birthday, no less! Champagne all round.

Elsewhere, we can look forward to the next Samanta Schweblin from Oneworld: Little Eyes, translated by Megan McDowell, is “a chilling portrait of our compulsively interconnected society”, and looks set to be as spine-tingling as Schweblin’s previous work. Earthlings, Sayaka Murata’s second book, is coming in October from Granta Books: Earthlings continues with the theme of outsiders, presenting characters who believe they are not human, and is translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, who did an excellent job on Murata’s best-selling Convenience Store Woman in 2018. Les Fugitives have kicked off the year with a new novel by award-winning Mauritian author Ananda Devi, The Living Days (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman), in which white supremacy, desperation and class conflict collide on the streets of London. My 2020 pick from Pushkin Press is Tender is the Flesh by Argentinian author Agustina Bazterrica: translated by Sarah Moses, this chilling-sounding dystopian novel is set in an alternative reality in which it is legal to eat human meat. Sounds horrifying, but I do love dystopian fiction so I’m going to steel myself and dive in…

In less gruesome news, here are three very different French-language books to look out for in translation this year:

Europa Editions UK will be bringing us Valérie Perrin’s Fresh Water for Flowers, translated by Hildegarde Serle: the daily life of a cemetery caretaker is disrupted by a clandestine tribute in the “funny, moving, intimately told story of a woman who believes obstinately in happiness,” while Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho, which I enjoyed reading in French last year, is coming from Daunt Books in a translation by Aneesa Abbas Higgins: in this closed-down tourist town on the border between North and South Korea, a young French Korean woman works as a receptionist in a dilapidated guesthouse, and is drawn into a tacit relationship with an unexpected and mysterious guest. Finally, Harvill Secker are offering a new international series of eight books in 2020, kicking it off with All About Sarah, the debut novel by Pauline Delabroy-Allard (translated by Adriana Hunter): this was a literary sensation in France last year, and is described as “an intoxicating and evocative novel about the all-consuming love affair between two women and the ruin it leaves in its wake.”

Fans of German literature will be pleased to know that V&Q Books recently founded an English-language imprint, headed by women in translation champion Katy Derbyshire, and we can expect their first three releases in September. Two of the three are by women: Lucy Fricke’s Daughters (translated by Sinead Crowe) tells the story of “two women, pushing forty, on a road trip across Europe, each of them dealing with difficult fathers along the way”; Sandra Hoffmann’s Paula (translated by Derbyshire herself) is an autofictional account of “the writer’s relationship to her grandmother, a devout Swabian Catholic who refused to reveal who fathered her child in 1946.”

So that’s 20 books for 2020, with doubtless many more exciting releases to come in the course of the year. I’m already wondering whether any of these will make it onto my end-of-year top books of 2020 – in the meantime, happy reading!

Building Bridges: Translating Women interview series 2019

In the springtime this year, I published a remarkable interview with translator Sophie Hughes. Shortly after Sophie’s interview I received a small grant to travel across the UK and turn this into a series, interviewing translators, publishers and publicists to explore the barriers facing women in translation, and the ways in which these might be broken down. Later this year I’ll be publishing the rest of the interviews here, but what strikes me most as I transcribe them is how many ideas recur – explicitly or implicitly – across the many and varied responses to my questions. So I am offering this “prelude” by setting extracts from each interview in dialogue with one another: I hope you find this as fascinating as I do, and I look forward to sharing the full interviews with you in due course.

I am very grateful to all these dynamic and talented interview participants. Their goodwill, good humour and wisdom are inspiring: every single person I approached agreed to meet with me, and gave freely of their time and their thoughts; my appreciation is matched only by their generosity.

On source cultures

SOPHIE HUGHES: “whenever [women writers] sit at their desks to write, the blank page is the least of it; it’s when their page is full that the battle begins”

SOPHIE LEWIS: “Women do struggle to get published outside the Anglophone world; they have so many things against them. They struggle to get published, and to get published well – in big enough numbers and with a big enough marketing campaign behind them – to make an impact. So they then don’t win prizes. Everything is against them.”

BECCA PARKINSON & ZOË TURNER:  “With our Reading the City anthologies, we try to find a 50-50 split of men and women with the authors and the translators if it’s possible. It’s not always possible. There are some countries or cities where we go and we simply can’t find the women writers, sometimes because they’ve been so suppressed, or because they’re scared.”

NICKY HARMAN: “There are very many women authors in China. I don’t know whether there are more males than females. But I know who gets the prizes: it’s men who get the prizes.”

JEN CALLEJA: “There are issues in the whole infrastructure, and then in the publishing industry there still isn’t parity for women being published in English, let alone in translation. And then in reviewing culture, we know that women aren’t reviewed as much as men. So the problem is from the top to the bottom. There are obviously other issues, such as class, so for example if you translated a woman, because of the class structures in other countries you’re translating women who are predominantly upper or middle class: they get translated, but what about all the working-class authors?”

On the importance of translated literature

ANTONIA LLOYD-JONES: “I feel that if we understand another culture, if we read its books, watch its films and so on, then we find out that we’re all very much the same. And to me that’s  important, it’s something we need in today’s world.”

JEN CALLEJA: “We push for translation into English because we need it. I mean that in an existential, soul sense; we’re starving for outside voices.”

NICCI PRAÇA: “I see translated literature growing, particularly if our borders shrink, but especially because younger generations, from the millennials down, are really keen to find out about what’s going on around the world.”

CAROLINA ORLOFF: “All of the Charco books so far stem from an impact in the societies of origin that I hope will translate into the English-speaking society. They bring philosophical questions, universal questions that are important for all of us, whatever the language or the society. And the translators have to understand, have to have a relationship with the story, the book, the universe that they’re going to translate, that is beyond the semantics of the language.”

BECCA PARKINSON AND ZOË TURNER: “People will automatically go for something that they think they will relate to. And if we’re not being shown that we can relate to these works from other cultures across the world, if they’re being ‘othered’ in our narratives, then without even thinking about it people won’t pick them up.”

CÉCILE MENON: “I’m publishing books that I think will have a connection with the previous books that I’ve published. And yes, which I think are relevant to a British readership.”

On barriers

CHARLOTTE COOMBE: “Translated literature already faces one hurdle, its perceived ‘foreign-ness’ which some (not all) publishers and booksellers see as a barrier to sales. Then if you throw ‘women’s’ into the mix, the hurdle doubles in height.”

ANTONIA LLOYD-JONES: “One reason why the translator’s name should be visible is that we’re still having – in translation into English in particular – to change the imbalance in attitude to books that are published in English and books published in translation. People have a kind of allergy to things foreign. And look what’s happening to our world: there are all sorts of barriers going up, but I feel I’m a barrier remover, I want people to feel they can read anything from everywhere, and not have a mindset that says ‘Oh, that’s foreign, so it’s not for me’ or ‘That’s translated, so it can’t be any good.’ Unfortunately that attitude does exist, a lot of people think like that without even being aware of it. So the more you normalise translated literature by having the translator’s name mentioned alongside the author’s, the more it simply becomes an accepted part of all literature. And that should be the normal state of affairs.”

CAROLINA ORLOFF: “That duality – on one hand we’re keen to give prominence to our translators, they’re always on the cover of our books, as well as our copy editors, who are always on our back cover, but then on the other hand, we want to overcome this block from so many readers in relation to translated fiction, that they would immediately understand translated fiction as something that’s niche, difficult, too complex, and we just want to prove that that’s not the case. So it’s a balancing act, that we try to do with every book.”

NICKY HARMAN: “I think Chinese women writers all acknowledge the fact that they have less visibility … there’s certainly a dominance of men amongst writers and publishers.”

On the publishing industry

SOPHIE LEWIS: “I think publishers need to go a little bit further in the work that they do, or in the tentacles that they reach out, assuming that they do, in order to hunt down the women that they want to publish, to give them a better chance of making it over into another language.”

NICCI PRAÇA: “Small independent publishers who publish women in translation are activist publishers. They’re the ones who see that there is that there is a gap in the market which needs to be filled.  I think that’s why I prefer independent publishing, because a lot of it is driven by gaps in markets and people’s passion to fill those gaps.”

CAROLINA ORLOFF: “Independent publishers working with translations have an opportunity to change that balance, to re-balance as it were, and make that balance right, to bring women’s voices to be at the same level as their male counterparts.”

NICKY SMALLEY: With translation specifically, there’s a real issue of women in other countries not necessarily getting the acclaim that brings them to our attention. This is definitely not an excuse, but if those women writers in other countries are not getting the acclaim for their writing that they deserve, then they’re not going to find agents who will take them into English. So that’s a key issue. And it’s a push and pull thing, because if English-language publishers are looking for more writing by women, then you create an awareness in other countries that this is something that’s desirable.”

CÉCILE MENON: “Generally, the books that I take on are by authors who haven’t been translated into English before, have been overlooked. They were considered as too niche or not commercially viable. A prime example of that was Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel, translated by Ros Schwartz, which turned out to be one of our two best-selling titles and was selected for events at Jewish Book Week and the Edinburgh International Book Festival.”

ROS SCHWARTZ: “Independent publishers are essential, because they can make those decisions and there’s no finance department telling them they can’t do it. And booksellers are essential as well.”

On readers and booksellers

SOPHIE HUGHES: “A truly wonderful thing about literature is that it’s never too late to redress the imbalance […] every writer has their time to be read. All of those silenced voices are still out there, waiting to be read. It is still perfectly within our power to do those writers the service of reading them.”

CAROLINA ORLOFF: “We’ve had a lot of support from small independent bookshops, but there needs to be a bigger movement from bigger companies, where they give more prominence to other regions or small publishers, because if you don’t see a book then you might not buy it. If Waterstones, for example, give prominence to a particular publisher, it can have a real impact. So we can only hope. We need to provide a more diverse array of fiction and worlds and voices for people to read – or not read, but our commitment is that they should be there.”

BECCA PARKINSON AND ZOË TURNER: “We need to get people over the idea that if it’s translated it’s going to be difficult. Maybe bookshops and libraries need to give us a bit of a hand in the marketing. You need a bookseller or a librarian or a reviewer to pick a book up and say ‘this is special’ and add their voice to yours. But especially as an indie, you’re going up against much bigger dogs in the industry, and then you’ve got Amazon, you’ve got a lot of people fighting against you. You’re not getting your books on the Waterstones front tables, you’re not on the Amazon homepage, so how do people find you? But the audience is there, and it’s growing.”

NICKY SMALLEY: “Publishers are obviously gatekeepers to an extent, but different publishers have different degrees of power in their gatekeeping, as do booksellers. So a chain like Waterstones has the power to make or break a writer.”

On activism

JEN CALLEJA: “People are still challenging the idea that there is gender bias in literature, and so firstly there has to be an acceptance that it exists. You have people who are consciously opting into publishing women, making those kind of changes, but it has to be a long-term thing. So it might be that for the next year or two people make a big thing of publishing women to push it forward. But people are so reactionary against that kind of positive discrimination without really acknowledging what comes before it. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens in a historical context. So it’s about making some real choices about women in translation, making an effort to work with women translators, using that as a consultancy basis to find more women.”

BECCA PARKINSON AND ZOË TURNER: “If more festivals invited over authors who aren’t from the UK and fought those visa battles, there wouldn’t be a news story about visas getting turned down. That shouldn’t be news, it shouldn’t be happening in the UK, but this insular atmosphere at the moment is focusing on British authors. It’s just so wrong and the opposite of what we should be doing.”

CHARLOTTE COOMBE: “The more we talk about books by women or translated by women, the more mainstream this thinking becomes. And more normalised, less ‘niche’. Women are not niche. But women’s writing is perceived as such.”

SOPHIE HUGHES: “Gender equality to me doesn’t mean always finding an equal number of women and men to read, review, publish, laud. It is about calling out injustices in order to slowly forge new taboos: for example, the taboo of talking over or speaking for women”

ROS SCHWARTZ: “What we can do about it is that as translators, we need to seek out those books and take them to publishers. It’s as simple as that. Publishers are busy people, they get bombarded the whole time from every foreign publisher on the planet sending them books for consideration. And the only way we can change things is by actually seeking out really brilliant books and taking them to publishers. And that does happen, and it is happening.”

To be continued…

With thanks to:

Jen Calleja, translator from German
Charlotte Coombe, translator from Spanish
Nicky Harman, translator from Chinese
Sophie Hughes, translator from Spanish
Sophie Lewis, translator from French and Portuguese; co-founder of Shadow Heroes
Antonia Lloyd-Jones, translator from Polish
Cécile Menon, director of Les Fugitives
Carolina Orloff, co-director of Charco Press
Becca Parkinson, engagement manager at Comma Press and Zoë Turner, publicity and outreach officer at Comma Press
Nicci Praça, formerly publicist for Fitzcarraldo Editions; manager of Amnesty Kentish Town bookstore
Ros Schwartz, translator from French
Nicky Smalley, publicist for And Other Stories

20 books to inspire your summer reading

I’m off on holiday for a couple of weeks, and by the time I return Women in Translation Month will be in full swing. This is an online event that happens every August, and is the brainchild of women in translation advocate Meytal Radzinski, encouraging everyone to read women writers from across the world for the month of August. So I wanted to share some reading recommendations: I’ve selected ten categories with two books in each, so there is something for everyone. Whether you’re a seasoned reader of women in translation or just diving into Women in Translation Month for the first time, I hope you will find something on this list that excites you and makes you want to read more.

Horror:

Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enriquez, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Megan McDowell, Portobello Books
A collection of spooky, supernatural stories that blur boundaries between reality and horror. Ghosts and demons abound in post-dictatorship Buenos Aires, where women defy tradition and expectation. Perfectly crafted short stories, and utterly terrifying in their ability to slip so deftly from normality to nightmare. Full review.

Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Megan MacDowell, Oneworld Books
A frighteningly real supernatural tale; a reflection on – or a warning about – environmental damage, and a terrifying story of power and pain, loss and love. This is a hypnotic novella in which a mother is led inexorably towards an event that will explain why she is lying in a clinic with her life spilling out of her, struggling with her last breaths to save her son from a fate that truly is worse than death. Full review

Experimental:

Flights, Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft, Fitzcarraldo Editions
A genre-defying masterpiece about movement, both outside and inside, physical journeys around the world and psychological journeys within oneself, nomadism, spirituality, connections – with places, people, ideas – and a rallying cry against capitalism and consumerism. Not an easy read, but an extraordinarily beautiful one. Full review

Brother in Ice, Alicia Kopf, translated from Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, And Other Stories
A profound reflection on writing, relationships and self that juxtaposes the inward processing of living with an autistic brother and polar expeditions. It sounds as though it shouldn’t work, but it does: if epic expeditions seem ridiculous – journeys to the most inhospitable reaches of the planet in order to “lay claim” to a space no-one will ever visit – then Kopf turns them around, seeking to understand rather than to conquer, and charting new territory of her own.

Short stories:

Fish Soup, Margarita García Robayo, translated from Spanish (Colombia) by Charlotte Coombe, Charco Press
Two novellas and a collection of short stories present female characters determined to take control of their bodies but corseted in the norms of a society they cannot escape. In “Waiting for a Hurricane”, the narrator despises her home and is increasingly desperate to leave; the collection of short stories “Worse Things” offers snapshots of disintegrating families and bodies; the novella “Sexual Education” is a bitingly hilarious account of sex education at a Catholic girls’ school in 1990s Colombia. Uncomfortably and uncompromisingly brilliant: a gloriously grotesque reinvention of the “anti-heroine”, and a pitch-perfect translation. Full review.

Thirteen Months of Sunrise, Rania Mamoun, translated from Arabic (Sudan) by Elisabeth Jaquette, Comma Press
The first major translation of a Sudanese woman writer. Urgent, thoughtful, occasionally surreal short stories reflecting on love, contingency, broken promises, despair, religion and corruption. Mamoun offers a rich fresco of life that is at once deeply embedded in her culture and universally recognisable: we meet women struggling to support their families, people cast out to the margins by love, by society or by illness, and relationships in many different forms. Full review.

Whimsical:

Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Yoko Tawada, translated from German by Susan Bernofsky, Portobello Books
Three generations of polar bears talk about their lives in this offbeat gem. From the self-reflective memoirist grandmother who narrates the first part, on to her dancing circus performer daughter whose life is chronicled by her trainer in the second section, and finally to the baby polar bear whose first months are recounted in the final part, Yoko Tawada blurs boundaries between human and animal, reality and fiction, love and ownership. Full review

Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata, translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, Portobello Books
Quirky in the best possible way. A woman who cannot fit into society finds her place working in a convenience store, but her happiness there is threatened by the pressure from the world outside to conform to “normality.” Funny and shrewd, this was rapturously received last summer, and if you haven’t yet read it you’re in for a real treat.

Social comment:

Tokyo Ueno Station, Yu Miti, translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles, Tilted Axis Press
A haunting novel about the fate of those on the edge of society: a homeless man dies in Tokyo’s largest park, and finds himself trapped there in the afterlife. His story is intertwined with that of the Imperial family in this sharply observed account of the radical divide between rich and poor. Magical, poetic, beautifully translated, and with a searingly exquisite ending.

City of Jasmine, Olga Grjasnowa, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire, Oneworld Books
City of Jasmine – the title referring to Damascus – is a moving novel of resistance and refuge in the Syrian civil war, following the entangled lives of three young people whose fate is changed forever by the Syrian uprising as they each in their own way oppose the regime and pay the price. A superb story but also a challenge, a wake-up call, a reminder not to be complacent or to think we understand something just because we have seen a version of it on the news. Full review

LGBTQI+:

Disoriental, Négar Djavadi, translated from French (Iran) by Tina Kover, Europa Editions
A sweeping family saga set in twentieth-century Iran, this epic tale of a family dynasty, political asylum and murder is also a personal story of exile and (dis)integration in Europe via narrator Kimiâ’s coming-of-age and her realisation regarding her sexuality (foretold in the coffee grounds read by her Armenian grandmother). During interminable periods of waiting in the relentlessly cheerful waiting room of a Parisian fertility clinic, Kimiâ composes a narrative that is witty, intimate, ambitious, and exceptional in both style and scope.

Tentacle, Rita Indiana, translated from Spanish (Dominican Republic) by Achy Obejas, And Other Stories
A psychedelic voodoo Caribbean Genesis story collides with science fiction and eco-criticism in a furious explosion of colour and poetry. In a dystopian mid 21st-century Dominican Republic, an ecological crisis has turned the sea to sludge and killed most ocean life: an androgynous maid inadvertently holds the key to survival, but to fulfil the prophecy she must become a man with the help of a sacred anemone.  Brutally poetic, experimental, explosive. Full review.

Memoir:

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe, Adélaïde Bon, translated from French by Ruth Diver, Maclehose Press
Adélaïde Bon was a happy, privileged child living a sheltered life in the smartest area of Paris. She was nine years old when a stranger raped her in the stairwell of her building. In this brave and deeply affecting memoir, Bon pieces together the incident that shaped her life, and tries to come to terms with the devastating consequences, to reconstruct the events and so reassemble herself. This stunning book is a quest for truth and for self-love, and an anthem to compassion, humanity and overcoming.

Selfies, Sylvie Weil, translated from French by Ros Schwartz, Les Fugitives
A thoughtful take on a modern obsession that crosses from the visual to the verbal: Weil offers a series of vignettes inspired by self-portraits of women throughout history. Each snapshot describes a self-portrait that evokes for Weil a comparable tableau in her personal memory; she describes this before offering intimate insights of its importance in her life, and weaves in often profound observations on human nature and the difficulties of existence. Full review.

Page-turner:

Waking Lions, Ayelet Gundar Goshen, translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston, Pushkin Press
A thriller set in the Israeli desert: a promising young doctor is speeding along in his SUV in the middle of the desert after a long shift, when he hits and kills a man. No-one has seen him. Knowing his life will be over if he reports it, he gets back into his car and drives away. But a woman shows up at his door: she is the wife of the man he killed, and she saw what happened. This tale of secrets, lies, extortion and atonement is a powerful, suspenseful, electrifying read. Full review.

The Unit, Ninni Holmqvist, translated from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy, Oneworld Books
A compelling and dystopian debut novel: Dorrit enters the Second Reserve Bank Unit, a luxury retirement home where she can live out her final years free of financial worry. The catch: residents must donate their organs one by one until the “final donation”. Just when she thinks she has accepted her fate, she falls in love and finds reasons to cling to life. Full review

Non-fiction:

Second-Hand Time, Svetlana Alexeivich, translated from Russian (Belarus) by Bela Shayevich, Fitzcarraldo Editions
Subtitled ‘The Last of the Soviets’, this is an unforgettable polyphonic witness to the tragedies of twentieth-century Russian history: Alexievich interviews and listens to her compatriots as they talk about the history of their country, and reconstruct a painful past through memory. This is an 800-page tome about human suffering, but don’t let that put you off: Nobel prizewinner Alexeivich is an essential read.

The Years, Annie Ernaux, translated from French by Alison L. Strayer, Fitzcarraldo Editions
This ambitious and innovative autobiographical endeavour is a “collective autobiography” that starts from the premise that every memory of every life – from historical atrocity to TV adverts – will vanish at death, and so we must remember, document, and claim a place in the world. This witness to twentieth-century French cultural history told through the life of one woman is a tremendous, poignant, necessary book. Full review

Dystopian:

The Last Children of Tokyo, Yoko Tawada, translated from Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, Granta Books
In the near future, Japan has closed its borders following an environmental disaster: the elderly are immortal and the children are frail. An old man raises his great-grandson, who may be the only hope for the survival of the young. Winner of the National Book Award’s inaugural prize for literature in translation in 2018.

One Hundred Shadows, Hwang Jungeun, translated from Korean by Jung Yewon, Tilted Axis Press
Set in a condemned electronics market in Seoul, this is both a sweet alternative love story and a chilling horror story. Eungyo and Mujae both work in a slum electronics market earmarked for demolition, and draw closer together as the shadows of the slums’ inhabitants start to rise. Eerie and atmospheric, this is a unique social commentary on the divide between superficial modernity and individual expendability.

Exquisite self-portraits in a digital age: Sylvie Weil, Selfies

Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (Les Fugitives, 2019)

Selfies is a thoughtful take on a modern obsession: in it, Sylvie Weil offers a series of vignettes inspired by self-portraits of women throughout history. Each snapshot describes a self-portrait that evokes for Weil a comparable tableau in her personal memory, which she describes before giving us a glimpse of its importance in her life.  This creates an intimacy and familiarity, explaining the detail not only of the photograph itself, but also of all the concomitant personal memories and anecdotes that the image evokes for the storyteller.

The subjects of the selfies range from milestones in Weil’s life to recollections of incidents that might seem more minor, but they all have in common a quick wit, a keen sense of irony, and an immense capacity for compassion. A heady love affair comes to an end with a big decision and a faint hint of regret for a life imagined that will never now be lived (“I’ll watch the dawn break over the red bricks of Harlem. I’ll fasten my suitcase and put water in the kettle to boil. I’ll hastily drink a cup of Nescafé, sparing a brief thought for the students for whom I’ll never pour tea”); Weil’s feelings of irritation towards a pair of American friends surface when they make a selfish decision about their pet (“When you take a dog to the vet to have him put down because he’s guilty of swallowing a plastic duck, he’s obviously got no chance of making it”); the joy of friendship is explained with the brief yet poignant comment that “she gives me the most wonderful gift anyone can give: belonging.” These incidents are connected to more significant revelations about Weil’s life: her need to belong and her passionate attachments belie hints of tragedy elsewhere in the snapshots. In ‘Self-portrait as a Visitor’ we find out that Weil’s Jewish family fled France in 1941 to escape persecution, and learn that Weil’s mother, despite coming from a distinguished family, is always haunted by the “refugee” tableau and passes on to her daughters “nostalgia for a childhood that was not ours.” Later, ‘Stabat mater’ deals with Weil’s son’s mental illness, and ‘Self-portrait as a maker of idols’ reports his disfigurement after a hate crime: the son recurs repeatedly in Weil’s tableaux, exposing Weil’s helplessness as a mother who cannot protect her child from history, from the present, or from other people (perhaps most piercingly evident in ‘Self-portrait with portrait of my son’).

Ros Schwartz conveys all the atmospheric melancholy in her beautifully measured translation, eschewing superfluous detail and offering the fragments of Weil’s life as just that – never a complete picture, but a series of connected representations. Often when reading translations of languages I know, I imagine the translator grappling with a particular choice of phrase, and sometimes wonder why this one was chosen over another. With Schwartz, every time I start to think “I wonder whether X would have worked”, I have the impression she already thought about that, weighed it up, and discarded it in favour of what I’m reading on the page. There is a carefulness to her work, a commitment to elegance and timbre: for example, in a couple of instances, a past participle starts the sentence (“Erased, the photo I wish I could have shown”; “Forgotten, the selfie with the bear”) – these sentences are not typical of English syntax, yet starting them with a subject (think “the selfie with the bear was forgotten”) would lose both the emphasis and the poetry. Schwartz’s rendering is more controlled and evocative, and you know straight away that it’s a choice, not a calque.

The vignettes offer intimate insights into Weil’s personal life but are never self-indulgent, and Weil also weaves in often profound observations on human nature and the difficulties of life: in ‘Self-portrait as a Chinese mushroom’ she shows how a longed-for friendship can turn on a seemingly innocuous comment, and in ‘Self-portrait as an author’ demonstrates how even a celebrated writer can feel humiliated, always dependent on people buying the books and being polite. Perhaps my favourite example of these reflections is the one Weil makes on selfies themselves, noting that “Everyone takes selfies, it’s a way of going unnoticed.” In the act of taking a selfie, what Weil is photographing goes unnoticed because people think it’s “just” a selfie like the millions of others. But Weil is using this 21st-century obsession in order to do something far more important: she is capturing a moment or an observation, or creating a longed-for memory. She is not just a tourist taking a clichéd snapshot, or a mildly hysterical middle-aged woman obsessed with snapping photos of “three scrawny roses with crumpled petals”, a cloud formation, or a family gathering, and yet this is how she wants to appear so that no-one notices her true objective, or realises what she is really capturing with her camera.

With her present-day observations, Weil reaches back to the past: to the women in the self-portraits, to her mother, and to generations of her family who have gone before. She takes as her point of departure something static, and turns it into something shifting and organic, with her acknowledgement that “the past is real and alive.” Unlike the heavily edited and filtered images usually associated with the selfie, Weil’s purpose is not to embellish but to understand, not to distance from reality but to connect. Crossing over from the visual to the verbal, this book is everything that selfies should be: it is not posed or contrived, not about looking her best or showing an over-the-top perfect life. Rather, it is vulnerable, sensitive, beautifully crafted and exquisitely displayed.

Sylvie Weil and Ros Schwartz will be in conversation with Amanda Hopkinson at the Institut Français in London TONIGHT (Monday 17 June) for the official launch of Selfies: book a ticket here.

Review copy of Selfies provided by Les Fugitives; pre-order your copy here.

 

A Feminist Fairytale? Anne Serre, The Governesses

Translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson (Les Fugitives, 2019)

The Governesses launches the 2019 catalogue of Les Fugitives, and is the first of six exciting-looking titles they’ll be releasing this year. In this short novella, Anne Serre turns traditional fairytales on their head: we have young women trapped in a remote rambling house, a possible curse and an almost certain metamorphosis, but nothing is ever quite what you might expect. The Governesses may be told in the manner of a pseudo-classic French fairytale, but don’t be lulled by this: it is a carnal, sensuous, ravenous tale of desire and observation.

Image from lesfugitives.com

The eponymous governesses are three ethereally beautiful young women: Eléonore, Laura and Inés, and they arrive at the sprawling country home of Monsieur and Madame Austeur, ostensibly to look after the Austeur children but really to invigorate the sedate surroundings: their arrival is described as “life itself advancing.” They bring a uniquely female energy to the Austeur home, a sensuality hidden beneath their ornately buttoned dresses and paraded in the grounds of the house (but never beyond its iron gates). Though Monsieur and Madame Austeur have only four children, a flock of young boys follows the governesses everywhere, enthralled by them, occasionally entertained by them and, in the case of the older boys, encountering new feelings of lust because of them.

The narrator is, it must be said, rather coy. We are invited to view the governesses, to spy on them, to pity them, and to pursue them as they escape from view; the narrator toys with us, telling us that “it’s obvious there’s a secret in their past”, but never revealing what this might be. Drawn into this world where nothing is quite what it seems, the governesses seem demure and vapid at first glance, but don’t be fooled: they are voracious sexual predators, hunting and devouring their prey. There are several references to their teeth, which are “gleaming” and “wet”, dripping at the thought of sinking into flesh. They hunt ruthlessly, capturing their prey in a net that may be either real or metaphorical, trussing him up, bleeding him dry, and using him for their own pleasure alone. So far, so subversive:

“They loved watching a stranger arrive. There were times, in fact, when they liked that more than anything, for as long as he advanced, ignorant yet dimly aware of a summons that was never clearly formulated as such, they were all-powerful. Once he had been bound hand and foot and consumed, on the other hand, they turned back into three poor little governesses.”

The governesses are siren-like in their allure, pitiless towards their prey but, crucially, once the prey has been devoured, they turn back into the form we first meet them in, “three poor little governesses.” Some kind of metamorphosis is at play, and will come full circle at the end of the narrative; for now, the governesses leap naked through the grounds in search of men to conquer, tearing their skin on branches and grasses. They are often described as a single being, and they take on – or partially take on – various forms: they bound across the road like young deer, their skirts rise around them like wings, and at other points they are described as alien, a coven of witches, and the Three Graces. They are vampiric, and they are also creatures of the moon, but at other times they are three flesh-and-blood women who reject their archetypal role: “They had heard about love, they had heard about men and the power they wielded. It filled them with dread.”

Traditional curses are disrupted, as it is not true love that will set them free, but the pretence of true love that will allow them to dodge the spell:

“Oh, if only they could leave! Run off with this man who has happened along, using him to pass through the gates and loving him because he can take them to a place where their bonds will be ever so gently loosed at last. So that, one day, each of them will be able to live and speak in her own name, be alone in the world and free of the others at last.”

So not only are they trapped, but they are trapped together, in a spell reminiscent of punishment (is it too much to suggest even reminiscent of Sartre and his famous “Hell is other people”?) Redemption would not be through love, but through living freely without being dependent on anyone else. Yet the governesses are not powerful enough to escape the curse or spell that binds them to the house and to one another, and condemns them to be dependent on the gaze of others: the elderly gentleman across the way spies on them with his telescope, and his voyeurism makes them feel cherished, “no longer alone in the world”. They revel in his gaze, sometimes performing seductive dances for him and flashing their skin at him when the fancy takes them, and other times sticking out their tongues at him and reminding him that they decide how much he gets to see and when. Still they are not free of their own narrative: their greatest curse is not that they are trapped, but that if they are not observed, they cease to exist (remember this as you close the book at the end).

The translation by Mark Hutchinson seems to capture the spirit of the governesses, these spellbound, spellbinding beings who defy all expectations: Cécile Menon, publishing director at Les Fugitives, told me that Hutchinson and Serre worked closely together, and it shows. There were only a few details (mainly syntactical) that I stumbled over; overall this was a seamless, sumptuous read. Serre’s book, like the eponymous governesses, may seem prim and archetypal at first glance, but is surprising and bewitching beneath the exterior. It is a hymn to voluptuous pleasure, a retelling of classic tales that foregrounds female sexual desire, an enchantment of the senses. If you like dark, decadent narratives, then it’s well worth losing yourself in The Governesses for an hour or two.

The Governesses will be released in the UK on 2nd April; you can pre-order your copy here. Available in the US from New Directions.

Review copy provided by Les Fugitives.

International Women’s Day: some thoughts on Women in Translation

I remember the first time I celebrated International Women’s Day: I was an earnest PhD student, my feminist sensibilities just awakening, and I went to a screening of a film about female ejaculation. Squirming in my seat, I didn’t feel like much of a feminist. Almost twenty years later, I’m far more confident about what feminism means to me, and it’s pretty simple: it means equality. Not being the same, not being better – just being equal.

But simplicity is rarely straightforward. Inequality is so ingrained in our society that it sometimes feels insurmountable, because it’s in every interaction, from the gender pay gap to the knowing eyeroll that follows the most fleeting mention of the words “feminist” or “patriarchy”. I dream of a day when we don’t have to talk about “feminism” or “patriarchy” because we’ll simply be talking about “equality” and “society”, and I dream of a day when we don’t have to talk about “women’s writing”, because it will just be “literature”.

So I have a dream…

… that one day “women” will not be a subcategory to anything. The simple fact of having to talk about “women’s writing” or even “women in translation” makes them seem somehow a subcategory of “real” writing and “real” translation. For now, we need the terms “women’s writing” and “women in translation”, because otherwise we are not challenging dominant discourses that silence pressing debates about gender parity. By using these terms, we are reminded – and we remind gatekeepers – that we still need to work actively towards equality.

One such example of activism was the commitment that independent publishing (power)house And Other Stories made to the Year of Publishing Women, which I discussed with their publicist Nicky Smalley here: in seeking out women authors, And Other Stories not only contributed to diversity in publishing, but also brought excellent literature to English-language readers that otherwise might not have made it through. I believe this commitment was a model for real change: we can’t assume that women’s voices will be heard if we do not actively make it possible, and so if we want equality then we have a responsibility to do so – whether as publishers, as booksellers, or as readers (and if you’d like some inspiration of what to read next, my virtual bookshelf has dozens of one-line reviews of women’s writing in translation).

English-language publishers who champion literature in translation are doing something radical and necessary; those who actively seek out women in translation are doing something revolutionary. Think Tilted Axis Press and their Translating Feminisms project, Comma Press publishing the first major translated collection of a Sudanese woman writer, Les Fugitives and their mission to bring French women’s writing to English-language readers, Parthian Books and their Europa Carnivale series. As Margaret Carson, co-founder of the Women in Translation tumblr (and keynote speaker at our forthcoming Translating Women conference), recently wrote for In Other Words, “remaining unknown is the greatest barrier […] There is no lack of women writers in any literary culture: the question is how to find them.” The answer might be by supporting these small but mighty publishing houses.

Translation, like feminism, is a form of activism, its very etymology a movement. And movements are about… moving. Moving across borders, moving away from stereotypes, and moving towards a common goal. Just as women’s writing is dependent on gatekeepers letting it through, so women’s rights are dependent on our voices being heard. So no more eyerolls at the mention of the f-word, and no more apologies: feminism is for everyone. We all need it, and we all benefit from it, just as we all benefit from translation, which opens our eyes to worlds beyond borders both literal and figurative. Feminism and translation both build bridges, foster inclusivity, and create connections instead of barriers. By supporting women’s voices in translation, we are coming one step closer to the equality that my unapologetically feminist heart longs for.