Category Archives: Reading

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi

Bookword has reached the 1970s in the Decades Project with this novel from Egypt. I read Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi when it was first published in English in the 1980s. Like many readers I was shocked by the brutality and suffering in Firdaus’s story. It took its place among the important literature of the so-called second feminist wave.

In the project we have moved from Anglo-centric literature to a novel in translation and originally written in Arabic.

The Story

Woman at Point Zero is introduced as a true story, and framed by a psychiatrist’s visit to a woman’s prison where Firdaus is awaiting execution. The psychiatrist, requests an interview with the condemned woman, but she is refused until her last night. She summons the doctor and tells her story.

Firdaus was born with two disadvantages: being a female and to parents who lived in poverty. She lives her whole life on the margins. She is orphaned while still young, and then taken by her uncle to Cairo where he sends her to primary school. On his marriage she boards at secondary school, which she loves. But on graduating she is married off to an old man, a relative of her uncle’s wife. The old man is one in a long line of men who treat her badly, exploiting her sexually, forcing her into domestic servitude and beating her on any excuse. She runs away and is rescued by the next abuser, and the pattern continues until she is rescued and groomed by a madame.

She leaves this comfortable life when she understands that she is as exploited by the woman as by the men, sets herself up as a prostitute, and for the first time knows financial independence and wealth. But the life still depends upon men, so she gives it up to work in an office, but is betrayed again by a man she fell in love with and who only wanted to exploit her sexually for free, she returns to prostitution.

But this is threatened by a gangster who offers her protection, from his own violence. She kills him. She has reached the point where there is nothing, point zero. Her freedom is to die.

Why Firdaus’s story matters

Her story is recognizable in the lives of all women, despite the novel being set in Egypt, despite being written 40 years ago, and despite her career choice. The abuse is recognizable in our own society today. Women still suffer from violent abuse, and we still struggle with residual beliefs that women’s role is to service men.

At the time it was published in English Woman at Point Zero reinforced everything that the second wave of feminism was uncovering. It was passed around and discussed widely in my circle.

Towards the end of her account Firdaus tells us about the bleak prospects for women to escape persecution.

All women are victims of deception. Men impose deception on women and punish them for being deceived, force them down to the lowest level and punish them for falling so low, bind them in marriage and then chastise them with menial service for life, or insults, or blows.

Now I realized that the least deluded of all women was the prostitute. That marriage was the system built on the cruellest suffering of women. (117-8)

Her feminism is best understood as a criticism of capitalism, supported by Islam in parts of the world.

Nawal el Saadawi

Nawal el Saadawi by Mansour Nasiri via WikiCommons

Born in 1931 at 86 Nawal el Saadawi is still alive, and still speaking out. She was trained in medicine and psychiatry and Firdaus’s story is based on the life of a woman she visited in prison. Nawal el Saadawi worked for improved help for women in Egypt, as Director General for Public Health Education. Women who stand out often become enemies of prominent men and in 1981 she herself was arrested and imprisoned by Sadat’s regime. She was released after his assassination later that year. She worked for a time in the US but has returned to Egypt where she is still in the public eye, for example she was among the protestors in Tahrir Square in 2011.

Early in the novel Firdaus, still a child, suffers genital cutting. The practice of genital mutilation has only recently been taken seriously in this country and appears to be acceptable in other parts of the world. Nawal el Saadawi is one of the most distinguished voices in the campaigns against FGM.

Her second novel was published in1976 God Dies by the Nile, and her study of Arabic women, The Hidden Face of Eve, a year later. In 2016 she explained how hard it was to get her voice heard she says this:

The colonial capitalist powers are mainly English- or French-speaking … I am still ignored by big literary powers in the world, because I write in Arabic, and also because I am critical of the colonial, capitalist, racist, patriarchal mind set of the super-powers. [quotation from Wikipedia, from an article in the New African]

Woman at Point Zero takes its place in my plans to read more Women in Translation (#WIT) as well as in the Decades Project.

Woman at Point Zero Nawal el Saadawi, first published in 1975 and in translation by Zed Books in 1983. 142 pp

Translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata, her third husband.

The Decades Project

The idea for the Decades Project originated in my library’s Reading Passport scheme. I have adapted it by selecting a book from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it on this blog.

Reading passport 315

Previous posts in the Project

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, published in 1969

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1970s

I have not yet decided what to read in September for the decade of the 1980s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1990s (October) and 2000s (November).

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Failing the long read

I have a need to confess something. I don’t always finish reading books. Some readers once they have begun will read on, whatever the quality or interest in the book. But pretty quickly I learned that with non-fiction books you do not need to read it all, and do not need to start at page 1. It may be that the habits of study led me to read several books at the same time and to setting aside a very few.

Here are four books that I have been unable to finish and they have one thing in common.

The Glorious Heresies

This novel has many very attractive aspects including its glorious anarchies: lively characters, surprising and even shocking events, a world that is far from mine (Cork to a village in Devon) and a complex story involving cover-ups and revenge and mothers who reappear and people who go off the grid …

It won The Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize in 2016. But I haven’t finish it.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInnery published in 2015 by Hodder & Stoughton. 371pp

The Luminaries

Another prizewinner, this novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2013. The Luminaries is set in New Zealand, and self-consciously offers a very complex and intricate story about – I’ve forgotten. The zodiac is a framing device. And the city of Hokitika is featured, which I noticed because I once bought a pair of socks there. I was reminded of Dickens and Wilkie Collins when I began to read it. But soon the vast array of characters, the intricacies of the plot, and perhaps the weight of the book made me put it down one evening and not open it up again. The socks, by the way, developed holes and were thrown away.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton published in 2013 by Granta Books. 828pp

A Brief History of Seven Killings

The title of this book is doubly deceptive. It is neither brief nor about only seven killings. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James is set in the dark underworld of Jamaica, violent and vibrant. A great combination on which I started off with much enthusiasm. But gradually the cast and the plot got the better of me despite it having won the Man Booker Prize in 2014.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James published by Riverhead Books in 2014. 688pp

If you have read this far you might be thinking that what these novels have in common is that they are prizewinners, winners of big prizes. But actually that’s not it. Here’s my last example.

Don Quixote

I bought this years ago, deciding I should read the first novel ever written and one with European influence. And I did soldier through quite a few episodes, and taverns and adventures and stupidities. And then I put it aside. It’s been around for 412 years, so I can pick it up again any time. As far as I am aware it has never won any prizes, although Edith Grossman was widely praised for her translation.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, first published in 1605, translated by Edith Grossman, published by Vintage in 2005. 940pp

So there you have it. My dirty little secret is that I get defeated by weight and complexity. It’s not that I never finish long books, only that the book has to be the right ones at the right time and for the right reason and not too long.

Do you think I should adopt the stance of Senator Elizabeth Warren: … nevertheless she persisted? If you think I should finish any of these four novels please let me know which and why.

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The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Enchanted April is a fairy tale, as you can tell from the title and it is the 28th in the Bookword series of Older Women in Fiction. You can find the others on the page Older Women in Fiction Series, above the heading picture.

Four women, unhappy in their different ways, find happiness and love during the month of April, which they spend together in an Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Old Mrs Fisher is lonely, angry and very eager to pick up impertinence in others. By the end of the month she too has succumbed to the enchantments of their month in Italy. Published 95 years ago The Enchanted April remains popular.

The Story

Lotty Wilkins sees an advert for a castle by the Mediterranean, available for the month of April. It is a dreary wet day in London in the years soon after the end of the First World War and Lotty is looking forward to nothing. She persuades a casual acquaintance, Rose Arbuthnot, to go with her to Italy. Two other guests join them: Lady Caroline, so beautiful every man must turn into a ‘grabber’, and a widow known always as Mrs Fisher.

The worst of the four women as well as their best is revealed during their stay. Each is escaping some situation at home and each will find unexpected happiness by the end of the month. The magic is wrought by two factors: the glorious surroundings, especially the magnificent gardens, in which they find themselves and their reactions to Lotty’s affectionate and generous spirit.

The story is told with a great deal of humour, some situational, some in throwaway asides by the characters. All the women change and reveal characters of some depth. What is proper and how it restricts women and their happiness and their men’s too, are the main themes of the novel. For the older women in fiction series I focus here on Mrs Fisher.

The Older Woman, Mrs Fisher

Mrs Fisher is 65 and a widow. It is not entirely clear why she agrees to join the group.

She only asked, she said, to be allowed to sit quiet in the sun and remember. (33)

And remembering is what she spends her time doing, rereading and remembering the Victorian men of letters she met in her youth, her father having been an eminent critic. From their arrival at the castle Mrs Fisher is demanding and domineering. She makes and acts upon assumptions, taking the place at the head of the table, commandeering one of the two sitting rooms for her exclusive use, and judging everyone with whom she comes into contact.

Elizabeth von Arnim describes her as angry, acquisitive and selfish. The old woman uses the excuse of her stick for all her antisocial actions. She is very sure in her opinions about respectable behaviour. She judges people on the basis of their punctuality, whether they speak grammatically, and if they spend their time usefully – meaning in her case reading the Victorian greats. She keeps up an internal and spiteful monologue, and her most common rebuke spoken out loud is ‘really!’ and to herself, ‘how impertinent!’ I think I have met people like Mrs Fisher.

Nothing could affect her, of course: nothing that anybody did. She was far too solidly seated in respectability. (74)

In her own opinion she has avoided the indignity of behaving as if she were younger than she is.

She herself had grown old as people should grow old, – steadily and firmly. No interruptions, no belated after-glows and spasmodic returns. (188)

The reader hopes she will be so shocked she will pack up and return to London. Rose tries to challenge her using reason, but Lotty simply suggests to Mrs Fisher that she will change in time. And gradually Mrs Fisher does change, responding to their surroundings, and to Lotty’s unstinting warmth. Mrs Fisher begins to have ‘odd sensations’, restlessness, time wasting, and moving around without her stick.

She responds favourably to the arrival of men, despite first meeting Lotty’s husband when he is clad only in a towel. She responds to their courtesy, their deference puts her at ease or brings out maternal feelings.

She notices that the old Victorians, being dead no longer have anything to offer her, so she stops reading them. And as she reflects on her situation she sees that her friends’ idea that one should never change is rather silly.

Old friends, reflected Mrs Fisher, who hoped she was reading, compare one constantly with what one used to be. They are always doing it if one develops. They are surprised at development. They hark back; they expect motionless after, say, fifty, to the end of one’s life. (189)

Lotty notices the changes in Mrs Fisher.

‘Poor old dear,’ she thought, all the loneliness of age flashing upon her, the loneliness of having outstayed one’s welcome in the world, of being in it only on sufferance, the complete loneliness of the old childless woman who has failed to make friends. It did seem that people could only really be happy in pairs, not in the least necessarily lovers, but pairs of friends, pairs of mothers and children, of brothers and sisters – and where was the other half of Mrs Fisher’s pair going to be found? (260)

The answer, of course, is that it is Lotty’s warmth that rescues her. She gains Lotty’s friendship by the time the month draws to an end. And Mrs Fisher has been transformed.

The image of old age

The picture of the unhappy and lonely older woman who takes her dissatisfaction out on those around her holds both elements of caricature and of truth. In the end Mrs Fisher is redeemed, no doubt abandoning her stick in the Italian castle.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1922. I read the edition published in 2015 by Vintage 262pp

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Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors

How many novels written in Danish have you read? How many novels by Danish women have you read? And how many have you read that have been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017? I have just read Mirror, Shoulder, Signal and so I can now answer ‘one’ to all three questions.

This quirky novel by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra is the next in my Women in Translation project. It was selected because it had good reviews and because of the shortlisting.

The Story

Sonja is in her 40s and living alone in Copenhagen. She is not settled in her life, and feels that she is not doing very well for herself. Sonja translates crime fiction from Swedish into Danish, but is beginning to find that the work cuts her off from other people. Indeed she feels cut off from everyone: her family in the flat and empty landscape of her childhood in Jutland; other people living in Copenhagen; people she meets. She has decided to learn to drive and to reconnect with her sister, Kate, who still lives in Jutland with their parents.

Learning to drive is the metaphor for getting her life more under her control. There are two obstacles: changing gears and her teacher Jytte, who insists on changing gear for her. Sonja also visits a masseuse, Ellen, who interprets Sonja’s body as expressing psychic difficulties with her life. In addition she also suffers from a form of vertigo.

Sonja does not initially confront the energetic and difficult driving instructor, nor her masseuse, nor her school friend Molly who lives a comfortable and duplicitous life, married to a lawyer but restlessly engaged in affairs with other men and remodelling their house.

Sonja appears to be a bit of rabbit, hiding from contact with anything scary, careful to avoid positions that induce vertigo, from engaging with her challenges. But gradually she insists on her own needs: she escapes Ellen’s meditation group, demands a replacement for Jytte, practises writing to her sister before eventually ringing her up. And in the final scene she leaves Molly on the underground and helps an older Jutland woman to find her way. She has begun to reconnect to her past in the alien world of Copenhagen, she has begun to master driving and she will find her way home.

The pleasures of this novel

At first I found it a little tedious to be stuck with this apparently hapless individual, who got into scrapes and seemed unable to act like an adult. But as the novel progressed it was apparent that Sonja’s life was like everyone’s life, and we all fail to assert ourselves at times.

I loved the visual evocation of the driving lessons:

It’s difficult to maintain boundaries in an automobile. When you’re a driving student, you have to relinquish free will, and once Jytte forced her to overtake a hot dog cart. They’d been driving around calmly enough, but then they’d come to a place where there was a traffic island on the street. A traffic island and a hot dog cart that was creeping forward. Sonja wasn’t supposed to pass, but people in back became impatient and started honking. “Pass, God damn you, pass!” yelled Jytte, whereupon Sonja crossed over into the lane of oncoming traffic, passed and then turned back into her own lane so quickly that she nearly clipped the hot dog man. He was walking along in front, of course, hauling the cart, “You almost had blood on your hands there,” Jytte said. (13)

And her other encounters are similarly vivid:

“Your buttocks are hard,” Ellen says. “That’s because, if you’ll pardon a vulgar phrase, you’re a tight-ass with your feelings. An emotional tight-ass, a tight-fisted tightwad. Can’t you hear how everything’s right there in the words?” (18)

About the fashionable Scandi-noir novels she translates for a living they are all about ‘mutilated women and children…rotting everywhere on Scandinavian public land’.

This is anti-Hygge. Sardonic, amusing and without whimsy. And with such accurate observations of life as lived that I often caught myself thinking, ‘yes that’s exactly how I would like to describe that.’ I have hardly captured the pleasures of this novel. For more about this novel and from the author listen to the podcast from March in the Guardian.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (2016) Pushkin Press. 188 pp

Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra. Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017

Women in Translation

This is the second book in my year of Women in Fiction in Translation.

Fiction in English does not hold the monopoly on quality. A great deal of excellent fiction is written in other languages. If the job of fiction is to take you to new worlds I want to explore those other worlds written in another language as well as those in English. Only 4% of fiction published in the UK is in translation. Promoting fiction in translation is part of my intention for this blog.

Fiction by men does not hold the monopoly on quality either. Promoting fiction by women is another purpose of my blog. Women’s fiction gets less space in the printed media than men’s. See VIDA statistics for how much less.

As books by women in translation form a disproportionately small proportion (about one quarter) of that 4% I have put these statistics together and will promote women in translation over the next year or so.

I am doing this at a time when popular culture favours raising barriers not making connections, across language and gender. I hope you will be inspired by some of my choices.

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Imagination and The Operating Instructions

It’s always good to find someone who practises what she preaches, and even better when that someone is a writer. In this case, it’s Ursula K Le Guin, who writes about writing as well as having given readers some of the most imaginative fiction there is. She combines story and thoughtfulness in ways that enthral children as well as adults. And her key word is imagination. What is it? Why is it so important?

What on Earth is Imagination?

Of course, on earth is where Ursula Le Guin’s imagination does not leave us. She takes us to other planets, other times, other cultures and shows us that our world could be other, different, we could make it better. And this difference depends on our imaginations – her imagination as a writer, and ours as readers (and writers).

The word ‘imagination’ is often used interchangeably with ‘creativity’ she notes in The Operating Instructions, her talk in 2002 to a meeting of the Oregon Literary Arts. But it is worth considering why we have two words, and why one might serve writers better.

Businesses and many organisations like the word creativity because it sounds as if it leads to outcomes: there will be creations. As Ursula Le Guin says

In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to practical strategies to make larger profits. (3)

But imagination is not a means of making money. Imagination is a bigger concept than creativity. In her words imagination is ‘a tool of the mind’, the most useful tool we have.

Why is imagination so important?

People we respect make a great deal of imagination.

Albert Einstein: Logic will get you from A to Z. Imagination will get you everywhere. (Twitter meme)

Ada Lovelace: Imagination is the Discovering facility, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science. It is that which feels & discovers what is, the real which we see not, which exists not for our senses. Those who have learned to walk on the threshold of the unknown worlds, by means of what are commonly termed par excellence the exact sciences, may then with the fair white wings of Imagination hope to soar further into the unexplored amidst which we live. (From her letters, quoted by Maria Popova)

Ursula Le Guin: I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination. (3)

John Lennon: Imagine.

Ada Lovelace suggested imagination was made of the ability to combine things, facts, ideas, conceptions, in new and endlessly variable combinations. And being able to conceive of things that can’t be seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted – those things that do not ‘exist within our physical & conscious cognizance’. And for Ada Lovelace it was the mathematical sciences, the language of the unseen relations between things that required imagination. She saw imagination as essential to pushing the boundaries of mathematics, and within months she wrote the paper on computer science in 1843 that opened the way for computer programming.

The connection to literacy

Speaking to the meeting of the Oregon Literary Arts, Ursula Le Guin made the strong connection between imagination, literacy, words, cultural stories and hope for the world. I find her short piece inspiring. I immediately want to take imagination for a walk.

She suggests that we need to learn to use the ‘tool of the mind’. This is an important idea for our school curriculum, and for supporting human development.

We need to learn to use it [imagination], and how to use it, like any other tool. … Young human beings need exercises in the imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive. (4)

Literacy, the capacity to use words is central to this learning about and to use imagination.

We are a wordy species … Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. (4)

Stories are the ways that cultures define themselves and teach their children how to be people and members of their people. She has explored these ideas in the fantasy novels, the Earthsea Trilogy. I recommend these for an imaginative quest for the significance of words and naming by a novice wizard as he journeys towards maturity and wisdom.

The stories of our culture, she says in the talk, provide us with a home. And therein lies the importance of reading and the understanding that using imagination is a community activity:

Reading a story, you may be told something, but you’re not being sold anything. And though you’re usually alone when you read, you are in communion with another mind. (6)

My great-grandfather referred to reading as half an hour’s conversation with a writer.

At the opening of her talk, Ursula Le Guin had referred to the instrumental view of learning and literacy summed up in this way: ‘Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions’. She ends with a revision of this view.

The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we are visiting, life. (6)

So …?

We must never stop using our imaginations. We must never stop training ourselves and younger generations in the skills of imagination. We must feed it with words and stories, with connections beyond our ‘physical & conscious cognizance’, with joy and those of us who write must follow the example of Ursula Le Guin.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

See also my recent review of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, for the Decades Project.

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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

Last month, June, in my Decades Project I reached the 1950s and the first book from Africa: The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing. This month we have reached the 1960s. Fiction, serious fiction, moved beyond our atmosphere to use the idea of life on other planets. The Left Hand of Darkness is one of Ursula LeGuin’s best known and celebrated novels. In it she takes us into a fictional world where strangers are aliens, technology determines much of life, and no practices, including our deeply embedded gender relations, can be considered as fixed.

The Left Hand of Darkness

I came to read this novel following my pleasure in The Earthsea Trilogy. In these children’s books among the adventures and dragons was the importance of knowing the names of things. Being able to name an object or person or being gives you power over them. Think of the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin from the Brothers Grimm. Indeed the power of naming is akin to the power of writing. To write is to have power over something, to understand it, to manipulate it, to tell alternative version of it.

The Left Hand of Darkness felt like an important book when I first read it, probably in the ‘70s. In particular the idea of a society not dominated by gender difference felt timely. In 1976 Marge Piercy published Woman on the Edge of Time, which explored the same territory of the gender neutral. It is indeed a challenging idea. The novel goes yet further and considers human relations across many other boundaries, some of which are taken-for-granted assumptions. And in the end it proposes the possibilities of loving relationships between peoples and individuals despite huge differences and difficulties. It is as relevant now as it was when it was published in 1969.

The Story of The Left Hand of Darkness

Gently Ai is an envoy from the Ekumen, a loose affiliation of planets all occupied by humans. He has come to the appropriately named planet Winter to test out the possibility of extending the Ekuman arrangement with the agreement of the peoples of this planet. Winter is cut off from other planets by distance, and the humans have developed a different reproductive cycle. They have also not developed flight.

Gently Ai is black, male, about 30 and regarded as a pervert for his sexual characteristics. His cause is taken up by Estraven, the Prime Minister of one of the countries on this planet, but it is not clear whether Ai can trust him. Social practices make it hard for them to play the nuanced game of diplomacy and in a political coup they are both exiled to the neighbouring country. Here with different, but also challenging social practices and more political machinations Ai is imprisoned. Estraven rescues him and they undertake a long winter trek across uninhabited regions of ice, volcanic eruptions, rocky mountains and glaciers. They return to Estraven’s country and Gently Ai’s and the Ekumen’s mission is successful, although Estraven dies in the escape.

The two men develop a friendship as they cross the icy wastes. Their differences are huge: Ai is a man like those from Earth who must not show fear and must not cry. Estraven is skilled in diplomacy and not offending; he also has skills in survival. The two countries have very different ways of going about governance, but these ways fail to protect them from power-hungry people, and political manoeuvring. The different attitudes to the Envoy, to hospitality, trust, criminals, belief in the possibility of things being other (imagination?) are all explored.

Reading SF often feels like overcoming hurdles. I was able to get through the issues of different naming systems, words invented for the planets and for the technological paraphernalia, to get to the heart of the story. And I was moved again on this rereading.

Ursula LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

The author was the daughter of two eminent anthropologists, and this interest in peoples and how they arrange their lives is evident in all her fiction. She has also written about writing (Steering the Craft), and her book reviews have appeared in the Observer. LeGuin is never one to waste a good idea, she added to the Earthsea Trilogy: Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. The Left Hand of Darkness is the first of the Hainish Cycle.

I am planning to explore her ideas about imagination next month, using the essay called The Operating Instructions. It can be found in her recent collection Words are my Matter (2016).

Cover of First Edition

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin first published in 1969. I used the edition published by Orbit in 1992. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

The Decades Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.

Previous posts in the Project

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1970s

I have decided to read Woman at Point Zero (1975) by Nawal El Saadawi in August for the decade of the 1970s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1980s and 1990s.

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Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Oh this book! I can’t have been very old when I read it, perhaps in my late teens. But however young it made a BIG impression on me. First it was written in French. It was about being very cool on the Mediterranean coast. And it featured some very adult themes about a father with very modern ideas bout his relationships with women and about a young girl just coming into womanhood.

I think I believed that this was how my ideal life would be, divided between sophisticated and cultured Paris and the charms of the summer spent in a villa on the French Mediterranean Sea. Such were the effects of Bonjour Tristesse.

Bonjour Tristesse 

‘A vulgar, sad little book’ said the Spectator, noting that it was written by a precocious 18-year old.

I was, of course very naïve, very impressionable and very self-absorbed when I read it. As I read it again I can see that the father was amoral and his behaviour to his daughter plainly unhealthy. Cecile, who narrates the story, was utterly self-absorbed, which was very affirming. Here is the famous opening:

A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. In the past the idea of sadness always appealed to me, now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I had known boredom, regret, and at times remorse, but never sadness. Today something envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, which isolates me. (9)

In the 60s precocious and self-absorbed was what we did. We believed we were the only generation to have ever been young, and we made a thing of it. That sober observer Philip Larkin said something about it in Annus Mirabilis. He was writing about 1963. The French were ahead of us. Bonjour Tristesse was published in 1954.

I excuse this belief in the importance of our generation because we were young and things were changing; we lived through some momentous changes in our social lives, and believed that the future was ours. In the event we had to give way to another generation who believed much the same. And like us they paid no mind to the sensibilities of their parents’ generation.

The Story of Bonjour Tristesse

Cecile has been living for two years with her widowed father Raymond in Paris, leading an exciting life as his companion, despite his many mistresses. They plan two months in a villa near Nice, with Elsa, his latest mistress. Soon after arriving Cecile meets Cyril, a young man also en vacances on the Cote d’Azur, and the two form an attachment.

This blissful idyll is interrupted when Raymond informs Cecile that he has invited Anne Larsen, a friend of his former wife, to join them. Anne arrives and a short battle takes place between her and Elsa, and the younger woman looses. Anne announces that she and Raymond will marry, and she begins to take Cecile in hand, requiring her break off with Cyril and to study for several hours a day in preparation for her examinations. Cecile becomes very jealous of Anne and determined to come between her and Raymond.

Cecile schemes to appeal to her father’s vanity by getting Cyril and Elsa to appear to be a couple. Despite some reservations about her plans the balance gradually tips in favour of Cecile and Anne drives away. Her car goes over the edge of the road at a dangerous bend. Suicide? After Anne’s death Cecile returns to Paris with her father and although they miss Anne, they soon pick up their old lives.

Rereading Bonjour Tristesse

I hardly remember reading to the end of this novel when I first read it. It was the opening sections that really appealed to me. Times have changed. I no longer see Bonjour Tristesse as a celebration of youth, or of the unconventional life of the French intellectual elite. It’s rather a sad family drama in which the mother is absent and her absence brings misery to everyone. But oh, those opening pages, I reread with such nostalgia.

He had rented a large white villa on the Mediterranean, for which we had been longing since the spring. It was remote and beautiful, and stood on a promontory dominating the sea, hidden from the road by a pine wood; a mule path led down to a tiny creek where the sea lapped against rust-coloured rocks. (10)

There are disputes about the translation of this novel. I read the classic 1954 translation by Irene Ash. Some say that it is not a good translation, not least because some lines were omitted. The controversy can be explored in Jacquwine’s Journal in September 2016 (and don’t miss the very long discussion in the comments) and in Rachel Cooke piece in the Guardian called The Subtle Art of Translating Foreign Fiction.

There was a film, of course. David Niven took the role of Raymond, Deborah Kerr was Anne and Jean Seberg was Cecile. It was directed in 1956 by Otto Preminger.

Women in Translation

I chose Bonjour Tristesse because I intend to read more Women in Translation – #WIT. I had scheduled the post for 14th July so it is also a celebration of Bastille Day and all things French. Women’s fiction is always good to promote as it gets less space in the printed media than men’s. And translated fiction also gets a poor deal. And I want to promote and enjoy connections with cultures across the world, despite the popular trend appearing to be in the opposite direction.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954) Penguin. 108pp. I read it in the original translation from the French by Irene Ash.

Over to you

Have you read Bonjour Tristesse? What effects did it have on you? Have you any suggestions for further reading of women in translation?

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The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

The author of The Book of Memory is not afraid of contradictions, starting with the title. Memory is both the name of the protagonist and – well you know what memory is – unreliable. Memory refers to it as ‘the treachery of my imperfect recall’ (267). Petina Gappah is also not afraid to be playful in this novel despite its grim location, Death Row in a prison in Zimbabwe, and Memory’s incarceration for the murder of a white man. Memory herself is a white black woman. As I said, contradictions!

The story

Memory is in Chikurubi Prison, Harare, in post-independent Zimbabwe. She has been sentenced to death for the murder of her adoptive father Lloyd, a white man. What we read is her account written for a journalist. The narrative follows the events within the prison as well as Memory’s childhood and the events that brought her to Chikurubi Prison.

She had a troubled childhood, brought up in a township. Her father works at home as a carpenter and does most of the childcare because her mother has serious mental health problems. Before the story begins her older brother has died, she is not sure how. Soon after, Memory’s youngest sister also dies.

Memory has her own problems, for she has been born with albinism and suffers from the torments of her fellow school students, the beliefs of many people that she has been touched by witchcraft, and her physical vulnerability to light and water.

Memory’s mother is unstable and joins church after church, usually to try to cure Memory’s albinism. Eventually a white man, Lloyd, gives her father money and takes Memory away to his home, Summer Madness. She lives with Lloyd for about 8 years, not understanding how such a generous man could do something as dreadful as buy her from her family. But she now can take advantage of living in the white area, of improved skin care and educational opportunities. She takes a lover, a beautiful Zimbabwean artist Zenzo, but when Zenzo finds his way to Lloyd’s bed she sends an anonymous letter to the police. Lloyd is imprisoned for two weeks. On his release things are bad between them so Memory leaves the country to study in Cambridge. After several years she returns and finds that Lloyd has forgiven her. The country is changing, becoming more troubled. In this heightened context, Memory returns home one day to find Lloyd dead. She is arrested and convicted of murder and begins her stay at the prison.

Questions raised by The Book of Memory

The reader is constantly faced with contradictions about identity and meaning in life. Memory is a black woman, and suffers racial discrimination as a result. But she is a white black woman.

Lloyd is a member of the privileged white hierarchy, but he is generous and liberal and does not share the macho posturing of typical Rhodesian white men.

The country of Zimbabwe is new and trying to move into its future, but many of the people are held back by the beliefs in spirits and fate that dominate, especially in the rural areas.

Memory is a highly educated woman, on Death Row. The Book of Memory captures the particular cultural mix and tensions that run through Zimbabwean society today and in the past.

Readers know that memory is imperfect and can cause the wrong meaning can easily be given to events. People who appear cruel may provide comfort; your family may have been more generous than you know; the violent death of a white man may be misinterpreted.

Responding to the writing

I found that the first part of The Book of Memory moved too slowly for me. Only gradually do we find out why Memory is in prison, about her albinism, about her family and its history and how it was that she was sold to Lloyd. While the framing of the novel leads the narrative drive, it also makes for much repetition about the present-day events in prison. From the point when she leaves her family to live with Lloyd the novel develops more pace.

There is a great deal of humour in this novel, despite its grim setting, and its grim subject matter. Much of this comes from the prison setting, especially the nicknames that prisoners and wardens are given. I am reminded of playful naming of people and places in We Need New Names (2013) by another Zimbabwean, NoViolet Bulawayo. The interactions are full of wonderfully inventive malapropisms. I love the idea of rigour motion, of saying reminded instead of remanded, and the expectation of Amnesty International after the election. And each misspoken phrase points to a truth, adding depth as well as humour to the to-and-fro of the women‘s conversations. The guard Patience is a particularly rich source of misspeaks.

Unlike the others, Patience prefers to speak to us in English. She is in training to be a court interpreter. ‘Irregardless of the absence of water,’ she says, ‘you should make sure the hoarse pipes are connected.’ (29)

I overheard Patience and Mathilda talk about a funeral Patience had attended at the weekend. ‘They tussled at the graveside, can you imagine. They fought until he fell in and smashed his head on the coffin, and just like that he was deceased. I have never seen such boomshit. We were all in mayhem.’ (112)

Much of the conversation between the women is conducted in Shona. The words are sprinkled in the text, and usually it is possible to understand the meanings from the context. Some of the words describe culturally specific concepts, such as the ngozi that pursues Memory’s mother as a result of an ancient vendetta between families. This ngozi is responsible for much of Memory’s suffering.

The author: Petina Gappah

The author (born in 1971) grew up in Zimbabwe and later read law in various universities in Zimbabwe and Europe, including Cambridge. The Book of Memory is her second book. An Elegy for Easterly, a collection of short stories, won the Guardian First Book Prize in 2009. In 2016 Faber & Faber published another collection of her stories Rotten Row.

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah, published in 2015 by Faber & Faber. 270pp. Short-listed for Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016.

Related articles

Literary Hub posted an interview with Petina Gappah in February 2016, Petina Gappah On Zimbabwe, Language, And “Afropolitans”.

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The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron

The orthodox version was that Homo sapiens were superior to Neanderthals, and wiped them out as a result. But this interpretation is now being challenged, not least because modern humans have DNA that can be traced back to Neanderthals. The presence of this DNA can only have happened through sexual encounters, consensual or forced. The view of aggressive encounters between Homo sapiens and other human subspecies must be reviewed. Claire Cameron takes up this issue, imagines the lived experiences of Neanderthal people and suggests a way in which the DNA became mixed.

I declare a connection here: I knew Claire’s husband when he was a PhD student in London. I believe their older child heard him read his thesis aloud as a newborn baby. And later I was fortunate to meet Claire in Toronto.

The story

There are two strands to this novel. In the present day Rose, an archaeologist, is working in some caves in the South of France where she has discovered in the same strata a skeleton of Homo sapiens alongside, even in an embrace with, a Neanderthal skeleton. Rose is developing a new theory about the relations between the last of the Neanderthals and the prehistory of modern humans. Her discovery will help shape her theory. But there is a problem, Rose is pregnant and fiercely protective of the dig. Time is running out.

The other thread of this novel follows Girl, the last Neanderthal of the title. Time is running out for Girl too. Her family are wiped out by circumstances, despite their intimate knowledge of their world and their skills, tools and craft that have helped them survive in the past.

Above all they have had their family relationship to sustain them. This is what Girl thinks of as ‘warm’ and she will miss it later.

It was the warmth that Girl would remember. The night, the specific one she often thought about later, the one that turned out to be among the last they had together, had been filled with warmth. Spring was in the night air, though the ground was still hard with frost. Cold nipped at exposed skin.

When they slept, they were the body of the family. That is how they thought of themselves together, as one body that lived and breathed. The forms curled into one another in a tangle, the curve of a belly rested up against the small of a back, a leg draped over a hip, and a cold set of toes found heat in the crook of an arm. (9)

Girl’s family is already small, when her brother Bent is killed in a hunting accident and then she is banished by Big Mother for her sexual relationship with Him, who is at least her half brother. The weakened family, Him, Runt and Big Mother are attacked by a wild animal and the two adults are killed. Girl rescues Runt, and takes over as Big Mother of this much reduced family, keeping the two of them alive during the winter, travelling to the annual meet of the tribes – the Big Fish. Attendance has been reducing over the years and this year they find that they are alone. Runt discovers some signs on a tree and becomes excited and runs off. On her own, Girl gives birth but the baby does not survive. She emerges in spring, very weakened, as likely to be preyed upon as to catch any meat.

There were only two kinds of meat: The meat that gets to eat. And the meat that gets eaten. (38)

She finds Runt again and their reunion is the start of a new life for Girl.

Rose meanwhile gives birth, despite assuming it will hardly put her off her professional stride, and faces the difficulties of being a new mother. She must learn some of the visceral lessons of the Neanderthal’s lives and learn how to depend upon others.

The traditional view of Neanderthals as primitive and violent and of modern humans as sophisticated and able to overcome all physical limitations is challenged by this novel.

Reading this book

I already knew that Claire writes tense and frightening stories. The Last Neanderthal is Claire’s third published novel. Both her previous books are almost unbearable to read. Her second, The Bear, was long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize in 2014. The reader follows two small children whose parents have been killed by a bear in the wild areas of Canada. I found it almost impossible to read and thought it was great. You can read my review here.

In The Last Neanderthal, Claire has imagined the world according to Girl: her relationships, how she learns from her family, and especially from Big Mother; how she and her family communicate with limited language and other forms of communication; how she and her family make and use tools and every bit they can of the animals they kill. How she can read her environment, through smell, through feeling the air and through noticing other signs in her area.

One function of literature is to take us to worlds we would not otherwise experience. The reader is immersed in this brilliant and imaginative recreation of the lives of the last Neanderthal peoples.

And especially …

I particularly like the revision of the history of ‘man’ which traditionally suggests that the males of the species fought each other and the superior brains of the modern human succeeded in obliterating the brawn of the more primitive Neanderthal. Here is an alternative, with as much going for it as Elaine Morgan had in The Descent of Woman (1972).

Perhaps the extinction of Neanderthals was not due to aggression, but circumstances that did not favour the small family groups. Perhaps there were friendly relations between the different groups, even intimate relations, partnerships. Perhaps the skills and knowledge of the Neanderthals proved essential to the less hairy hominids. Perhaps we should honour the Big Mothers of our shared past.

The Last Neanderthal is an exhilarating read and an imaginative tour de force.

The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron (2017) Little, Brown & Co 277pp

Footnote: when I searched for illustrations for this review apart from the many skulls, the pictures of reconstructed Neanderthal people were overwhelmingly of men.

Drawing credit: Internet Archive Book Images via Visual Hunt / No known copyright restrictions

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The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

From time to time I reread books that have meant a great deal to me. The Eagle of the Ninth was a book I loved in childhood. And I enjoyed rereading it recently for its Romano-British adventure, for the sassy female character and for Rosemary Sutcliff’s skill in storytelling.

I consumed a great deal of historical fiction after this, and wonder if Rosemary Sutcliff contributed to my decision to read history at University?

The story of The Eagle of the Ninth

Marcus Flavius Aquila, who grew up in Italy, has his first command in Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter), in the second century AD. After establishing himself as a leader he is severely wounded in an attack by the local tribes who have risen against Roman rule. Invalided out of the army he recovers at his uncle’s house in Calleva (Silchester). While there he plans to rescue his father’s reputation and the Eagle from the standard of the First Cohort of the Ninth Legion. Marcus’s father had commanded the cohort when it disappeared after marching north to deal with rebellious tribes in 117 AD.

Marcus saves a British slave, Esca, who is about to be killed at the local gladiatorial games in Calleva. Esca becomes the devoted companion to Marcus, and is freed at the start of their expedition to find the lost Eagle.

The story is a quest. They set out in disguise to follow any clues that will lead them to the truth of what happened to the Ninth and its Eagle. Their quest takes them to the Highlands of Scotland, north of the abandoned Antonine Wall. Of course they find and reclaim it, but the quest turns into a hunt as they attempt to bring it south of Hadrian’s Wall, where Roman rule is still in operation. Marcus and Esca become the quarry, but in the end …

Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92) said she wrote books for children of all ages, from 9 to 90. It is true that her fiction does not talk down to readers, is not busy providing information, although she was careful with her research. She wrote many books, some situated in pre-historic times, others in Tudor and Stuart period and is perhaps best known for her Roman Britain stories.

In the Introduction to The Eagle of the Ninth she explains how she brought together the mystery of the disappearance of the Ninth Legion and the discovery of a wingless Roman eagle in an excavation at Silchester in 1866. No one could explain how it got there.

It is from these two mysteries, brought together, that I have made the story of ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’.

I love her imaginative ability to weave adventures from the events of the past in all her novels.

Why I like the book

It’s a good adventure, with plenty of cliffhangers – at the end of almost every chapter. Here are three examples:

But to Marcus everything seemed for the moment to have grown still. For the last comer was carrying something that had been a Roman Eagle. (157)

But Esca’s suddenly widened eyes were fixed on one corner of the cloak, outflung towards him, and he did not answer; and Marcus, following the direction of his gaze, saw the cloth at that corner torn and ragged. (185)

Up over the edge of the spur, three wild horsemen appeared heading for the gateway. (209)

The storytelling is excellent, just what young readers (between 9 and 90) want. We guess that Marcus and Esca will manage to find the Eagle and to escape their hunters, but we enjoy their efforts to achieve these. Both young men are authentic because neither is perfect.

I also liked the representation of the tribes, both near Exeter and the Seal people in the Highlands. The cover of my copy of The Eagle of the Ninth captures the rituals of the Seal people in a dramatic and attractive way, better than your Roman soldier. It is by C Walter Hodges.

Is The Eagle of the Ninth dated?

The novel was published in 1954, and at the time the explanation for the Silchester Eagle given by Rosemary Sutcliff was as good as any other. Archaeology has moved on and today it is not thought to be from a Roman Army standard, but more likely was part of a larger statue and held in the hands of an important person. It can be seen in Reading Museum.

It is a little unsettling to read such an accepting account of colonialism of the Romans. The rebellions are presented as the last struggles of the ancient tribes against the superior might, economic power and civilization of the Romans. I guess, critiques of the British Empire were not yet commonplace in the 1950s. In the same way, although Marcus does the decent thing and frees his slave Esca, there is no suggestion that slavery was the dark and essential underside of the Empire.

Perhaps most of all, The Eagle of the Ninth is dated because the feisty and delightful young woman, Cottia, remains behind to wait for the return of the young men. Today any self-respecting writer would have sent her on the quest alongside Marcus and Esca.

However the novel is of its time and these reservations did not spoil my rereading.

Film

And, there is of course a movie called The Eagle starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bull and Donald Sutherland (2011). I have not seen it so I do not know how faithful it is to the novel, but it is sad that the second part of the novel’s title was omitted, because the whole has mystery in its rhythm. On the other hand, Donald Sutherland seems to me an inspired casting as Uncle Aquila.

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1954. I reread my own 1970 edition from Oxford University Press, which it is still on their list, not only because it has just been filmed.

Over to you

What novels from childhood do you reread? Have you any thoughts on The Eagle of the Ninth?

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