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The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

I failed. I got to page 93 out of 185 and I stopped reading. I have tried. For several weeks I have picked up this book and read the first chapter. Then put it down and later tried again. Now at the half-way point, ten chapters out of 20 have been read, but I can’t go on. I’ve weighed up the time it was taking to read this novel against what I felt I got out of it. I’ve decided to move on to other books.

The title of this post should really read: The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

The Quest for Christa T

Christa T is not an especially remarkable woman. Like the narrator, she grew up in eastern Germany during the war, and like many in that area, fled before the advancing Red Army. Living in East Germany (the DDR), as normality is resumed, the girls meet again in university and form a loose friendship. The narrator reconstructs Christa T’s life from the documents she left when she died young of Leukaemia.

Part of the novel seems to be about the impossibility of recreating anyone’s life, fictional or real. She opens the novel with doubts about memories.

The quest for her: in the thought of her. And of the attempt to be oneself. She speaks of this in her diaries, which we have, on the loose manuscript pages that have been found, and between the lines of those letters of hers that are known to me. I must forget my memory of Christa T.- that is what these documents have taught me. Memory puts a deceptive color on things.

But must we give her up for lost? (1)

It’s this kind of elliptical yet lyrical prose that made reading it so hard. And the novel continues by exploring witness evidence, documents, and conjecturing what happened in the gaps. There is very little narrative, more a series of events alongside the narrator’s suggestions of what might have been happening in Christa T’s mind and explanations of her responses.

What are we to make of the author’s name being shared with the main character? Why has Christa Wolf embarked on this search, the quest for her namesake, at all? I guess I’ll never know because I am moving on to other reading.

Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf lived 1929 to 2011, mostly former East Germany. The area in which she was born is now in Poland, and when her family fled the advancing Red Army at the end of the war they ended up inside the Russian Zone.

She worked as a literary critic and journal editor and although critical of the DDR leadership during the Cold War period she remained a socialist. She won many awards for her writing. From reading her obituaries and about The Quest for Christa T it seems that Christa Wolf was interested in individuals who make their own way rather than following the crowd. This had obvious implications for the East German state. Her book was not banned when it appeared in 1968, but only a limited number of copies were printed.

A Novel in translation

Well, I am sorry for my failure to get beyond half way. The Quest for Christa T was my October choice for the Women in Translation project. I chose it because it appeared in several lists of recommended reads for #WIT and others had responded positively. For example, on Heavenali’s blog and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. I plan to read another, but more recent, text by a German writer: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2017) in November.

I would like to hear from people who got further with Christa T than I did, and who got more out of it.

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf, first published in English in 1970 by Hutchinson & Co. The translation from the German is by Christopher Middleton. I read a library copy from Exeter Library stacks. Virago also published a version.

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My Shitty Twenties by Emily Morris

In my case it was my shitty thirties. To be honest only certain aspects of my thirties were shitty. I became a single mother and tried to continue to make a life for myself. It was hard, very hard, and it came back to me when I read Emily Morris’s memoir about becoming a single mother in her twenties. It’s a memoir of a much more recent past than my struggles as a single mother.

The pregnant student

Emily was enjoying the life of a student in Manchester at the turn of the century. She had a job she loved, was just begun to find the focus for her studies as well as appreciating the contrast between her social life in the city and her hometown of Southport.

Then she discovered she was pregnant. And there she is: 22 years old, pregnant, studying, working, and in Manchester. She decided to keep the baby.

It has to be said that the father of her child comes out of this memoir very badly indeed. In the first place he lied to her suggesting he was not able to make her pregnant. In the second place, his response to her decision to continue the pregnancy was

Enjoy your impending shitty, snotty, vomitty twenties. Goodbye. (16)

In the third place, he offers no support and no interest once the baby was born. In the fourth place … you get the picture. I suppose he did give her a great title, and contributed a tiny something towards her son.

The heroine, not including Emily herself, is Emily’s mother who supports her as a model mother would. She backs her decision, is interested in how Emily will manage, offers her a home, provides her with a home, goes with her to hospital, including on the night Tom is born and then continues to support her for another 18 months or so. Every single mother should have a mother like her.

Emily herself shows considerable perseverance and determination. Just having a baby is physically hard work. It’s true what people say. They don’t call it labour for nothing. And then, this small dependant being takes over everything, and if you are the sole parent you have to make all the decisions, shoulder all the worry, make all the arrangements, and try to remember your own life in the midst of the focus on the shitty, snotty, vomitty baby.

A Memoir

I found My Shitty Twenties surprisingly readable. There is no self-pity, no mawkishness, no self-indulgence, no lingering over how hard it all is. And it all is. Rather, Emily’s courage and determination to bring up the child, to continue her studies and to earn her living are reported in a straightforward tone and with a combination of good humour and insight.

I was not surprised to read that this memoir began as a blog. The chapters are short, and often end with the reversal of some belief, or a person being proved wrong, or a new insight into life. She presents her struggles with breastfeeding, the mothers’ web site, the consoling parrot, and we understand them all. She writes with the immediacy of the best bloggers, and doesn’t go on too long.

This I know

It’s hard and unrelenting work being a single mother. The rewards are huge. Managing work, the expectation and assumptions of strangers and friends and family is tiring, although often amusing afterwards. There are bad days, abuse by strangers, misrepresentations. There is also unexpected kindness and luck. And in writing My Shitty Twenties she has built a history to share with her son.

I hope that we can expect more from Emily Morris now she has reached her ******y thirties.

My Shitty Twenties by Emily Morris (2017) Published by Salt. 310pp

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Picture credits:

Baby crying Photo credit: liewcf via Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Smiling baby Photo credit: Vato Bob via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

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Tell me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen

A woman who is old is not merely an old woman. She is all the people she has been in her life. Tillie Olsen tells us that Eva has been a revolutionary, a prisoner, an immigrant, a mother and now, at 69 she wants to live in her own way. She rejects being defined as a grandmother. This is the significance of the title. She refuses to amuse the young, she will not tell a riddle.

Tell me a Riddle is the 29th in Older Women in Fiction series on Bookword. Tillie Olsen’s short story was originally published in 1961, and has gained the status of American classic.

The Story

Here is the opening paragraph of Tell me a Riddle. Her desire to live in her own quiet and space brings Eva to a serious quarrel with her husband David.

For forty-seven years they had been married. How deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say – but only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them together, the roots swelled up visible, split the earth between them, and the tearing shook even to the children, long since grown. (74)

They have raised seven children and never had enough money. They are Jewish immigrants from Russia to US. Eva wants to live in quiet in her own home, to decide on what she does. David wants to sell their house and live in a care home, the Haven. They sink into warfare: she is often mute, he is furious.

Then she becomes ill and it is terminal. He takes her to stay with various children and eventually to California, where they are looked after by a granddaughter, Jeannie who is a nurse. Eva dies there.

Eva and David’s relationship changes: from hostility, to distance and to fear of impending loss, with an underlying love. The love survives even if he has pushed her, as everyone has, into the role they think she should play. It’s a complex and hard story.

The older woman

Eva is a woman who at the end of her life tries to live as she wants after a lifetime of giving to others. She rejects, now, the roles people want to give her. But she must confront the wishes of her husband and is defeated by death.

The history of their marriage is sketched in through the story. It is not unusual. Eva has been defined in her marriage by the needs of her children. Eva’s closed, constrained life emerges in their quarrels. Here, for example, David tries to persuade her with arguments about the leisure that the Haven will offer.

“In the cottages they buy what you ask, and cook it how you like. You are the one who always used to say: better mankind born without mouths and stomach than always to worry for money to buy, to shop, to fix, to cook, to wash, to clean.”

“How cleverly you hid that you heard. I said it then because eighteen hours a day I ran. And you never scraped a carrot or knew a dish towel sops.” (77)

He suggests she would enjoy a book group at The Haven. She reminds him that he never once stayed at home with the children so that she could go to a book club. And that she had to ask for every penny they needed, that she was the one required to manage.

She would not exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others. (79)

This last line is repeated in the story. What is unusual, or was in the 1960s, is the articulation of the deprivation of the years when they had children.

When the family are told that she has at best a year to live, everything changes. We learn that Eva was active in the 1905 revolution, and that David found her in prison. We learn that she still has strong beliefs about how the world should be. She loved her children but no longer frets over their lives. And indeed her children and her grandchildren have become hard to understand. Her life is so different. Here’s a scene from a visit to cousins in California.

Jokes, stories, people they had known, beginning of reminiscence, Russia fifty-six years ago. Strange words across the Duncan Phyfe table: hunger; secret meetings; human rights; spies; betrayals; prison; escape – interrupted by one of the grandchildren: “Commercial’s on; any Coke left? Gee you’re missing a real hair raiser.” (106)

Her experiences include hunger; secret meetings; human rights; spies; betrayals; prison; escape. This is not your typical American housewife. This part of Eva’s life is ignored by everyone, is even unknown to them.

As she becomes more sick, she begins to ramble, to taunt David and to sing the songs of her youth. But when she lies in her hospital bed at night and he sleeps beside her in the double bed, they hold hands. As David observes, she finds it hard work to die.

Eva wanted to reclaim the idealism of her youth, which once she shared with David. She is pained that he has lost this vision for the world and that her children never shared it. In the final scene of the short story, David understands what he has lost by abandoning the struggle of their youth.

All her names

David, Eva’s husband, has developed a habit of calling her by names laden with sarcasm. You can almost follow the story by these names:

Mrs Word Miser       Mrs Unpleasant

Mrs Live Alone And Like It

Mrs Free As A Bird  Mrs Take it Easy

Mrs Excited Over Nothing

Mrs Inahurry                        Mrs Bodybusy

Mrs Suspicious          Mrs Invalid

Mrs Orator Without Breath

Mrs Miserable           Mrs Philosopher

Mrs Babbler              Mrs Live Alone

Mrs Cadaver             Eva

Other people call her Mum or Granny as appropriate to their relationship. Her seven children and husband have defined her. Only as she dies do we find out that she is called Eva and and she can reclaim her name.

I am reminded of the doctor in Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, who says of Claudia Hampton ‘that yes, she does seem to have been someone’.

Tillie Olsen

Tillie Olsen by Julieoe via WikiCommons. Tillie Olsen recording Tell me a Riddle and other stories at The Library Of Congress in 1996.

Tillie Olsen was an American feminist who lived 1912-2007. She was born into a family of Russian immigrants and became active in trades unions and the communist party. For much of her life she lived in California. Tell me a Riddle was her first published book, but her output remained small, largely because of her domestic and family responsibilities. She also wrote the non-fiction Silences (1978).

Tell me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen. Published in the UK by Faber & Faber in 1964 in a collection of four short stories. 53 pp

Recent posts in the older women in fiction series:

Kent Haruf Our Souls at Night

Elizabeth Von Arnim The Enchanted April

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International Translation Day 2017

International Translation Day occurs every year on 30th September to celebrate the work of translators in publishing. It’s a good day to celebrate their work and it’s a good day to focus on books in translation. We need to do this from time to time because books in translation do not form a very large part of our reading diet – just 4%. Not much is published, not much is read.

Fiction in Translation

Daniel Hahn is a translator. He suggests that literary translations are founded on these principles:

It assumes that just because you’re from Here doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be reading stories from There. That it’s possible to strip a story of its language, wrest it thousands of miles, re-clothe it in a strange new language, and keep its essence intact – because stories can be citizens of the world, just like we can. That just because something is particular doesn’t mean it’s not universal. (A basic principle for all great literature, surely?) That openness to other literatures – and other narratives, and lives, and worlds – doesn’t threaten our own, it strengthens and enlivens it.

[From Carrying Across, in The Author, Summer 2017].

Only 4% of fiction published in the UK is in translation. Of that 4% about 20% is by women. Partly to correct this Meytal Radzinski who writes the Biblibio blog promoted events with the hashtag #WITMonth: Women in Translation month for August, and encouraged people to join in. This year it was very successful again. There were articles in advance that included lists of recommendations. Here’s an example: 13 books by women writers to add to your Reading List for #WITMonth from the Booksatchel Blog. And here’s another list from Jacquiwine’s blog for the same event.

And recently (13th September) the long list for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation has been published. You can find it here.

These events and posts feature many recommended books in translation.

On Bookword

To maintain the impetus of #WITMonth I announced in August my project to read at least one book by a woman in translation every month and to write a response here on Bookword blog. These are my reasons:

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. 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.

I will promote women in translation over the next year or so and I am doing this at a time when popular culture favours creating barriers not making connections across language and gender. I hope you will be inspired by some of my choices.

Here are recommendations from the last 12 months, some of which appear in the linked lists and posts above:

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan, translated from the French by Irene Ash.

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

I’m planning to read these novels very soon:

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf, (1968) translated by Christopher Middleton.

Go, Went, Gone by Jennifer Erpenbeck, (2017) translated by Susan Bernofsky.

Over to you

Tell us which novels in translation would you recommend from your reading?

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Greetings, Novel Reader

Greetings fellow novel readers. As I will be away in Poland when this post appears I have decided to bring together a small number of books with a simple link. They all have a salutation or greeting in their titles. These titles step outside the norm for novels. Perhaps the authors wanted to make a direct engagement with their reader. But don’t take the connection between these five novels too seriously. It’s my way of presenting some recommendations.

  1. Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

The young Jean Rhys

Sophie Jansen is in Paris in the late ‘30s, having a break from her awful life. She is an exiled Englishwoman alone, out of place in London, and on the way to being out of place in respectable Paris. She has a very small amount of money. The story follows her as she struggles to survive and as she recalls her past when she was a young wife and previous times when she has been in Paris.

Told by Sophie in headlong first person narrative, shifting swiftly between the periods of her life she makes one first realise how often one averts one’s eyes from such people and then how close one’s own life could be to that desperation that makes her declare she is an inefficient human being, unemployable, unreliable and unable to hold herself steady in the world. Sophie has gradually crossed the line to become a woman without even her sex to sell.

Some of the writing is surreal, some captures the desperation of the life led in isolation, and some is joyful. AL Kennedy describes ‘her eloquence in the language of human sexual transactions, chilling, cynical and surprisingly moving’. I reviewed this novel on Bookword here.

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys (1939) Penguin.

  1. Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

This novel is set in the 1950s during the summer on the Cote d’Azure. Cecile has been living for 2 years with her widower father Raymond in Paris, leading life as his companion, despite his many mistresses. They spend two months in a villa near Nice, with Elsa, his latest mistress. Then Raymond informs Cecile that he has invited Anne Larsen, a friend of his former wife, to join them. Elsa moves on and Cecile becomes determined to come between her father and Anne because they plan to marry.

Cecile schemes to appeal to her father’s vanity and gradually the balance tips in her favour and Anne drives away. Her car goes over the edge at a dangerous bend. Suicide? After Anne’s death Cecile returns to Paris with her father and although they miss Anne, soon they pick up their old lives. This novel was reviewed recently on this blog, and many readers commented on their affection for it. You can read it here.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954) Penguin. Translated from the French by Irene Ash.

  1. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

The narrator is an old man exploring what he might have done differently in his life, in particular in relation to a friendship during his school days.

The narrator’s mother died when he was a young child and he is agonised by the loss. His father never engages him about what it means. A kind stepmother is acquired after the necessary 3 years. At school he is bullied and continues to suffer. Playing on the building site of his new house, he meets Cletus Smith, whose parents have separated, and whose mother’s lover has been shot by his father. The boys do not reveal their private agonies to each other. And then Cletus disappears. A couple of years later, when the narrator has moved to a high school in Chicago, he and Cletus pass in the corridor, but neither boy acknowledges the other. The narrator wonders what if …?

Recommended by Heavenali on her blog, which you can find here.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (1980) Vintage.

  1. My name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

This novel is an elaborate murder mystery, a historical fiction, a love story and an exploration of the cross-cultural influences of the late 16th century between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. It’s like a very richly coloured and embroidered cloth.

A gilder is murdered, and the trail of enquiry involves the elaborate exploration of the workshops, religious outcasts, female roles and the Sultan’s treasury in 1590s Istanbul. The narrative is passed from one person to another, to a colour, to Satan, to at least two people as they die. The richness of the text is its main attraction: in the end the identity of the murderer is not so significant as his reasons for the killing.

My name is Red by Orhan Pamuk (2001) Faber & Faber. Translated from the Turkish by Erdağ Göknar.

  1. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016

Lucy is remembering being ill in New York with complications after appendicitis, missing her husband and young girls, looking at the Chrysler building through her window. Her mother, not seen for ten years, comes to visit her from Illinois. Her mother has no sophistication, never been on an airplane before, stays sleeping in the chair in the hotel room for 5 days and night and then leaves.

The women talk, and the relationship of the two is revealed by their conversation and by the gaps in it we see that Lucy’s uncertain identity and sense of self are built from her relationships, especially with her parents, in poverty (cultural as well as financial), and with the city of New York.

My appreciation of this novel appeared on Bookword last year; you can read it here.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016) Penguin.

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Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner

We have reached the 1980s in the Decades Project. This month’s choice is a prize-winning novel. I read Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner when it was first published in 1984 and went on to read most of Anita Brookner’s 24 novels, She died last year. Hotel Du Lac explores the question asked by the main character, Edith Hope, ‘what behaviour most becomes a woman’?

In this novel marriage is not the answer for Edith Hope. We can note that her circumstances are very different from Lily Bart who featured in the first novel in the decade project: The House of Mirth. Lily had no means of support unless she married, but Edith in Hotel Du Lac has choices, including marriage, which she rejects.

The Story

Edith Hope, a writer of romantic fiction, has been dispatched by her friends to the hotel in Switzerland. Her friends want her to reflect on her disgraceful behaviour and come back more grown up and responsible. For her own part she is determined not to change, but to sit out her exile writing her next novel. She is 39, it is the end of the season and there are only a few guests left in the hotel.

In the hotel she meets Mrs Pusey and her daughter Jennifer, both of whom trade on good looks and extreme wealth to indulge their selfishness. We know this from their shopping expeditions and the attention they demand from everyone. Then there is Monica who is about Edith’s age, and a very tall and willowy woman with an annoying dog. She is at the hotel to sort out her eating problems for she must make herself fit to conceive the heir her husband wishes for. Old Madame de Bonneuil is parked in the hotel during the season for the convenience of her son’s wife, who does not want the deaf old lady at home. The old lady bears this exile in silence, although he is the only thing of interest in her life.

Into this mix of people comes Phillip Neville, a perspicacious man, who sees in Edith the opportunity to acquire a wife so that he is not embarrassed by the loss of his previous wife. His proposal is about as unacceptable as Mr Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. It’s all about him and his knowledge that marriage provides what society thinks women want. There is an irony for Edith writes about traditional romantic ideas in her novels.

It emerges that before she arrived at the hotel, Edith had accepted a proposal from a very kind, gentle but very boring man, and whom she lets down at the last minute.

Despite these examples and choices Edith returns to the secret love affair that has dominated her life for years. She has understood more about the choices available to women, and although changed by her time at the hotel she chooses to return.

The novel

One of the strengths of Anita Brookner’s writing is her description of places. Here is the opening:

From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey. It was to be supposed that beyond the grey garden, which seemed to sprout nothing but the stiffish leaves of some unfamiliar plant, lay the vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore, and beyond that, in imagination only, yet verified by the brochure, the peak of Dent d’Oche, on which snow might already be slightly and silently falling. (7)

She has complete control of that very long second sentence, and follows it with another even longer sentence that describes the small town in which the hotel is to be found. A few paragraphs further on Edith, newly arrived at the hotel, contemplates her room.

Turning her back on the toneless expanse beyond the window, she contemplated the room, which was the colour of over-cooked veal: veal-coloured carpet and curtains, high, narrow bed with veal-coloured counterpane, small austere table with a correct chair placed tightly underneath it, a narrow, costive wardrobe, and, at a very great height above her head, a tiny brass chandelier, which, she knew, would eventually twinkle drearily with eight weak bulbs. (9)

Anita Brookner is famous for her controlled prose, but she includes humour and daring, for example when she in describes the bedroom as veal coloured.

She also sketches characters with deftness, so that even if they are mysterious, or something is not yet explained, one sees the individual emerge. Here is Madame de Bonneuil taking tea in the salon.

The pug-faced lady was eating grimly, her legs wide apart, crumbs falling unnoticed on to her lap. (17)

Again humour lurks underneath Anita Brookner’s sentences. Frequently it is her choice of words: the slightly and silently falling snow, the costive wardrobe, the veal, eating grimly. And here is Monica with the coffee pot: she poured it out largely and carelessly. (70)

There are advantages to containing the action of a novel within a hotel, and it is a device used by other writers. I blogged about this in a post called Five Novels set in Hotels: here.

A novel about the single woman

Edith Hope (novelists get to decide the names of their characters) chooses the single life, not because she is desperate – she has rejected two offers of marriage. It is because she is honest and this novel celebrates the quiet courage of the single woman, as do so many of Anita’s Brookner’s novels. For more on this idea see the appreciation by Christina Patterson: Anita Brookner’s subversive message – the courage of the single life deserves respect.

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner (1984) Penguin.184 pp. Booker Prize Winner in 1984

Note: A tv adaptation was made of the novel in 1986 by the BBC.

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

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, published in 1975

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: 1990s

I will be reading The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx (published in 1993) in October for the decade of the 1980s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 2000s (November) and 2010s (December).

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Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

A dark tale, inventively told, chilling because the reader is prevented from pausing. The pages must be turned, the end must be encountered. Fever Dream is my choice for September’s Women in Translation, written by the Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin and translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. It was also chosen for the short list of the Man Booker International Prize in 2017.

Disturbing

The framing of this novel requires the reader’s attention in order to make sense of what is happening. Amanda is lying in bed in a clinic, and she is dying. Beside her is David, a young boy. The narrative is told through their conversation. David’s contributions are in Italics. Here is the opening paragraph.

They’re like worms.

What kind of worms?

Like worms, all over.

It’s the boy who’s talking, murmuring into my ear. I am the one asking questions.

Worms in the body?

Yes, in the body.

Earthworms?

No, another kind of worms.

It’s dark and I can’t see. The sheets are rough, they bunch under my body. I can’t move, but I’m talking.

It’s the worms. You have to be patient and wait. And while we wait, we have to find the exact moment when the worms came into being.

Why?

Because it’s important, it’s very important for all of us. (1-2)

So Amanda retells the story of how she came to be in the emergency clinic, prompted by the boy, who frequently draws attention to the important thing.

The story begins when Amanda met David’s mother, Carla. But she must report what Carla told her about what happened to David before that. The reader must follow these strands, the conversation at the bedside, and the story of how Amanda became ill and Carla’s story about David. And there is another player, Nina. Nina is Amanda’s daughter, and in danger.

Concentrating hard, the reader discovers that Amanda and her daughter Nina were on holiday in the area when they were befriended by Carla. But Carla has a dark story about her son David and the reader must stay in this complex narration to find out about the important thing.

There is transmigration, unexplained events involving horses, plastic liquid containers, sandals, pools and streams, witches …

Rescue Distance

It’s a disturbing story, playing on one’s fears as a parent. Amanda is always aware of what she calls her rescue distance from Nina.

I always imagine the worst-case scenario. Right now, for instance, I’m calculating how long it would take me to jump out of the car and reach Nina if she suddenly ran and leapt into the pool. I call it the “rescue distance”: that’s what I’ve named the variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it, though I always risk more than I should. (16)

The concept is well known in Argentina. Indeed the title of the novel in Spanish is Distanca de Rescate. I think it would be a better English title as well: Rescue Distance. Fever Dream implies an ending that goes, and then I woke up and it was all just a terrible dream.

Amanda is not able to stay within rescue distance of her daughter for, as she tells David, the sequence of events result in the condition that brings her to the clinic. The anxieties, fears, terrors of being a parent drive this novella.

The darker secret is not the monstrous child, the woman with healing powers in the green house, the horse that escapes or the husbands. The frequent mention of water is the clue.

The important thing is that David was poisoned by the water in the stream and Amanda and Nina were soaked while they watched men unload water in plastic drums. As David says,

It’s a very bad thing. (73)

The world is being poisoned. Here is Amanda’s husband returning to the city, and the final sentences of the novella.

He doesn’t look back. He doesn’t see the soy field, the streams that crisscross the dry plots of land, the miles of open fields empty of livestock, the tenements and factories as he reaches the city. He doesn’t notice that the return trip has grown slower and slower. That there are too many cars, cars and more cars covering every asphalt nerve. Or that the transit is stalled, paralysed for hours, smoking and effervenescent. He doesn’t see the important thing: the rope finally slack, like a lit fuse, somewhere; the motionless scourge about to erupt. (151)

Reading this novel is not a pleasant experience. But its twisted narration when unpicked reveals a brutal truth, an inconvenient truth as Al Gore called it, that we may not be able escape.

Some links to reviewers’ comments

Here’s a review in the New Yorker by Jia Tolentino from January this year: The Sick Thrill of “Fever Dream”.

And here’s a review on the blog Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The Guardian review of Fever Dreams, by Chris Power, expressed admiration for the craft of the writer in cranking up the tension and its clever structure.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, published by Oneworld Publication in 2017. 151pp. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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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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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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