Category Archives: translation

Books that nearly didn’t make it

Writers’ manuscripts sometimes get lost, destroyed, abandoned or otherwise prevented from being published. Here is a selection of publications that nearly didn’t happen, and one that got away. 

Writers write for others to read, so the risks and efforts involved in getting their words published can be enormous. They have often suffered up to this point for their views and yet they are compelled to find a way get the book into print.

  • Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
  • The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta
  • My Career goes Bung by Miles Franklin
  • The Third Reich of Dreams by Charlotte Beradt
  • Grey is the Color of Hope by Irna Ratushinskaya
  • No Friend but the Mountain by Behrouz Boochani

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

Irene Nemirovsky was a Russian émigré, who was a well-established novelist in France before the war. This book was written during the occupation by Germany, in 1940-41. Irene Nemirovsky was arrested in July 1942 and taken to Auschwitz and died almost immediately of typhus. Her two daughters were in hiding for the rest of the war, on the move all the time and hunted by the authorities. 

It was Denise who put it [the manuscript] into a suitcase as she and her sister fled Issy L’Evêque. She had often watched her mother writing – in tiny handwriting to save ink and paper – in a large leatherbound notebook. She took it as a memento of her mother. The suitcase accompanied Denise and Elisabeth from one precarious hiding place to another. After the war, they couldn’t bring themselves to read the notebook – having it was enough.  … Many years passed … (402. Myriam Anissimov, preface to French edition}

The manuscript of the two novellas in this unfinished suite was unopened until the late 1990s when the author’s daughter, Denise, was about to give the notebook to the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine, dedicated to documenting memories of the war.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, published in French in 2004 and translated by Sandra Smith for the English version, published in 2006 by Vintage. 403pp

The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta

Buchi Emecheta followed her husband from Nigeria in 1962 to study in London. It was not a happy marriage. He burned the manuscript of her first book, apparently jealous of the attention she gave it and to hurt the writer. Not surprisingly, she decided to leave him, taking the children. She had to earn her living and continued to gain degrees and to write over the next few years. She rewrote the novel, The Bride Price, which was published by Allison & Busby, a company that promoted African writing in 1976. 

The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta, first published in 1976, there is a Fontana African Fiction edition (1978). 168pp

My Career goes Bung by Miles Franklin

Miles Franklin was an outspoken Australian novelist, who became notorious on the publication of her first book, My Brilliant Career, in 1901. In it she portrayed a young woman who’s views and actions shocked the Australian public. Miles Franklin was burned by the reception of her first novel and refused to have it reprinted. My Career Goes Bung was written as the second volume of the fictional autobiography. It was completed in 1902, but fearful of its reception it was not published until the 1940s, when attitudes towards women had changed.

In the introductory To all young Australian writers – Greetings, she describes how she put the manuscript in a portmanteau, together with other papers, ‘left with someone in Chicago, USA while I went to the World War, which is now seen to have been merely practice manoeuvres for Global Armageddons’. The trunk was appropriated by someone who needed a travel bag and the papers burned as useless.

I thought My Career Goes Bung had gone with this collection, and had forgotten the copy of it which survived in an old trunk valiantly preserved all the years by my mother. (7)

My Career Goes Bung: purporting to be the autobiography of Sybylla Penelope Melvyn by Miles Franklin, first published in 1946. Republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1981. 234 pp

The Third Reich of Dreams by Charlotte Beradt

Charlotte Beradt was a Jewish journalist, raised in Berlin between the wars. She made a collection of dreams of the people, mostly Jewish, who lived under the Nazi regime from 1933. She collected over 300 dreams which she recorded and hid in the bindings of her own library. When even that hiding place was risky, she sent small selections with coded names to her friends abroad. Hitler became Uncle Hans, Goring was Gustav and Goebbels was Gerhardt. 

She escaped Berlin in 1939, to settle eventually in New York. Her book was first published in German in 1966, after she had retrieved the material. It has been translated into English, although it can be hard to find. She organised the 75 dreams in the book into chapters to demonstrate that waking life and dreams are linked, and that the unconscious effects of authoritarianism are noted in the collective unconscious. 

An article in the New Yorker by Mireille Juchau in 2019 describes her achievement. 

Grey is the Color of Hope by Irna Ratushinskaya

Irna Ratushinskaya was a Russian dissident poet, born in 1954, who was sentenced to 7 years in a labour camp in 1983. The punishment was for writing and circulating her poetry. The conditions in prison were very harsh, and to begin with she had no paper. She wrote poems with a matchstick in the soap, and then learned them by heart. Over 250 poems were composed and eventually written in this way.

She was released from prison as Gorbachev flew to Reykjavik to meet Reagan in 1986 as gesture of goodwill. She died in 2017. This is her prison memoir.

Grey is the Color of Hope by Irna Ratushinskaya, published by Vintage in 1989.

No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

This powerful and horrifying book was written in Parsi while the Iranian Kurdish poet was imprisoned on Manus Island. The island was owned by Papua New Guinea, rented by the Australian government to house refugees seeking asylum in Australia. The conditions were awful and many preferred refoulement (return to their country of origin) to living in the camps. The prison camp was eventually closed because it violated human rights.

This book recounts the voyages from Indonesia taken by Behrouz Boochani as he sought to escape from Iran. It continues with an account of his time in the jail, and an analysis of how the men were imprisoned and oppressed by what he calls a Kyriarchal system. This means several intersecting forms of oppression are made to work systematically and together to keep the prisoners down. These included the never-ending queues for food, toilets, telephones and the presence of the guards.  

The text was sent out of the prison by Facebook and then What’s App, to his translator, Omid Tofighian. 

Behrouz Boochani was held on Manus Island from 2013 – 2017. He was granted refugee status in New Zealand in 2020. 

The book is a powerful argument against detaining refugees, and of what has been called ‘off-shoring’, detaining asylum applicants away from the mainland. It is also a compelling description of a prison system, one that persistently dehumanises people. Remember, they were not criminals. 

No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani, published by Picador in 2018. 398pp. Translated from the Farsi by Omid Tofighian

And one that got away …

In 1848 the publisher of Wuthering Heights wrote to Ellis Bell (aka Emily Brontë) in anticipation of a second novel, which he was eager for the author to complete. No such manuscript has been found. Emily died later that year, her only known novel had been published the previous year.

It has been suggested that Charlotte burned the manuscript after her sister’s death, to save her reputation from another sensational novel. Whatever happened that novel is lost to us.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, poetry, translation

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

You have to admit that it’s an intriguing title. Do you know anything about Tartar cuisine? Whether the dishes are hot or not? Where can you find Tartar cuisine? One interpretation of ‘hottest dishes’ might be the sexist interpretation of dish as woman, and so the hottest dishes are Rosa, her daughter Sulfia and granddaughter Aminat. Or it might be literal, and refer to the research by Dieter into the cuisine – research that lands him in hospital under the care of Russian nurse Sulfia. And it emerges that Rosa is not familiar with Tartar cuisine, at least not as a cook. But the dishes are familiar to her palette.

If this all sounds a bit muddled, and rather wild, just join in and follow the story told by Rosa of how she came to the west.

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

I read My Grandmother’s Braid last February and so had some familiarity with the flamboyant writing of Alina Bronsky. These grandmothers are not to be messed with. They are selfish, liars, schemers with a very high opinion of themselves. And they love their granddaughters with a fierceness that overcomes most obstacles.

This novel is narrated by the main character, and might not appeal to those who want to have sympathy with the protagonists of the novels they read. She is also an unreliable, even dishonest narrator. But she has wit and nerve and plenty of energy. Here is the opening paragraph:

The knitting needle
As my daughter Sulfia was explaining that she was pregnant but that she didn’t know by whom, I paid extra attention to my posture. I sat with my back perfectly straight and folded my hands elegantly in my lap. (15)

Rosa is dismayed that her daughter, so different in character from her, is pregnant. She is unable to be clear about who the father is, or indeed whether there was a father at all. Rosa describes her pregnant daughter in this ungenerous way:

This daughter I did have was deformed and bore no resemblance to her mother. She was short – she only came up to my shoulders. She had no figure whatsoever. She had small eyes and a crooked mouth. And, as I said, she was stupid. She was already seventeen years old, too, so there was little chance she would get any smarter. (13-4)

The baby is born, despite Rosa’s attempts to abort it, and as soon as she is born Rosa decides that she is the best person to bring the girl up. Now she focuses on getting Sulfia out of the way. She is instrumental in getting Sulfia married on three occasions. Sulfia meets men in dependent positions because she works as a nurse in a clinic. 

It is in the clinic that Sulfia meets Dieter, a German cookery writer, who shows no interest in Sulfia until he meets Aminat, now a sulky adolescent. Rosa schemes to get the three of them invited to Germany, and there she manages to get Sulfia married to Dieter. Her daughter returns to Russia to care for her father, but Aminat and Rosa stay on, Rosa picking up jobs and connections that will be resources for the next stage in her life.

This not a rollicking comedy of outlandish behaviour, although there are many elements of this. There is some real pathos. Sulfia is very badly treated by her mother, who always has justifications for her actions, which she claims is for the interests of others. The saddest episode is when Sulfia dies, and everyone can see how she has been browbeaten. 

The novel follows Rosa’s attempts to gain a better life for herself and for those she cares about. The list of those she cares about varies considerably, usually involving her granddaughter, and sometimes her own daughter. To achieve what she wants Rosa lies, schemes, bribes, drills and dominates those in her orbit. 

She is selfish, opinionated, prejudiced, and self-deluding. At first she seems over written and it is quite shocking to see how everything is about Rosa, even her 17 year-old daughter’s unplanned pregnancy. I think that the author is describing aspects of everybody’s character, exaggerating them for effect and reminding the reader that we are all, to some degree, self-obsessed, opinionated and self-deluding.

It’s an unsettling story, for Rosa frequently exceeds the bounds of decency or morality in pursuit of her goals. The ending is somewhat obscure and ambiguous. I enjoyed reading it for its lack of English subtlety and charm. 

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky, first published in 2010 and in English by Europa Editions, translated from the German by Tim Mohr. 263pp

It is my contribution to Women in Translation Month 2021.

Related posts

My Grandmother’s Braid reviewed on Bookword blog in February 2021

Heavenali reported on her blog on her enjoyment of this book in February, its outrageous narrator and its ‘unique and quirky story-telling’.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, translation, Women in Translation

Beowulf 2, in which he meets a feminist

A few months ago, I posted my first piece on the ancient poem Beowulf, saying I would have more to say later. I referred to versions of the poem that I had on my shelves, two of which were designed for children. The post featured versions for present-day readers by Seamus Heaney, Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo.

Beowulf is a poem that delights in masculine power and it is a story told by men about men for men. Maria Dahvana Headley suggests that we can look at Beowulf another way. In her novel she gives a name to Beowulf’s second opponent, Grendel’s mother, and tells a modern version of the story, avoiding depicting her as a monster.

Maggie Gee, in an article in The Author reminds us that ‘female monsters and villains have been an avenging presence in myth ever since human story-making began’. Some of them have been half animal and half human. We need them, she suggests, to counter the apologetic behaviour encouraged in women.

On to the page they stride and out across the landscape, laughing maniacally, axes in hand. The tact we try to display in real life is equalled by the dark side of our fictional monsters. [The Author Autumn 2019] 

Her own monster can be found in Blood, published in 2019. 

Maria Dahvana Headley challenges the idea of Grendel’s mother being monstrous. The avenging threat of Grendel’s mother is just that – a mother who has lost her son, ‘carried on a wave of wrath, crazed with sorrow, looking for someone to slay, someone to pay in pain for her heart’s loss’ (l. 1275-7). She is a much more interesting character than the tactful and conforming Willa (a version of Wealhtheow).

At the time of my first post, I was not aware of the Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf, which referred to several versions, and mentioned an upcoming translation by Maria Dahvana Headley and her novel The Mere Wife. Since then (February 2021) I have read both books by Maria Dahvana Headley, attended an on-line event with her, and listened to the podcast.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The novel is a feminist telling of part of the Beowulf story, focusing in particular on Grendel’s mother, set in a place and time which is something like present-day America. Dana Mills, a marine, was filmed being executed in a desert war but she somehow manages to return home. She is pregnant and gives birth secretly to Gren, who she sees will be categorised as an enemy to be destroyed. She finds refuge in the caves in the mountain above her former home. They had been part of a railway system, long since abandoned and forgotten. 

Herot Hall has been built over the previous settlement where Dana had been brought up. It is a gated and privileged community run and profited from by the Herot family. Willa Herot has a son and is concerned to keep up appearances for the rest of the community. 

Willa’s son Dylan is intrigued by what he sees out of his window: Gren, Dana’s son. The two boys form a secret friendship, but at her Christmas party Willa finds evidence of Gren, and Dana, watching the party from outside, sees that her son is in danger and tears through the party. The outcome is that Willa’s husband is killed. The tall, blonde, muscular chief of police – Ben Woolf (say his name) – is believed to have killed Dana by drowning her in the mere. In fact, Dana and Gren have retreated to the underground railway station inside the mountain. Later Dylan runs there too and then the hunt is on.

I really liked the way that the author used the details of the original story. The dragon that emerges from the underground lair is here represented by the restored train. The policeman is seen as a hero because he is big and golden and appears to stand between the comfort of the Herot community and danger represented by Dana and Gren. 

We see that those who define others as monsters have power and authority. They include the police, but also the important families, and the press. At play here is the destruction of the history of the US, gender struggles and the damage done by wars. 

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2018 by Scribe. 306pp

Beowulf: a new translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

In this new translation of the poem, Maria Dahvana Headley refutes Tolkien’s suggestion that the language used in its translation must be ‘literary and traditional’. Instead, she brings to it a modern idiom, the boastful, male fraternizing tradition of the ‘dude text’. Here’s the opening.

Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings! In the old days,
everyone knew what men were: brave, glory-bound. Only
stories now, but I’ll sound the Spear-Danes’ song, hoarded for hungry times. (l.1-3)

Compare with Heaney’s translation:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. (l.1-3)

The original Old English poem begins with the word Hwæt. Listen to the podcast for a discussion of its possible pronunciation and meaning. 

This is how the boastful Beowulf introduces himself to Hrothgar, offering to defend the hall against Grendel. 

I’m the strongest and the boldest, and the bravest and the best.
Yes: I mean – I may have bathed in the blood of beasts,
netted five foul ogres at once, smashed my way into a troll den
and come out swinging, gone skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea
and made sashimi of some sea monsters.
Anyone who fucks with the Geats? Bro, they have to fuck with me.
They’re asking for it, and I deal them death. [l.416- 422]

Beowulf is all male and aggression, like the hero of an action movie or a video game. 

Her introduction on translating the poem and her interest in it, through Grendel’s mother, is a good explanation of the approach she took and the decisions she made for this new version. One of the interesting things about the text of Beowulf is that it seems to be a very adaptable text, and to have relevance to many different times. I have some thoughts about why that might be which I am saving for a future post.

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2021 by Scribe. 140pp

Relevant Links

Beowulf 1 on Bookword.

The Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf

Leave a Comment

Filed under Feminism, Podcast, poetry, translation, words

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo

We all remember those other worldly images of people in Hazmat suits treating victims of Ebola in West Africa between 2014 and 2016. There were also images of people waiting in compounds; others stricken with grief but unable to touch their dead; and teams with sprays, and hastily created burial grounds with bodies wrapped in plastic. It was terrible, but how relieved we were that it was happening in West Africa, far away from us. 

And perhaps we now wish we had taken more notice, for some of the worst hit areas by our current pandemic seem to be as chaotic and dreadful as those. We should have heeded the warnings of experts and history: pandemics happen. There was the Spanish flu of 1918, HIV/Aids, SARs, MERs and Ebola. 

In the Company of Men was the choice for February of the Asymptote Book Club.

In the Company of Men

Ebola began when infected bushmeat was consumed in the forests of West Africa. The Ebola virus spread quickly through contact, helped by ignorance. And also by lack of knowledge and resources to confront the rapid spread of infections. The illness seemed excruciatingly disgusting, melting the internal organs of the infected body. 

Véronique Tadjo explores the sense to be made of the outbreak. The figures seem low to us, now faced with Covid-19: 28,646 cases and 11,323 dead. But it caused mayhem, destroying lives, beliefs, economies and confidence. The author uses the possibilities of the novel to look at the impacts and experiences of many of its victims, including the Ebola virus itself.

 So each of the short chapters are related by people or other living creatures affected by the outbreak. There are the medical teams who had so little to fight with and could only ease a patient through the illness to recoveryor death by hydrating them, providing painkillers and trying to alleviate anxiety. Stuffed inside their protective gear, sweating in the African heat, dealing with victims who were often terrified, their working conditions were terrible.

There are the survivors, still viewed with suspicion; the foster carer for an Ebola orphan; the volunteers who built the Ebola centres; the other staff whose job it was to bury the dead in conditions that transgressed against the cultural customs of their families; and the outreach teams who had to go into villages to ensure restrictions and behaviours were in accordance with preventative measures, but against all customs. 

A leader of an outreach team explains some of the difficulties.

The outreach team have to exercise patience. They need to find the right words. Because when people are afraid, they will act irrationally. The contradictory claims and rumors going around about Ebola create a lot of uncertainty in peoples’ minds. The rate at which it spreads, its virulence, that’s all too much to grasp, and very hard to accept. Sometimes it’s just easier to lie to yourself. It’s easier simply to disbelieve the evidence before your eyes, in your own village, in your own neighborhood. Despite the public notices, many prefer to hide the sick, or even, if the threat becomes real, to die with them. What’s the point, they say, it was a losing game right from the start. The most vulnerable members of society, women and children, have to bow to the decrees of the elders. They’re excluded from the discussions, and thus have no inkling of the dangers waiting for them. (80-81)

She writes from the perspective of the virus, and from the bat that had been its host. The bat suggests that humans are not facing up to the situation, instead pursuing their empty dream of purity and perfection, in the Ebola epidemic to find a scientific solution to its eradication. The bat suggests that this dream of perfection is not the way forward, because it is aggressive and destructive.

[Humans say] ‘We save more lives than we kill. We discover medicines that cure and vaccines that protect. Our advanced technologies will provide solutions for our problems and innovations will alleviate global hunger and warfare.’ … 
But I know none of this will actually happen unless they learn to share with one another, and with us, and with every creature yet to be born. …
Humans need to recognize that they’re part of the world, that there’s a close bond between them and all other living creatures, great and small. Instead of trying to rise above their earthly origins. Instead of wanting to conceal the presence of death by dint of ever-more-sophisticated invention.(132-3)

The use of multiple voices by Véronique Tadjo extends to quoting from songs and poems that circulated at the time or were already well-known in the countries affected.

So the reader finishes this short novel with the sense that we need to see the Ebola outbreak not as an aberration, but absorb its history and how to confront it into our understanding of the world. The bat has already said that, the virus is more critical of human capacity to destroy, but the Baobab tree echoes the more positive note.

These ancient and revered trees are often the meeting place for a village and are seen as trees that hold knowledge and understanding of the world. ‘I am Baobab, the first tree, the everlasting tree, the totem tree.’ When the outbreak is finally over, the tree welcomes back the activity of humans. It has the final word:

And the destiny of Man will become one with ours. (141)

Everything that I read in In the Company of Men applies to Covid-19. The scale is larger, but the ability of literature to show us the familiar in new ways is reflected in this book.

Véronique Tadjo

Véronique Tadjo is a poet, novelist academic and artist from Côte d’Ivoire with an interest in many African countries.

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo first published in French in 2017, and the English translation by Other Press in 2021. Translated from the French by the author in collaboration with John Cullen. 147pp

Related Posts

Reviewed on Heavenali’s blog in April

Asymptote Book Club

Picture credit

Véronique Tadjo at the Salon du Livre 2011 in Geneva by Rama: through Wiki Commons

Baobab Tree by Rod Waddington on Visualhunt.com

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, translation, Women in Translation

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky

The grandmother of the title is racist, outspoken, a liar, a hypochondriac, a schemer and secretive.

At the refugee home, we were, as Grandmother noted unhappily, surrounded by Jews. She’d never made a secret of her antisemitism: “Not because of Jesus or anything. I have genuine, personal reasons.” She’s nearly burst whenever she had to keep herself from using certain curses during toasts with the neighbors. Then she’d revel in the fact that she’d managed to gain access for us to the privileges of the golden West under false premises. ‘Just so you don’t think we’re really Jews,” she hammered home to me while feeling my forehead for a fever. “Opa had an uncle who had a brother-in-law. He had a Jewish wife. That’s how it works. Don’t ask.” (10)

The character of the grandmother is grotesque at the outset of this novella. Her grandson, Max, who tells the story, is only six, and is watched over obsessively by his Russian grandmother. With her husband they have come to live in Berlin in a converted hotel.

The home was a former hotel with a cracking plaster façade and a sign still adorning the entrance that said “Sunshine Inn”. […] Grandmother looked unfavorably on most of the new acquaintances: she was suspicious of people who left their homelands, except when it came to us. (10-11) 

With such characters, in such a situation, the opportunities for humour and wit are plentiful and fully embraced in this German novella.

My Grandmother’s Braid

When I began to read this novella, I was hoping that Max and his grandfather would eventually escape the old woman’s attentions. She supervises Max’s every move, obsessively keeping germs at bay, and providing only liquid food for the boy claiming that he has a very weak constitution. She even attends school with him when he starts. She continues to supervise him until she finds another child to do the surveillance for her.

The grandfather meets and falls in love with another refugee, Nina. When Nina becomes pregnant you might expect that all hell would be unleashed. But the grandmother is nothing if not pragmatic, and the two household gradually integrate and the baby is cared for by three adults in different combinations. The pressure is off Max, and he learns to stand up for himself.

He also learns more about his grandmother’s past – she is a former prima ballerina. And about his own mother and what happened to her. The grandmother shows herself to be very enterprising, and sets up a dancing school for the neighbourhood. As Max and his baby uncle grow up their lives become more settled and Max is able to take risks, to understand his grandmother’s obsessions and eventually to follow his own path.

In the course of the story we have been presented with many scenes of humour based on mutual incomprehension, visual effects (such as the silent workforce attending the grandfather’s funeral), quick repartee: ”Where is his mother? Is it true she sold him?” “No,” said grandmother calmly. “Look at him. Would anybody ask for money for that?”

This book was great fun, and also provided some poignant moments which made me reflect on the situation of some of the most despised people in Europe. This group of refugees need the grandmother’s endurance if not her grandiloquence. Overwhelmingly, it is a book about unconditional love that is expressed in curious and sometimes hilarious ways . 

The book was sent to me because I have a subscription with the Asymptote Club

Alina Bronsky

Alina Bronsky

Alina Bronsky is the pseudonym of a Russian-German writer. Born in 1978 she now lives in Berlin and has written a number of novels, including The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine. She is highly regarded for her vibrant prose and has won many literary awards in Germany. 

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky, originally published in 2019 as Der Zopf meiner Grossmutter. The English translation from the German by Tim Mohr was published by Europa Editions in 2021. 159pp

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, translation, Women in Translation

Beowulf – 1

The Anglo-Saxons have never left us: swear words, place names and the foundation of our language. We have some great archaeological Anglo-Saxon finds including several hoards containing jewellery, such as the Staffordshire and Lenborough Hoards – hidden and never reclaimed – and the magnificent Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk. And there is Beowulf. Beowulf’s story has survived for about 1500 years, composed around the 6th or 7th centuries and written down in the 10th or 11th centuries. The manuscript is long, about 3000 lines in Old English, and is kept in the British Library and tells the story of the hero Beowulf and his battles with Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a dragon.

Beowulf, from the kingdom of the Geats, in present-day Sweden, brings his warriors to help the Danish king defend his beautiful great hall from Grendel. Grendel is a blood-thirsty monster who terrorises the hall at night. Beowulf kills Grendel by tearing his arm off. The monster’s mother wants vengeance and Beowulf follows her into a deep, dark lake where he kills her. Many years after his return to his homeland, Beowulf is made king and takes on a fire-breathing dragon in a battle to protect his people that is his last. His body is set alight in a funeral pyre and a barrow made in his honour, high on a cliff to warn ships of the rocks below.

Origially the story would probably have been told in three parts over three evenings, in a great hall, much like the one featured in the story. How and why the manuscript was created is not known. Who composed it is not known. Some of the There is no evidence that anyone called Beowulf ever existed. Except of course he does, in countless translations, adaptations and retellings.

When I taught history in Coventry, many moons ago, I used to love the unit on Anglo-Saxons as it enabled me to retell the story of Beowulf and Grendel, and to explore the Sutton Hoo Ship burial. After the tale of heroic actions, in which Beowulf’s arm was claimed to have the strength of thirty men, he survived almost a day under water and he died fighting a fire-breathing dragon, after retelling his adventures some child would always ask, ‘is it true? Did it really happen?’

The story of Beowulf has been retold many times, in translations, novels, films and other adaptations. In this and further posts I plan to look at the enduring appeal of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf and its retelling in books. In this post I look at some of the straightforward renditions of the poem. In future posts I’ll consider some more imaginative versions and the attraction of the Anglo-Saxon tale.

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney 

This recent translation was the work of the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. We get the whole poem including quite a bit of elaborated history, moments of glory, family events, repeated account of the heroic deeds, and interludes. Heaney has concentrated on telling the story, finding many synonyms for the characters and repeating the reminders that all this was done by God’s power.

In off the moors, down through the mist-band
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud murk he moved towards it
until it shone above him, a sheer keep
of fortified gold. (24)

Many of the characters are introduced by their reputation before we actually meet them: Beowulf, Grendel and his mother as well as some of the kings that Beowulf serves. The verse story confirms the two children’s versions I read.

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber in 1999106pp

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff 

As you expect from this great writer, this retelling of the story is very accessible and full of the details for which she was famed. It is helped by Charles Keeping’s illustrations, which while being of their time add considerably to imagining this tale of impossible heroics. As in so many of her stories Rosemary Sutcliff stresses the loyalties that tied together the royal houses of the Danes and the Geats, respected by the kings, seafarers and warriors, as well as the debts that must be repaid when demanded. 

In the great hall of Hygelac, King of the Geats, supper was over and the mead horns going round. It was the time of evening, with dusk gathering beyond the firelight, when the warriors called for Angelm the king’s bard to wake his harp for their amusement; but tonight they had something else to listen to than the half-sung, half-told stories of ancient heroes that they knew by heart. Tonight there were strangers in their midst, seafarers with the salt still in their hair, from the first trading ship to reach them since the ice melted and the wild geese came North again. (8)

Illustrated by Charles Keeping

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1961 and reissued by Puffin in 1966. 108pp

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo 

This is a more recent version than Dragon Slayer, and is written for slightly younger readers. The story is faithfully told, but without all the genealogical detail of the original and its many diversions. I find the illustrations by Michael Foreman to add less to the retelling than those of Charles Keeping. In this retelling again the  emphasis is on loyalty, courage and indebtedness. 

Hear, and listen well, my friends, and I will tell you a tale that has been told for a thousand years and more. It may be an old story, yet, as you will discover, it troubles and terrifies us now as much as ever it did our ancestors, for we still fear the evil that stalks out there in the darkness and beyond. (13)

Michael Morpurgo notes his debt to other translated versions, including Rosemary Sutcliff, Seamus Heaney, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Michael Alexander. 

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo, published in 2006 by Walker Books. 150pp

See also Beowulf, translated and introduced by Kevin Crossley Holland (1987) Phoebe editions

Beowulf  by Michael Alexander (1973) Penguin Classics

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Learning, Libraries, translation

Reading on time

My mind has been on the passing of time as the lockdown continued. At some point I decided to stop viewing the confinement as some kind of hiatus and accept that it was just how we are living at this time. It helped. But I think a lot about how many days, what we did this time last year, when will we be able to do some things again. It is a theme in fiction as well.

Here’s a celebration to enjoy of days, weeks, months and even years in fiction and memoir.

  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998)
  • The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948)
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
  • The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff (1931)
  • A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
  • The Years by Virginia Woolf (1937)
  • The Years by Annie Ernaux (2008, in English translation 2019)

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

This is a kind of riff on Mrs Dalloway. The title was Virginia Woolf’s own first idea for her novel. Set in three different times and locations The Hours examines society and its difficulties. As someone who has loved reading and rereading Virginia Woolf, I find it adds a new perspective to the original without detracting from it. We have a version featuring Virginia Woolf herself, another with an American suburban housewife from the 1950s and the third set in recent decades in New York, when HIV/AIDS was rampant. 

It won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film (2002), largely successful. 

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

When I reviewed this thriller six years ago, I noted that rereading it had allowed me to appreciate more its admirable features. You can find that review here.  

It is set in London during the Second World War, and follows a couple of lovers, Stella and Robert, and a creepy man who appears to be a stalker. But the dilemma this man Harrison, presents to Stella is at the heart of the tension. Sometimes Elizabeth Bowen’s writing forces the reader to slow down and pay attention. Overall it is an excellent and highly recommended novel.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is another book that is worth rereading. I find it hard to get Anthony Hopkins out of mind as the butler, Stevens, who narrates the novel. He remembers his experiences in the years leading up to the Second World War. We see that he was in love with the housekeeper, but let the opportunity to be with her slip away. He also places loyalty to his employer over everything and fails to see what he is up to. What remains of his day for Stevens is being in service to a new American employer.

The Fortnight in September

I reviewed this in a recent post, enjoying the lack of exciting plot events or twists and noting that the annual family holiday gave pleasure to the Stevens family because everything was so familiar and a repetition of previous years.

Set between the wars as the family go on holiday to Bognor, it becomes clear that it will be their last fortnight. Everything is changing, as it does.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr 

This short novel is much loved by book bloggers and reading groups. My own extended comments can be found here

Set in the 1920s, in the north of England, a young man comes to recover from his failed marriage and his wartime experiences. He works as a restorer of church murals and finds much to help him recover in the village: the mural, the vicar’s wife, his friends the archaeologist and the teenage nonconformist Kathy, the villagers and the countryside. It’s a very beautiful novel about acceptance of damage and variation among people.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

I am tempted to use the word forensic about Joan Dideron’s analysis of the year following the sudden death of her husband and the seriously illness of their daughter. 

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about life itself. (7)

She writes compellingly with sparseness and great precision. She provides the voice of reason commenting on her ‘magical thinking’ and with a complete focus on herself, her husband and her daughter.

You can read my expanded thought on her account here

The Years by Virginia Woolf

As we near the end of this collection, we return to Virginia Woolf and her last published novel, The Years, which looks at the Pargiter family from 1880s to the 1930s in eleven episodes. This is the only novel of hers that I have not yet read. It gave her great pain in the writing, according to her diary. 

I wonder if anyone has ever suffered so much from a book as I have from The Years. Once out I will never look at it again. It’s like a long childbirth. Think of that summer, every morning a headache, and forcing myself into that room in my nightgown, and lying down after a page: and always with the certainty of failure. Now that certainty is mercifully removed to some extent. But now I feel I don’t care what anyone says so long as I am rid of it. [Tuesday 10th November 1936]

She began it in 1933 and only finished it three years later. It was well received when it published. I look forward to tackling it myself.

The Years by Annie Ernaux

This book is a kind of collective memoir, covering the years of Annie Ernaux’s life (1940 to 2006) up to the point it was published in France. It was very extraordinary to read it, quite unsettling really. But also one of the most original and interesting books I have read recently.

When I think of my life, I see my story since childhood until today, but I cannot separate it from the world in which I lived; my story is mixed with that of my generation and the events that happened to us. [Annie Ernaux: I was so ashamed for Catherine Deneuve … by Kim Willsher. 6.4.19 Guardian]

The main character of this collective memoir is time itself. She notes that ‘we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation’. (20)

Translated from the French by Alison L Strayer

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, translation, Virginia Woolf

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

Here is another in the series of Older Women in fiction. This is the second novel in the series to have been written in Arabic. It is set beside the River Shatt-al-Arab during the long war between Iraq and Iran (1980-1988). Why did the author explore the experiences of this old woman in this context?  Ismail Fahd Ismail was from Kuwait: and the novel was translated from the Arabic by Sophia Vasalou. It was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2018.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I am championing fiction containing older women in order to make them more visible. This will be the 46th in the series and the 8th to have been written by a man. This novel was suggested to me in August when I was guest blogger on Global Literature in Libraries, looking at older women around the world. Thanks to that reader and I’m sorry I did not keep a record of who recommended what.

The Old Woman and the River

An old woman Um Qasem, lives with her family in a village beside the river Shatt-al-Arab, near Basra in Iraq. It is 1980 and the long war with Iran has begun. The family have been ordered to uproot themselves as they are in a militarised area. On the journey her husband Bu Qasem dies suddenly and they have to bury him where he died and move on. The family resettle and put down roots in Najaf, but after a few years the old woman remains troubled by the abandoned body of her husband and decides to return home with it to Sabiliyat. 

She takes a donkey, the wonderfully named Good Omen with whom she has close understanding. Together they make the return journey, picking up her husband’s bones on the way. She returns to the abandoned village of Sabiliyat where she and the donkey take up residence, using the supplies from the houses. She is troubled by the damage done to the fields and gardens of the village because the rivers have been dammed.

A small group of soldiers is stationed on the banks of the river and although hostile at first they allow her to stay, initially, for the period of a ceasefire. They soon get used to her presence and gradually begin to help her with her projects, especially restoring irrigation channels which bring water to the gardens and cisterns of the village. They also help her to build her husband’s grave. She remains for many months, despite the danger of being killed when shelling resumes and of being sent out of the area by the military.

As in the previous novel, Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith, an old woman is deployed as the protagonist of this novel because she represents everything that the clearances and war put into danger. Highlighting the experiences of one of the weakest of the population emphasises the inhumane actions of the strong and the aggressive. She reminds the readers, and the soldiers in this novel, of some of the quieter values of human life: nurturing, caring, providing sustenance, fostering nature, caring for animals and so forth. 

The Iraq–Iran War lasted from 1980-1988. 500,000 people were killed and no borders were changed as a result of the hostilities. The novel takes no sides in criticising the long war, but focuses on families and ordinary people. The soldiers too are revealed as individuals. The old woman, by valuing human relations, history and the bountiful gifts of the land and the river, restores some humanity to the village and the soldiers.

The old woman Um Qasem

It is not clear how old Um Qasem is. She and her husband had a good loving relationship and with their family had enjoyed their lives in the village of Sabiliyat. They had children and grandchildren who adapted to their new life in Nasraf. While she loves them all, she has her own life and decisions to make. She is not a frail and dependent old lady. In fact she shows great resourcefulness and courage in the face of the terrible war. And she reminds us too of the permanent pull of our roots.

Her effect on the soldiers is a bit mystical and Ismail Fahd Ismail did not wholly resist giving her special powers. Um Qasem dreams and hold conversations with her husband in her sleep which help her re-establish the water to the village. Her communication with the Donkey, Good Omen, is also from the realm of magic. She is a life-giving force. Indeed this novel has the feel of a folk tale to it. It is also based on real events.

I have noticed that Um Qasem has been likened to other literary figures such as Robinson Crusoe or Don Quixote. However, Good Omen is a complete contrast to Modestine, Robert Louis Stevenson’s companion in the Cevennes. (See my post about their travels here.) 

Ismail Fahd Ismail

Ismail Fahd Ismail was a Kuwaiti writer, born and brought up in Sabiliyat, and he lived from 1940 to 2018. He wrote 27 novels and many short stories and is credited with founding the art of fiction in Kuwait.

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail, first published in 2016 and English version by Interlink Books in 2019. 176pp 

Translated from the Arabic by Sophia Vasalou. Shortlisted for International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2018

Here are some related posts in the Older Women in Fiction series:

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour

And the previous post in the series was …

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith 

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, translation, Women in Translation

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Last month, February, I wrote a themed post about outsiders in fiction (here is the link). I listed some books about outsiders and invited readers to make other suggestions, which they did. Many thanks. One comment in particular drew my attention – the suggestion that all books about women are books about outsiders (Thanks @Kaggsy59). This observation is at the heart of reading for so many women, especially those of us who were active in the Second Wave of feminism. Reading was often a political act.

The additional suggestions included books by Anita Brookner, Veronique Olmi, Carson McCullers and Shirley Jackson among others. A suggestion on twitter also drew my attention as I was intending to get a copy of this novel and read it soon based on reviews I had read: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. I found it in WH Smith on Paddington Station, as a ‘staff pick’ which seems fitting.

Convenience Store Woman

The protagonist, Keiko Furukara, is 34, a virgin and she has worked part-time for 18 years in the same convenience store. Like many young people in Japan she began this work while at University, continued it after she graduated, and unlike her contemporaries she has never left. It is soon clear that she is on some kind of spectrum, having few emotions and only able to pass in limited social settings by using some interesting strategies: excuses, white lies and by copying behaviour, speech patterns and clothing. But it is also clear that she understands the rituals and routines of the store, the service it provides in the neighbourhood and that this deep understanding provides meaning to her outsider life. This is not considered acceptable by her friends and family.

Into her life, at the store, comes Shiraha. He too is an outsider, but he is lazy, prepared to sponge off people, and he blames everyone else for his lack of attractiveness. He is not a sympathetic character as he often expresses ill-thought out reductionist cave man theories. For a while he convinces Keiko that if she takes him in (he owes money on his rent) and feeds him, this will get people off her back. She is indeed troubled by people who try to make her behave more like other women. At first her friends are delighted when she takes Shiraha in, but eventually even Keiko sees that this man is sleazy. She rejects him and reasserts her right to work in a convenience store. She wants to return to the simple demands the work makes on her and to a life which is familiar.

Reading this novel

I often find that reading fiction in translation shows me the world in a very different way. It is true with this book too. There is an element of strangeness about it, but it is also an appeal to allow people to determine their own paths in life. It was an easy read even a bit of a page turner. Simply written, in a deadpan style as a first person narrative, this quirky narration exactly matches Keiko’s character. It is also very funny in places.

At one level this short novel is a critique of the social pressure to conform in modern Japan. Her friends and family seem to believe that Keiko should be made to follow the normal patterns for a young woman.  

I am not quite sure why Granta decided to issue this paperback in several different colours with the purchaser receiving any one of them randomly. Mine is blue. It seems like a marketing gimmick, but I can’t see how it links to the novel’s content.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016) published by Granta. 163pp

Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, translation

Outsiders in Fiction

My recent reading has included several novels that show us the world of the isolate, the outsider. Not just young women trying to make their way in the teeth of family and social opposition, but people who just are not fitting in.

I guess they appeal to readers, because reading is so often an isolated activity, and writers too for the same reason. But more than that. Fiction about outsiders makes us see the world we inhabit from the outside. It is not always a comforting vision.

Here are five works of fiction that do this rather well:

  1. Free Day by Ines Cagnati 
  2. Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini
  3. Nagasaki by Eric Faye
  4. Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins
  5. Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

I expect you can think of books to add to this list.

Free Day by Ines Cagnati 

Translated from the French by Liesl Schilling, who also writes the Introduction.

The outsider in this novella is a double outsider: her family are Italian immigrants in France, and she has a life apart from her family. Galla is 14 years old, living in rural France in the 1950s. She attends the Catholic girls’ school but at great cost. Neither of her parents wanted her to go – she is a boarder – because she is useful on the farm. At school the girls and the teachers look down on her for her poverty, except Fanny, who may be imaginary.

The novella follows Galla on a trip home on an unanticipated day off. She rides the 20 or so miles on an old unreliable bike. It is winter and she arrives as night falls. The farmhouse is locked and she is unable to attract the attention of her mother to let her in. She spends the night with the dog Daisy and her puppy. In the morning she returns to school, through the frost, falling from time to time on black ice. Her reception when she arrives at school is surprisingly warm, and she falls into bed. In the morning it becomes apparent that Galla must return to the farm. We know that she will have to take on the burdens of her mother.

Free Day by Ines Cagnati, first published as Le Jour de congé in 1973. English version issued by nyrb in 2019. 143pp

Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini

 

Translated from the Italian by J Ockenden

This novella is about an old man who lives alone in the Alps, beginning to lose his memory, but staunchly a loner. He is befriended by a dog, but rejects the overtures of the local ranger. During the winter the man and dog endure hardship as they live out the cold and empty months, until they find a foot in the snow. Fearing it is the ranger the man seeks to hide it. It is bleak, funny and tragic.

Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini, first published in 2015 and the English version by Peirene in 2019. 174 pp

Nagasaki byEric Faye (2012)

Translated from the French by Emily Boyce.

This novella features two outsiders. Based on a real event, this is the story of a woman who hides in a solitary man’s house in Nagasaki in Japan. He finds her after several months, because she had been stealing from his fridge. The story is about the man’s isolation and his shock at being invaded in his home. The women tells her story in a letter of apology. Another bleak novella. 

Nagasaki by Eric Faye, first published in 2012, and the English version by Gallic in 2014. 109pp

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

The original Harriet

Another story of isolation based on the historical events of the Penge murder in 1877. The story follows the fortunes of those involved with Harriet, simple but well-off, who is married for her money and then four adults are involved in starving her to death. The motivation of the quartet is well described, believable that they more or less fell into it, each from their own twisted selfishness. That people are capable of such cruelty, especially to one ‘with learning difficulties’ – as we would say – is shocking.

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins was first published in 1934. It was re-issued by Persephone Books in 2012. 320pp

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016.

This is a dark tale, well-told. Eileen is the name of the narrator, who is in her early 20s living in Xville, in 1964. Her mother has died, her father is a drunk. Eileen works in a lowly admin job in the local prison for young offenders, and hates her life, herself, her father, her surroundings and her prospects. Eileen is aware that she lives in a bubble and that far from being despised by everyone, she is not noticed.

She becomes involved with sophisticated Rebecca who gets a job at the prison and then with the case of a boy who has killed his father. The two women decide to take action against his mother who they believe is also complicit. Eileen finally escapes Xville but one feels that in the immediate future her actions are not likely to be any better judged.

It is surprising and revulsion-inducing throughout, but in the end its hard to know who is the victim and who the wrong doer. That’s life.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (2016) Vintage 260pp For a full review see my post from Dec 2016

And of course, the archetypal outsider is by the French writer, Albert Camus: L’Etranger. Published in 1942, a French Algerian young man shoots another man on the beach, and appears indifferent to the consequences of the murder.

Over to youCan you add to the list of outsiders in fiction with any recommended reads?

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, translation