Category Archives: translation

About Uncle by Rebecca Gisler 

Reading fiction from other countries and especially in other languages frequently presents the readers with worlds with surreal aspects. Fiction in English seems rooted in the world I live in day-to-day. People respond when spoken to, react to events and reach some kind of conclusion. Quite often all of this, or some of it, is absent in fiction written in other languages.

About Uncle is the first novel by Swiss author Rebecca Gisler, who writes in German and French. There are grotesque and increasingly bizarre aspects to this short novel, which she refers to as ‘a certain magic and power in the atmosphere’. It is set on the coast of Brittany in a house in an isolated hamlet. Rebecca Gisler writes:

It’s a place that exists and that I know very well. There’s a certain magic and power in the atmosphere: the winds, the bay, the rocks, the animals. But it’s also a place that represents a reality, which can be found in many places as soon as you get away from the big cities: people repressed by society, living away from it all. [From a letter to readers by Rebecca Gisler, sent to Peirene subscribers]

About Uncle

The Uncle is central to the novel. It is narrated by his niece on whom he becomes increasingly dependent. Here is the opening sentence.

One night I woke up convinced the Uncle had escaped through the hole in the toilet, and when I opened the door and found that Uncle had indeed escaped through the hole in the toilet, and the floor tiles were scattered with toilet-paper confetti and hundreds of white feathers, as if someone had been having a pillow fight, and the toilet bowl and the walls were stippled with hairs and all sorts of excretions and looking at the little porcelain hole I told myself, It can’t have been easy for Uncle, and I wondered what I could do to get him out of there, after all Uncle must weigh a good two hundred pounds, and the first thing I did was take the toilet brush and shove it as far as I could down the hole, through the pool of stagnant brown water at the bottom, and I churned with the brush but it didn‘t do any good, Uncle might already have reached the septic tank, as I churned the murky water sloshed onto the floor, carrying various repellent substances along with it, and I slipped and slid and my knees sank into the muck, and it felt almost like walking in the bay just after the tide had gone out, when it’s all sludge and stench. (3-4)

Immediately one can see that this writer is not going to spare the reader’s sensibilities. Furthermore she has complete control of this (and other) long sentences. Here it has the effect of carrying the reader further into the rather unsavoury world of Uncle, passing from the niece’s ridiculous idea that Uncle had escaped down the toilet to the very unpleasant state of the bathroom floor, where she finds herself ‘drenched to the elbows in filth’. The characters are anonymous, except for being known by their family relationships, which adds another layer of oddity. Yet there is also a kind of matter-of-factness about the paragraph above. She takes the toilet brush and churns it, and wonders if Uncle has travelled through the pipes to the septic tank. As if uncles do that sort of thing all the time.

Rebecca Gisler reports that she wrote a good deal of this novel during the pandemic, and I certainly recognise the oddity and grotesqueness of life at that time, in a reality that was separate from other people’s. But as she says, it is not a pandemic novel.

This is a novel that does not shrink from the embodied aspects of the characters, in particular of Uncle. He is grossly overweight …

Uncle sits with his stomach crammed between him and the table, and Uncle’s stomach is so fat that it doesn’t seem like a part of his body, it’s like a package he’s carrying, or a pet … (9)

… and he has some bizarre table manners, peppers his omelette until it is ‘evenly coated with a layer of grey dust’ (8) and no one will sit opposite him …

… because eating across from Uncle means consenting to share his food, I mean consenting to the torrents of spit he shares with your face. (12)

The house seems occupied by people who have no meaningful work or agency, although the nephew does leave and their mother (Uncle’s sister) returns to Switzerland. The niece and nephew are employed working on computers to translate the contents of food for animals and maintain a website with extraordinary merchandise, supplying pets. Uncle has been laid off from his gardening job because of ill health.

Uncle becomes seriously ill and must go to hospital. They find their way there, and what they see is described in a very long sentence, and this is its beginning:

And some of those people on the way out of the hospital had cats or dogs on leashes, and others were pressing Guinea pigs or ferrets to their breasts, and Guinea pigs were squeaking anxiously, as if they had just gone through a rough time, and still others had budgies in cages and a woman in a wheelchair was carrying a parrot on her right arm, and we observed that fauna in silence for ten full minutes before my brother made up his mind to ask if we were sure we were in the right place, and Uncle said Yes yes, he knew this hospital well, he’d taken his uncle the Druid there three or four times before he died at the foot of his bed, but Uncle’s answer was drowned out by a bellow… (93) 

And a yak has become trapped in the hospital door, as they do. Uncle recovers enough to return home, and life continues in its strange way.

Translation

Rebecca Gisler writes interesting notes about translation and writing in different languages.

When I started to write, I wrote in German. Then I moved to Paris, where I started writing in French and to read a lot of French poetry. […] The translation (from German) to French, which is my mother tongue and more a family and oral language, contributed a great deal to the way this novel is written. In the beginning I felt much less comfortable writing in French compared to German, and this experimental language attempt gave rise to a character that reflected its own instability: the uncle. French language, perhaps because I use it more naively, has helped me to free myself from the narrative with which I associated German.

About Uncle by Rebecca Gisler, first published as D’oncle in 2021 and in English by Peirene in 2024. 143pp. Translated from the French by Jordon Stump. Winner of Swiss Literature Prize 2022.

The link for Peirene Press subscription is here.

Leave a Comment

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

Beowulf – 5 The remarkable revival

The ancient story of Beowulf has had a remarkable revival. 

Beowulf’s story was composed around the 6th or 7th centuries, written down in the 10th or 11th centuries, and has survived for about 1500 years. The manuscript is long, about 3000 lines in Old English, and is kept in the British Library. How and why the manuscript was created is not known. Who composed it is not known. Whether it was composed by one artist or several is not known.

Originally the story would probably have been told or sung in three parts over three evenings, in a great hall, much like the one featured in the story. There is no evidence that anyone called Beowulf ever existed. Except of course he does, in countless translations, adaptations, films and retellings. 

Beowulf is a Geat and a hero. His story tells of his defeat of Grendel and of Grendel’s mother, and a treasure-loving dragon. Grendel was terrorising the Danish mead hall, the pride and joy of its builder the king. After defeating Grendel, the monster’s mother came seeking revenge and there was another epic battle, this time underwater, but again Beowulf prevailed. Much later in life, when he was a king himself, Beowulf took on a dragon who guarded the most fabulous pile of treasure, and although the dragon died, so did Beowulf to the dismay and misery of his people.

As far as I am aware, the revival of Beowulf’s story is a recent phenomenon.

Why is Beowulf so popular today?

It’s a good story. It’s the story of good triumphing over evil and with a couple of twists. Just when Beowulf and his admirers think he has solved the problem of the attacks on the Danish mead hall, along comes another monster for him to dispatch. Later he becomes a king and does the kingly thing of defending his people, even at the cost of his own life. 

Beowulf appeals to children as well as adults. The plot can be simplified, omitting the genealogies, back stories, and sub plots. The hero defeats three monsters. He is brave. He is young and one of a gang at the start of the story and becomes king in his mature years. 

Beowulf is a hero. Superheroes are all the rage at the moment. His power, his superpower, is to have the strength of 30 men in one of his arms. He is more than a human. He finds a magic sword and has the ability to fight for hours underwater. He fits right in with the spidermen, supermen, and other film heroes.

We like a little of the supernatural in our fiction. The powers of the hero and of his defeated monsters and dragon are all supernatural. They don’t quite belong in our world, so we can return from ancient Denmark and feel happy at the outcome, and relieved that such things do not exist in our world. 

The antagonists are sympathetic. Both Grendel and his mother have been made the focus of novels: by JohnGardner and Maria Dahvana Headley respectively. Maria Dahvana Headley updated the story not only to interpret it through feminist eyes, but also to place it in a modern context, which seriously challenges the goodness of Beowulf. John Gardner views the story from the eyes of Beowulf’s first victim, who might even be a human of sorts, seriously challenged by the bragging Danes in the mead hall, and much misunderstood by the other characters and by the original storyteller of course. 

Other times, other places. There is also the mystery and attraction of this being a very old story, capable of retelling in ways that say something about the teller and their context and time. I have not yet read Edwin Morgan’s version, but I note that he says this about his original version published in 1952.

The translation, which was begun shortly after I came out of the army at the end of the Second World Wat, was in a sense my unwritten war poem, I would not want to alter [in a new edition] the expression I gave to its themes of conflict and danger, voyaging and displacement, loyalty and loss. Inter arma musae tacent (“In time of conflict the Muses are silent”) but they are not sleeping. (Preface to 2021 edition)

These themes are timeless, conflict and danger, voyaging and displacement, loyalty and loss and just as Edwin Morgan experienced them in the Second World War, so do we today.

The mystery of the text. The story of the survival of the version of Beowulf that we have is fascinating, not least because it is so ancient, and the language in which it was written is obscure to most readers, despite being a version of very old English. It is not clear whether it is written by more than one scribe or composed by more than one poet. We know that the poet and the scribe cannot be the same person, for the poem predates the written version by some centuries. Survival of texts and arguments about versions and who wrote what and authenticity are the very stuff of fascination. For example, Shakespeare’s plays have been subjected to a huge amount of scholarly examination in the various versions that still exist. I have looked at the versions listed below, which include prose, and poetry, adaptations and translations. No doubt there are others, and in different genres, perhaps a computer game, anime or film. Whatever version Beowulf is in, the story will be read into the late twenty-first century. Not bad for a text that started as a spoken or sung poem fifteen centuries ago.

Pile in order 2

Versions of Beowulf discussed in this series

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff, (1961) reissued by Puffin in 1966.

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo, (2006) by Walker Books.

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

Beowulf by Charles Keeping & Kevin Crossley-Holland, (1982) Oxford University Press.

Beowulf by Michael Alexander (1973) Penguin Classics

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney, (1999) Faber

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley (2021) Scribe. 

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley (2018) Scribe. 

Grendel by John Gardner, (1971) Picador. This edition contains the illustrations by Emil Antonucci.

Beowulf by Edwin Morgan (1952) republished by Carcanet (2002)

Links to previous posts in the Beowulf series

Beowulf 1 Some versions February 2021

Beowulf 2 in which he meets a feminist July 2021

Beowulf 3 – Grendel by John Gardner March 2022

Beowulf 4 – Charles Keeping’s Illustrations December 2022

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Books for children, Feminism, illustrations, Reading, Reviews, translation

The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg

Natalia Ginzburg was a writer with a very direct and precise style. Here are the first lines of The Dry Heart:

‘Tell me the truth,’ I said.
‘What truth?’ he echoed. He was making a rapid sketch in his notebook and now he showed me what it was: a long, long train with a big cloud of black smoke swirling over it and himself leaning out of the window to wave a handkerchief.
I shot him between the eyes. (1)

Just over 100 pages later this scene is retold. In the pages between the unnamed narrator describes her meeting with Alberto, their walks together, how they married and how the marriage fell apart, all within four years.

This intense and rather shocking novella is newly available in the translation from the Italian by Frances Frenaye, published by Daunt Books. Here is my response to it as part of Women in Translation Month 2023.

The Dry Heart

This novel was first published in 1940, in Italian. The blurb makes a great deal of the anonymous narrator’s apparently casual attitude to the murder she commits, (‘she shoots her husband and walks to a café for a coffee’) – cool as you like. But it quickly becomes clear that she is not level-headed, or cold-blooded. She has been suffering in an exceedingly dreadful marriage. Unlike many novels containing murder, this one does not leave you wondering who committed the crime, or how it was done. That cleared out of the way, the narrator goes to have her coffee and the reader gets to think about why she might have done such a dreadful thing. What is the truth of this event?

In concise, spare and unbroken narrative, the anonymous wife describes their meeting, four years before, their subsequent marriage, and descent into awfulness. Alberto has a long-term lover and is unable to stop himself leaving the narrator periodically to meet up with Giovanna. 

They appeared unsuited from the start. He is much older than her: 40 to her 26. She is much taller than him. She is lonely in the city where she has come from a rural background to teach in a school. He is a confident city-dweller and enjoys showing her around. She finds pleasure in her time with Alberto, and believes she is falling in love. She is surprised that he makes no affectionate move towards her and challenges him. He too has enjoyed their talks and walks together and is lonely himself as his mother has just died. He agrees to marry her. They live in his mother’s house.

In due course they have a daughter who, like her mother, is never named. But although Alberto is affectionate towards the child their lives become more separate, until the death of the child when she is about 2 years old. Alberto comforts his wife in her grief, but soon takes up his old ways. As he is about the leave her again for time with Giovanna the narrator challenges him. She asks for the truth, and not getting it she shoots him between the eyes. Thus it begins and ends. A tough novella about a marriage that should never have happened and ended in murder.

In part it is a novel that describes loneliness, of both husband and wife. Here she describes being alone and without confidence when she first arrived in the city.

When a girl is very much alone and leads a tiresome and monotonous existence, with worn gloves and very little spending money, she may let her imagination run wild and find herself defenceless before all the errors and pitfalls which imagination has devised to deceive her. I was a weak and unarmed victim of imagination as I read Ovid to eighteen girls huddled in a cold classroom or ate my meals in the dingy boarding house dining room, peering out through the yellow window panes as I waited for Alberto to take me out walking or to a concert. (6-7)

After spending her summer holidays with her parents she returns to the city. She has not heard from Alberto. He does not call. She explains that this is how she fell in love with him: imagining his life, what he is doing, becoming obsessed with him, ‘sitting all powdered and primped in my boarding house bedroom’ waiting for him to appear. 

Alberto is older than his wife, but no wiser, and unable to extricate himself from his lover. They live two lives separately, in separate beds after the birth of the daughter. He disappears periodically. She sees her life narrow to the care of their baby. She has little idea of an alternative to her life. Her cousin Francesca tries to persuade her to leave Alberto.

‘Let’s go for a trip somewhere. He’s a little rat of a man. What good is he to you?’
‘I love him,’ I said, ‘and then there’s the baby.’
‘But he’s deceiving you. He does it in the most blatant sort of way. I see them together sometimes. She has a behind like a cauliflower. Nothing much to look at.’ (54)

The spare, intense prose makes direct contact with the reader. There is little reported speech, and few names. Not only do we never discover the names of the narrator and her daughter, but the city is not identified either. And although the Second World War had been over for three years before the book’s publication, it seems to have left no shadow on this book, not on the story anyway. No one is reported to have died, or been imprisoned, and the city has not been damaged. The war does not appear to have been in any character’s backstory.

Leone and Natalia Ginzburg before February 1944 when Leone Ginzburg died. Source unknown via wikicommons

The absence is strange, for the author had not had a comfortable time during the war, being known to have left-wing tendencies, and to be Jewish. Her first husband was tortured for his activities against the Fascist regime resulting in his death in 1944. They had three children.

There are also some lighter moments in this bleak account. In the boarding house where the narrator lives when she first came to the city, she imagines the pleasures of her own establishment as a contrast to how she lives.

The boarding house was gloomy, with dark hangings and upholstery, and in the room next to mine a colonel’s widow knocked on the wall with a hairbrush every time I opened the window or moved a chair. I had to get up early … The colonel’s widow knocked furiously on the wall while I moved about the room looking for my clothes, and in the bathroom the landlady’s hysterical daughter screeched like a peacock while they gave her a warm shower which was supposed to calm her down. (6)

Such vivid details add authenticity to this account.

Jacquiwine’s review in July 2023 is enthusiastic and points to the humour in the novel.

The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg was first published in Italian as È stato cosi in 1949. The English translation by Frances Frenaye was published in 1949. I used the edition by Daunt Books published in 2021. 108pp

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, translation, Writing

Summer reading over ten years

I began blogging just over ten years ago. Recent Twitter lists of summer reading encouraged me to look back over those years and see what I was blogging on 7th July in those years. Here are just seven posts from the 787 that I have produced over that time. Some themes emerge from those years: the older women in fiction series, translations, thematic posts, and the established fiction which I preferred to chasing the new. I have included links in this piece to all the posts mentioned. Happy summer reading!

Onward, Old Legs (2013)

Several novels featuring older women had already appeared on my blog by July 2013: Stone Angel by the Canadian writer Margaret Laurence and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, and I listed more than thirty others. Many of them I have now read, and some have been dropped from the list for various reasons. The full list for the series can be found at this link

Ways with Words (2014)

2014 was the year that Retiring with Attitude was published. I wrote it with my friend and colleague Eileen Carnell. We were asked to do a presentation on our book at the Ways With Words festival at Dartington that year. We have written one book since then, The New Age of Ageing with our colleague and friend Marianne Coleman. Our writing careers have slowed down since then!

Island Novels (2016)

Two years later I wrote a post on the theme of novels set on islands. It was a rich subject and I referred to Night Waking by Sarah Moss, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, and four other novels. I enjoy putting together themed posts.

To The North by Elizabeth Bowen (2019)

To the North was the seventh of Elizabeth Bowen’s ten novels reviewed on Bookword blog. In 2019 I was in a phase of reading novels that had been published for some time. It’s something I have continued with, and Elizabeth Bowen is a writer for whom I have great admiration. On a train travelling north from Italy the recently widowed Cecelia meets Markie, and is nearly taken in by him, but he transfers his attentions to her sister-in-law …

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (2020)

For several years I had followed a theme, reporting on a book every decade. In 2020 I picked publications by Virago, and in July this was the choice from the 1960s. I wrote,

This fantastic tale, which ends in incest and a conflagration and the possible death of the two younger children, is not a simple contrast between goodness and wickedness, youth and age, or even wicked masculinity vs the goodness of femininity. It has complexity in its themes of love and abuse, adult and adolescent sexuality, play and life, reality and magic.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss (2021)

I read most of this short novel when I was trapped on Pewsey station, following a walk with a friend. There were no trains, no taxis and no room at the inn. The novel, like the others by Sarah Moss that I have reviewed, mitigated the dire circumstances. A train eventually arrived.

[Summerwater] is bleak, and harsh and almost apocryphal. It captures the current generally depressed mood and seems to be a comment on the modern world.

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter (2022)

This novel, translated from the French by Frank Wynne, was first published in 2017. It follows one family through three generations, beginning in Algeria just after the Second World War and ending in the banlieues in the present day. I learned a great deal from this novel and thought about it again when France erupted earlier this summer.

And the others?

BTW in 2015 it was A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, and in 2017 a themed post about novelists called Elizabeth. In 2018 I posted my thoughts about Missing by Alison Moore.

At the moment I am reading about the last months of the German High Seas Fleet (for a thing), and Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf (for another thing), essays in Space Crone by Ursula le Guin, and enjoying the catalogue of the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery of paintings by Berthe Morisot, which I saw last weekend.  

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction, Publishing our book, Reading, Reviews, translation, Women in Translation, Writing

The Love of Singular Men by Victor Heringer 

This novella arrived while I was sick with Covid. I have had a subscription to Peirene for many years, and this novel, translated from Portuguese, set in Brazil, was up to its high standards. I read it within a day, despite having something of an addled brain due to the virus.

I love being able to access fiction from other parts of the world, and Peirene Press have been an important part of my ability to acquire and read translated fiction. You too could subscribe. The Peirene website is here.

The Love of Singular Men

The Love of Singular Men is a short novel – 170 pages – but full of tenderness, playfulness, rule-breaking and humour. The text is sprinkled with illustrations, some line drawings by the author, some photographs, and other material such as a school report card, or the list of things given by one of the characters. Victor Heringer likes to subvert some classic western literary practices. Perhaps the most striking is his public invitation to future readers, asking them to tell him the name of their first love and, if they chose, their own name. The result is several pages of lists from the responses. It’s a moving way of reminding the reader that there is a great deal of love in the world. At one point Victor Heringer provides a list of classmates and their attributes, or a play script, sometimes incidents are related in the traditional manner. 

The reminder of all the love in the world is welcome, for this novel is set in Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s when life was hard, even in the suburbs. The backdrop is of torture and compromise with evil. One day Camilo’s dad brings home a boy about the same age as his adolescent son.

It was only then I saw his head framed by the rear window. The shaved head of a boy as much a boy as me.
But I had a full head of hair and I wasn’t that coffee-with-watered-down-milk colour. I was red in the summer, and greenish white in the winter. His skull must always have been that same mixture of colours. He looked strong; I was skinny, more breakable, lame. But his eyes looked fragile, like the neck of a small bird, or a puppy that finds itself caught in a rat trap. (16)

The Love of Singular Men concerns two adolescent boys. Camilo is the narrator and born with legs that don’t work well. Cosme, about his age, is the boy brought home by Camilo’s father. As the boys grow older, they become close until they become lovers. It is short-lived but determines the course of the rest of Camilo’s life.

I’d like to say I lived two years in two weeks with my Cosme, but no. Two decades. These things don’t happen. We lived fourteen days. I loved every centimetre of him, but not every minute. In all, there were 20,160 minutes, many lost to school and showers, to lunches. When we were together, still others were lost in silence, with the becauses of silence. Was it because of this or that, was it because I had to do my homework, was it because you don’t like me any more? We said we loved each other, but that wasn’t the same thing it is today. (121-122)

The crux of the novel is a murder, almost senseless, very violent. About half the novel takes place years later. Camilo is now an adult and he invites the grandson of the murderer into his flat. He describes his life, empty of friendships and lovers, dominated by his lost first love, and with meaning and purpose removed.

There are so many contrasts in this short read. Love and violence; able-bodied and physical disability; gender; sexuality; class; ethnicity; adults and adolescents. It’s a heady mix, both in content and in the way it is written.

Victor Heringer

Victor Heringer was a Brazilian writer, born in 1988 who died far too soon in 2018, just before his thirtieth birthday. The Love of Singular Men is his first book to be translated into English. Zadie Smith is quoted on the cover:

Upon finishing it you want to immediately meet the young man who wrote it, shake him vigorously by the hand and congratulate him on the beginning of a brilliant career. But Victor Heringer is gone. He left this beautiful book behind.

The Love of Singular Men by Victor Heringer, first published in 2016 in Portuguese. English translation published by Peirene Press in 2023, translated from the Portuguese by James Young. 180pp

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, translation

Homesick by Jennifer Croft

This looked like a good book to read. It was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year and the author was known to me as a translator. It is a coming-of-age novel, and its main charm is the depiction of Amy’s childhood, isolated by her sister’s illness and her own precocity that takes her to the University of Tulsa when she is really too young to cope with the student experience. 

What adult doesn’t look back at some aspects of their childhood with feelings of regret and loss? If home is where the heart is, and Amy’s heart was with her sister Zoe, then homesickness was often with her.

Homesick

The novel closely follows Amy as she and her younger sister grow up in Oklahoma and forge a close bond from Zoe’s birth. Their intimacy is threatened by Zoe’s serious illness, which includes a brain tumour, and requires her to undergo extensive hospital treatment. On her return from hospital the necessity and inconvenience of caring for Zoe means that Amy must leave school and the girls are home-schooled. Amy is cut off from her age group as a result. Both girls decide to learn a new language and Sascha is employed to teach Zoe Ukrainian and Amy Russian. Amy, in particular, demonstrates an aptitude for languages. 

The theme of photography weaves its way through the narrative. Amy seems to need to freeze an image or a scene as protection against loss. 

Amy has taken one Polaroid picture of each room at her grandparents’ house, including the garage, the backyard, and the front yard, and two of the staircase, since they don’t have one at home. (9)

In the four years since she’s had her camera, Amy’s taken fifty-one more pictures of her sister, seven of which feature their dog Santa gave to Zoe last year. The dog is a scruffy Scottish Terrier with a black plastic-looking nose … Amy discovers a way of civilizing both creatures, of teaching them to sit still. They even learn to play dead. (9)

Amy becomes a prodigy, attending the University of Tulsa aged 15. After such a cloistered childhood she is pretty naïve about many aspects of student life, not least drink, drugs and sex. Not surprisingly Amy is not good at it, and the first section, entitled Sick ends with her hospitalised.

The much shorter second section, called Home, takes up Amy’s story several years later as she travels around, mostly in Europe. She takes up many jobs and learns more languages. She seems rootless and it emerges that she is rarely in contact with Zoe. But eventually they are reunited, in Paris, where Amy is currently living with her boyfriend Javi. This is how the novel ends:

The last portrait Amy takes of her sister is a picture of some hot pink letters on the thick transparent railings of the Pont des Arts.
Amy and Javi and Zoe are ambling from the Louvre to the Left Bank. Zoe’s health is reasonably good right now, although she is in pain and still has little seizures, along with strange, fiery, snakelike sensations that course through her veins. It is Sunday; it is summer. Glints and reflections scatter out along the Seine. Amy glances back and says, Un Segundo.
Zoe and Javi draw to a pause as Amy removes her camera from its case. Cradling it in her left hand, she takes a deep breath, studies her subject, and then, very gently, she presses the shutter button down. (219)

The format of the book emphasises the juddery nature of Amy’s childhood and early adolescence. Although it the narration is in the 3rd person, it is written in the present tense, and without quotation marks, all of which give it an immediacy and sometimes an urgency. The text is arranged in short sections, usually about 2 pages long, sometimes 3, sometimes only 1. The first sentence of each section is presented in bold like a chapter heading but despite appearances it is part of the narration.

Much of the novel describes the tightness of Amy and Zoe (A to Z), and the angst of watching her sick sister, or dealing with the sudden death of a friend. The detail of the experience of childhood is excellent. The intensity of being a sister to a very sick sibling, of growing up, of losing childhood and childhood relationships, reminds adults that adults don’t see the world from a child’s point of view.

Jennifer Croft was the translator of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk in 2018.

Homesick by Jennifer Croft, published by Charco Press in 2022. 219pp

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, translation

The Madwoman of Serrano by Dina Salústio

What did I know about Cape Verde? Very little, except for an appreciation of their music. I did know that it is an archipelago off the western coast of Africa, and that it was uninhabited until the Portuguese found it convenient for their slave trade. It gained independence from Portugal in 1975. It has a population is about half a million people spread across 10 islands. The national language is Portuguese.

With so little knowledge it was with enthusiasm that I picked up this novel, first published in Portuguese in 1998, and now translated into English. It says quite a bit about the state of African women’s fiction that this is the first translation of an African woman’s novel into English from Portuguese. The publisher, Dedalus, began celebrating the centenary of women’s votes in the UK, by publishing six titles each year by women, many in translation. This one was in the first tranche. It’s an intention to be supported. 

The Madwoman of Serrano

The novel’s location could be anywhere. The village of Serrano lies in a beautiful remote valley but has no name until the midwife tells it to some surveyors and immediately dies. We are not told the name of the city to which the inhabitants eventually retreat. We are everywhere and nowhere.

The men and women of Serrano have very different roles, but their conventions are strong: there are 193 residents, including the midwife (a role that is taken over by another woman as soon as the midwife dies) and the madwoman (who also reappears every thirty-three years in a new body). 

The midwife not only helps the women of the village give birth and dispense herbal remedies and advice, but also initiates the men of the village into their marital duties. Birth rates are poor so she also sends many women to the capital to become pregnant through ‘pharmaceuticals’.

The village is beautiful, well-regulated with customs stretching back for years. But this conservatism comes at a price.

… but it was true that almost everything was considered a threat by the poor villagers, and that any sign of danger became an omen of epic proportions, sending people into hiding, peeking out only as much or as little as their fear or perversity would allow. (106)

This fear had led the villagers to chase one poor girl to her death in the river, and for generations she is known to haunt the valley. 

People would later say that there was little evidence that the Serranoans lived by the same lores that governed human beings elsewhere. The villagers never embraced imagination the way others did; they never looked around corners or sought to conquer new territories; they never explored new means of existence or ways of casting off their shackles. Such things only happened beyond Serrano’s borders. (121) 

Readers expecting a story in the European tradition will be surprised. There is a fair bit of magical-realism, and the timeline of the novel circles and returns so that each episode appears to relate to other episodes.

In essence this is a story of lovers, who must find each other after separation. But it is also about generational love. A further theme contrasts city and village life. 

Jerónimo is a young man who has completed his military service and so he has experience of the city. He returns to the village and takes up his life according to the customs of generations. But he is not happy, even when he marries Maninha, who like so many of the women of Serrano fails to become pregnant. Later he finds Fernanda, a young woman who has fallen from an aeroplane. He takes care of her, and when she produces a child, everyone assumes it is Jerónimo’s. Fernanda disappears to the city leaving her child with Jerónimo. Filipa is brought up in the village until her mutism is considered serious enough to merit a visit to the city, where she stays.

Jerónimo has lost the woman he loved and her daughter. Much of the novel concerns the lives of these three unhappy people, until, despite, knowing so little of each other, are reunited at last. 

I did not learn much about Cape Verde from this novel. Serves me right for trying a little cultural tourism.

Dina Salústio

Born in 1941, Dina Salústio is the nom de plume of a journalist, social worker and teacher. This novel was the first novel by a woman to be published in Cape Verde, and the first to be published in an English translation. She was awarded the PEN Galacia award for lifetime achievement. Her work features the issues experienced by women, which is to be welcomed as so much African post-colonial literature is dominated by men.

The Madwoman of Serrano by Dina Salústio, first published in 1998. The English translation from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar was published by Dedalus in 2019. 228pp

Related posts

Some thoughts from the translator Jethro Soutar in Brittle Paper in July 2021.

A review from the blog A Year Reading the World in October 2019.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Feminism, Learning, Reading, Reviews, translation, Women in Translation

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó

I have previously enjoyed two novels by the acclaimed Hungarian writer, Magda Szabó: The Door and Abigail. In Iza’s Ballad I found another profound novel which educated me about Hungary in the 1960s, and about human relationships everywhere, specifically mother-daughter relationships.

The mother, Ettie in Iza’s Ballad, is in her 70s, so she qualifies for inclusion in the series on Older Women in Fiction. This is the 64th post in the series (see below for link). In this novel Ettie carries a good deal of the story, being widowed and acquiescent in her daughter’s decisions about her future. Magda Szabó shows us a woman from a small town, where she has spent the last 50 years, now grieving her husband, and then uprooted as she is sent first to a spa for a week’s holiday, and then to Budapest to live in her daughter’s flat. 

It is a theme in novels about older women that their views are not sought or taken into account. For example, in All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West. This denies a woman’s experience of six or more decades, her previous responsibility for a home and for a family, perhaps also for a job, and her ability to act independently. I would like to believe that today such disrespectful behaviour is not inflicted on older women today. I would like to believe that. 

Iza’s Ballad

Ettie has been happily married for nearly 50 years, living in a rural town, and raising one daughter. But her husband Vince dies of cancer, and it brings change to Ettie’s circumstances. Her daughter Iza whips her off to Budapest, with none of her old belongings. She will care for her mother in her modern flat, where her mother will have to do nothing. In her determination to care for her mother she forgets how much Ettie likes to be useful.

Iza was a determined child. She worked for the Resistance during the war, married Antal (also a doctor), set up a clinic, survived Antal’s decision to leave the marriage and works hard in Pest. She has a new lover, and now that she does not have to return to her hometown or financially support her parents, her biggest decision is whether to marry Domokos or not.

The older woman is deeply unhappy living in Iza’s flat, for she is discouraged from doing anything to help with the housekeeping or the cleaning. All her married life she enjoyed the search for the cheapest goods and food, she had valued hard work and lively social interaction with people she had known all her life, but these are all denied her. Iza makes the assumption that her mother should rest, do nothing in the house, and that this would be enough for her. Her happiness at living close to her daughter is whittled away, and she becomes a sad and lonely creature. The return to her hometown to oversee the installation of the headstone on Vince’s grave is the catalyst for her attempt to recapture happier times.

As the novel progresses, we learn about the history of each character. We learn why Vince was disgraced as a judge and then reinstated. We find out about Antal’s boyhood and how he was supported by a donor to make his way through school and university. It takes time to find out why Antal left his marriage to Iza, but we find out how the lives of so many have been interwoven as the more fortunate help those less capable.

The novel is full of contrasts: the metropolitan life – the rural backwater; war-time and peace; generations; old fashioned values – modern life; change – statis; and so forth.

Szabó does not promote any one set of values over the other. Rather she presents difficult relationships, resulting from the lack of communication, unquestioned assumptions and characters who do not see things the same way. 

Iza’s ballad is the key to her abrasive character and behaviour.

As for Iza, she hated sad stories as a child. There was one particular ballad from [her father’s] student days, that he could never sing to her because she would burst into tears and plead for the dead character to be brought to life again. She never heard the end of the song. (311)

Iza could not bear her mother’s unhappiness, so she tries to make everything right, but forgot to listen to how the old woman would like to end her song. The nurse who cared for Vince on his deathbed, sums up Iza’s approach to life.

‘Good Lord,’ thought Lidia, ‘how exhausted she must be with that constant self-discipline, that need to save not only her family but the whole world. How hard to live with the hardness of heart that dares not indulge itself by grieving over dead virgins [in the ballad]! The poor woman believes that the old people’s pasts are the enemy. She has failed to notice how those pasts are explanations and values, the key to the present.’ (315)

How many today regard old people’s pasts as the enemy? How many, in dealing with older people fail to notice how those pasts are explanations and values, the key to the present? Magda Szabó knows it well, and in this novel slowly reveals the pasts of her characters to show just that.

Magda Szabó

The author is perhaps the best-known Hungarian writer, and perhaps the most frequently translated. Born in 1917 she lived in Hungary until her death in 2007. From 1949 – 56 she was not allowed to publish work that did not reflect the dominant Communist Party views of idealistic realism. She was dismissed from her post in the Ministry of Religion and Education and taught for a while in a Calvinist school while out of favour (see Abigail). She also wrote poetry and plays,

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó, first published in Hungarian in 1963. The English translation by George Szirtes was published in 2015 by Vintage. 328pp

Related posts

The Door by Magda Szabó (Bookword blog July 2016)

Abigail by Magda Szabó (Bookword blog April 2020)

Reviews of Iza’s Ballad can also be found on Heaven Ali’s Blog from August 2017, and on JacquiWine’s Journal from December 2022.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West (Bookword blog August 2014)

Older Women in Fiction Series – the list on Bookword

4 Comments

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

David Golder by Irène Némirovsky

The author, Irène Némirovsky, is frequently defined by her death in Auschwitz in 1942 at the age of 39. When she published David Golder, she was 26 and just setting out on her successful career as a writer. David Golder was the first novel to bring her success and was published in French in 1929. It was made into a film just two years later. At the time she was taken to Auschwitz she had written 14 novels. 

David Golder is my choice for the 1929 club (see below).

David Golder

This novel is very much of its time, written just before the Great Crash (1929) that changed economics and the world for ever. And the novel appeared before the Nazis had a strong hold on Germany and Europe and before they made anti-Semitism official state policy. It was a time of reckless pursuit of great wealth. There was a kind of internationalism of the wealthy as they moved from country to country in search of more lucrative deals. This even included Soviet Russia (barely a decade into its existence) and the US. The action of the novel takes place mostly in France, but the characters mention or move between many European countries and many, like the author, have migrated to live in a new country in the turbulent post-war world.

David Golder is a ruthless Jewish businessman living in France but with origins in the Russian Empire in Ukraine. He has made his money through deals in oil. The story opens when his friend and colleague of many years asks him for help and Golder refuses. Marcus commits suicide.

Unsettled by the death of his former colleague and the depressed state of his various negotiations Golder decides to take a break in Biarritz where he has a house, and where his wife, Gloria, and his daughter, Joyce, live lives of indulgence in idle luxury. On the train he falls ill with a heart attack but recovers for a while. Pushed by his daughter who is demanding a new car he visits a casino but faints and is confined to bed. Here he is forced to consider his life, especially as his wife and daughter are even more money-grabbing than he is. 

Joyce begs him for a new car when he arrives in Biarritz, but he claims not to be able to afford it. She responds:

‘It’s just that I have to have everything on earth, otherwise I’d rather die! Everything! Everything!’ she repeated with an imperious, feverish look in her eyes. (50)

Later she is prepared to marry a rich old man rather than live without money. Her mother has the same, entitled attitude. As Golder is recovering from another heart attack and preparing to travel again for business, she approaches him:

‘Make some arrangements [for me]. To start with, put this house in my name. If you were a good husband, you would have made sure I had a proper fortune of my own long ago! I have nothing at all.’ (94)

Golder is contrasted later to his only friend, Soifer, with whom he plays cards while recuperating in Paris. Soifer is so mean (‘a meanness bordering on madness’) that he walks on tiptoe to save shoe leather, takes public transport rather than spend money on taxis, and refuses to buy dentures. But when he dies, he leaves ‘a fortune of some thirty million francs, thus fulfilling till the end the incomprehensible destiny of every good Jew on this earth.’ (117)

The pursuit of wealth is without merit, Irène Némirovsky is suggesting. It poisons relationships, it brings little joy, it distorts ambition, and imprisons the fortune hunter. Golder, his wife Gloria and his daughter Joyce, and his friend Soifer, are reprehensible human beings. 

On the boat to Constantinople David Golder meets a young man, from his own village, who is setting out on the same path that Golder followed years before. He warns the young man of a grim future.

‘You know you’re going to starve to death, don’t you?’ he said sharply.
‘Oh, I’m used to that …’
‘Yes … But over there, it’s harder …’
‘What’s the difference? It won’t be for long …’
Golder suddenly burst out laughing, a laugh as dry and sharp as a whip.
‘So that’s what you think, do you? Well, you’re a fool! It lasts for years, years … And after that, to tell the truth, it’s hardly any better …’
‘After that …’ the boy whispered passionately, ‘after that you get rich …’
‘After that,’ replied Golder, ‘you die, alone, like a dog, the same way you lived …’ (152)

Despite Golder’s warning, we know that the young man will follow the same path, and indeed he takes Golder’s wallet and abandons him.

Irène Némirovsky

Irène Némirovsky

Irène Némirovsky  was born in Kyiv in 1903, then part of the Russian empire. The Némirovsky family fled to Helsinki when the Revolution of 1917 saw the end of the empire. After a year they settled in Paris, where her father rebuilt his business as a banker. Despite her origins, Irène Némirovsky wrote in French and believed herself and her family safe in France from anti-Semitic feeling. 

Some readers have suggested that Irène Némirovsky hated Jews and have suggested that the character of David Golder, and of Soifer, are evidence of this. While Soifer is something of a caricature, it is a caricature of meanness, not of Jewishness. And Golder represents the ruthless, amoral pursuit of wealth through speculation that brought Western economies to their knees in the Great Crash the same year in which this book was published. 

In my view David Golder is a novel that explores the corruption of personal standards, of moral values, of human relationships that the pursuit of wealth brings with it. No-one in this novel is happy. Only the young man has hope of a better future, and he has been warned that this is a chimera. In my view Irène Némirovsky was writing about a world with which she was familiar, not expressing anti-Semitic sentiments.

The 1929 Club

The 1929 Club, organised by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings bloggers post their responses to books published in 1929 on their blogs and these are listed on the organisers’ pages.

Stuck in a Book reviewed this novel in March 2010, and you can find the review by clicking on this link.

Heavenali also reviewed David Golder, in August 2016, and admired it. Her review is here.

David Golder, first edition cover

David Golder by Irène Némirovsky, first published in French in 1929. English translation by Sandra Smith published by Vintage in 2007. 159pp

6 Comments

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

Grove by Esther Kinsky

I had never heard of a ‘field novel’ before, but I had read River by Esther Kinsky. I loved that book, for it mostly concerned the River Lea in East London, a river I knew well as it was the nearest to my home of 35 years. I decided to read Grove because I was confident in Esther Kinsky’s ability to describe landscape and people’s relationship to it. My confidence was well placed, and I also found a deep meditation and exploration of the experience of grief.

Grove: a field novel

It seems a very autobiographical book. The funeral of the narrator’s partner ‘M’ took place two months before she travelled to Italy, to a small village Olevano near Rome, to decide or find out ‘how for the next three months to force my life into a new order that would let me survive the unexpected unknown’. (23)

She records three sets of journeys to Italy: this one following her bereavement; journeys with her family, arranged by her father, in her childhood; staying one the salt flats of the Po River valley sometime later.

I tetti di Olevano Romano by Pietro Scerrato via WikiCommons

The novel is suffused with the tension between death and life: especially the material manifestations of them. She is frequently interested in cemeteries and their post-funeral rituals. Cemeteries are so much part of village and town life, and as she looks around the areas where she stays, she visited them and describes them to us.

It is winter, evening comes early. When darkness falls, the old village of Olevano lies in the yellow warmth of streetlights. Along the road to Bellegra and throughout the new settlements on the northern side, stretches a labyrinth of dazzling white lamps. Above on the hillside the cemetery hovers in the glow of countless perpetually burning small lights, which glimmer before the gravestones, lined up on the ledges in front of the sepulchres, When the night is very dark the cemetery, illuminated by lux perpetuae, hangs like an island in the night. The island of the morti above the valley of the vii. (19)

In Olevano she seems passive in the winter landscape, looking out across the valley, walking to the cemetery and to the village every day. She appears to interact with nobody. We have no explanation of why she is staying in this village, in this house. She travels around the valley, visiting places she can see, and with no apparent purpose but to be there. Absence suffuses her descriptions.

In the central section she focuses on the visits to Italy, from their Rhineland home, organised by her father. Her father loved Italy, for the museums, the blue of Fra Angelico’s paintings, the seaside and for the wildlife they came across. Her father liked to lecture her, and her brother, about these things. Eels and snakes are a frequent topic. This section too is concerned with death, including the death of her father. 

In Rome they visit a cemetery:

Eventually the wind abated. Beneath a white sky, which the sunshine filtered into a uniformly soft brightness, we visited the grave of John Keats. The cemetery was full of cats, which rambled about the graves, rubbed against our legs. At John Keats’s grave cats had a good chance of finding affection. Near the entrance, placed between pruned cypress trees, were small plates, as if set out for a society of dwarves, an elderly woman came over with a pot of food scraps and distributed them onto the plates, which already thronged with cats. Next to the cemetery a sharp pyramid protruded above the traffic, and angular sign that seemed to refer to this island of the dead, lying here surrounded by the swells of the city. A Roman general had the pyramid erected as his tomb, perhaps consumed by a yearning for the sands of Egypt where despite his warrior trappings, he had been a different person than he was here in Rome, where his eyes were inevitably drawn, day after day, to sombre clusters of dark parasol pines. (179-80)

Finally in the third section she is in the Po Valley, on the flat lands, the salt plain, watching birds – flamingos, heron, egrets – and the people who live in this marginal and declining area. 

I had ended up here [Valli di Cimacchio] by accident, in an accommodation with a view to a half-wilted potted pine tree, reeds, willow bushes, and ample sky. Far from the coastal road, inland of the deserted seaside resorts. The owners had given up all hope for a livelihood – a slight bitterness hung in the air, a melancholy astonishment that the desolation of the seaside destinations and view to the emptiness of salt pans in winter could leave the viewer overwhelmed not only by doubt. (226-7)

The trucks trundle passed, endlessly, to and from the big towns. Eventually she finds her way back. She has become more active in her life, engaging with the people who she meets. Her tension between life and death is eventually resolved, or at least understood and accommodated. Grief in the end is absence, and a matter of living with death.

She has moved from being an observer to being a more active participant in the landscapes she finds.

 You can find the link to my post on her novel River (2018) from April 2019 here.

Grove: a field novel by Esther Kinsky, first published in German in 2018. The English translation by Caroline Schmidt was published by Fitzcarraldo in 2021.  277pp

2 Comments

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