Category Archives: Women in 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.

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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.  

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

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.

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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

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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

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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

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Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho

The Women in Translation month, August, on Twitter was a great success. I managed to tweet a link to a different post every day. There are 48 posts on Bookword blog featuring fiction translated from a foreign language. I tweet a link to one of these every Thursday. 

This is the first post about a novel written in Portuguese on this blog. It has an intriguing title, which makes me ask: Who or what are the empty wardrobes? Why are they empty? What is their significance in this writer’s novel?

Empty Wardrobes

The story of Empty Wardrobes is set in Portugal in the 1960s. It follows the widow Dora Rosàrio, and is narrated by her friend, Manuela. 

Even after ten years of widowhood, she still wore black, and, given the long full skirts she wore and the sensible shoes, she looked more like an off-duty nun than what she actually was – a career widow. (16)

Dora Rosàrio’s husband died young and without making any provision for his wife and daughter after his death. Consequently she must beg from her friends and acquaintances. They feel sorry for her, but their sympathies are wearing thin but at last she gets a job in an antiques store. In the 1960s Portugal political life was dominated by the right-wing dictator Salazar, and society was dominated by old fashioned ideas about women, heavily influenced by the Catholic Church. Women ‘s lives were shaped by the supremacy of family and husband. Dora was following the idea that widowhood is more or less the end of days for a woman.

Duarte Rosàrio is elevated to something like a saint by Dora. She even has a picture that she kisses. But we are introduced to an alternative version of Duarte Rosàrio: a lazy and unskilled man with no particular qualities. We should take note of the epithet:

J’ai conservé de faux trésors dans des armoires vides. [I have saved false treasures in empty wardrobes] Paul Éluard 

With the job in the antiques store Dora is now able to support herself and her daughter, but she does not come out of her isolation until her mother-in-law imparts a secret she learned about Duarte at the end of his life. Everything changes. Dora suddenly begins to take care of herself, buy and wear nice clothes and becomes more outgoing. 

The presence of the narrator is not prominent at first, but she gradually muscles in to more and more of the narrative. The narrator, Manuela, has a rich lawyer lover who comes to the antiques shop (nicknamed the Museum by daughter Lisa) and is impressed with the reformed Dora. Eduardo invites her to his house in Sintra where they sleep together. On the way home they are involved in an accident. When Eduardo comes to check on Dora, he meets Lisa and within a week they decide to marry.

The empty wardrobes are perhaps the narrator Manuela and Dora, who both lost their partners? Or else the mother-in-law who spilled the beans, or Lisa who uses everyone despite being beautiful, or the two men in Dora’s live: Duarte and Eduardo. I’m inclined to believe that primarily it was the men who hold the emptiness of women’s lives in their power in Portugal at that time.

Maria Judite de Carvalho

Maria Judite de Carvalho was born in 1921 and died in 1998. This is the first of her novels to be translated into English.

Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho, published in Portugal in 1966. Two Lines Press published the English translation in 2021. 183pp. Translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa 

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JacquiWine recommended this book in January 2022, and I am grateful that she brought it to my attention.

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Some Monstrous Women in Books

Monstrous women appear in many novels, including those written by women. Some are redeemed, and some are defeated and one or two even triumph. A few are the main character. They all help the plot along in some way. I note that men can be monstrous too, but when they behave as these women do it appears insignificant. 

For this post I present some books that include monstrous women, with links to my reviews on Bookword.

Unredeemed

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (1957)

Angel is monstrous; a writer of flamboyant and excessive fiction that is full of errors and anachronisms and other writerly solecisms (such as using real people’s names). The financial success of her novels came from the popularity of her overblown prose and the outrageousness of her style. Angel herself was certain that she should be spoken of in the same breath as Shakespeare and Goethe (whose name she could not pronounce). Her publisher says that she writes ‘with ignorance and imagination’. She has no sense of humour, no self-doubt and no judgement. Angel is arrogant, rude, selfish and opinionated, and what she doesn’t like she ignores (such as her aunt, the First World War, critics, poverty, people who challenge her).

Flora in The Soul of Kindness, also by Elizabeth Taylor, (1964) has a magnificent unawareness and entitlement that drives people to death, unsuitable marriage and misery. We all know someone like Flora, attractive, without insight or self-awareness, but yet she is everybody’s favourite. Perhaps we even want to be her friend, because some of her lustre might rub off on us. Elizabeth Taylor shows us the damage such creatures can create.

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood (1977)

The narrator is sent to stay with her great-grandmother and finds the experience horrific. The old lady had a toxic upbringing imbued with Victorian middleclass values. She imposes on her young relative the rigid formality, the meeting of the expectations of others, the refusal to express emotions, the belief in her own righteousness, all from that upbringing.

And these get their come-uppance

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

We learn that Lady Catherine de Bourgh ‘was extremely indignant’ at the marriage of her nephew, Mr Darcy, to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, ‘and she gave way to all the genuine frankness of her character’. She had paid a warning visit to Elizabeth in which she told the young woman,

‘Miss Bennet, you ought to know that I am not to be trifled with. But however insincere you may choose to be, you will not find me so. My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness, and in a cause of such moment as this, I shall certainly not depart from it.’ 

Her abusive language to her nephew severed relations for a while, eventually smoothed over by Elizabeth.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) 335

Few women live in the imagination as strongly as Mrs Danvers, in contrast to the meek second never-named wife of Max de Winter. The housekeeper resents the new wife and seems to own Manderley in the absence of the first Mrs de Winter. As a character she is a brilliant invention. But I wonder how the reader is so easily convinced of Max’s innocence, and how much that is a reaction to Mrs Danvers’s creepy and threatening presence.

Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark (1974) 

Mocking the great, is what Muriel Spark is about in this novel that is a parody of Richard Nixon’s downfall. Sister Alexandra, in white, corrupts and exploits the other sisters, in black. She records everything and is wittily exposed in this novel.

Beowulf

Grendel’s mother in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is portrayed as an ignorant hag-like creature, living in a pool of water-snakes, scarcely able to communicate with her son. Maddened by the death of her son at the hands of the first superhero, she is defeated in turn in her own cave. There is an alternative feminist version to this misogyny: The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847) 

Jane’s aunt, Mrs Sarah Reed, resents the necessity for her orphaned niece to join her household and treats her very badly and banishes her to Lowood Hall School.

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple (1943)

Three sisters are contrasted in this novel. One of these is Vera who is so beautiful that every door is opened to her, all difficulty smoothed out of her way, all misdemeanours forgiven, until she becomes middle-aged. She treats her husband with flagrant unkindness, and when he leaves her, looks round for another admirer. Her nemesis is age, and she is forced to face her weaknesses when her niece replaces her in a young man’s attentions. Vera is too weak to give up the young man and they run away to a life of more unhappiness in South Africa.

Hidden Qualities

Some apparently horrendous women are revealed to have hidden qualities.

 

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008) 

In the first volume of short stories of Olive Kitteridge, the former schoolteacher is revealed as a very flawed individual. But in the second volume, Olive, Again (2010), she has become quite sympathetic, perhaps because we understand her more. Is this the Dirty Den syndrome, whereby the audience loves a baddie if they experience enough of them?

The Door by Magda Szabo (1987) 

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix

Emerence acts as housekeeper to a novelist, choses her clients and behaves in what appears to be a high-handed even predatory manner, intimidating her clients and her neighbours. She is not so much redeemed as explained in this magnificent Hungarian novel. 

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)

Mrs Fisher is definitely saved in this much-loved novel about four ill-assorted women who spend a month together in an Italian castle. She is saved through Italian sunshine and the sunny disposition of Lotty.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré (2020)

And now, meet Big Madam as 14-year-old Adunni meets her in Lagos.

The cool air inside the car is escaping with a strong flower smell as somebody is climbing out. First thing I am seeing is feets. Yellow feets, black toes. There is different colour paint on all the toenails: red, green, purple, orange, gold. The smallest of the toes is having a gold ring on it. Her whole body is almost filling the whole compound as she is coming out. I am now understanding why they are calling her Big Madam. When she come out, she draw deep breath and her chest, wide like a blackboard, is climbing up and down, up and down. It is as if this woman is using her nostrils to be collecting all the heating from the outside and making us be catching cold. I am standing beside Mr Kola, and his body is shaking like my own. Even the trees in the compound, the yellow, pink, blue flowers in the long flower pot, all of them are shaking. (122)

Big Madam enslaves Adunni, to work in her house, and to live in a shack in the compound. Adunni is valued by many of the people she meets, who help her achieve her ambitions – to do with the ‘louding’ voice – and to which Big Madam must eventually accede. 

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky (2010)

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky (2019)

Both novels were translated from the German by Tim Mohr

In both books there is a monstrous, interfering and overwhelming grandmother. Both behave in underhand and shocking ways, with lack of consideration for others. They are stories about unconditional love that is expressed in curious and sometimes hilarious ways.

Not yet categorised as monstrous

Guard your Daughters by Dorothy Tutton (1953)

The mother in this novel exerts control and limits her five daughter’s experiences to her own advantage. Is she monstrous?

Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen (1969)

The main character challenges many conventions about women, maternal feelings, obsession with appearance, desire to marry, and independent wealth. I am not sure I understand what the author was doing with this unlikely character, but I believe she is not monstrous.

You may have your own suggestions of monstrous female characters to add to this list?

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The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter 

People displaced by war, people in fear of political imprisonment, people fleeing as a result of colonialization, people are on the move. And they always have been. But it is a feature of our world because politicians and others try to contain them. As a result, many borders are dangerous places: fences, walls and the sea. 

And to leave your country is to gain much, freedom, safety, new opportunities perhaps. But there is always loss, serious loss: language, familiar landscape, music and other cultural opportunities, clothes, family members, friends, dreams, hopes, dignity and more. These losses may be passed on through the generations.

It is not possible to know in advance whether the journey’s difficulties and the losses incurred will outweigh the dangers and costs of remaining. That’s why there is always a dilemma: stay or leave. There will be loss either way.

The Art of Losing is a long novel following one family, from Algeria, over three generations. From a traditional life on an olive farm, they are caught up in the. Was for independence, leave for France, where they have citizenship but little respect, and finally the third generation are making their lives in present day Paris. 

The Art of Losing

The title of this novel is taken from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem One Art, quoted in large part at the end of the novel. With considerable sharpness Elizabeth Bishop claims that the art of losing ‘isn’t hard to master’. 

This is a long novel, in three parts, one for each generation. It begins with Ali, who was decorated for fighting in the French army in the Second World War, and notably at the Battle of Monte Cassino. 

But on his return to Algeria he finds that he must question his loyalty to the French colonial power, and face the dilemma of continued loyalty, and the threats of the growing power and violence of the FLN (National Liberation Front). His main concern is to father a son and then to keep his family safe. He must lose the livelihood the olive farm provided, and much more if he chooses to leave for France.

Ali chooses to become a harki, the derogatory term for an Algerian who supported France during the brutal war for Algerian Independence (1954 – 62). The harki were able to continue to claim French citizenship and expect help when they escaped to mainland France as the war ended. 

The honouring of the harki was permeated by racism by the authorities and the areas where the harki were settled: first terrible refugee camps, later ghetto like cités, slums. Healthcare, education, all services were scant for many years. The focus in this central section is Hamid, Ali’s son, who finds himself defined by his family’s experiences in Algeria. The only way to make a life for himself, Hamid decides, is to escape the cité and leave his family. He visits Paris one summer and stays on with Clarissa, with whom he eventually has four daughters.

Naïma is the focus for the final section. Her uncle is critical of the women of her generation:

They claim they are going there to study. But just look at them: they’re wearing trousers, they’re smoking, drinking, behaving like whores. They’ve forgotten where they come from. (4)

Naïma is Ali’s granddaughter, and she does indeed behave like a modern young woman, but she realises that neither her grandfather, nor her own father have told her much about their history. Her ideas of ‘where she came from’ are confused for she has never been to Algeria. Her own mother is a white French woman and her grandmother only speaks her own dialect. The moment comes when Naïma must discover her own family’s history by visiting Algeria.

The journey is painful and full of discoveries and welcomes. Naïma discovers more about what her family has lost. But this does not lead to a resolution. The novel ends with this sentence:

At the moment when I chose to end this text, she has not arrived anywhere, she is movement, she is travelling. (469)

Alice Zeniter has shown us the dilemmas, turmoil and unresolved issues resulting from colonialism (in France, but also everywhere), which affected (and still effects) so many people in the world and she has given her readers understanding of these as human stories through Ali and his family. Sure, there are policy issues, historical economic, demographic problems to be resolved from movements of peoples, but above all the questions they pose are human, too often problems of human tragedy. No wonder the prestigious (and lucrative) International Dublin Literary Award was given to Alice Zeniter and her translator Frank Wynne this year. It’s a remarkable and superb book.

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter, first published in French in 2017. The English translation from the French by Frank Wynne was published by Picador in 2021. 472pp. Winner of the International Dublin Literary Award for 2022.

Other recommended winners of the International Dublin Literary Award:

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (2021)

Milkman by Anna Burns (2020)

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (2010)

Out Stealing Horses by Per Pettersen (2007)

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Bookword in Naples

For months and months now I have been feeling restless, wanting to get away, away from Covid, from daily life, from staying at home and making soup (as a friend said). Since March 2020 I had spent just 4 nights from home, when I visited my sister in Cumbria. I enjoyed that very much, but by the New Year I wanted more. I am not claiming any specialness in these feelings. Readers of this blog may well have had similar emotions.

So earlier this year I booked myself onto a cultural tour of the ancient world around Naples. I imagined that it would either be cancelled or postponed, but in the event neither happened, and at the end of April, I took my Covid Pass, my clothes for warmer places and my masks and flew to Naples.

The tour focused on Greek and Roman archaeology around the Bay of Naples: Pompeii, Herculaneum, Paestum and its temples, Pozzuoli Amphitheatre, and, where Pliny the elder died, Castellammare dell Stabia. Dominating the bay was Mount Vesuvius. 

Forum, Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background

For as long as I knew about it, I had wanted to visit Pompeii, and was in awe of the volcano and its eruptions. The one that buried Pompeii in ash and pumice happened in AD79. More recently it erupted during the Second World War. We were assured that it always gave warnings of any impending eruption, but it is acknowledged to be active. So, we climbed up it and looked into its crater, and found a steaming vent, which was a little alarming, but the worst that we experienced.

For this post on Bookword I present some books and poems that relate to Naples.

Pompeii: the life of a Roman town by Mary Beard

Told with her trademark verve and questioning style, she reveals the daily life of those who lived in the town before the eruption, casting a critical eye on the archaeological evidence and what people have made of it. It’s a very readable guide. It’s very much more than a guidebook, more an introduction for an intelligent reader who doesn’t want to be fobbed off with the myths that surround the ruins. 

Pompeii: the life of a Roman town by Mary Beard, published by Profile Books in 2008. 360pp

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

This is a novel about two girls growing up in the poorest district of Naples in the ‘50s, narrated by one of them. The Neapolitan Quartet, of which this is the first volume, has been very successful. The attraction, I believe, is in part the attraction of soaps: family drama, struggle against circumstances, many characters, the development of the limited cast of characters, and several vivid and violent scenes.

Readers of the post on this novel in December 2021 will know that I am not a huge fan and you can see my original comments in full here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, published in English in 2012 by Europa Editions. 331pp. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag

Another novel, this one by the renowned intellectual Susan Sontag, published in 1962. It is a long time since I read it, possibly more than 20 years, and my copy seems to have disappeared from my shelves, probably in a ruthless cull to send it on to other readers through Oxfam.

I remember that it concerned the triangle, possibly the ménage à trois, of William Hamilton, Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, his beautiful wife Emma, and her lover Admiral Lord Nelson. William Hamilton studied volcanoes, and perhaps is one of those few men whose is famous because of his wife.

Although praised by eminent critics for its literary qualities, I’m afraid that my memory of this book has largely escaped.

The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag, available as a Penguin Modern Classic.

Pompeii by Robert Harris

And this third novel I might read following my visit. It’s set in the town if its title at the time of the eruption and was recommended by Richard E Grant in his BBC programme Write around the World.

The story follows a water engineer, Marcus Attilius Primus, who has arrived in Pompeii to deal with the problem of the failing water supply. He gets caught up in a corrupt plot, an assassination attempt, love for Corelia, and of course the eruption. 

Pompeii by Robert Harris, published in 2003, and available in paperback.

In the footsteps of Shelley:

It is said that Percy Bysshe Shelley loved this area, but he wrote Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples. Poor man, his dejection outweighed the wonders of the place:


Alas! I have nor hope nor health,
Nor peace within nor calm around,

You can find the full poem here.

And Primo Levi made connections to other deadly events:

Primo Levi was imprisoned in Auschwitz as an Italian Jew during the Second World War. He survived the Holocaust, but his writings reveal the damage done. A poem he wrote is translated from the Italian as Girl of Pompeii or Girl-child of Pompeii. The poem links the plaster cast body of a fleeing child at Pompeii with the Holocaust, through Anne Frank and the Atom Bomb, through a schoolgirl in Hiroshima. 

Since the anguish of each belongs to us all
We’re still living yours, scrawny little girl …

You can find several translations of this poem on the internet.

A fresco in Castellammare

I feel restored by my trip to Italy and by the literary connections made there. I might even reread Virgil’s Aeneid. 

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