Category Archives: Women in Translation

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

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

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

The Old Woman and the River

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

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

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

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

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

The old woman Um Qasem

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

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

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

Ismail Fahd Ismail

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

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

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

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

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour

And the previous post in the series was …

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith 

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

4 Comments

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

Abigail by Magda Szabo

It’s 1943, the Second World War is underway and Hungary has had an uneasy relationship with Germany since entering the war in June 1941 to assist the Axis powers. In 1944 Germany decides to occupy Hungary because independent attempts have been made to negotiate an armistice with the UK and the USA. From the occupation Jewish people are in danger, and soon after the Hungarian army is defeated by the Red Army.

It is against this backdrop that Abigail takes place. Georgina is a spoiled young daughter of an army general, and has no idea about the danger she is in, nor about the decisions that are made to keep her safe. She is sent to a prison-like strict boarding school for girls. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that this is for her protection. What I liked about this book is that the story began about the girl, but gradually widened to consider the individual in the war in Hungary.

Abigail

This is a long book, almost 450 pages, and it begins with Georgina and takes its time to unfold the full implications of her situation. At first it is about her separation in 1943 from her beloved father in Budapest as she goes to boarding school, Matula, a long way away. How will she survive the separation? And will she fit in with the other girls? The girls in her class have very strong bonds of loyalty and two of them explain the rules and the restrictions. They also introduce her to the story of Abigail, a statue which is reputed to provide answers to difficult questions that are placed in the pitcher she holds.

Soon after her arrival Georgina betrays one of the secrets of her class that provide respite from the very strict regime of the school. From this point the girls refuse to speak to her. The school has very strict Protestant rules (she describes it as Calvinist) and she breaks these too: she has personal possessions, for example, and then she tries to escape. She manages to make it up with the other girls and the story moves into its last phase. 

Hungary is in danger of being defeated in the war. Georgina’s father, the General, heads an anti-Nazi underground movement. He has placed Gina in Matula for her protection, as he fears she will be used against him if the plot is discovered. It turns out that the Gina’s guardian angel is Abigail and that the local dissident (anti-war, anti-Nazi) are the same person and that with a network of local people Gina is saved when her father is arrested. The finale is exciting as the conspirators evade the searchers.

The story is told in great detail, the uniform, the rules, the teachers, the rituals etc. Each part of the story is built gradually. Occasionally plot details are trailed. ‘She had no idea that she would never see him again’ (269). It was Bánki’s present that led to the unravelling of Gina’s hiding place. 

A great number of things happened on that late November morning but it was only much later that she saw the connection between them. Every episode or image associated with that Wednesday fused in her mind – the gaping mouths of the dead fish, the filing cabinet standing open, the glazier’s assistant with his huge moustache, and the General. (257)

For some time we believe the mystery is to uncover the identity of Abigail, the person behind the statue. And like Gina, it is only later that readers can connect her to the smashed aquarium, the missing files and the other events of that morning.

Gina changes from being a spoiled little rich girl to a resourceful and determined (yet  opinionated) daughter of a General. While she is unwise, young, selfish, the reader still has sympathy for her in her various predicaments. One can admire her pride, her loyalty and her ingenuity. And in the end she has joined the network of people protecting what they can of Hungary. It is a long book but a gripping story.

Magda Szabo

The author lived between 1917 and 2007 in Hungary. Her work was not published during the Stalinist years. Later she published several novels which won her great acclaim, the first was Katalin Street in 1969. It was The Door that brought her international success. 

The Door by Magda Szabo (1987), translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix and reissued by Vintage in English in 2005. This was the 22nd in the OLDER WOMEN in fiction series, and you can read about it here.

Abigail by Magda Szabó first published in 1970 and in English translation by Macelhose Press in 2020. 442pp

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix

Some recent blog reviews:

A Life in Books included her review on 10th January this year.

HeavenAli published a review on 31st January.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation

The Years by Annie Ernaux

This is such an interesting book. It caught my eye because it won the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation this year. I had been hearing and reading about it on twitter and elsewhere. It seemed unusual that this book was gaining popularity and respect but was not a novel. That doesn’t happen very often. Or is it fiction? Is it that strange genre called auto fiction? 

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

The Years

There is a strong thread that follows the chronology of the years, related in the voice of the ‘choral we’. Conversation at family meals, friendships, political involvement, films, books, significant political events, world events and descriptions of photographs – these mark out the passing of time.

The memoir, then, is not of an individual’s life, the events and thoughts of Annie Ernaux from 1940 until 2006. Rather it is a collective memoir of the things we talked about, were involved in, the trends we were caught up in and the receding importance of the war that had absorbed our parents. It becomes a sociological text, but to describe it that way is to omit its literary qualities. For example:

For girls, shame lay in wait at every turn. Excesses in clothing and make-up were always monitored: too short, too long, too low-cut, too flashy etc. The height of their heels, whom they saw, what time they went out and came in, the crotch of their underwear, month after month, were subject to all-pervasive surveillance by society. (71-2)

Reading The Years

I found reading this book quite disorienting. To start with she had insights into stuff that I thought was particularly mine: books, attitudes, relationships and ambitions. She noticed things that I thought other people had not picked up on.

She noted major shifts in attitudes and political trends which I had thought were unique to me, but it turns out were widely shared. Furthermore her analysis was good and added to my understanding of my own passage through the same years.

I found that much of what she was reporting had a French and perhaps even European dimension, but yet applied to my life too. Her experience of Paris in 1968 was more acute (I was safely in the university rebellion at Warwick). In the UK active women could hardly avoid the Greenham Common protests (1981 – 2000) and their significance. But mostly the engagements were broadly similar, despite country and despite a decade’s difference in age.

It was an unsettling experience to read The Years. It was a little like those endless, cyclical debates of adolescence about free will and determinism. What is my life, like hers, like all who are included in the collective voice, what is our life but something to live through in a crowd of other people?

And in the end my individuality was lost. I was not surprised to read these comments by Annie Ernaux in a Guardian interview in April 2019:

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

But she is also provocative when she proposes the idea that all this will change as the generations replace us and ‘we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation’. (20)

The writing of The Years

Annie Ernaux has said that the main character of The Years is time itself, as indicated by the title. 

There is chronology in the passage of the reader and author through the years since 1940. The war is left behind, we read through the climax of the 1968 uprisings and the comfortable years that follow. In passing she remarks that they had no fear of the future in 1968, but now they fear it, despite a short resurgence of optimism with Mitterand in 1981.

We see all this through non-judgmental descriptions of family meals, films, books, homes, work, political changes, Algeria, the Gulf War and so on. I could read my own history as part of a whole, the well-off left-wing, public sector workers sharing so much of this with France.

Descriptions of photos appear periodically in the text, and they mark the passing of time. They are all, it is implied, of the author as she grows from infancy, through childhood to adulthood. Occasionally her own story intrudes, and both serve to provide some individuality to a text mostly told by the choral ‘we’.

Annie Ernaux

Annie Ernaux was born in 1940 and brought up in Normandy in a working class family. She became a school teacher, her subject was literature until she retired in 2000. She was able to find time to write The Years after she retired, although this work had been in her mind for much longer. She already had several novels published, all apparently based on the same close observation of real things and events.

The Guardian describes her as France’s great truth teller. The book has received many awards, including the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation in 2019, and the Francois Mauriac Prize from the French Académie and Marguerite Duras Prize for her life’s work. 

The Lonesome Reader blog reviewed The Years after it was placed on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize International. 

The Years by Annie Ernaux, first published in 2008. I read the English version published by Fitzcarraldo in 2019. Translated from the French by Alison L Strayer 227pp

6 Comments

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

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones by Olga Tokarczuk

Even if you can’t say her name (and I can’t) you cannot have missed the presence of Olga Tokarczuk on the literary scene. Flights won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018 and she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2018. (It came a year late due to some politicking which is irrelevant.) Many of her compatriots celebrate her creativity. Most pleasing, passengers on public transport in the city of Wroclaw were allowed to travel free if they were carrying one of her books on the weekend that the award was announced. Jacek Dehnel, poet and translator, says ‘she is the greatest writer in my language today’. 

There are others in Poland who see her as anti-Catholic, unpatriotic, leftist and suggest that she has promoted eco-terrorism. This last charge probably relates to Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones in which hunters in the narrator’s village are being picked off. Does she deserve the criticism or the accolades?

Many readers of the blog will know that I am championing fiction containing older women. This will be the 44th in the series. I am trying to read more novels in translation since I was guest host on Global Literatures in August, looking at older women around the world. This novel was suggested to me by Emma Wallace the producer of the BBC radio programme Women’s Hour. It featured a discussion of  fiction by, for and about older women in which I took part in August.

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones

From the start this novel presents itself as a bit of a mystery. There is the title, a quotation from the unorthodox English poet and visionary William Blake. His work features at the head of each chapter and in the subject matter of the novel as the protagonist is helping her former pupil and Blake-enthusiast to translate Blake into Polish. I do not understand the title.

The mystery is also in the subject matter. Who is killing the hunters in this border village? The narrator, Janina Duszejko (or Mrs Duszejko as she prefers) lost her two precious dogs to hunters and she spreads the idea that it is the animals taking their revenge. But the story also has the qualities of a fable in that animals have magical qualities. 

The story is located in a village on the border between Poland and the Czech Republic, on the margins of two countries. Like the narrator, the village is out of kilter. Poland is compared unfavourably to the country across the border where all is perfect. The village empties every winter. Events often take place at night when it is hard to see clearly. The murders occur periodically and the police are confused by the evidence. The narrator is drawn into the search to identify the murderer. 

Mrs Duszejko has some friends, also outsiders: Oddball her neighbour, Good News a friendly woman who keeps a secondhand clothes shop, Dizzy a former pupil, and Boros the etymologist. They help each other and form a loose social group.

The themes of the novel concern the treatment of animals, ageism, being outsiders and it has a definite political edge. 

The older woman

The narrator Mrs Duszejko is in her 60s and something of an oddity, considered so by the authorities, partly because she is old and lives on her own and is a vegetarian. She does not live as an older woman is expected to. She doesn’t know she should sing at a funeral, remove herself from the scene of a hunting when instructed by the hunters, wears what she likes, is single. She finds herself treated as older women are, that is ignored most of the time, patronised at other times. Her behaviour frequently confuses those who question her, and the reader. She writes weirdly, with capital letters for many but not all nouns. She also suffers from Ailments, which are never clarified or defined, nor do they appear to limit her activities a great deal.

She is also discounted because she is passionate. For example her letter to the police does not receive an answer, despite asking for explanations of some important aspects of the murders. Like all old women, and many old men, she is ignored and made invisible.

Here is her account of her meeting with the police commander.

I could almost hear his thoughts – in his mind I was definitely a ‘little old lady’, and once my accusatory speech was gathering strength, ‘a silly old bag’, ‘crazy old crone’, or ‘madwoman’. I could sense his disgust as he watched my movements and cast (negative) judgement on my taste. He didn’t like my hairstyle, or my clothes, or my lack of subservience. He scrutinized my face with growing dislike. (35)

And here is another older woman, the Writer, who suggests this with Mrs Duszejko’s agreement.

‘You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.’ (221)

Mrs Duszejko studies astrology, and this was an aspect of the novel I found hard to understand. Perhaps it is as good a way of understanding the world as any?

Olga Tokarczuk

She writes novels that are in ‘the continental tradition of the thinking novel’ (Kapka Kassabova in The Guardian). It could be seen as a simple mystery, but identifying the perpetrator of the crimes is not the most important aspect of this book. More significant questions are posed.

The smoother argument made in “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” is that conforming to nature is sanity, whereas conforming to humanity is idiocy. To be in constant grief due to the cruelty of man is not misanthropy, it’s pure logic. “What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm?” Duszejko asks. “What on earth is wrong with us?

From August 2019 New York Times review by Sloane Crosely.

This is an inventive writer, one who changes her approach and who is making a name for herself, and perhaps for Polish fiction. I am on the side of the applause. She does that excellent job in fiction of showing us the world as we do not normally see it, and this time through the eyes of an older, activist woman.

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones by Olga Tokarczuk, first published in Polish in 2010 and in English in 2018 by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. 266pp

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft from the Polish and also published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. My review can be found here.

And some blogs I found useful in reading Drive Your Plow are The Lonesome Reader and Translating Women.

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Eleanor and Abel  by Annette Sanford (guest post)

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

6 Comments

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

The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

I like the way the translated version of the title sets up a tension between the image of a biddable older woman and breaking the rules. All the best titles hold some contradictions I believe. And here is an older woman who is not the stereotype of the little old lady. Indeed she is not afraid to stand up for herself and for others and to create a community of older activists in the process. A great basis for a novel about an older woman. This is a guest post, by a writer friend, Carole, who responded to my request for examples of older women in fiction and got herself volunteered. 

The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules is the 43rd in the series of older women in fiction. This is what Carole wrote for me:

The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules

Here is a little old lady who fights back. Martha is no passive acceptor of whatever is thrown at her by life. She takes an active part in shaping her future and that of her friends. 

When greedy new owners force cutbacks to staff and services, Martha Andersson decides that conditions in prison would be preferable to those endured by the inmates of the Diamond House Retirement Home. A lack of outings, microwaved meals and a cocktail of appetite suppressants and sedatives make doing time seem a luxury to the residents. Spurred on by a hidden stash of cloudberry liqueur, Martha encourages her friends to form the League of Pensioners and to embark on an adventure. Together they set off to commit a crime that will get them banged up.  

Although Martha is a 79 year old lady who knits and uses a Zimmer frame, she is portrayed as a woman who is so much more than just that. She has a past life with skills that can be utilised to help her overcome the present crisis. She has a strong character that inspires her to want to fight injustice, a logical mind and an imagination. She is so much more than ‘a little old lady’. While medication may have masked the talents of Martha and her friends, it has not robbed them of their ability to remember the people they were – and still are. Within the limitations that age has inflicted (an ability to forget things and slower reactions) Martha wrestles with her problems and comes up with ingenious solutions that utilises the talents of her friends in League.

While occasionally disbelief must be suspended, Martha is portrayed as a real and likeable character. The plot is funny and shows us people who are having relationships, who worry about how they look and what they’re going to eat. They bicker and gripe but mostly they rise to the challenge. Despite their crimes I found that I was on their side and their honourable intentions were enough to carry me through to the end. It is interesting that the original title in Swedish offers no inkling as to the age of the protagonist. It may be that the change of title was made because of our fixed ideas about what ‘little old ladies’ should be doing in their twilight years. 

The book raises questions about what we expect from ‘old people’ and whether dignity should be a right. It shows how easy it may be to sit back and accept a restricted life and limited opportunities as part of ‘growing old’ never questioning whether something better is possible. Worse may be the ease with which we (i.e. younger than ‘old’) accept that prognosis for others – defining them by their years not their ability. Although it is greed that has sparked the changes in the Diamond House Retirement Home, the book raises questions about the standard of care offered in so many of our own retirement homes where cost cutting is biting into the normal stuff that we, who consider ourselves to be less than ‘old’, may take for granted. Read in the present light of questioning whether it is wise to write people off just because they are old or infirm, this book gently highlights some thoughts on the matter. Martha shows that by utilising people’s changing abilities and encouraging adapted skills, great things can be achieved. 

It is a book that I would strongly recommend. It is light and easy to read with a humour that underlines the most serious of questions. Martha is a likeable character who bravely battles the system but she, and her friends, also show acceptance of other people’s foibles whether these are caused by old age or just part of being human. While the book has a tremendous feel-good factor, it gently gets you thinking. 

The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules  by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg. First published in 2012 by Bokfürlager Forum, Sweden under the title Kaffe med Rån  (Coffee with Robbery). This edition published in 2014 by Pan Books. Translated by Rod Bradbury.

Guest post written by Carole Ellis

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Eleanor and Abel  by Annette Sanford (guest post)

Should You Ask Me  by Marianne Kavanagh

The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour

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

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please email me with your email address: lodgecm@gmail.com

4 Comments

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

Selfies by Sylvie Weil

When I noticed that Selfies by Sylvie Weil was getting good responses on Twitter I ordered it to read for Women in Translation Month (August): #WITMonth. Selfies by Sylvie Weil was published in English in June 2019, having first appeared in French in 2015. It is translated by Ros Schwartz.

Selfies

I am not clear about the genre of Selfies. It would probably be classed as a memoir, but it is creative and imaginative, so it might be a novel. This confusion results partly from its presentation. This is part of its charm.

Each of the 13 sections contained within Selfies begins with a brief description of a self-portrait by a female artist. The original painting is then is reinterpreted in words as a scenario with the author as the subject. Then follows a narrative, short or long, related to the scene. It seems a little clunky at first, but soon the creative and imaginative format appeals, and it becomes hard to stop reading.

Another way to envisage this book is to anticipate 13 episodes, significant in the author’s life, and to see them refracted through a painted self-portrait. 

Sylvie Weil introduces us to her first self-portrait. In about 1200 Claricia, a German illuminator, portrayed herself swinging by the arms from the tail of a large capital ‘Q’. 

I will paint my self-portrait as a letter ‘I’ against a background the warm hue of ancient parchment. A perfect upright, slender, graceful adolescent girl, wound like a vine around a rope dangling from a ceiling that is either invisible or covered in verdant foliage, since this is an illumination. … (10)

 Her narrative is an account of a gym lesson in her convent. She is climbing ropes and experiencing the sensuous pleasure of her own body. 

Gwen John’s Self Portrait with Letter is reimagined as the author painting her own portrait holding a postcard. The pc has a message from an American lover, who after a few days in Paris decides that they will marry and he invites her to New York. The visit does not go well and the reader is relieved when … 

We see her as an older woman taking many photographs of everyone at a social event and deleting all except the ones of her son; we read about the best friend relationship that turns out to be not so close; we recognise her reaction to friends who had their dog put down for their convenience and so on. She reflects on herself and how the people around her have influenced her. As one reads the vignettes her development and character become a clearer.

The reader inevitably wonders what self-portraits would s/he draw on, and what that would reveal. I love this French experimentation with form, which makes it an intriguing and compelling read.

Selfies by Sylvie Weil published in English in 2019 by Les Fugatives. Originally published in Paris in 2015. 152 pp

Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz.

2 Comments

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

My Bookish August

This has been a rather mad month in terms of bookish and writing activities. I know we are barely half way though August but it has been non-stop in the Bookword world. 

Woman’s Hour

For readers outside the UK who may not know it, Woman’s Hour is a long-running magazine programme on BBC Radio 4. As the title suggests, it focuses on issues from the female perspective, and covers a very wide range of topics. It has a large audience.

Early in August I was asked to join a discussion on older women and fiction, to be broadcast live. The prompt for this discussion was some recent research into the tastes and disappointments of women readers over 40, commissioned by the website Gransnet.

Our topic took as its starting point that women over 40 are the biggest buyers of fiction, but the survey revealed that readers were dissatisfied with how older women are depicted. They often appear in novels as stereotypes, for example unable to operate a smart phone. I made my points about how everyone needs to read good examples of older women, not just readers over 40. And I recommended three good titles, having plugged my blog. I have been asked to repeat my recommendations – so here they are, with links to the reviews on Bookword.

I was asked to arrive by 9.30am, but was unable to find the studio. Fortunately I have done this kind of thing before, or I would have been completely fazed by arriving late, having followed internet directions to the studios in Exeter that they left four years ago. My smart phone was no help; no one answered my increasingly desperate calls and no one could tell me where I was supposed to be. It took a gasman, a community centre receptionist and a taxi driver to deliver me to the studio. The programme order was rearranged to accommodate my tardiness.

This time I met no chickens as I waited to go on air. For an account of a previous experience in September 2014 in a BBC radio studio to promote a book see the link here: Retiring with Attitude at the BBC.

Guest Blogging on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative website

Karen Van Drie invited me to blog in August about older women in fiction around the world. I hope you have or will take a look. By the end the month there will have been about 25 posts. Sadly only six are translations. This is disappointing because August is Women in Translation Month: #WITMonth.  

You can find the blog here: Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, and for more information about the guestathon see my post on Bookword for 3rdAugust.

Planning for the Writing Festival

But most of my energies in August have gone on my contribution to planning a writing festival. WRITE NOW TOTNES will be held on Saturday 21stSeptember, organised by the Totnes Library Writing Group. We have pulled together an exciting range of workshops and other events designed to appeal to participants with a range of experience and of confidence. 

We are proud that it is a local event, ie all workshop leaders and performers are from the area around Totnes, and it is held in the centre of Totnes in the community buildings known as the Mansion. We are thrilled to have attracted funding, including from the Arts Council Lottery Fund. 

There is so much to organise and get right. I have volunteered to do a workshop on blogging of course.

For more details see our Facebook page.

And …

Just three things to keep me busy? Did I mention the dog, or writing or  …? Enough!

3 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, Libraries, Older women in fiction, Publishing our book, Reading, Reviews, The Craft of Blogging, Women in Translation, words, Writing

Older women in fiction around the world

So this month I am guest blogging on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, thanks to an invitation from Karen Van Drie. Karen had seen the series on Older Women in fiction on Bookword and suggested I did a version of older women in translation. 

A blogger’s dream invitation

It’s a blogger’s dream, my blogging dream – an invitation to blog almost daily for a month about older women in fiction in translation. Regular readers will know that I have been writing about older women in fiction almost from the start of this blog. And I have also been supporting initiatives to publicise women in translation such as Women in Translation Month, which is August: #WITMonth.  

Why Older women in Fiction?

A common complaint of older women is that they become invisible. My blog series is in part a challenge to that invisibility in fiction.

More urgently, we need to change how people see older women. James Baldwin said,

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimetre the way people look at reality, then you can change it. [quoted in the TLS by Sarah Ladipo Manyika* 28.5.19}

When I began looking for my own examples of older women who were not sweet, eccentric or death-fixated I was underwhelmed. I decided to collect readers’ ideas about better models of older women in fiction and now I have reviewed 40 titles and have a list of another 40 on my blog page about the older women in fiction series.

Not enough older women in translation

But there was a problem with Karen’s invitation. As far as I have discovered there are not many books in translation into English about older women in fiction. On Bookword to date there are only four (about 10%):

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (Finland)

The Door by Magda Szabo (Hungary)

The Woman of Tantoura by Radwa Ashour (Egypt)

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc (France)

The shortage of older women in translation is an amplification of the failure of publishers to include fiction by women in translation on their lists. Some of the smaller independent publishers do great work it must be said. To some extent the market will develop as the population of older women increases, as it is worldwide. But for now I am just being eagle-eyed and watching the initiatives for promoting fiction in translation. You can help by making suggestions. There is the excellent Biblibio blogwhich hosts Women in translation month; The Global Literature blog; and the PEN organisation. 

So with no shortage of older women, only of translations, I suggested to Karen that I could provide posts on older women around the world.

Blogging about the Older Women in Fiction around the World

On Global Literature in Libraries Initiativeblog the continents will be my organising principle for this month:

  • Week 1 North America
  • Week 2 Europe
  • Week 3 Africa and the Middle East
  • Week 4 fiction from the UK 
  • Week 5 a roundup of those that got missed.

Where are the older women from South America and the Far East and – most surprising to me as there are so many excellent writers – from New Zealand and Australia? 

Not all books with strong examples of older women are written by women, although the large majority of them are. You will find several examples of books by men over the month. 

I have not written all the posts. I asked some other readers/writers to contribute.

Like a Mule bringing Ice Cream by *Sarah Ladipo Manyika will be featured in Week 3.

I am so grateful to Karen Van Drie for this opportunity.

…and on Bookword?

During August I will be blogging as usual on Bookword, posting every five days. Some posts will be edited examples of the more editorial posts from Global Literacies, but I will also be posting the next in the Decades Project on Children’s Literature where we have reached the ‘70s. And I may post some book reviews if my reading prompts me to. 

But it is Women in Translation Month so I hope to keep most of my posts with that theme in mind.

2 Comments

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

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe

Her name has been linked to Jean Rhys and Katherine Mansfield; she has been compared to Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf; she was admired by Simone de Beauvoir; and yet I hadn’t heard of her. Then Pushkin Press invited me to review a copy of her short stories, and I noticed that Heaven Ali is reading a novel by her called Marie

She is Madeleine Bourdouxhe, born in Belgium in 1906, who lived in both the French and Belgian capitals. Her first novel, La Femme de Gilles, was published in 1937 and Marie appeared in 1943. Her short stories were published in literary magazines in the late ‘40s. They were collected and published in Paris in 1985. Madeleine Bourdouxhe died in 1996. 

The Women’s Press published her translated stories in 1989. Pushkin Press published the English translations by Faith Evans in June 2019. My copy was provided by Pushkin Press, and I am most grateful.

A Nail, A Rose

The collection contains seven short stories and a novella. Her stories were mostly written after the war, in that period of economic depression and reconstruction and before French culture really flowered with the existentialists. France had much to consider in the post war years, some parts had been occupied for 5 years.

The writer’s style is spare and, at times, abrupt. The author assumes that the reader will do some work: for example, notice that the objects or people mentioned early in a story will be of significance later. 

Each story features a woman, sometimes giving her name to the story, sometime anonymous. She might be the narrator, or the focus of the third person narration. In every story there is considerable pain, often physical, sometime of love that has disappeared, or of relationships strained and in tension. She does not shrink from the visceral. The female body is ever present with its smells, leakages and lusts. ‘Anna’, for example, is a story about a woman who loves to dance, but her jealous husband uses violence to contain her spirit. 

Very little is explained, for example why the man hit the woman in the title story and why she then was calm with him and met him again. Precisely located in the story’s present, explanations are short or omitted. Sometimes flashbacks move the story on, as in ‘Leah’, where they refer to the woman’s earlier political activism.

I found myself responding strongly to the story called ‘Louise’ where a single mother works as a maid for Madame. Madame lends Louise her blue coat and Louise goes out to meet the man she wants to attract. As she waits for Bob to appear she begins to doubt herself.

Minutes passed, more and more slowly, and time began to drag. It must be lovely to wait when you know that someone is going to turn up, Louise thought to herself. Lowering her head, she went off into a sort of dream. She felt very pretty and very alone. (76)

In this way the author reveals much about Louise, and about her loneliness. The relationship with Bob proves to be an empty and unsatisfying one-night stand. But the experience of wearing Madame’s coat is much more significant and satisfying to Louise.

The novella, ‘Sous le pont Mirabeau’, follows a new mother who has to evacuate from the hospital immediately her baby is born as the Germans invade, and mother and child leave with the convoys to go to free France. She appears to only go a little further than the Loire, but eventually meets the Germans. This story is based on Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s experiences. As in her other stories, the people who appear are ordinary folk, and the mother with her baby experiences many small acts of kindness and care. She sees the soldiers as the people they are, first those in retreat and later the victorious ones.

I loved her writing, with its bare starkness. I was pleased to have been given a copy to review, because I would not have noticed her otherwise. Thanks to Pushkin Press. I might follow @Heaven_Ali soon by reading one of her two novels.

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (2019) Pushkin Press

Translated from French by Faith Evans

Copy provided by Pushkin Press. 224 pp

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, short stories, Women in Translation

You would have missed me by Birgit Vanderbeke

I read The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke in 2013, and reposted my review to coincide with #WITmonth in August 2015. My book group read that novel a little later. On every occasion it attracted much positive comment. In the post I praised the style of writing, long sentences, almost hypnotic rhythms, and the translation from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

So when my Peirene subscription brought me a second novel by Birgit Vanderbeke I was excited to read more of her work, and at the same time apprehensive in case it did not match the first book. It is not the policy of Peirene Pressto publish a second book by an author, but for this one they made an exception. And again I was very moved by her writing. And again it was translated by Jamie Bulloch.

You would have missed me

The short novel is told in the first person by a child who is part of a very dysfunctional family. She is in trouble as this early excerpt makes clear. 

I had my best idea when I was seven, because at the time I urgently needed to talk to someone, and when it occurred to me how I might go about that I sensed that it was a really good idea, although I didn’t realise quite how good until much later.

To be precise, it happened on my seventh birthday.

We were standing in our two-bedroom flat in the Promised Land and once again it was clear that I wouldn’t be getting a cat for my birthday.

I’d been wanting a kitten ever since we left the refugee camp. I was five back then. This was the third birthday in a row I wouldn’t be getting one.

You get used to disappointments, but in the long term they make you feel cold and empty inside, and you begin to lose heart. (9)

The setting is divided Germany in the ‘60s. The Promised Land is a housing complex for the workers and their families of a dye factory in the West.

The unnamed child is the unwanted offspring of two parents: an older mother from the East who is neglectful and selfish and harks back to a better time: before the war when she was engaged to the heir to a wealthy land-owning Nazi family. She is never satisfied with anything. The girl’s father is the son of a Belgian woman who migrated to Germany and his father is unknown. He is much younger than his wife. He suffered in a fire and his hands were badly damaged. They are not a happy couple.

As the child tells us about her seventh birthday, it emerges that she is the victim of both physical abuse (from her father) and mental abuse from both parents. She remembers a time in the refugee camp when she was befriended by a trio of older Germans who provided care, love, affection and some cultural stimulus. 

Inside her a voice, her own strong voice, is developing and it prompted her to stand up to a bully at school and eventually to her father. Her best idea is to be brave and to take risks, to consider her future. In the final scene she achieves this with a dramatic flourish.

Reading You would have missed me

It was clear from The Mussel Feast that the family stood, in part, for the East German state, the GDR. Like that family, specifically the father, it was paternalistic, oppressive and violent in response to transgressions. In this second novel both parents are neglectful and uncaring, they lie to her and are unable to provide for a child’s needs. Fortunately she thrives on the love shown her by her grandma (left behind in the GDR) and by three literate, story-loving old liberals in the refugee camp. Each of these, along with some other more positive social interactions as she grows up and help her hear her own voice, a voice of invention, humour and rebellion.

The reader must ask under what circumstances have we avoided missing this little girl: if she hadn’t be born, if she had escaped, if we had put the book down and not thought of her as so many others did? One answer is, ‘You would have missed me if I hadn’t found my voice’.

This is what Meike Ziervogel says about the decision to publish this novel.

Today, as in the past, people flee from one country to another in the hope of finding a better future. But how do children experience such displacement? How do they cope with traumas of a refugee camp? In this novel Birgit Vanderbeke goes back to her own childhood in the divided Germany of the 1960s. She shows how the little girl she once was saved herself by imagining countries on the far side of the world. A masterpiece of memory turned into fiction.

You would have missed me by Birgit Vanderbeke, first published in Germany in 2016. English translation published by Peirene Press in 2019 in the There be monsters series. 122pp

Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch 

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation