Tag Archives: Peirene Press

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.

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The Love of Singular Men by Victor Heringer 

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

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

The Love of Singular Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victor Heringer

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

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

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

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Marzahn, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp

The blurb on the back cover describes the novella in this way. A woman approaching the ‘invisible years’ of middle age abandons her failing writing career to retrain as a chiropodist in the East Berlin suburb of Marzahn, once the GDR’s largest prefabricated housing estate. From the clinic on the ground floor, she observes her clients and co-workers, and hears their stories. The charms of this short book are only hinted at by this description.

Marzahn, Mon Amour

The title of this collection is an homage to the French New Wave film Hiroshima, Mon Amour. The 1959 film was directed by Alain Renais and the screenplay by Marguerite Duras.  It was innovative in its presentation of a nonlinear montage of miniature stories and other memorabilia. Like the film, Katja Oskamp provides us with many different sketches, mostly descriptions of clients and colleagues, but also of her tram journey to work and the local cemetery, to make a statement about the GDR suburb and its community. The destructive force here is less defined than the Atom Bomb which was used to flatten Hiroshima in August 1946. Nevertheless, the reunification of Germany in 1990 did not work out well for the people of Marzahn even if a sense of community prevails.

The vignettes of the clients form most of the chapters, and every vignette is seen from the perspective of the characters’ feet. The writer is a chiropodist who has great tenderness for the feet, and for the lives that have been lived with them. For the most part, her clients are old, many of them long-term residents of Marzahn.

Katja Oskamp has great patience and respect for her clients and reads how they live from the state of their feet. 

When I carefully rub Frau Bronkat’s feet with Voltarol, she appreciates the easing of her pain, although it never completely disappears. She says the hideous shoes she wore as a child are only half the root of her ailments. The other half was inherited. All the women in her family have loose joints, stretched ligaments or weak tendons. One cousin developed a bunion by the time she was eleven. ‘Our wretched bones are good for nothing,’ she told me. I have a vision of an entire squad of Bronkat nurses, all with white nurse’s hats and grey aprons, black sandals peeking out from under the grey fabric of their dresses, revealing their bare feet with bunions like overripe tubers, glowing red. (123)

The Fats Waller song Your Feet’s Too Big was frequently in my head when I read this. Especially the line:

Oh, your pedal extremities are colossal

And then we met Herr Huth, who has Alzheimer’s and accompanies his wife to the clinic.

Last week, Herr Huth had the first pedicure of his life. He sat on the chiropody chair and said, as I was washing his feet, ‘I’ve got size eleven feet. I have big shoes to fill.’ Frau Huth and I giggled, and then Frau Huth, who was sitting on the chair in the window, turned and looked out. I trimmed Herr Huth’s toenails, cleaned his nail folds, smoothed the edges of his nails with the drill and filed his heels. He slept. He looked pale and peaceful. (132)

What is revealed in this series of vignettes is the observational skill of the writer. She notices the behaviour of the regular clients as a contrast to the newbies’. She is tolerant of repetitive conversation, and of demanding customers. She obviously loves feet. And she writes about her clients with charm and respect. She provides a quiet affirmation of the value of each person, even the very old and sick, and her workmates.

The biographical details provided reveal that these vignettes come from Katja Oskamp’s experience, for she has been a chiropodist in Marzahn. 

Marzahn, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp, first published in 2019. The English translation from German by Jo Heinrich, published by Peirene Press in 2022. 141pp You can find details of Peirene subscriptions here

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Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve

It is October 1918, the final months of the First World War. In Paris Jeanne Caillet is waiting for her husband to return. He has been wounded and in hospital for several months. Life is hard for Jeanne and the women who live near her: shortages of fuel, and food, and work. This novella reaches deep into the destructive power of war and looks at the damage it visits upon a small web of relationships surrounding Jeanne. 

Originally written in French, here translated by Adriana Hunter for Peirene Press, the publication date for Winter Flowers is 7th October 2021.

Winter Flowers

In some ways Jeanne is lucky. She has a job making artificial flowers by the gross to a tight schedule and exacting standard. The work brings in just enough to support her and her daughter. Her neighbour Sidonie sews aprons. Jeanne and her Sidonie support each other by taking turns to deliver the finished articles and collect the parts for the next batch. 

Jeanne’s hands are dulled with work, her back is stiff. And as she closes her eyes, and relaxes her head and shoulders, all her in-held breath comes out at once in a hoarse cry that would leave anyone who heard it struggling to say whether it expressed pleasure or pain. (7)

Sidonie’s only surviving son Eugène left for the war at the same time as Jeanne’s husband Toussaint. Eugène has not been heard from for months, but Toussaint is in hospital having been wounded in the face. 

As soon as he was admitted to Val-de-Grâce military hospital, Toussaint sent his wife a brief letter.
‘I want you not to come.’
Those were his words.
It was clear, definitive. It invited no reply, and Jeanne sent none. (29)

Jeanne, and the reader, learn indirectly of the dreadful injury to Toussaint’s face from a report from his father. It is as if the damage cannot be approached directly. But Jeanne does not know what to think of her husband’s message, and of what will happen when the war ends.

Meanwhile she has to keep on making the flowers, often far into the night. The flowers have several functions within this novella. To start with, they provide the only colour in a relentless grey and dismal time. The red poppies, of course, came to symbolise the dead soldiers of the Western Front. And Jeanne is making these for the luxury market, for those who have power and influence, and who still value the display of wealth and unnecessary objects. 

At the heart of this novel is this contrast: Jeanne is involved in the delicate work of creating artificial flowers and at the same time living in near destitute conditions and caring for a husband seriously damaged by the war. 

When Toussaint returns there is an intensification of the hardships of the Caillet family: another person in their small flat and another mouth to feed. Toussaint’s face is badly injured so he wears a mask. He may have lost the ability to speak, and he won’t go out or interact with his family. 

The Caillet family are by no means the only ones damaged by war. When Sidonie is told by the Special Messenger Service (women volunteers who inform families that soldiers have been killed) that Eugène has been dead for eighteen months she is devastated. Invited to the town hall to a ceremony at which she is given a certificate, Sidonie is accompanied by Jeanne. Here are the people who pronounce empty and vacuous platitudes to those who lose people.

Up on a rostrum, flanked by his deputies, the mayor with his tricolour sash over his barrel chest gives an interminable speech, and there’s a pomposity in his voice and his words for which they are quite unprepared. (79)

The reader learns that the Jeanne and Toussaint had a good and loving relationship before the war, even surviving the death of their first child. The novel follows Jeanne’s attempts to reunite with her husband, bridge the years of the war, their different experiences, the maturing of their surviving child. How can they keep the family together, as Léo has grown up? How can Jeanne support Sidonie when the last of her sons is declared dead, and the official response is so lacking?

The flowers represent so much: they show up the dreariness of Paris; they indicate the suffering of the women; they are destined to be bought by rich people not directly involved in the war; and they represent the dead.

Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve, first published in French in2014 and the English translation by Peirene Press in 2021. 117pp

Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter.

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Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel

Dance by the Canal is a novella, published by the much appreciated Peirene Press and sent to subscribers as the third in their East and West Series: Looking Both Ways. In this book we are brought to East Germany before and after reunification, to explore how a young woman fails to find her way in either. The bleakness of the Communist East offers little to a free spirit, and reunification with West Germany is suffocating her hometown. Where is a young woman to be? First published in German in 1994, four years after the reunification, Dance by the Canal still has a great deal to tell us about Europe today.

The Story of Dance by the Canal

Gabriela von Haßlau grows up as an unloved and untalented child, in a fictional town called Leibnitz in East Germany. Gabriela is a disappointment and distraction to her parents. Her father is a self-important surgeon finding the restrictions of the East German state hampers his ability to impress people. Her mother is scarcely interested in her daughter and when the couple begin entertaining, against the wishes of the state, she begins an affair. The marriage disintegrates as Gabriela’s father is removed from his post.

Led astray at school, Gabriela begins to distance herself from her family and the future organised for her by the state. She begins an apprenticeship at a machinery factory. From there she is rescued in a shady deal. In exchange for reporting on her friends she is to be a spy, and when this doesn’t work out she ends up on the street, sleeping under the canal bridge.

Bleak because there seems no answer for Gabriela, and she cannot help herself. Neither the East nor the reunified Germany can cope with her.

Humour

There is a great deal of wit in this novel, despite its rather bleak tone and ambiguous ending. Her father, a vascular surgeon, rebukes the child for crying when the tangles in her hair are pulled.

– Think of all the people with varicose veins, Father would say, you don’t see them crying. (12)

And here is the vivid way in which Gabriela describes the work she was required to do at the I-Plant: filing iron plates.

Five kilograms of iron, heave up, press to bib, clamp, screw down, file, position, up and down, thirty-degree angle, release vice, hold the plate tightly, turn the plate, retighten, file, up down up down, only fucking’s better, rotate, change, take off plate, set aside, check with bare fingertips, five kilograms of iron, heave up, clamp, turn it the other way, nose wipe, iron stinks, bad filing cuts into flesh, five kilograms is women’s weight, arms like a heavyweight, the screech of drilling, shriek of milling, screech of grinding, file by hand, up down, the stack of plates shrinks, the other grows, […] after eight hours I don’t know who I am. (86)

And there are some great characters. The other down-and-outs who drink at the Three Roses could have emerged from the Commedia del Arte. Semmelweis-Marrie, Rampen-Paul, Klunzer-Lupo and Noppe. The wonderful partner in crime from her schools days, Katka. Various teachers. Her mother’s hammy lover. The sinister Queck and Manfred who end up drowned …

Gabriela is the narrator of the novella. From the writing emerge the sense of things happening to Gabriela, her lack of control over the events, her escapes and the bleakness of her life.

Kerstin Hensel

Kerstin Hensel was born in 1961 in what was called Karl-Marx-Stadt in East Germany. She studied in Leipzig, medicine and literature. She publishes poetry and plays as well as novels. Dance by the Canal was her first novel.

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, published in German in 1994, and in translation in 2017 by Peirene. 122pp

Translated from the German by Jen Calleja

For another review of Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, go to the blog ALifeinBooks.

On Bookword

I am reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation every month: here are three recommendations from those I have already included.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Berofsky.

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

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

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The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay

This novella, The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay, begins in the parched landscape of a Middle Eastern country, or perhaps of Afghanistan, in the shadow of mountains. A family is struggling to make a living from the orange grove, against the harshness of the climate. Then the grandparents’ house is bombed from over the mountains, and the way is open for revenge and the gradual destruction of the survivors of the family.

The novella

The Orange Grove was written by a Canadian writer, who is also a theatre director and actor. It was translated from the French by Sheila Fischman and published by Peirene Press in the East and West Series.

Larry Tremblay seems to invite the reader to share his struggle to understand participation in war and violence. The novella concludes in a North American city, where a theatre teacher, Michael, is staging a play about war and violence. Among his student actors is Aziz, a twin, now twenty, who grew up alongside the orange grove. Michael and Aziz struggle to find the ending for the play that will reflect something of the reality of the experience of violence and of Aziz’s experiences in particular, and the reality of its aftermath.

He [Michael] was asking himself the same questions about evil. It was too easy to accuse those who committed war crimes of being assassins or wild beasts. Especially when those who judged them lived far from the circumstances that had provoked the conflicts, whose origins were lost in the vortex of history. What would he have done in a comparable situation? Would he, like millions of other men, have been capable of fighting for an idea, a scrap of earth, a border, or even oil? Would he, too, have been conditioned to kill innocents, women and children? Or would he have had the courage, even if it meant risking his own life, to refuse the order to shoot down defenceless people in a burst of gunfire? (120)

The story of the twins, Aziz and Ahmed, attempts to bring us closer to such circumstances from which families were unable to escape. The father and grandfather of the twins tend the orange grove. One night the grandparents’ house is bombed and they are killed. Soulayed arrives preaching revenge, and demands that one of the twins is prepared by his father for a suicide mission on a base on the other side of the mountain. Ahmed is chosen. But Aziz has a terminal disease and their mother asks Ahmed to allow Aziz to die in his place.

The novella follows what happens after one twin leaves with the suicide belt to cross the mountain and how eventually the other twin goes to North America. He decides to become an actor, hearing so many voices in his head. Through his difficulties in helping Michael conclude his play he retells his experiences of the aftermath and dilemmas he and his family faced, especially when the truth about the target of the mission was revealed.

He addresses the audience at the end of the play.

‘No, you don’t need to have a reason or even to have right on your side to do what you think you must do. Don’t look elsewhere for what is already within you. Who am I to think in your place? My clothes are dirty and torn, and my heart is shattered like a pebble. I cry tears that tear at my face. But as you can hear, my voice is calm. Better still, I have a peaceful voice. I am speaking to you in a voice that is seven years old, nine years old, twenty years old, a thousand years old. Do you hear me?’ (138)

You cannot fail to be moved by this story. Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press publisher, said ‘this story made me cry. … This story reminds us of our obligation to forgive – ourselves as well as others’. We cannot fully understand individual experiences of the horrors of the world. But we can hear. And we can know that all refugees begin by being forced to leave their homeland, through violence, often committed for revenge or to create unrest and more violence. A thousand stories, not all ending well. Not all heard.

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay (2013 in French, 2015 in English) Peirene Press 2017. 138pp

Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman

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Post-War Novels

Change is implicated in all novels’ plots. No change is greater than that brought by war: physical change to bodies, buildings and landscapes; social and economic change to families and other communities large and small.

In the exploration of human relations, emotions, loss, change and survival after an armed conflict fiction has an important role to play. There may be no peace as delayed, new or latent issues emerge. Characters shift from a communal effort towards one objective – winning the war – to a focus on their own personal lives and difficulties.

Such change and conflict is fertile ground for novelists as these recommended post-war novels demonstrate, all set in the years following the Second World War.

  • Shirley Hazzard The Great Fire
  • Marghanita Laski The Village
  • Marie Sizun Her Father’s Daughter

Survival and guilt

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (2004) published by Virago. pp314

296-gr-fire-cover

The title of this novel put me off but a writer friend recommended it and now I believe it is one of the best novels I have read. The fire refers to the engulfing flames of the Second World War, the involvement of so many countries, the explosion of the first A Bomb in Hiroshima and the scorched emotions of characters in the novel including a consuming love. And this novel considers the damage brought by survivor guilt.

Aldred Leith is an Englishman in Japan in 1947, physically and emotionally scarred. He meets a much younger Australian woman, Helen, and falls for her. The narrative follows Leith’s love for Helen, so strong, so necessary for his survival that it affirms the importance of love for humans, for a decent life, in war or peace. But it is much more than a love story, being peopled by the wounded victorious, the accidental survivors, the chance encounters, the generosity of strangers, the bitterness of war.

Here’s Adam Mars-Jones’s review from the Observer in Dec 2003: ‘surely an outright masterpiece’.

Social Change

The Village by Marghanita Laski, first published in 1952, reissued by Persephone Books in 2007. 302pp

This novel looks at post-war village life in England, the changes and frictions left after conflict. These are explored through the relationship of Margaret Trevor and Roy Wilson, one from the declining and impoverished middle class and the other from a respectable working class family. Roy is a compositor, a man of the future. Margaret’s family disapprove of their relationship, but they have hardy a penny to their name. Their reference points are pre-war.

For Wendy Trevor it is the worst social embarrassment to have her daughter engaged to a working class man. Mrs Trevor is prepared to do stupid and destructive things to ensure her daughter doesn’t marry Roy. But the reactions of the other villagers shows us how things have been changed by the war and also about values that were maintained despite so much destruction.

The value of property, the inability to maintain large houses, the changing relationship between workers and ‘masters’, even the contrast between Negroes in the North of the US and the working class are revealed.

A reunited or divided families

Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun, first published in French in 2005 and published in English in 2016 by Peirene Press. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter. 150pp

296-fs-daughter-cover

It’s Paris in the dying embers of war. A little girl lives with her mother in a close and rather spoiled relationship in a flat; her father is absent – a prisoner of war. Only her grandmother makes any impression on the child, with a memory of a holiday in Normandy and the birth of a baby sister. Back in Paris, without the baby, the child is told that the episode was a dream. The father returns, damaged, but happy to be back. The child reveals her mother’s lie and the father leaves and later marries someone else.

Told from the child’s point of view, her relationships within the family are charted through devotion to the mother, hostility to the father, changing into reluctant pleasure at her father’s presence, then devotion to him. When he leaves the little girl is forlorn, but then reinstates her relationship with her mother. Later in life she reflects on what her father has given her.

Rather a sad tale of change brought by war.

Some Other Post-War novels

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey is set partly in the present and partly in the austerity years immediately after the Second World War. This novel deals with memory, dementia and loss. You can find my review here.

296-sm-island-cover

Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004) is partly set in the post WW2 era, and explores how people reacted to West Indian immigrants, among other things. It celebrates the West Indian contribution to the war effort and the attraction of the Mother Country.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009) is a ghost story – or is it? – set around a dilapidated and declining country house in Warwickshire in the late 1940s, at the start of the National Health Service. The characters emerge from the trauma of the war to experience yet more difficulties in peacetime.

Over to you

Can you recommend any more post-war novels? What makes it such a good time setting for a novel?

 

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Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes

At its best fiction takes us to places we might never go, introduces us to people we may never meet, and to situations we would avoid in the normal course of our lives. I have never been to The Jungle, the refugee camp in Calais, but through the medium of these eight short stories I have a better understanding of the place and its effects.

290-breach-cover

The writers were commissioned to give voice to the refugees through these stories, having listened to people who associated with The Jungle.

I commissioned Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes to go to the Calais refugee camps to distil stories into a work of fiction about escape, hope and aspiration. On another level, however, these stories also take seriously the fears of people who want to close their borders. It’s that dialogue that isn’t happening in real life. A work of art can bridge that gap. Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press.

This is the second post in my challenge series, to raise money for Freedom from Torture.

Everyone has a story

The stories are told from different points of view, and mostly in present tense. Some narrators are refugees, others include a wannabe smuggler, a volunteer, a foster parent in the Calais area, an asylum seeker in Bradford learning English from a volunteer teacher.

Everyone is touched, and for most people the experiences are not enriching. Refugees trying to get across the Channel to the UK respond to the impossible circumstances with skills they have learned along the way: lying, dissembling, stealing, exploiting. The circumstances can bring out generosity, support, connectedness, even shared humour but everyone involved wants something from the Jungle.

Calais overview via WikiCommons January 2016 by Malachy Browne

Calais overview via WikiCommons January 2016 by Malachy Browne

There are the young men, looking for a truck they can climb into; the police whose job it is to prevent them; the smugglers who earn money by facilitating transport; the volunteers who get to feel good; the young women who desperately need money and respond in the way women have throughout the ages; the groups who support each other for a while, but get splintered when one of them gives up or achieves a crossing; there are the truck drivers, the volunteers

From Counting Down, the opening story:

GPS tells me it’s eleven minutes. I don’t think that’s right. It’s too short. How can you cross a border, go from one country to another, and be there in eleven minutes? It took us two weeks to get here.

The others laugh because I say I want them to call me Obama. We are sitting down by a tree to plan the eleven minutes.

‘Why not Clinton?’ Calculate says. ‘At least it would sound like you got some action.’

I don’t know what he means; I know some boys who are called Clinton, back at home, in Sudan. It’s nothing special. But Calculate is old. Normally I wait for him to speak. (9)

Jungle Books via WikiCommons January 2016 by Katja Ulbert

Jungle Books via WikiCommons January 2016 by Katja Ulbert

From Oranges in the River:

This shabby truck will be stopped for sure. Jan has been on several like it. They’re easy to open and easy to hide in, so the police and the border guards always stop them. But Jan must take every opportunity. His parents sold their property for him to get this far, their insurance for old age is gone, so he can’t flag, he can’t fear, he can’t fail – he must push on. Plus, of course, he must stay on the safe side of the smuggler who drove him here and who wouldn’t take kindly to his refusing. And after all, he reminds himself, Walat made it. (135)

Breach reminds us that each migrant has their own story, and that many others are invested in her/his passage across Europe; that many countries are implicated; that the journey before crossing to the UK is fraught with difficulties, danger and is expensive. Life after arrival is frequently very difficult as well.

The bigger picture

The stories cumulatively ask questions about the effects of migration, which are broadly raw and undesirable. And we come to see that those who make the decisions and take the actions that result in the collection of migrants in a place like The Jungle, are far, far away from the consequences of their decisions.

Calais demolitions and police via WikiCommons March 2016 Amirah Breen

Calais demolitions and police via WikiCommons March 2016 Amirah Breen

These stories are imaginatively written, and do not duck the issues, nor romanticise or demonise. We are shown what people do when they are forced into seeking refuge. We see the way lives, relationships, everything is interrupted while basic needs such as shelter, food and clothing occupy so much time. The lives of the migrants are focussed on the next stage of their journey: Jan, the character who hides in the truck in Oranges in the River quoted above says,

All these nights waiting for trucks or waiting in trucks or running away from trucks. (138)

And even when he has arrived in the UK, in Bolton, Algahli reflects:

Here they are nameless; it doesn’t matter what they call themselves, they disappear and dissolve. Here it is muteness. It doesn’t have a name. (143)

Never Really home, he texts his friend still in Calais.

And those that would rather the refugees went away, where are they?

Complexity has crept up on us. And answers are not being proposed. The human suffering continues, Even if President Hollande succeeds in his proposal to close the Jungle and disperse the residents, people will still want to get to the UK, the people who have got this far will still be in Europe.

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes. Commissioned and published by Peirene in 2016. 155 pp. 50p from each purchase of Breach will go to Counterpoint Arts.

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My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom From Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the second post in the series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

Please help me reach a third of my target by making a donation.

October walk

The ridge north of Pewsey

The ridge north of Pewsey

The second walk was in the Vale of Pewsey, about 15km (9 miles). I was pleased to walk with my friend Sarah, meeting at the railway station and walking north across the valley to a ridge, along the ridge in a horseshoe and the descending to cross the valley to meet the Kennet and Avon Canal and return to the station. It was a beautiful day and we could see for miles.

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page. Please be generous.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Souvenirs in May 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

Peirene Press, from whom Beach can be ordered.

The third post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in mid-November

 

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The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift

The third in Peirene Press’s fairy tale series, The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift is my final choice for August: #WITMonth, women in translation month. I’ve been enjoying picking up lots of ideas for reading women in translation. This is another intriguing novella from Europe, this time from Austria.

278 cover of Empress

The Story

It begins with cakes, and the empress.

She was inspecting the pink and green custard slices, the glazed tarts and fancy meringues piled high in the window of the patisserie. Her dress touched the floor, with only the toes of her shoes poking out. The dress was black and woollen, and around her shoulders sat a black lace mantilla, whose dipped hem was tucked between her armpits. (13)

The anonymous narrator is inveigled by this older woman, Frau Hauenembs, into sharing a cake in her flat in Vienna. The narrator has a continuous battle with food and has not had cake for years, but she is also easily led. Frau Hauenembs’s flat is full of late Austro-Hungarian stuff, and looked after by Ida, an overweight but dedicated servant/housekeeper. Something strange is going on. Soon the narrator is ensnared by this odd couple and participates in a plot to steal a rabbit press (see later), then to replace the head of the assassin Lucheni, and then to steal a cocaine syringe that once belonged to the Empress Elisabeth. Gradually the narrator becomes more and more embroiled in Frau Hauenembs’s schemes and way of life, moving in with her, injecting her with cocaine, winning the Sissi lookalike competition, and even wearing housecoats as Frau Hauenembs requests. In the final paragraph it is clear that another victim is going to go through the same process.

The Empress

Photograph of Empress Elisabeth by Ludwig Angerer 1862 via WikiCommons

Photograph of Empress Elisabeth by Ludwig Angerer 1862 via WikiCommons

Frau Hauenembs is and isn’t the Empress Elisabeth. This is a fairy tale. In addition to the objects that are nefariously acquired, she adopts many of the behaviours of the original empress: she is tall, has a 16 inch waist, eats very little, keeps very slim, rarely sits down, has a dog and appropriately an imperious style with Ida and the narrator.

In Frau Hauenembs’s flat the narrator notices : … several pictures of the young Empress Elisabeth, including a small copy of the famous painting in which Elisabeth is dressed only in a nightie, her long hair tied in a thick knot in front of her chest. (18)

278 empress-elisabeth-of-austria-by-franz-xaver-winterhalter-1864

The story of the Empress Elisabeth is probably more familiar to Austrian readers. She was brought up in Bavaria, and married the Emperor Franz Josef at sixteen. He had been engaged to her sister. Despite her rather unconventional activities and the dominating behaviour of her mother-in-law, the couple appear to have been happy together until she was assassinated in 1898 by Luigi Lucheni in Switzerland. Known to her intimates as Sisi, (Sissi was the film name for her – see below) her childhood pet name, she frequently travelled on her own, was very active, went on long hikes, was fascinated by circus people, and passionate about Hungary. She was devastated by the suicide of her son Rudolf, at Mayerling.

278 Sissi

If any of this sounds familiar, it may be that you have seen one of the three films in the Sissi series, starring Romy Schneider, made in the 1950s.

The Cake

Food, and Viennese patisserie in particular appear, throughout the novel. The narrator is seduced with them, Ida is greedy for them, and Frau Hauenembs cannot resist buying them. The prize at the Sissi look-alike competition is the winner’s weight in praline. The trio frequently have lavish picnics, carried by Ida, picked at by Frau Hauenembs, futilely resisted by the narrator.

Frau Hauenembs’s protracted beauty rituals mimic the Empress’s. The duck press is for squeezing out juices from the dead bird, to prepare a health drink. Control of eating, body weight and shape are frequent themes of this novella; how much they matter, how much they are under the control of the eater, what they look like in clothes, what they weigh …

The book also offers an exploration of the way the mind creates its own realities and – quite often – deludes us into believing that we control what is actually controlling us. [From the publisher, Meike Ziervogel]

The original German title of the novel is Stierhunger, which translates as bulimia nervosa. The prose is appropriately physical in response to all this bodily fixation. The descriptions of the means by which the narrator attempts to hide her bulimia are especially vivid.

It may be a fairy tale, but the realities of the lives of Elisabeth and her servant, of Frau Hauenembs, Ida and the narrator are far from romantic. No saccharine here, but there is lots of toxic sugar.

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift, published in 2007 as Stierhunger, and by Peirene Press in 2016. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. 184 pp

Related posts

Books in Translation on this blog looks at the small number of translations, especially by women published in this country.

Tales from the Vienna Streets on this blog in July 2013.

The Beauty Rituals of C19th Empress Elisabeth of Austria on Mimimatthew’s blog. Mind-blowing!

 

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Books in translation

Reading habits in the UK do not embrace diversity. Notoriously we rely on English being a dominant world language, so books in foreign languages are left to students of languages and those strange bilingual people. Only 4% of fiction published in the UK is in translation. Books by women in translation form a disproportionately small percentage of that 4%.

Gender is only one aspect of this general lack of diversity. Most published fiction is written by men and reviewed by men (see the VIDA statistics for the figures for several prestigious review publications here and in the States over some years). Novels by and about people of colour feature less frequently in our reading. Novels that deal with sexuality, transgender, disability, age and any combination of those are rare.

Fiction in Translation

Let’s praise those who are trying to bring more translated fiction to our attention. Peirene Press champions European literature, specifically novellas. I mention Peirene frequently on my blog because their books are beautiful objects as well as good reads, and subscribers are offered salons, supper club, newsletter and blog as well as three books every year. Their founder, Meike Ziervogel is also a published novelist: Magda, Kauthur.

Loving lists, I don’t hesitate to offer you the top 5 from Peirene’s List of 100 Translated Books Everyone Should Read, from their newsletter last year and chosen by readers.

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  1. Jose Eduardo Agualusa, The Book of Chameleons, translated by Daniel Hahn.
  2. Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes, translated by Robin Buss.
  3. Isabel Allende, The House of Spirits, translated by Magda Bogin.
  4. Marcel Ayme, The Man who Walked through Walls, translated by Sophie Lewis.
  5. Honore de Balzac, Cousin Bette, translated by Sylvia Raphael.

I’ve only read the second and third on this list and 17 of the whole 100. I haven’t even heard of some of the titles. The list reminds me of how much foreign literature I am missing and don’t know about. Only 11% of my fiction reading was in translation last year. I need to do something.

235 HofSp cover

Women in Translation

Meytal Radzinski has done a great job reviewing the figures for women in translation. She put up two posts on her blog: Biblibio Life in Letters in January. She looked first at publishers and in part 2 at languages and countries. Whichever way you cut the statistics they tell the same story. Books in translation by women only represent about 30% at best. And the year on year picture does not appear to be improving. People always dispute figures about discrimination and if you want to do this you can look at the figures and her analysis yourself. She is transparent about the figures and how she interrogated them. In a third post she challenges the publishers to publish more women writers in 2016.

So novels in translation in the UK add up to about 4% of the total, and books in translation by women form at most 30% of that 4%. I think that means that novels in translation by women form about 1% of fiction. I notice that only one of Peirene’s top five is by a woman (but three of the translators). In the whole list I could only see 15 by women. Come on readers 15% is too low! The combination of foreign language and female author seems more than many publishers, booksellers and readers can deal with.

235 God dies coverWhat we can do

Read more translated fiction, and more translated fiction by women.

Support the initiative English PEN Writers in Translation.

Seek out more foreign fiction in bookshops and encourage them to stock more.

Look at the Man Booker International Prize for 2016. Here’s a list of possible inclusions suggested from the blog Tony’s Reading List.

Take out a subscription to Peirene Press and receive three translated novellas a year.

Bloggers, you can join in #WIT month (Women in Translation) in November, and post recommendations on your blog. Also available is the twitter hashtag #translationThurs.

You don’t have to wait for November to read and post more about books in translation, of course. Join me in April, when I am reviewing An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddie, the next in my older women in fiction series. And I’m extending my tbr list to include another from Peirene readers’ top five.

80 Summer Bk coverOver to you

Any more ways you promote fiction in translation? Any recommendations for readers here and now? What is the best book in translation by a woman that you have read so far in 2016?

 

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Older women in fiction, Reading