Tag Archives: Suite Francaise

Let slip the novels of war

War novels have their own ‘best of’ lists on the internet. Frequently these lists have too many testosterone-fuelled novels and horror for me. The five novels I pick out in this post have something else. They use the best of the novel to reflect on something beyond the experiences of most readers. They show the bigger picture – bigger geographically, in scope and in meaning – through individual stories. They use the power of story to explore the urge to survive, the horror of what man does to men, women and children, and how humans react when faced with the vastness of war.

Here are my five (plus two) to think about.

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All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarques

The First World War will be the subject of much remembrance as we reach the centenary of its outbreak. In Britain literary merit seems to be the preserve of the poets. The novel of choice is All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarques, written, of course, in German. I did not read it until 2012, having been presented with extracts on a writing course. It was published in 1929, eleven years after the Armistice.

Paul Baumer tells the story in the first person. He and his school friends enlisted in the German army in 1916 as 18 year olds, on the encouragement of their schoolteacher. The story opens on the battlefield and hardly leaves it, except to go home on leave and for a spell in a military hospital. The narrator is killed in October 1918, feeling he has nothing left in his life, that the young person he was has been destroyed in the war. It has killed his friends one by one, and his country has been reduced to sending inadequately prepared raw recruits into battle to die. There are vividly descriptions of battle, but also some lighter scenes such as the theft of the goose, or the canal swim to be with some girls one evening.

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The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

My choice for a novel set in the homefront in the Second World War has to be The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen – the subject of a Readalong on my blog earlier in 2013. You can find my review here. One of the best novels of the twentieth century I believe.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

The fate of the author (in Auschwitz in 1942) and the location in war-time France meant I was initially reluctant to read this book. But I was charmed and thrilled by it.

Part 1, Storm in June, concerns the flight from Paris in June 1940. The story follows several families as panic hit the capital and they scrambled out as the German army advanced. It’s an amazing exploration of what people do in a crisis, how some have great generosity and others think only of themselves. There is lovely humour, black in places, great tenderness and overall an affectionate look at people through the details of their lives.

Part 2 called Douce concerns life in a village in occupied France a year later, when German troops are billeted on the population. Here the story picks up some of the characters from Storm, but mostly concerns the relationship between a young woman whose husband is a prisoner of war and the young cavalry officer, Bruno. The development of the relationships between victors and conquered, between occupiers and residents is beautifully observed, as are the accommodations that people make to this situation in order to preserve their own values and lives.

The manuscript was carried by Irene Nemirovsky’s daughters, taken in haste to remind them of their mother. It was only produced for publication recently.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

For a novel from the battlefield (or the air battle in this case) in the Second World War I must nominate Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. This book is one of my desert island choices because it is so inventive, so rich in detail, so brilliant at showing the absurd in absurd situations. The title and some of the characters have entered our culture.

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Dispatches by Michael Herr

Some brilliant writing came out of the Vietnamese War. The novel that made the strongest impression on me was Dispatches by Michael Herr. It’s a searing condemnation of what happened to the fighting men. It convinced me that war is never an answer to anything. The damage inflicted upon the participants is as futile in the Vietnamese war as all others, despite individual acts of heroism.

And the first other one:

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

On publication it was celebrated as the work of a new voice, creative and strong. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is about US soldiers in the (second) Iraqi war. I read it in preparation for this blogpost. In my reading log I commented, ‘nothing to like here’. Too much of that male stuff here for me. Geoff Dyer was more critical of it in a review of another (non-fiction) book about the Iraq war. You can find his comments here: Thank You For Your Service. He includes these comments:

Kevin Powers served in Iraq but his novel reads as if he were the veteran only of serial deployments in MFA writing programmes. … [His novel is] inadequate as a form of response to the subject matter.

Here’s an example of creative writing class fiction perhaps: ‘while we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer.’ (p1) There was plenty more like that.

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The title comes from a US Army marching cadence:

A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
My windowsill

 

I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head …

And the second other one:

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

This one is on my tbr pile, having been recommended by a friend. Have you read it? Have you an opinion about it?

And a few more recommendations from browsing the web

Ernest Hemingway For Whom the Bell Tolls (Spanish Civil War)

Leo Tolstoy War and Peace (Napoleonic invasion of Russia)

Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse Five (Second World War)

D.M Thomas The White Hotel (Second World War)

And there are countless excellent non-fiction books as well.

 

Powerful stuff. What have you read that spoke to you about war? I was disappointed to find nothing outstanding in the twenty-first century. Have you come across anything you would recommend?

 

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Lost in fiction in translation

I have heard that publishers calculate a ceiling of about 3000 readers for any translated fiction. Only 3000! Are you one of the 3000? Perhaps you have contributed to the Scandinavian crime wave? Or have a copy of Kafka’s stories on your shelf.

Do you think that 3000 is a small number? I do, and I find it both very surprising and very depressing. It’s surprising because there is so much good fiction in translation. And it’s depressing because that kind of figure makes it harder for publishers to think of fiction in translation as a viable economic prospect. And because readers are missing out on innovative and enjoyable fiction.

Is it a small number because there is just so much good fiction in English that we don’t need to bother? Well that’s a very insular attitude. But the following figures suggest there might be some truth in it.

4.5% of literature published in the UK is translation. Compare with

3% in USA

12% in Germany

15% in France

24% in Spain

46% in Poland (figures from Publishing Perspectives)

It is possible that the figure is low because readers don’t get to hear enough about fiction in translation. So let’s celebrate those who promote it.

First: those imaginative, independent publishers: such as And Other Stories, Peirene Press and Quercus.

Second: The prizes: there are four to keep an eye on.

  1. The Man Booker International Prize, which in 2013 contained only 3 English language contenders (Lydia Davis won).
  2. IMPAC is the Dublin-based International Literary prize, in which public libraries feature strongly in making nominations. This year on the shortlist of ten novels, five were in translation.
  3. Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
  4. The Society of Authors also administers prizes for translation in a whole range of different languages.

Third: A number of other literary organisations support literature in translation in their programmes. One is the Booktrust which has a downloadable pamphlet of recommendations by 20 writers, called Discover a World of Reading. And there’s English PEN, Free Word and the London Review of Books.

Fourth: We should recognise the work of the translators. And I’m thrilled that one of the translators mentioned below taught me languages at school. Nice connection.

36 Translation

Here’s my list of twelve books in translation not to be missed. No particular order.

  • WG Sebald anything by him. Translated by Michael Hulse and others (German)
  • Birgit Vanderbeke The Mussel Feast. Translated by Jamie Bullock (German)
  • Tove Jansson The Summer Book. Translated by Thomas Teal. (Swedish/Finland)
  • Per Petterson Out Stealing Horses. Translated by Anne Born. Winner of 2007 IMPAC Award (Norwegian)
  • Gerbrand Bakker The Twin. Translated by David Colman. Winner of 2010 IMPAC Award, and The Detour Winner of 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (Dutch)
  • Italo Calvino If on a winter’s Night a Traveller. Translated by William Weaver. (Italian)
  • Andrey Kurkov Death and the Penguin Translated by George Bird (Russian/Ukraine)
  • Diego Marani The New Finnish Grammar. Translated by Judith Landry (Italian)
  • Orphan Pamuk Various. Winner of 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature. Translation by Maureen Freely and others. (Turkish)
  • Irene Nemirovsky Suite Francaise. Translated by Sandra Smith (French)
  • Heinrich Boll The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. Translated by Leila Vennewitz (German)
  • Evelio Rosero Armies. Translated by Anne Mclean. Winner of 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction prize. (Spanish/Columbia)

And then of course there are the classics, a list of which might start with these …

  • Cervantes Don Quixote no 1 on The Guardian’s 100 best novels list (Spanish)
  • Tolstoy War and Peace (Russian)
  • Erich Maria Remarques All Quiet on the Western Front (German)
  • Di Lampedusa The Leopard (Italian)
  • Flaubert Madame Bovary (French)
  • Alain-Fournier Le Grand Meaulnes (French) and ….

With so much excellent fiction being identified by publishers and prizes, and all that close and creative work being undertaken by translators, that figure of 3000 readers really should be higher.

Ok, that’s 17 books I’ve mentioned – at least. What have I left out? What would you recommend? Has you reading group found a gem not listed here?

36 Ignorance script

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