Tag Archives: Women in Translation month

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.

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The Door by Magda Szabo

The novel begins with the door, the narrator facing it in a dream. She is struggling to turn the lock. The door will not give way to her efforts and no one will come to help for although she is shouting she has lost the power of speech. This is a recurring nightmare from which the narrator, who is a writer, is wakened by her own screaming.

It’s a powerful opening scene, and it sets up the privacy and secrecy of the woman who lives behind the door, closed to the efforts of the narrator to create closer ties. The relationship of the two women lasted twenty years, was difficult and is the subject of The Door, a Hungarian novel.

272 The Door

This is the 22nd post in the Older Women in Fiction Series on this blog. Thank you Robin Dawson for the suggestion. It was chosen because August is Women in Translation month. The Door was translated by Len Rix.

The Story

Emerence came to clean for the writer who had moved with her husband into a bigger Budapest apartment. Having been disapproved of for some time, during the Stalinist era, the writer is now more successful and needs time and space for her work. She needs a cleaner and Emerence has been recommended. Emerence makes it clear that she interviews the couple not vice versa. Later she takes over their dog as well. For twenty years Emerence cleans for the couple and becomes a major presence in their lives. It is in an uneasy relationship, especially at first as Emerence dictated the terms of her employment.

The story is told in a series of scenes, each one illustrating how Emerence keeps the narrator at a distance, or indeed turns her back on her if she feels affronted. They fall out over Emerence’s present of a plaster dog. She will never accept a present from the narrator. The narrator asks her to return, even if the dog must stay. And Emerence does return to work for them, and she hurls the dog to the floor, lesson learned. In this uneasy way, gradually the writer and the older woman develop affection, although it does not prevent the writer from getting things wrong. The climax comes when Emerence falls ill and needs assistance but will not unlock her door. What are the ‘lady writer’ and the community to do?

272 NY The Door

The old woman

Emerence had a hard childhood, born into a rural area and rejected by her family and her lover, who also stole her savings. She came to Budapest with no ties, in the war, and it emerges that she helped other people survive, especially a Jewish family. She has done numerous favours for many people so that her nephew, the Lieutenant Colonel of the police and many others all look out for her interests and protect her from the worst of life in its intrusions, especially officialdom. Emerence allows no one into her house, except the narrator just once. She has immense pride, and immense strength.

She was tall, big-boned, powerfully built for a person of her age, muscular rather than fat, and she radiated strength like a Valkyrie. Even the scarf on her head seemed to jut forward like a warrior’s helmet. (6)

At the end of The Door Emerence falls ill and is confined to her house. Her absence reveals that the community has come to rely upon her. The narrator has to ask the local priest to provide a church funeral, for the benefit of the local community. He opposes the request because of her well-known and rigid opposition to the church.

‘She’s not asking for it,’ I replied. ‘I am. And so is every well-disposed person. It is appropriate, as a form of homage. She may have heaped expletives on the Church as institution, but I’ve known few devout believers who were as good Christians as this old woman. … This woman wasn’t one to practice Christianity in church between nine and ten on Sunday mornings, but she had lived by it all her life, in her own neighbourhood, with a pure love of humanity such as you find in the Bible, and if he didn’t believe that he must be blind, because he’d seen enough of it himself.’ (250-1)

And after death her influence lives on, she’s still solving problems for other people.

The Themes

The Door isn’t so much about the old woman as about the relationship between the narrator and Emerence. They reflect many of the themes, which are set up in tension or as opposites. Emerence stands firm for the value of manual labour, while the narrator is a writer, an intellectual. Emerence does favours for the whole community, keeps the streets clear of snow, cleans their houses, services the block of flats for which she is curator. Her selflessness means that she accepts no favours, no presents. The lady writer, on the other hand, thinks of herself and her own needs constantly, as if her sensibility were especially fragile. The writer’s Catholicism is important to her, but Emerence wants nothing to do with the Church and its rituals. And so on.

It is clear that the best of life is in the combination of these qualities, labour with intellectualism; selflessness and selfishness; faith and scepticism; privacy and public approval.

Magda Szabo

272 Szabo, Magda

The author lived between 1917 and 2007 in Hungary. According to sources on the internet, the novel draws upon her own life. Her work was not published during the Stalinist years. Ali Smith observed, I am not sure where, that Emerence was Hungary, a notion that came to me during my reading of the novel.

 

 

The Door by Magda Szabo, first published in 1987. Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix and reissued by Vintage in 2005. 262 pp.

Winner of the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize 2006.

Memorial Room of Magda Szabo

Memorial Room of Magda Szabo

Related Posts

Two reviews:

Claire Messud in the New York Times in February 2015, described the novel as a masterpiece and mesmerising and suggested it changed her way of understanding the world.

Cynthia Zarin in The New Yorker in April 2016, said ‘to read it is to feel turned inside out’, a ‘bone-shaking book’.

Two most recent posts in Older Women in Fiction series:

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine in April 2016

Olive Ketteridge by Elizabeth Strout in June 2016

 

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The Craft of Blogging #10 Reuse Recycle Reduce

Let’s do a good thing with our blogs: Reuse Recycle Reduce

202 RecycleBy their natures blog posts share three characteristics: they are written quickly, include connections to other internet sites and have brief lives. You may feel disappointed when a post in which you have invested time and effort no longer gets attention. One way around this for the busy and productive blogger is to use the principles of recycling – a nice case of what’s good in the real world being good in the virtual one too.

Why reuse or recycle?

Why would you reuse or recycle material? Haven’t your devoted followers read the content before? How do pick items or content to repost?

Apparently about 10% of your posts go one being read, are ‘stayers’ or ‘sticky’. Do you recognise this from your blog stats? Looking back over 200 posts I can see which the stayers are: mainly book reviews, including some surprising ones. In the six months since I posted a review of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, for example, it has never been out of the Bookword’s monthly top 20 most popular reads. Another is The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen, a lovely book and my review was one of the first I posted. Neither needed any promotion on twitter to maintain their readership.

Most of the other 90% can be categorized as ‘decaying’. Again, if you keep track of your stats you have probably seen the pattern of early popularity followed by descent into very small or nonexistent readership. And some bump along with a very few reader each month, not quite decayed. I predict that this post on recycling will fit that picture.

What to choose?

202 recycle 2Among your blog’s decaying posts will be some that you may want to reuse in the same form or to recycle the material with revisions:

  • perhaps the topic is good, but the content needs tweaking,
  • perhaps there is a special event that could suit a post’s reappearance,
  • you may want to introduce a post to your new readers,
  • perhaps you just thought it was so darn good you want to publish it again,
  • or perhaps you feel the post would do better with a thorough revision.

I have now posted more than 200 posts and over the last few weeks I have been considering which ones could be scheduled for recycling. On the whole I have chosen posts that did well initially and have largely disappeared but still get a very few readers. I have also been serendipitous and chosen reviews of books that I am rereading for my book groups.

There has to be something new or relevant about reposting whatever I have chosen.

Some Examples

A post scheduled for recycling in October fits both categories (did well at first, and I have just reread it for a book group): it will be Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. It is also timely as she has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015 for her most recent book: A Spool of Blue Thread. The winner will be announced on Tuesday 13th October.

In the near future I am going to revise and recycle a post on Short Stories. I love the form and I have a few new collections to bring to people’s attention on the revised post.

Recently as part of Women in Translation Month (#WITmonth on twitter) I recycled The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke. Such a good book deserves to be widely promoted.

Reusing and recycling posts

202 recycle 3

My schedule for posts extends over the next four months. I have included several recycled posts. If any readers find this annoying please say so when you spot them.

And reduce?

154 BFW

Maintaining a blog can be time-consuming. Recycling can reduce the amount of time you spend preparing posts and reduce the stress of maintaining the flow and high quality. Here’s advice from Robin Houghton’s Blogging for Writers who extends my practice by suggesting recycling material not originally designed for the blog:

  1. You may already have an archive of great content, perhaps you have written an ebook or a course. There’s a lot of great material just begging to be reused! All content can be reused, recycled, revisited, repositioned, and refreshed with new examples and different points of view.

  2. Don’t worry if you don’t have any ready-made material – after you’ve been blogging for a while you will have plenty.

  3. Don’t let a great blog post die – link to it from your home-page (“Popular Posts”), make it sticky or repost in a few months time, slightly updated if necessary. (157)

I could do more of her first suggestion and consider the third. Make it sticky!

77 iphone

Some posts in the Craft of Blogging series

# 9 Problems and more problems (July 2015)

#8 Review of Blogging for Writers by Robin Houghton (February 2015)

#5 How I write my blog slowly (July 2014)

#1 … the medium (February 2014)

 

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The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

August is Women in Translation month. The focus has provided some interesting lists and reviews on blogs and Twitter #WITmonth and it has been good to see the Peirene Press getting so many mentions. Here is my very slightly tweeked review of one of Peirene Press’s many successes. It was first published in January 2013, but still seems to say what I want to say.

The Mussel Feast

I didn’t choose The Mussel Feast. In a manner of speaking it chose me. It came to me as the first book since I subscribed to the Peirene Press.

The Mussel Feast was first published in 1990 in German. Birgit Vanderbeke says, ‘I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.’ Birgit Vanderbeke won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, the most prestigious German-language literature award. It was well deserved.

musselfeast_web_0_220_330

The Story

The book is written as a monologue by the daughter, who is waiting with her mother and brother for the father to return from a business trip, with a promotion in the bag. The story starts as they prepare the mussels for the 6pm arrival of the father, and ends at quarter to ten, when the father has still not arrived and the telephone is ringing. In just over 100 pages the fractured relationships and the abusive behaviour of the father are gradually revealed through the monologue.

The writing

The distinctive tone of the writing is illustrated by the opening lines.

It was neither a sign nor a coincidence that we were going to have mussels that evening. Yes, it was slightly unusual, and afterwards we sometimes speak of the mussels as a sign, but they definitely weren’t; we also said they were a bad omen – that’s nonsense too. Nor were the mussels a coincidence. This evening of all evenings, we’d say, we decided to eat mussels. But it really wasn’t like that; you couldn’t call it a coincidence. After the event, of course, we tried to interpret our decision as a sign or coincidence, because what came in the wake of our abortive feast was so monumental that none of us have got over it yet. We would always have mussels to celebrate a special occasion, and this was a special occasion although in a very different way from what we had in mind. (7)

These lines also form a near perfect opening. Something is going to happen (we never discover exactly what), and they didn’t know it was going to. The reader must ask, who ‘we’ are, and what was the event that the mussel feast did not prefigure, why was the feast abortive, what was so monumental that they have not yet got over it … So many issues and questions, so much drama and change but the tone is even, un-dramatic, determinedly calm, careful, accurate. The writer has been described as playful and arch (on the website of the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies).

The style is curiously hypnotic, inviting the reader almost to take it or leave it. The daughter shows us the ways in which the father has controlled each member of the family, where the slightest mishap – like forgetting the salt on holiday – endangered family unity. We come to see why she writes in this way as the girl unpacks the awful dynamics of the family.

Another idiosyncratic aspect of this writing is there no direct speech. Writing classes are taught that dialogue moves the action on, and too much exposition turns the reader off. Teachers who say this should read The Mussel Feast. There are other stylistic challenges for the reader: such as very long paragraphs (one paragraph extends, for example, from p40 – p66) and the characters are never named.

I liked all of this about the book. I thought it was brilliant.

The translation from the German by Jamie Bulloch is excellent, as the extract illustrates.

Related Posts

Word by Word blog Women in Translation #WITmonth introduces some titles and informs us of some figures: 5% of published books in UK are in translation (compared to 50% in France) and of those 30% are by women.

Do you have any recommendations for Women in Translation Month?

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