The International Booker Prize Shortlist 2021

Since I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump I didn’t post about the International Booker longlist when it came out, and to be honest, nothing on it really jumped out at me, so I felt little motivation to share it.

However I do like to have a record of what was highlighted, so I’m sharing below the six books that have made the shortlist and below that the longlist. Clicking on any of the titles will take you a description of the book.

I don’t have any of these to read and I’m unlikely for the moment to add to my list of reading, since I’m looking for more of an uplifting read at the moment.

The 2021 International Booker Prize longlist

I Live in the Slums by Can Xue, translated from Chinese by Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping, Yale University Press

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Mocschovakis, Pushkin Press

A novel that captures the tragedy of a young man’s mind hurtling towards madness and tells the little-heard story of the Senegalese who fought for France on the Western Front during WW1.

Alfa Ndiaye and Mademba Diop are two of the many Senegalese tirailleurs fighting in the Great War under the French flag. Whenever Captain Armand blows his whistle they climb out of their trenches to attack the blue-eyed enemy.  One day Mademba is mortally wounded, and without his friend, his more-than-brother, Alfa is alone amidst the savagery of the trenches, far from all he knows and holds dear. He throws himself into combat with renewed vigour, but soon begins to scare even his own comrades in arms.

 

The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated from Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway, Peirene Press

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, Granta Books

Unruly teenagers, crooked witches, homeless ghosts, and hungry women, these stories walk the uneasy line between urban realism and horror, with a resounding tenderness toward those in pain, in fear and in limbo. As terrifying as they are socially conscious, the stories press into the unspoken – fetish, illness, the female body, the darkness of human history – with bracing urgency. A woman is sexually obsessed with the human heart; a lost, rotting baby crawls out of a backyard and into a bedroom; a pair of teenage girls can’t let go of their idol; an entire neighbourhood is cursed to death when it fails to respond correctly to a moral dilemma.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, Pushkin Press

Albert Einstein opens a letter sent to him from the Eastern Front during the First World War. Inside, he finds the first exact solution to the equations of general relativity, unaware that it contains a monster that could destroy his life’s work. The great mathematician Alexander Grothendieck tunnels so deeply into abstraction that he tries to cut all ties with the world, terrified of the horror his discoveries might cause. Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg battle over the soul of physics after creating two equivalent yet opposed versions of quantum mechanics. Their fight will tear the very fabric of reality, revealing a world stranger than they could have ever imagined.

The Perfect Nine: The Epic Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, translated from Gikuyu by the author, VINTAGE, Harvill Secker

The Employees by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken, Lolli Editions

Structured as a series of witness statements compiled by a workplace commission, The Employees follows the crew of the Six-Thousand Ship which consists of those who were born, and those who were made, those who will die, and those who will not. When the ship takes on a number of strange objects from the planet New Discovery, the crew is perplexed to find itself becoming deeply attached to them, and human and humanoid employees alike start aching for the same things: warmth and intimacy, loved ones who have passed, shopping and child-rearing, our shared, far-away Earth, which now only persists in memory.

Gradually, the crew members come to see their work in a new light, and each employee is compelled to ask themselves whether they can carry on as before – and what it means to be truly living. Wracked by all kinds of longing, The Employees probes what it means to be human, emotionally and ontologically, while simultaneously delivering an overdue critique of a life governed by work and the logic of productivity.

Summer Brother by Jaap Robben, translated from Dutch by David Doherty, World Editions

An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky, translated from German by Jackie Smith, Quercus, MacLehose Press

Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, Fitzcarraldo Editions

In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale, Fitzcarraldo Editions

The story of how a seemingly ordinary Jewish family somehow managed to survive the myriad persecutions and repressions of the last century. Following the death of her aunt, Maria Stepanova builds the story out of faded photographs, old postcards, letters, diaries, and heaps of souvenirs left behind: a withered repository of a century of life in Russia.

In dialogue with writers like Roland Barthes, W. G. Sebald, Susan Sontag and Osip Mandelstam, In Memory of Memory is imbued with intellectual curiosity and a soft-spoken, poetic voice. Dipping into various forms – essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue and historical documents – Stepanova assembles a vast panorama of ideas and personalities and offers an entirely new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.

Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý, translated from Swedish by Nichola Smalley, And Other Stories

The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti, Pan Macmillan, Picador

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century takes on the powerful and the privileged. It quickly becomes more about the bourgeoisie. Peasants, the poor living in towns, who are still being promised that equality will be granted to them in heaven, begin to ask themselves: and why not equality now, here on earth? There follows a furious struggle. Out of this chaos steps Thomas Müntzer, a complex and controversial figure. Sifting through history, Éric Vuillard extracts the story of one man whose terrible and novelesque life casts light on the times in which he lived – a moment when Europe was in flux. Inspired by the recent gilets jaunes protests in France: a populist, grassroots protest movement – led by workers – for economic justice. While The War of the Poor is about 16th-century Europe, this short polemic has a lot to say about inequality now.

Have you read anything on this longlist?

Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin tr.Hildegarde Serle

“If life is but a passage, let us at least scatter flowers on that passage.”

cemetery keeper changer l'eau des fleursWhat a refreshing read to end 2020 with, a novel of interwoven characters and connections, threaded throughout the life of Violette Touissant, given up at birth.

When I was born I didn’t even cry. So I was put aside, like a 2.67kg parcel with no stamp, no addressee, while the administrative forms were filled in, declaring my departure prior to my arrival.
Stillborn. A child without life and without a surname.

We first meet Violetteas an adult. Having been a level-crossing keeper she is now a cemetery keeper. She introduces her neighbours and their characteristics in common, they are an intriguing lot, who we are going to get to know better.

Those neighbours she lives among are the dead, while she lives in the heaven of the living, at the mid-range of life having been through plenty of pain and suffering to get there. Now rewarded, she has found her place, her people and those who deserve to be part of it, have found her too.

My present life is a present from heaven. As I say to myself every morning, when I open my eyes.
I have been very unhappy, destroyed even. Nonexistent. Drained. I was like my closest neighbours, but worse. My vital functions were functioning, but without me inside them.

Level Crossing Keeper

The 94 short chapters all begin with a thought provoking quote, the narrative seesaws back and forth to moments in that life, sometimes revisiting the same moments, but seeing them from the point of view of Violette, her husband Philippe and the many other pairs of characters we encounter, through their connection to those dead neighbours of hers.

Since taking on the job of cemetery keeper, after meeting one of the most life-changing characters, Sasha, she has been recording details of the events that take place in the cemetery, making diary-like entries, references that she is able to refer back to when people stop by to have a cup of tea or something stronger, looking for the resting place of someone important to them, not always family, but people with connections that weren’t always able to be fully expressed in life.

Death never takes a break. It knows neither summer holidays, not public holidays, nor dentist appointments…It’s there, everywhere, all the time. No one really thinks about it, or they’d go mad. It’s like a dog that’s forever weaving around our legs, but whose presence we only notice when it bites us. Or worse, bites a loved one.

The narrative returns to her early adult life, at 18, already married, she discovers the 821 page novel L’Oeuvre de Dieu, la part du Diable a French translation of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, a book known to open minds and hearts, eliciting compassion for a set of circumstances no one really thinks about, making the reader look at the world in a slightly different way.

Which is perhaps what Fresh Water For Flowers does, taking characters in unconventional circumstances and sharing their stories, watching how those stories shock, enlighten, end and change lives.

Violette too will have to deal with death. A death that develops into the more significant mystery at the core of the novel. And with it, innumerable twists and turns, suspicions and revelations.

Life is but an endless losing of all that one loves.

Every summer she stays in the chalet of her friend Célia, in the calanque of Sormiou, Marseille. A place of refuge and rejevenation, that Perrin too brings alive, eliciting the recovery and rehabilitation this nature-protected part of the Mediterranean offers humanity.

It’s a gentle novel because even though there are moments of tragedy, they are seen through the eyes of the most empathetic character, so even the most villainous, unlikable characters are given a generous, understanding hearing.

The details of the life of a keeper, whether it’s the level crossing or the cemetery are so realistic, evocative and visual, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that this book may be turned into a series; it’s too long for a movie and with so many interconnecting lives, it  feels like it could have continued on, just as life and death does, always someone arriving, someone departing, and someone there to soothe the way through those transitions.

It’s not a book I have heard anything about until now, but it’s going on my list of favourites for 2020 and is one I highly recommend.

Not a day goes by without us thinking of you.

N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for sending me a copy for review.

I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé tr. Richard Philcox

A Maryse Condé FanGirl Moment

I Tituba Black Witch of Salem Maryse Conde

When I opened I, Tituba to begin reading, on the first page there was a quote from the author Maryse Condé that read:

Tituba and I lived for a year on the closest of terms.
During our endless conversations she told me things she had confided to nobody else.

It gave me such a good feeling to read that, knowing that Condé was doing here, what she did in Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, when the grandmother she’d never met, awakened her from her dreams, to chastise her from the corner of the room.

Sometimes I would wake up at night and see her sitting in a corner of the room, like a reproach, so different to what I had become.

‘What are you doing running around from Segu to Japan to South Africa? What’s the point of all these travels? Can’t you realise that the only journey that counts is discovering your inner self? That’s the only thing that matters. What are you waiting for to take an interest in me?’ she seemed to be telling me.

But that book wasn’t published until 20 years after Condé was listening to Tituba tell her story.

A Caribbean Writer Returns

I, Tituba is the first novel written after Segu and The Children of Segu, historical masterpieces that inform, disrupt and provoke, however the initial reaction was such that Maryse Condé declared she would never write about Africa again.

Tituba came to me or I came to her at a period of my life when really I wanted to turn toward the Caribbean and start writing about the Caribbean.

Who was Tituba?

Tituba existed, she was accused and ultimately set free, however, despite the shelves of history books about the Salem witch trials, there is little factual information about her, who she was, who freed her, or her life after release from prison.

I felt this eclipse of Tituba’s life was completely unjust. I felt a strong solidarity with her, and I wanted to offer her her revenge by inventing a life such as she might perhaps have wished it to be told.

If we look for her story in the history of Salem, it isn’t there. Condé too, looked for her history in the colonization of the continent and found silences, omissions, distortions, fabrications and fleeting, enigmatic insinuations. And so she wrote this novel.

Review

On a ship sailing for Barbados, young Abena was raped by an English sailor, then sold to a planter along with two male slaves. She was employed in the household until the pregnancy discovered whereupon she was banished to the cabin of a male slave Yao. Tituba was born.

In a short reprieve, they find comfort in each other’s company and Tituba would adored by a man more father to her than any other. The joy that now lightened Abena’s world was seen by the master and desired for himself. She struck back, died for it, and for his concubine’s crime, Yao was sold.

Driven off the plantation, Tituba was taken in by Mama Yaya; still grieving for two sons, she had cultivated the ability to communicate with the invisible.

People were afraid of her, but they came from far and wide because of her powers.

Mama Yaya taught her everything, in the ways of her people:

Mama Yaya initiated me into the powers of knowledge. The dead only die if they die in our hearts. They live on if we cherish them and honour their memory, if we place their favourite delicacies in life on their graves, and if we kneel down regularly to commune with them.

Ann Petry Tituba Salem Witch TrialsAnd so Tituba is given a past, skills and knowledge and might have remained in that life, had she not grown into a young woman with desires herself and fallen for the man who would become her husband John Indian.

He belonged to Susanna Endicott who I encountered in the memorable opening scene of Ann Petry’s Tituba of Salem Village.

After a short period in that household where John had lived most of his life, things deteriorated and in an act of revenge the mistress sold them both to the frightening Reverend Samuel Parris, who sailed for the Bay Colony the very next day.

From Island Life to Boston, Massachusetts

In Boston, with the mistress unwell in a room upstairs, Tituba spends time with the daughter Betsey and orphaned niece Abigail, who makes trouble that spreads like a contagion to other young girls in the community, as they fall prey to strange fits and mass hysteria.

I also recognized Abigail and Betsey’s companions in their dangerous games, those young girls whose eyes were shining with excitement. They were dying to roll on the ground too and to attract everybody’s attention.

And so the bad behaviours of girls given credence, turn into accusations of witchcraft against Tituba and others, they are jailed and many lose their lives, until the Govener writes to London for advice on legal proceedings concerning witchcraft resulting in a general pardon and Tituba is condemned to live.

Prison costs mean she can only leave if someone pays and a man with nine children who has lost his wife claims her. And it is through this relation that she will gain her freedom.

Freedom At What Price

If the first part is written from compassion, yet seeking revenge, the second part initially seems strange and challenges the reader, in its use of parody. I found it difficult to accept, the reader isn’t given the satisfaction of a gratifying ending, yet reading past the novel into the essay and interview at the end of the book, I’m confronted with my own subconscious bias and lack of understanding, in a clever and deliberate intervention by the author.

And so Tituba is granted her revenge. We are all complicit.

Reading the book and thinking about it after reading the interview resulted in a deeper reading experience and consideration. My feeling while reading was heightened by having read Ann Petry’s sympathetic version first, Condé takes a different approach, reckoning with the past.

I suggest that though Petry’s version was written 30 years before, it might be better to read her more optimistic version last.

What Is it About Witchcraft?

Magic witchcraft spells Tituba Isobel GowdieLike Condé, who said she knew nothing of witchcraft, I have decided to read a contemporary book next, published in 2020, to see what’s going on in the world of witchcraft today.

Next up A Spell in the Wild: A Year (and Six Centuries) of Magic by Alice Tarbuck.

Further Reading

Paper: Hesitating Between Irony and the Desire to Be Serious in I, Tituba by Sarah Barbour, Wake Forest University

 

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante translated Ann Goldstein

Another excellent example of Elena Ferrante’s ability to zoom in close, with intensity into the subconscious of her protagonist, this time through the lens of a girl entering adolescence.

The Lying Life of Adults Elena Ferrante Ann GoldsteinFrom the opening pages, as Giovanna overhears a random comment from her father, it expands in her mind and overtakes her physically and mentally like a disease, affecting her mind, causing her to act in certain ways.

To the reader it may seem irrational, but to the hormone affected adolescent everything is magnified and causes her to imagine, lash out, withdraw, have moments of tenderness followed by hate and indifference.

She is uncomfortable in her skin and mind, lurching between strategies of action and non-action, always confrontational.

Though warned against her and until now they’ve never met, Giovanna cultivates a relationship with her estranged Aunt Vittoria, seeing her as a convenient tool of provocation and a source of not always reliable information.

She spewed bitterness, and yet those words now brought me relief, I repeated them in my mind. They affirmed the existence of a strong and positive bond, they demanded it. My aunt hadn’t said: you have my face or at least you look something like me; my aunt had said: you don’t belong only to your mother and father, you’re mine, too, you belong to the whole family that he came from, and anyone who belongs to us is never alone, is charged with energy.

It is a roller coaster of emotions and a river of consciousness as we ride along, wondering who is going to survive these years unscathed.

The Class Divide

There is the intensity we’ve come to expect of Ferrante, the twisted emotions and imaginings of her protagonist leading the story, reading the surface of behaviours of adults around her, creating confusion, with that precise, recognisable linguistic clarity. Her father and Aunt represent a class divide that Giovanni witnesses, growing up on one side her father has escaped to, and now intrigued by the other that her Aunt inhabits.

Their mutual hatred remained intact, and I soon gave up any attempt at mediation. I began instead to say to myself explicitly that that hatred was an advantage for me: if my father and his sister made peace, my encounters with Vittoria wouldn’t be exclusive, I might be downgraded to niece, and certainly I would lose the role of friend, confidante, accomplice. Sometimes I felt that if they stopped hating each other I would do something to make them start again.

I can’t really talk about the novel in the singular as I see her individual novels now as a tapestry of different women characters from Naples, in various stages of their life – the two friends in My Brilliant Friend, the daughter in Troubling Love and the betrayed wife of The Days of Abandonment.

The Lying Life of Adults Elena Ferrante

Photo by Luidi Cardoso on Pexels.com

Inside the overthinking mind of an adolescent and the pushing boundary-like behaviours, exposing that lying life, provoking reactions, seeing the damage of truth-telling and then the transition, an increasing self-awareness, noticing a reduced need to react to annoyances, about one’s parents, one’s friends, teachers, family. A letting go. A transition. Decisions. To care or not to care.

I behaved like that certainly to feel free from all the old bonds, to make it clear that I didn’t care anymore about the judgment of relatives and friends, their values, their wanting me to be consistent with what they imagined themselves to be.

Ferrante provides the reader no easy conclusions, makes no judgments, but leads you down paths that will confront you with your own, as you carry on a conversation inside your own mind, wondering and trying to guess what her character might do next.

As the novel nears the end, it reads almost like a thriller, as we can see she is moving towards adulthood, her behaviours are less volatile, she feels less of a need to respond so violently, and yet, there is the danger that now she is becoming one of them – an adult – those who hide their behaviours behind lies.

Raw, intense, a delightful, refreshing, “stand up to them” protagonist.

My Reviews of Ferrante Books

Photo by Emre Kuzu on Pexels.com

Troubling Love (novel)

The Days of Abandonment (novel)

The Neapolitan Quartet: (tetralogy – 4 novels)

My Brilliant Friend

The Story of a New Name

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

The Story of the Lost Child

Frantumaglia, A Writer’s Journey (nonfiction)

Further Reading

Review, Guardian:  a rebel rich girl comes of age

Elena Ferrante Shares 40 Favourite Books by Female Authors

 

Elena Ferrante Shares 40 Favourite Books by Female Authors

As I’m currently reading her most recent novel, The Lying Life of Adults published in September 2020 and being a fan of many of her books to date, including My Brilliant Friend, The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love and Frantumaglia, I was interested to learn thanks to the publisher Europa Editions that:

Elena Ferrante has compiled a list of novels close to her heart, all by women authors, and exclusively for Bookshop.org, the new alternative to Amazon for socially conscious shoppers wanting to support high street bookshops when they shop online.

Given the type of characters and narratives Elena Ferrante is known for, her stories usually set in or have a connection with the working class neighbourhood of Naples and concern female protagonists coming to terms with their situation, whether they are girls, young mothers, grieving daughters or an adolescent trying to make sense of the adult world, I thought it would be interesting to know which authors she gravitates towards, who she has been influenced by and being Italian, she is likely to have read books that might be outside the common anglo reading mainstream.

I’m sharing the list here as an easy reference for me to look at and will link any of the titles I have already read to my reviews. I have read 13 of the titles, though only reviewed six of them.

Elena FerranteI’ve also added the countries the author is associated with, either by birth and/or nationality, as I find that helpful, it being one of the criteria by which I decide whether to read a book or not – to avoid always reading works from the same cultural influence.

The list is quite Euro-American influenced, with only one African representation (or two if you count Doris Lessing), so while not quite as diverse as what I like to read, it’s an interesting exploration of the female pysche through female literature of the ages from those cultures represented.

I did also read that the list was limited by what is available in English and by what is available from the Bookshop, so there are titles that haven’t been shared because either they haven’t been translated into English or are not available. I wish they had been included because that might have sparked an even more interesting debate about the lack of availability of works in other languages and to hear the chorus of readers who might have helped persuade publishers to do something about that.

Juliana at The Blank Garden has more to say about that in her critique of the list (see the link to her blog post below), she is very widely read across languages, a wonderful reviewer and has read 28 of the titles. I’ll be referring to her favourites of Elena’s favourites as a further guide!

Elena Ferrante’s top 40 books by female authors

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria/America)
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (Canada)
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Iran/Australia) translated by Anonymous
Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann (Austria) translated by Philip Boehm (German)
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (US)
Outline by Rachel Cusk (UK)
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (US)
A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio (Italy) translated by Ann Goldstein
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi (Iran/France) translated by Tina Kover
The Lover by Marguerite Duras (France) translated by Barbara Bray
The Years by Annie Ernaux (France) translated by Alison Strayer
Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg (Italy) translated by Jenny McPhee
The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (US)
Motherhood by Sheila Heti (Canada)
The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (Austria) translated by Joachim Neugroschel
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (Japan) translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (US/India)
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing (Zimbabwe/UK)
The Passion According to GH by Clarice Lispector (Ukraine/Brazil) translated by Idra Novey
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (Mexico)
Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante (Italy) translated by Ann Goldstein
Beloved by Toni Morrison (US)
Dear Life by Alice Munro (Canada)
The Bell by Iris Murdoch (UK)
Accabadora by Michela Murgia (Italy) translated by Silvester Mazzarella
Le Bal by Irene Nemirovsky (Ukraine/France) translated by Sandra Smith
Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (US)
The Love Object: Selected Stories by Edna O’Brien (Ireland)
A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor (US)
Evening Descends Upon the Hills: Stories from Naples by Anna Maria Ortese (Italy) translated by Ann Goldstein & Jenny McPhee
Gilead by Marylynne Robinson (US)
Normal People by Sally Rooney (Ireland)
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (India)
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (UK)
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (US)
The Door by Magda Szabò (Hungary) translated by Len Rix
Cassandra by Christa Wolf (Poland/Germany) translated by Jan van Heurck
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (US)
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (Belgium/US) translated by Grace Frick

Further Reading

Critic of the List: Elena Ferrante’s Shopping Advice | Reading Project

Article, Guardian: ‘This is revolutionary’: new online bookshop unites indies to rival Amazon

Article, Guardian: List by pseudonymous author of Neapolitan novels includes Zadie Smith, Sally Rooney and several Italian classics

 

Atlantis, A Journey in Search of Beauty by Carlo & Renzo Piano tr. Will Schutt

Art Architecture Nonfiction

What an unexpected pleasure this was. I spent a week reading it, always looked forward to picking it up and loved the shared narrative between father and son as they travelled around the world on an Italian Navy Research ship, during 8 months.

They revisit the sites of Renzo’s architectural designs, awakening his memory of the creative process, the people he met with to understand their needs and that of the community his structures would serve.

A lifetime of work he was passionate about and given him a unique perspective and wisdom, not to mention the deep cultural immersion all those projects provided this now 80-year-old architect and father.

A Sea-Lover’s Journey

Renzo and Carlo set sail from Genoa one late summer day, and from the blurb, would have us believe they are :

guided by the ancestral desire felt by many explorers before them to find Atlantis, the perfect city, built to harbour a perfect society.

It is as much a conversation as a travelogue and one that takes place when 80 year old Renzo is still contemplating retirement, this revisiting of his projects and the reflection they invite, of inspiration and ideas, of listening and understanding, a quiet dissatisfaction his son will probe, and that scandal his early work (Beaubourg – the Centre Pompidou in Paris) provoked.

Sins of Youth
After the Paris adventure he spent years defending himself against people who feared they would put pipes up everywhere. Rogers suffered the same fate, a fate reserved for heretics in the Middle Ages.

“I see Beaubourg as a joyful urban machine, which inspires more than a few questions.”

design inspiration italy Renzo Piano colour water boats

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As Carlo questions and muses, he creates a narrative structure within which his father responds and reflects and by the end I can’t even say whose narrative I prefer, there is such a wonderful synergy and relation between the two, a rhythmic flow of thoughts and words.

Perhaps Carlo is able to dig deeper and pick up on certain gestures, more so than another interviewer might, because it is his father he knows so well, referring to him by many names throughout, the Explorer, the Constructor, the Measurer, the Old Man.

Does he call him the Philosopher or the Artist? I’m not sure, but it is clear to me that he is both, his subjects creativity, beauty and place.

A lover of words and speaker of three languages, he educates us in how the word beauty differs in Italian, French and  other languages, something that means good and beautiful, intrinsic in the essence of something. He reminisces with his staff on their collective purpose in a letter he writes them onboard, the day of his 80th birthday.

“The pursuit of beauty. The word is hard to articulate. As soon as you open your mouth, it flies off, like a bird of paradise. Beauty can not be caught, but we are obliged to reach for it. Beauty is not neutral; pursuing it is a political act. Building is a grand act, a gesture toward peace, the opposite of destruction.”

Shard Renzo Piano Architect Atlantis

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I found the entire book totally engaging, from start to finish; their journey and revisiting the building projects along the Thames and the Seine, in New Caledonia and New York, San Francisco and Osaka Bay and finally to Athens, providing just enough information and context to keep the narrative interesting and intriguing, with the addition of that element of humanity that only two people who know each other as well as these two could bring.

A light touch allows you, even at your most determined, to listen to others and seek to understand them. A heavy tread you’re better off without.
Lightness is key to understanding places, and, in that sense, an architect must inhabit the places where he works. I have been a Parisian, a Berliner, a New Yorker, a Londoner, a Kanak.

All the while remaining who I am.

I think an architect who does not recognize himself in the place he is building cannot capture its soul.

Further Reading

Renzo Piano Video : On the Shoulders of Giants – a wonderful, biographical interview with the Pritzker prizewinning Italian architect

Article (with photos): Les 10 projets les plus célèbres de l’architecte Renzo Piano by Marina Hemonet, AD Magazine – including one here in Aix-en-Provence (Le pavillon de photographie du Château La Coste)

Berlin Unorthodox Renzo Piano Architecture Potsdamer Platz

Photo by Esther on Pexels.com

Anecdote/Coincidence : Upon finishing the four part series Unorthodox this week, I watched the short film ‘The Making of Unorthodox’ intrigued by the storytelling, sense of place and adept characterisation it had evoked. It is filmed in Berlin and Williamsburg, but mostly in Berlin, where the Production Designer Silke Fischer, looking for a specific architectural look and feel to extend the metaphor of freedom, found a great location at Potsdamer Platz next to the Philharmonic.

Unbeknown to me, while I was reading Atlantis, I was also immersed in a series shot on location in one of his architecturally designed buildings.

N.B. Thank you kindly to the publisher Europa Editions for sending me a copy of the book.

Hadji Murad by Leo Tolstoy tr. Aylmer Maude

The Kindness of Enemies Shamil ImamI read Hadji Murad because it was referenced in the last pages of Leila Aboulela’s excellent The Kindness of Enemies and is set in the same location as the historical part of her book, 1850’s Caucasus. Aboulela’s book centres on the kidnap of A Russian Princess and her time in captivity under the protection of the Highlander Shamil Imam. He wishes to trade her for his son, help captive by the Russians for more than ten years.

Tolstoy was in the Russian army for a time and clearly witnessed many missions. One of the events he had knowledge of and wrote about, though this novella was published post-humously by his wife, was the defection to Russia and subsequent killing of one of Shamil Khan’s chieftans, another Highlander, Hadji Murad.

Though I’m not a huge fan of the classics, there are some exceptions and I did enjoy Anna Karenina, however having read Aboulela’s version which really brings the characters alive and highlights their dilemmas so openly, I found it hard to connect with Tolstoy’s tale, which rarely touches on lives other than the soldiers and noble decision makers.

Hadji Murad Thistle Leo Tolstoy

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The opening scene though is brilliant, the ploughed field, bereft of life, everything turned over, leaves only one sturdy thistle, half destroyed but for that one stalk still standing tall, the flower head emitting its bold crimson colour.

The land was well tilled and nowhere was there a blade of grass or any kind of plant to be seen; it was all black. “Ah, what a destructive creature is man… How many different plant lives he destroys to support his own experience!” thought I, involuntarily looking round for some living thing in this lifeless black field.

It is the scene that brings back the memory of this man Hadji Murad and compels him to write out those pages, perhaps purging himself of a ghastly memory.

“What energy!” I thought. “Man has conquered everything, and destroyed millions of plants, yet this one won’t submit.” And I remembered a Caucasian episode of years ago, which I had partly seen myself, partly heard of from eye-witnesses, and in part imagined.

It does make me think that he had intended not to publish it, that perhaps it was written for another purpose altogether. Particularly as, at the time he wrote it (1896-1903)

he was spending most of his time writing his virulent tracts against the art of fiction and denouncing some of the best writers in the world, including Shakespeare.

In conclusion, it highlights to me the importance of reading various perspectives of history, not just one side or the other, but also across gender. It is refreshing to read a female historian’s fictional version of an age old conflict, inhabiting characters who observe from positions of lesser power, of oppression, for their powers of observation are that much stronger than the privileged, it being one of their necessary survival instincts.

A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio

translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein.

Europa Editions Italian Literature Donatella Di PietrantonioA Girl Returned came to my attention because I like to see what Europa Editions are going to be publishing, they are known for bringing Italian literature to readers of the English language and their big title in 2020 will be Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. One I will be reading soon.

The Adoptee Experience

I chose to read A Girl Returned because I am interested in reading as much as possible, fiction or nonfiction, stories that portray the adoptee experience. And the premise of this book is shocking as the title suggests, when a thirteen year old girl is returned to the family she is born into without being told why or there appearing to be any clear motive.

Though as anyone with a connection with adoption will know, it is rare for the process to exist without the presence of secrets, lies, clandestine activities, resentments, heartbreak and denial.

Book Review

I was thirteen, yet I didn’t know my other mother.

The story opens as a 13-year-old girl struggles up the stairs of an apartment with an unwieldy suitcase and a bag of jumbled shoes. The door is opened by her sister Adriana, whom she has never met.

We looked like each then, more than we do as adults.

Through the months of adjustment that follow, thrown back into the reluctant family she was born into, events are narrated with hindsight, as her memory of that vision of her sister attests. She is determined to unravel the cause of this separation and abandonment by both sets of parents, at birth by her biological family and at 13 by her adoptive family, the latter, whose love she never questioned.

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Aware her mother had been suffering, she continues to worry and wonder about her, we the reader do too, trying to imagine and fearful of what might have ailed her that she was unable to share with her only daughter.

Who knew how my mother was. Whether she’d started eating again, whether she was getting out of bed more often. Or if instead she’d been taken to hospital. She hadn’t wanted to tell me anything about her illness, certainly she didn’t want to frighten me, but I had seen her suffering in the past months, she hadn’t even gone to the beach, she who was usually there in the first warm days of May. With her permission I went to our umbrella by myself, since I was grown up now, she said. I had gone the day before my departure and had even had fun with my friends: I didn’t believe that my parents would really find the courage to give me back.

As time passes, small clues diminish her resolve and trust in those around her, who seem to believe in or at least practice, silence and deception. The only way will be to take matters into her own hands.

The idea came to me at night, I reported it to Patrizia in the morning under the umbrella.

The one unexpected joy in her changed circumstances, though she accepts it reluctantly and is wary of it, is the fierce love, and admiration tinged with jealousy, she receives from her younger sister. Like candle light in a dark room, she is luminous yet capable of harm. There are wild differences, given their different upbringings, but there exists the thread of undeniable connection.

I wasn’t acquainted with hunger and I lived like a foreigner among the hungry. The privilege I bore from my earlier life distinguished me, isolated me in the family. I was the arminuta, the one who’d returned. I spoke another language and I no longer knew who I belonged to. I envied my classmates in the town, and even Adriana, for the certainty of their mothers.

Identity, Exile and The Mother

In a brilliant essay-style review, translator Stiliana Milkova suggests that the main concern of the novel is how essential the role of the mother is to our sense of identity.

Looking at mothers as the figures that determine and define who we are allows us to think about A Girl Returned as a novel about exile and dislocation, rather than simply motherhood. The Arminuta (a word that in the language of the Abruzzo region of Italy means “the returned”) is unexpectedly forced to leave her maternal home, or what she considers her maternal home, and exiled to a place whose customs, and even the language, are almost foreign to her.

The longer she stays in this forced exile, the more detached she becomes from both her present and her past, to who she was, is. So much had been tied to a mother’s love or bond. Though she remembers the feeling of being loved, she now questions it, faced with such devastating evidence.

In certain melancholy moods, I felt forgotten. I’d fallen out of her thoughts. There was no longer any reason to exist in the world. I softly repeated the word mamma a hundred times, until it lost all meaning and was only an exercise of the lips. I was an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue, the other had given me back at the age of thirteen. I was a child of separations, false or unspoken kinships, distances. I no longer knew who I came from. In my heart I don’t know even now.

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A short novel, A Girl Returned packs a powerful, moving punch and generously provides that glimmer of hope, in an unexpected alliance. Rereading these passages I highlighted makes me wish to repeat the entire reading experience, the shock, the solace, the resistance and resilience.

We look less like each other now, but we find the same meaning in this being thrown into the world.

Highly Recommended.

Reviews

Bella Mia by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, review by HeavenAli (Published in 2014, translated to English in 2016)

My Mother is a River by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, review by HeavenAli (Published in 2011, translated into English 2015)

Further Reading

Reviews by Translators: The Mother Of All Questions: Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s “A Girl Returned,” tr. Ann Goldstein by Stiliano Milkova

Article New York Times: ‘The Ferrante Effect’: In Italy, Women Writers Are Ascendant by Anna Momigliano

N.B. Thank you kindly to Europa Editions for sending me a copy of the book.

The Bird Within Me by Sara Lundberg (Sweden)

translated by B.J.Epstein

The Swedish Artist Berta Hansson

The concept of this illustrated children’s book really appealed to me. It’s inspired and based on the childhood of the Swedish artist Berta Hansson (1910-1994) during the period in her life when she was 12 years old and wanted to be outdoors in nature or painting or making birds out of clay.

However, her father was strict and serious and her mother was frail and in bed very ill, so she was needed to help out in the home and on the farm, and all the more so when one of her older sisters was sent away to study domestic science, to learn how to become a better homemaker.

She initiates a form of protest.

Housewife. Housewives.

That’s what Dad wants us to be –

Julia, Gunna and me –

because that’s how it’s always been

and that’s how it’s going to be.

A Role Model or a Muse

Berta wanted something else for her life, but had no role model or knowledge of how to make her dreams a reality. Her Uncle Johan whom she secretly admired, painted with oil paints and made fiddles instead of spending all his time on farm work, sadly he was looked down on and derided, referred to as the ‘theatre farmer‘.

Sometimes late at night she would sneak out and wander over to a copse of trees by the Doctor’s house, one of the few people who had ever complimented her art.

The Bird Within Me Painting Muse

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I peer in.
He sits in the armchair,
reading and smoking his pipe.
If he saw me, I would die.
Paintings hang on his walls from the floor to the ceiling.
They are so beautiful.
I can’t stop looking at them.
To think that someone has painted them.

Breaking Out

It is a story of family and obligations, and of the longing a child has for something that is difficult to articulate or express in words, little understood by the world of adults who harbour expectations.

How to sustain and realise dreams when the way is not clear.

It’s a celebration of the exploration of art and observation in youth and of the struggle against the familial and cultural conditioning and expectations of girls.

A beautiful and thought provoking book for all ages.

You can find a copy of the book here.

The Party Wall by Catherine Leroux (2016)

translated by Lazer Lederhendler (from French-Canadian into English).

Reading Women in Translation

French Canadian literature in translationMy final read of August for WITMonth was The Party Wall, French Canadian author Catherine Leroux’s third novel. It was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which annually recognizes the best in Canadian fiction – and has just announced its 14 strong long list for 2020. The translation by Lazer Lederhendler won the Governor General’s Literary Award for translation (French to English).

This novel is told in chapters about paired characters; mother and son, brother and sister, husband and wife; so it stops and starts as we leave one pair and move to the next. There doesn’t initially appear to be a connection (although there is) between the lives so the stories are quite different, creating the effect of reading short stories with the expectation that the threads will come together to reveal the tapestry.

The novel opens with Madeleine (actually it doesn’t but it’s the more memorable opening chapter), a woman who has lost her husband; she visits the spot where his ashes lie beneath a tree and talks to him often. Her son has left home and she hears of him through the many travellers who arrive looking for a bed for a night, people he has given her address. There is a sadness of loss of the other in her, an affliction which is given a bizarre (but true) cause when she is told she is not a biological match for her son, when at last he does return.

The Party Wall Catherine Leroux lighthouse

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From the window of her office, Madeleine looks at the watchman doing his rounds. This is what she does when her eyes need a rest. There’s the sea, of course, but it isn’t at all restful. It’s a struggle, a call, a mystery whispered with every rising tide. The watchman, on the other hand, is calm and predictable. Afflicted by gout, he has never taken a day off. He circles around the lighthouse like a grey satellite; his hobbling in no way diminishes his reassuring presence.

As their lives move forward, the theme of separation becomes apparent, its inherent wounding manifesting in different ways in each pair of lives.

Oddly enough, it was a long time before they realised they had both been adopted. Marie, haunted by her origins, preferred to wait before broaching the subject and kept the truth sealed inside her chest. As for Ariel, his sense of belonging to the Goldstein family was so powerful that he rarely gave any thought to the fact he had been born elsewhere, welcomed into the world by unknown hands, which had passed him on to someone else like a baton in a relay race that was to lead to as yet unseen heights.

Silence as a Familial Weapon

graveyard shift cemetery ghostly presence

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Carmen and Simon are siblings and we meet them around their mother’s deathbed, a woman who never revealed to her children who their father was, controlling them through withholding, keeping them attached through the sliver of possible revelation. Carmen runs marathons to forget, while Simon tries to avoid witnessing his marriage fall apart, removing himself by choosing to work the graveyard shift.

The term “graveyard shift” is perfectly apt: the darkness and silence of a cemetery always mask a ghostly existence, the invisible dramas of the dead and their mourners.

It’s a thought provoking and cleverly constructed novel, however the disjointed stories inevitably expose the weaknesses of one against the strengths of another, and so writing about it a week after reading highlights that which was memorable and that lost to the river of stories who are lost in the current.

Ultimately, what stays with the reader is the importance of the connections we do make, those we choose and those we pursue, for better or worse. A couple of the stories could have evolved into novels in their own right.

The Party Wall has its own logic and its own internal structure and systems: four stories that become intertwined as the book progresses. Three of those came about from extraordinary news stories I had come across. Catherine Leroux

Further Reading

Article CBC/Radio Canada: Catherine Leroux on the literary value of loose ends

Article: How Catherine Leroux ripped fiction from the headlines in The Party Wall

Article: 14 Canadian books make the 2020 longlist for $100k Scotiabank Giller Prize, 8 Sept 2020