Transit by Anna Seghers tr. Margot Bettauer Dembo

I have wanted to read this novel for a while, ever since reading Jacqui’s review a few years ago. With August focused on #womenintranslation and being asking for a suggestion for our upcoming bookclub, it seemed the perfect moment to read it.

It is an incredible novel, written in a surreal time, while the writer was living in exile in Mexico, Anna Seghers (having left Germany in 1933 to settle in France) was forced (with her husband and two children) to flee from Marseille in 1940, the only port in France at that time that still flew the French flag, the rest under German occupation.

With the help of Varian Fry, (see his autobiography Surrender on Demand) an American journalist who came to Marseille for a year and helped 1500 artists, writers, intellectuals escape Europe; they found safe passage to Mexico, where they stayed until able to return to East Berlin, where she lived until her death in 1983.

While in Mexico she wrote this thought-provoking, accomplished, “existential, political, literary thriller” novel narrated by a 27-year-old German man who has escaped two labour camps (in Germany and France) before arriving in Paris where he promises to do a favour for a friend, coming into possession of a suitcase of documents belonging to a German writer named Weidel, who he learns has taken his own life.

There is an element of the absurd in many of the encounters throughout the entire novel, and one of the first is when the young meets the hotel proprietor, inconvenienced by the death of this man in her establishment, which she’d had to officially register and arrange for burial, she complains that he’d caused her more trouble than the German invasion and that they hadn’t ended there and goes into detail.

“Don’t think that my troubles are over. This man has actually managed to create trouble for me from beyond the grave.”

Our unnamed narrator offers to assist, requiring him to travel to Marseille, where he hopes to stay indefinitely. To avoid checkpoints, he leaves the train a few stops early and descends into the city.

Walking down from the hills, I came to the outer precincts of Marseille. At a bend in the road I saw the sea far below me. A bit later I saw the city itself spread out against the water. It seemed as bare and white as an African city. At last I felt calm. It was the same calm that I experience whenever I like something very much. I almost believed I had reached my goal. In this city, I thought, I could find everything I’d been looking for, that I’d always been looking for. I wonder how many times this feeling will deceive me on entering a strange city!

Descending into Marseille today

Alongside many others genuinely trying to flee, we follow him to hotels, cafes, consulates, shipping offices, travel bureaus and stand in line as he apples for visa and stamps that he has little vested interest in, observing the absurd demands made of people trying to find safe passage to what they hope is a free world. He is given a one month residency and then settles in to watch the world go by, ignoring that he must still establish his intention.

By now I felt part of the community. I had a room of my own, a friend, a lover; but the official at the Office for Aliens on the Rue Louvois had a different view of things. He said, “You must leave tomorrow. We only allow foreigners to stay here in Marseille if they can bring us proof that they intend to leave. You have no visa, in fact not even the prospect of getting one. There is no reason for us to extend your residence permit.”

The man he knows is dead, has a wife widow waiting for him in Marseille, her story becomes part of the young man’s quest, in this transitory city that holds a thin promise of a lifeline to the fulfillment of desperate dreams for so many refugees.

The complexity of requirements means many more are rejected than succeed and all risk being sent to one of the camps that the authorities without hesitation dispatch those whose papers are not in order.

Our narrator is independent, without family and not in possession of a story that invokes sympathy in the reader. A drifter without purpose, he likes the city and wants to stay. His circumstance removes something of the terror and tragedy of what people around him are going through, allowing the reader to see the situation outside of the tragic humanitarian crisis it was.

Instead we witness the absurd situation people have been put in, the endless, near impossible bureaucratic demands refugees encounter, when they are forced to flee homes they don’t want to leave, to go to a safe(r) place equally they don’t necessarily wish to go to, but will do so to survive and in an attempt to keep their families together. And the irony or blindness of those around them who continue with their lives as if nothing has changed.

Sometimes you find real Frenchmen sitting in the Brûleurs des Loups. Instead of talking about visas, they talk about sensible things like the shady deals that go on. I even heard them mention a certain boat that was sailing for Oran. While the Mont Vertoux customers prattle on about all the details of booking a passage on a ship, these people were discussing the particulars of the cargo of copper wire.

I highlighted so many passages that I will go back and reread, it’s a fascinating book that could perhaps only have been written from the safety of exile and from the perspective of the everyday man and woman, without going into detail about the reasons for their haste, for even a safe place can become unsafe, and a manuscript sufficient to sign a death warrant. And even though this book was written 77 years ago, there is much about the bureaucracy that continues to ring true for immigrants in Europe today.

Marseill’s thoroughfare, Le Canibiére

The depiction of Marseille, though in a time of terror is evocative too of that city today, only the places mentioned here are now frequented by people from a different set of countries, those who have fled or left in search of something better in the last 30 years, from parts of Africa, Vietnam, Lebanon and those who just need to disappear for a while, finding anonymity and comradeship in the small alleys and cafes of Marseille, a city of temporary refuge, where everyone has a story that begins elsewhere.

Immigrants of the 21st century – Balade de Noailles

Coincidentally, a few weeks ago, I visited a quartier of Marseille, just off Le Canibiére, called Noailles, with a small group of university professors, looking to know the city’s immigrant population and influence a little better in anticipation of further developing their teaching classes to incorporate the reality of today.

Bénédicte Sire & One of the Legends of Noailles

The personal tour was guided by local comedien/actress/director, Bénédicte Sire, who introduced us to a new generation of immigrants who’ve adopted Marseille as their home. We visited them in their shops tasting their food while listening to personal family stories, which were narrated either by Bénédicte taking on the persona of a relative, or a combination of her oral storytelling and the shop owner narrating.

It was perhaps the most informative and personal visit I’ve ever made to Marseille, and was like a live version of the many novels I’ve read, translated from countries far away, only here they are living in a city 25 minutes away, facilitated by a warm, cheerful, empathetic woman who has developed authentic relationships with her fellow residents, gently opening them to trust in sharing their often traumatic, personal stories with outsiders genuinely interested to know.

Highly Recommended if you ever visit the city of Marseille and wish to see it from within.

Buy a Copy of Transit via Book Depository

The Gold Letter by Lena Manta (Greece) tr. Gail Holst-Warhaft

Destiny caresses the few, but molests the many.

Turkish Proverb

Greek and Turkish histories go back a long way, and I profess to knowing little about them, however it’s clear that whichever people you belong to there is likely to be a bias towards their stories, and it as likely that these populations are more mixed than they would like to believe, that there have been generations of cheerful intermingling, despite the differences that keep their identities separate.

The Gold Letter is a story of Greek families living in what was then known as Constantinople (later renamed as Istanbul, one of many name changes – The city was founded in 667 BC and named Byzantium by the Greeks ), and how the same twist of fate affects three generations of the same two families, where a young woman and a young man fall in love, only to have the union thwarted by their parents – in each generation it is for a different reason, beginning with them not being of the same wealth and social status, where marriage was more of a contract between families decided by the father’s.

He had married her not, of course, because he loved her, but because that was what her father had decided…Nobody thought of asking Kleoniki if she wanted to marry the grim Anargyros, with his rough hands and even rougher personality. Besides it was thought to be a very good marriage, since the groom was prosperous and an orphan.
“A big thing, that, my dear!” the matchmaker informed the girl. “Neither a mother-in-law in your face nor a father-in-law to boss you round. Lady and mistress of your own house!”

And in case they thought about falling into the temptations of forbidden love, there were frequent reminders of the sins of those who’d done so and had to flee, “discussed with horror and scorn in hushed voices at evening gatherings and tea parties”.

Even if some woman, deep down inside, understood the girl, she didn’t dare say so. Many romantic souls sighed secretly, calculating what a great love the girl must have felt to run off with her beloved, overlooking the fact that he was a Turk.

Though the son’s obey their fathers and the families are estranged, fate’s determined magnetism continues to bring  subsequent generations together.

He couldn’t shame his father; they hadn’t raised him that way. And the blood of the revolution didn’t run in his veins. He would have to bury his heart.

An abandoned house in Turkey

The story and family history are narrated in the present day as a middle age woman Fenia, arrives from Germany having been summoned by a family lawyer in Athens and told she has inherited a house from a grandfather she never met.

She decides to stay and do up the house and various knocks at the door lead her to meet two relatives, one bearing good wishes, the other hostility and through them she will fill in the gaps in their shared history.

And what is this Gold Letter – a beautiful gift imagined and designed by one son, that becomes an heirloom that will find its way into Fenia’s hands and connect the stories together.

I was a little skeptical when I began reading due to the clear prejudices of the characters, whether it was Greeks against Turks or the attitude of the men towards women and certainly the women in all these generations suffer greatly, those in the present day perhaps most of all. They were indicative of their time and sadly of  reality in some lands where country borders have moved and changed over the years when not everyone can flee, yet they remember the violence and deaths of members of their families in the past, which continues to keep them separate and untrusting for generations.

“My girl, sometimes you meet your fate on the road you took to avoid it.”

I was reminded of the wonderful novel about a friendship between two children in the same village, one of Greek and one of Turkish origin by Louis de Bernieres, Birds Without Wings, also a tragic love story, but one that combines the story of ordinary people’s lives in the 1930’s with a biography of the leader that will shift the balance of power in Turkey. One of my all time favourite books, exceptional.

I enjoyed reading The Gold Letter, covering three generations means there are many characters and connections to juggle so not much time is spent with some. That said, it’s clear the author is a gifted storyteller invested in her characters, whom I enjoyed following.

At times I felt almost like I was watching this on film, it’s an entertaining, episodic family drama of the old tradition, of couples trying to keep up family and cultural traditions as life modernises and social, political circumstances force change.

Lena Manta was born in Istanbul, Turkey, to Greek parents and moved to Greece at a very young age. She lives in Athens, has written 13 books and this is her second to be translated into English.

Buy a copy of The Gold Letter via Book Depository

N.B. This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Open Door by Latifa Al-Zayyat tr. Marilyn Booth #WITMonth

I’m glad The Open Door was brought back into publication, it was a landmark work in woman’s writing in Arabic when it was first published in 1960, an important commentary on the challenges women and girls in so many societies face, a consequence of patriarchy; an effect that is being busted wide open today, forcing transparency, offering support, healing and with hope, gradual change in many countries today. It seems timely to revisit this, or to read it for the first time, as will likely be the case for many.

As Sherif Abdel Samad said in the introduction to his article linked below:

“In ‘El Bab El Maftuh’ (The Open Door), Latifa al-Zayyat took on the widespread misogyny in Egyptian society like no other writer before her. The novel criticised the way women had to behave and dress, without attracting the slightest attention to themselves; the self-hatred with which the protagonist Laila grows up because she is a girl; and the social barriers that are placed in front of young women in the name of tradition and morality.”

The Open Door provides its unique view on a young woman’s coming of age in Cairo, Egypt, the roller coaster of emotions she goes through as she hits that turbulent period of becoming aware of both the effect she has on a young man and what his proximity does to her. It is heightened by the fear of how she will be perceived, judged, which in their course cause her to suppress her feelings and turn inward, when really she wants to be able to express herself or explode.

It’s a novel about Layla, her brother Mahmoud, their friends, parents and the Aunt and cousins living upstairs, all of whom have differing opinions and ways of dealing with life, their beliefs on how it should be lived and how one should behave, that make it a riveting read and insight into the debates this novel provoked at the time it was first published.

The Film starring Faten Hamama

Here is Layla’s mother reprimanding her for being outspoken and speaking her mind:

‘How could you say those ridiculous things to Samia Hanim?’

‘I just said what came to mind, and that’s that!’

‘What came to mind? If everyone said whatever was on their the mind, the world would have gone up in flames long ago.’

‘Or whatever they feel – that’s what they should say.’

‘Whatever they feel! That’s for your own private self, not for saying in front of people.’

‘So people should just lie, you mean?’

‘That’s not lying – that’s being courteous. One has to make people feel good. Flatter them.’

‘Even when you don’t like them?’

‘Even when you don’t like them.’

In addition to the turmoil Layla goes through, the advance and retreat, so too does Egypt confront her own coming of age, with the advance of independence from British rule, the inner rebellion against the monarchy and the final agitation that brought about the nationalisation of the Suez canal.

While it’s not an overly politically involved novel, the history of the nation over a ten year period, deftly matches the progress of the young woman as she tries to forge a path for herself, realising how tied to social codes she is, both complies and considers busting out of those expectations, to live life more on her own terms. Her dilemma is adeptly encapsulated in the quote below:

On this solid foundation she stood, after her experience with Isam, and within the bounds of those rules. There she existed, fortifying herself against life, so fearful; and suppressing all the well-springs of spontaneity and lively inquisitiveness that were in her nature. She faced life with a cold face and a colder heart, with chilled feelings, with a studied behaviour the consequences of which she always knew in advance. She constructed a shell of emotional serenity from her certainty that she was acting correctly, that she was perfectly self-sufficient, and that no one could harm her or cause her pain.

Then Husayn passed through her existence and a vibrant current touched her, setting off the sort of animated reactions that anyone who followed the rules and was clever at reckoning consequences would hardly dream of. Layla paused on the bank, observing life’s current as it pushed forward, and something in her heart rebelled. Something was willing her to join the current. Yet something in her mind pulled her back, enveloped her to imprison her on shore. And there she remained.

The men in her life symbolise different models of those options, and they too make choices that will have far reaching consequences, whether they meet societal expectations or choose a path true to their hearts. It can seem simplistic as a reader to see the preferred path, but the reality of lives and the strong influence of parents to raise the family status, often sees young people used as pawns in their determination. This adds to the novel’s intrigue, there is an undercurrent of concern on the part of the reader for Layla’s future welfare, making the book compelling reading, for she doesn’t make decisions the way one might expect.

The final section sees Layla not exactly make her own decisions, but find a way to at least explore her thoughts and desires without the oppression of others opinions, it coincides with a period of war, adding to the perceived danger, now the challenge is survival and participation in the struggle offers her a way through the chaos.

The ending felt a little rushed, and was less coherent as a whole than the rest of the book, it made me wonder if the author had trouble bringing the novel to its conclusion, although that chaotic feeling it generated could also be said to fit with the events that were happening at the time, which were in disarray and dangerous.

Overall, I thought it was excellent, engaging and thought-provoking, particularly by putting a young woman and her confusion in the act of becoming a woman at the centre and demonstrating through the other women, her family and friends around her, the pressures that disrupt that development, that question it, mould it and can sometimes even destroy it.

I hope it gets more widely read and discussed, particularly given the continued struggle that exists everywhere today and to get an inside view from within another culture, to see and understand the universality of these themes.

Latifa Al-Zayyat

Latifa Al-Zayyat (1923-1996) was an Egyptian writer and political activist born in Damyat. She was a professor of English literature and criticism at the Girls’ College at Ain Shams University from 1952 until her death.

She was Director of the Arts Academy and a member of the Supreme Council for Arts and Humanities, publishing many works on politics, literary criticism, as well as novels, short stories, memoir, and drama. She was also an activist and imprisoned more than once for her intellectual and political stance, her criticism of society and desire to break down taboos. Her literary legacy is important in light of the tireless campaigning she was so active in, that in part perhaps paved the way for those following in her footsteps.

About her novel, she had this to say:

“in the novel, I aimed at crystallizing three levels of significance. The first one deals with the development of the female protagonist, and its related to the second which deals with developments in Egypt at that period. As for the third level, it incorporates a commentary on the values of the middle class and its practices and how they prevent the country from a take off.”

It has been an inspiration for a large number of women who seek to challenge the status quo for women in the Arab world and achieve change. Her novel won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature and she was awarded an International Award of Recognition in Literature in 1996 shortly before death that same year.

Further Reading

Review: Literary Gems – Latifa al-Zayat’s The Open Door  by Ismail Fayed

Al Jadid Article: Remembering Latifa al-Zayyat By Amal Amireh

Article on the 20th Anniversary of her Death: Dauntless to the End by Sherif Abdel Samad

Click Here to Buy a Copy of

The Open Door

via Book Depository

 

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi tr. Tina Kover #WITMonth

 

 

 

 

 

 

I could end my review right there, those were the words I tweeted not long after I finished Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental while I was still in the moment of coming to the end of an excellent story of an immersive experience I wasn’t ready to be done with. It was a five star read for me, but I’ll share a little more of the experience to help you decide if it’s for you or not.

The novel is a dual narrative, set in the present and the past, where the protagonist – who for some time is nameless, with little said to explain how she came to be here – is sitting in a fertility clinic, waiting for her appointment. This immediately creates questions in the reader’s mind, as it is made clear there is something unusual about the situation, that she is taking a risk to even be there. This contemporary narrative, slowly builds the picture of who she is and the  circumstance she is in.

This interminable waiting creates an opening for her to reflect and remember, thus interspersed between what takes place in the present, is the story of her family, a long line of Sadr’s, beginning with her parents Sara and Darius, forced to flee Iran, who came to France when she and her two sisters were of school age.

The narrating of family stories, taking us back as far as her great-grandfather Montazemolmolk with his harem of 52 wives, serves to provide context and an explanation for why certain family members might have behaved or lived in the way they did, helping us understand their motives and actions.

The daughter Nour, born with unusual piercing blue eyes, her mother dying in childbirth, the man obsessed with making her his wife, her reluctance to go out being the object of unwanted attention, her children who desire to be free of restriction, the reading of the coffee cups, predicting the sex of the child of a pregnant woman; Uncle Number Two and his secret.

Darius, the timid elder son, sent to Cairo to study law, abandons his studies and pursues a doctorate in Philosophy at the Sorbonne. Eventually he returns to the family, changed by his studies and experiences and though quiet in person, wields a mighty sword through his journalistic pen and letters to a political regime he detests and chooses not to ignore.

It is a story that spans a changing, turbulent time in Iranian history, one that travels through highs and lows, for while the passionate intellectual is free to express their opinion and brings no harm, they continue to live within their culture, family and be an active part of their community and society. But when freedom of expression becomes a danger to the individual, the sacrifices that are made stifle and silence them, but don’t always make them safe. Life in exile, without the connections to friends, family, neighbours, reduces these adults to shadows of their former beings, unable to truly be themselves in a foreign culture.

I highlighted so many great passages in reading, but I’ve already passed the book on to someone else to read, so can not share them here yet. It is a reminder of another era, of people who had rich, cultural and intellectual lives, of families who fled persecution, not because of war, but because of their intellectual and philosophical activism and of how much is lost, when a new generation grows up within a culture no longer connected to their past, to their heritage and worse, in a country that has been subject to the propaganda of the media, and perceptions of that culture are tainted by the agenda of politicians and parties, and what they wish their populations to believe about foreign cultures.

I absolutely loved it, I liked the slow drip revelation of what this young woman’s life had become, having been severed from her country and community of origin and the colourful, abundant richness of the family history and culture, which while separate from her life today, existed somewhere deep in her psyche, in her genes, and in those non-genetic aspects we inherit from previous generations even without knowledge of what has passed.

It is as if she had a crystal ball to look back through the years, through lives she hadn’t personally experienced and discovered events from the past that created an aspect of who she was and would in turn, be passed on and live deep within the yet unborn child she desires to conceive.

Highly Recommended.

Buy a Copy of DisOriental via Book Depository

Eve out of her Ruins by Ananda Devi tr. Jeffrey Zuckerman #WITMonth

I was intrigued to read a book by a Mauritian author during Women in Translation month. Eve out of her Ruins hadn’t been on my initial list, but it was recommended to me and I decided to get a copy especially as I’ve been seeing many images of the island of Mauritius recently.

My Uncle is spending some months there at present, designing a noir thriller film called Serenity, starring Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey. A fishing boat captain’s past is about to crash up against his life on a tropical island.

Thank you Andrew McAlpine for the photos shared below, which so well depict the contrasts of Mauritius.

Ananda Devi writes from her roots. Deep within the Indian Ocean, Mauritius was colonised by Dutch, French and English explorers, traces of this colonial past remain evident both in the landscape and among the languages spoken by its multifarious population, descendants of settlers, slaves, indentured servants, and finally immigrants.

Though the blurb does mention the novel is enchanting and harrowing in equal measures, it is the story that is harrowing and the lyrical prose that is enchanting.

…she has trained her novelistic gaze on disenfranchised populations and the ways in which femininity is shaped and established. Her gorgeously hewn sentences rarely shy away from depicting violence or suffering; her novels, rather, embrace the entirety of human experience, from abject suffering to unalloyed joy. Jeffrey Zuckerman, Translator

The novel is narrated through four teenage voices, two young men Saad and Clélio, who like many young people on the island are bored and belong to a gang, not through any desire to cause harm, but almost to create some kind of a sense of community, their destructive tendencies more a result of a restless energy that has no other channel.

Saadiq, though everyone calls him Saad is in love with Eve and wants nothing more than to be able to protect her, and though she is used by everyone, there is something between these two, something that both draws them together and keeps them apart. He loves words, he expresses himself through the poetry of others, inscribing lines upon a wall, when he finds the phrase that resonates.

“Our cité is our kingdom. Our city in the city, our town in the town. Port Louis has changed shape; it has grown long teeth and buildings taller than its mountains. But our neighbourhood hasn’t changed. It’s the last bastion. Here, we let our identities happen: we are those who do not belong. We call ourselves bann Troumaron – the Troumaronis – as if we were yet another kind of people on this island filled with so many kinds already. Maybe we actually are.

Our lair, our playground, our battleground, our cemetery. Everything is here. We don’t need anything else. One day we’ll be invincible and the world will tremble. That’s our ambition.”

The two girls Eve and Savita are friends, the light in each others eyes and lives, something observed by the boys that generates jealousy and inspires something terrible.

There is  a second person narrative throughout, written in italics, employing the you voice, an omniscient presence that sees everything, enters the minds of characters, in particular Eve and all who encounter her, it understands everything and voices thoughts that can not be expressed.

Out of distress. Out of misery. Confirming angrily, belligerently, hopelessly, what they’re all thinking, over there, outside.

Being. Becoming. Not disappearing in your eyes. Escaping the straitjacket of passivity, of idleness, of failure, of ashen gazes, of leaden days, of sharpened hours, of shadowy lives,of faraway deaths, of gravelly failures, of lingering, of nakedness, of ugliness, of mockery, of laughter, of tears, of moments, of eternity, of shortness, of heaviness, of night, of day, of afternoons, of dawns, of faded Madonnas, of vanished temptresses.

None of that is you.

It is a tragic account, full of foreboding, it seems as if there is no escape, the one that did, a brother, promised to return, a hollow promise.

She forces open a door in darkness’s wall. This opening indeed reveals the beauty of the island, of this gift from the gods that is Mauritius, this gift that humans do not deserve but only a few innocents may ever see. J.M G. Le Clézio

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan tr. George Miller #WITMonth

Nothing Holds Back the Night is the book Delphine de Vigan avoided writing  until she could no longer resist its call. It is a book about her mother Lucile, who she introduces to us on the first page as she enters her apartment and discovers her sleeping, the long, cold, hard sleep of death. Her mother was 61-years-old.

De Vigan collects old documents, stored boxes, talks to members of her family, the many Aunts and Uncles and creates a snapshot of Lucile’s childhood, a large family of nine children living in Paris and then Versailles, holidaying at a ramshackle country house Pierremont, where they would all come together for summers throughout childhood and for many years to come.

Part One strings together the many anecdotes of memories of her mother’s past, and even in their telling, though the purpose is to reveal Lucile’s childhood, she is like a shadow, the one voice that is missing, whose presence is inferred but rarely at the forefront of the drama. She is a beautiful middle child, her beauty quickly capitalised on by her parents, who turn her into a pliable child model.

Her reticence and fear of being alone, is visible when their parents announce they are going to London for a weekend, leaving the children alone to take care of themselves:

Lucile greeted the news like the announcement of an imminent earthquake. A whole weekend! That seemed to her like an eternity, and the idea that a serious accident might happen when Liane and Georges were away made her breathless. For several minutes, Lucile stared into space, absorbed by the horrible visions she could not banish – shocks, falls, burns affecting each of her brothers and sisters in turn, and then she saw herself slip under a metro train. Suddenly she realised how vulnerable they were, how their lives ultimately might hang by a thread, turn on a careless step, one second more or one second less. Anything – especially something bad – could happen. The apartment, the street, the city contained an infinite number of dangers, of possible accidents, of irreparable dramas. Liane and Georges had no right to do this. She felt the tears run down her cheeks and took a step back to hide behind Lisbeth, who was listening attentively to her father.

Though Lucile isn’t given a voice (unless the author imagines it) in the section about her family and upbringing, the events depicted show her reactions and create a vision of the fragile woman she would become; lost, finding it difficult to cope alone, struggling to raise two daughters when she could barely take care of her own needs.

De Vigan goes through the family history, though only one generation, she isn’t as interested in inter-generational patterns, she searches the near past for clues:

The fact is that they run all the way through families like pitiless curses, leaving imprints which resist time and denial.

She asks what happened, what caused the turning point, the change in a family that appeared to be happy and thriving, that then was subject to trauma, cracks in its foundation, broken parts.

And so I asked her brothers and sisters to talk to me about her, to tell their stories I recorded them, along with others, who had known Lucile and our joyful but ravaged family.

She is particular about who she interviews, deciding early on not to speak to any of the men who temporarily came into her mother’s life, including her father. It’s as if she wishes to remove the possibility of judgement, by those who saw something of the effect on a life and not the life in its entirety.

This is her mother’s story and the daughter is fiercely protective, while being very open and honest about what she and her sister experienced. She is also an experienced investigative journalist and is practised in presenting her findings to meet a preconceived aim. She doesn’t wish to harm the family and yet she wants to present a truth, exorcise certain demons that keep her awake at night. Thus the first part reads a little like a novel as she immerses herself into the characters and lives she wishes to portray bringing them alive by imagining their thoughts and dialogue.

A daughter arrives part way through a mother’s life and so she goes back to fill in the gaps, to see her as a child, a sister, a daughter and for the rest, she narrates her story, as the daughter of this fragile woman, whose early life contributed to a deterioration in her mental health, who struggled to continue regardless, even though part of her yearned for an escape. Part Two therefore reads more like a memoir as she no longer has to step into the shoes of others and imagine a time when she wasn’t there, from now on she selectively recalls her own experience and that of her sister.

De Vigan shows her mother’s perseverance alongside her inability to cope, her periods of stability alongside events that trigger her periods of instability, her creativity alongside the terrible hallucinations and paranoia, no one knowing how long either of those states will endure and whether either one will persist.

I read this book in a day, it’s one of those narratives that once you start you want to continue reading, it’s described as autofiction, a kind of autobiography and fiction, though there is little doubt it is the story of the author’s mother, as she constructs thoughts and dialogue inspired by the information provided by family members, acknowledging that for many of the events, some often have a different memory which she even shares.

Manon and I had become adults, stronger for Lucile’s love, but fragile as a result of having learned too young that life could collapse without warning and that nothing around us was completely stable.

With the end of summer holidays approaching, I was in one of the local French bookshops buying a new French dictionary for my son, when I spotted this next book from Delphine de Vigan and in a moment of spontaneity, decided I would try reading it in French. Not straight away, but watch this space, for a review in English of a novel read in French.

Have you read any of Delphine de Vigan’s works?

Further Reading

Guardian Review – Ursula Le Guin is fascinated by a dark yet luminous memoir that straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction.

New York Times Review – A Mother in Absentia by Nancy Kline

 

Reading Women in Translation #WITMonth

August is the month when the annual reading challenge #WITMonth or Reading Women in Translation takes place, initially begun three years ago by Meytal at Biblibio.

I’m not a big fan or participant of reading challenges or lists, as I love changing my mind and being spontaneous about what I read next, however I do like to follow this one and read the reviews and keep up with what is being published as well as reading more of those I have discovered. And this is a challenge that is making a big difference in the reading and publishing world, so the more we read and demand books like these, the more expansive the selection will become.

I recently wrote an article about how I have become quite a fan of reading literature in translation, which was published by Tilted Axis Press in their lead up to WIT Month. If you haven’t read it already, you can do so by following the link here. At the end of the article I mention a number of titles I’ve really enjoyed, with links to my reviews. Reading in Translation, A Literary Revolution.

This year I’ll be reading a few titles from my current bookshelves and another title from one of my favourite authors Maryse Condé. Below is a summary of the author, translator, the language translated and what each book promises:

The Complete Claudine by Colette tr. Antonia White (French) – Colette began her writing career with Claudine at School, which catapulted the young author into instant, sensational success. Among the most autobiographical of Colette’s works, these four novels are dominated by the child-woman Claudine, whose strength, humour, and zest for living make her a symbol for the life force.

Selected Letters by Madame Sévigne (Marie de Rabutin-Chantal de Sévigné) tr. Leonard Tancock (French) –  One of the world’s greatest correspondents, Madame de Sevigne (1626-96) paints a vivid picture of France at the time of Louis XIV, in eloquent letters written throughout her life to family and friends. A significant figure in French society and literary circles, her close friends included Madame de La Fayette and La Rochefoucauld, she reflected on significant historical events and personal issues, and in this selection spanning almost 50 yrs, she can be humorous, melancholic, profound and superficial. Whether describing the new plays of Racine and Moliere, speculating on court scandals including the intrigues of the King’s mistresses or relating her own family concerns, Madame de Sevigne provides an intriguing portrait of the lost age of Le Roi Soleil.

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó tr. George Szirtes (Hungarian) – When Ettie’s husband dies, her daughter Iza insists  her mother give up the family house in the countryside and move to Budapest. Displaced from her community and her home, Ettie tries to find her place in this new life, but can’t seem to get it right. She irritates the maid, hangs food outside the window because she mistrusts the fridge and, in her naivety and loneliness, invites a prostitute in for tea.  Iza’s Ballad is the story of a woman who loses her life’s companion and a mother trying to get close to a daughter whom she has never truly known. It is about the meeting of the old-fashioned and the modern worlds and the beliefs we construct over a lifetime.

Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein (Italian) – Following her mother’s untimely and mysterious death, Delia embarks on a voyage of discovery through the streets of her native Naples searching for the truth about her family. A series of mysterious telephone calls leads her to compelling and disturbing revelations about her mother’s final days. I’m keen to try this after reading all about it in Ferrante’s nonfiction book Frantumaglia, which I read and reviewed earlier this year.

Maryse Condé

Ever since discovering Maryse Condé via the old style Man Booker International Prize, when it was a two yearly prize for an author’s entire works, I’ve been reading through her novels and stories, as suggested by the author I started with her Tales From the Heart: True Stories from My Childhood, Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, Segu,  and A Season in Rihata.

These are the books I still have on the shelf, and I’m already halfway into the novel the author said at a visit to our local library last year was the favourite of her novels, The Story of the Cannibal Woman, set in Cape Town, and centering on the life of a widow of a multicultural couple, reminding me of the character Hortensia in Yewande Omotoso’s excellent The Woman Next Door, which I just finished reading.

The Story of the Cannibal Woman – One dark night in Cape Town, Roselie’s husband goes out for a pack of cigarettes and never comes back. Not only is she left with unanswered questions about his violent death but she is also left without any means of support. At the urging of her housekeeper and best friend, the new widow decides to take advantage of the strange gifts she has always possessed and embarks on a career as a clairvoyant. As Roselie builds a new life for herself and seeks the truth about her husband’s murder, Conde crafts a deft exploration of post-apartheid South Africa and a smart, gripping thriller.

Crossing the Mangrove – Francis Sancher, a handsome outsider, loved by some and reviled by others, is found dead, face down in the mud on a path outside Riviere au Sel, a small village in Guadeloupe.  None of the villagers are particularly surprised, since Sancher, a secretive and melancholy man, had often predicted an unnatural death for himself.  As the villagers come to pay their respects they each, either in a speech to the mourners, or in an internal monologue, reveal another piece of the mystery behind Sancher’s life and death. Retaining the full colour and vibrancy of Conde’s homeland, Crossing the Mangrove pays homage to Guadeloupe in both subject and structure.

Children of Segu – Sequel to her masterpiece Segu, this fascinating story continues as brother fights brother and the powers of the globe threaten to change their world forever. If you enjoyed Homegoing By Yaa Gyasi, defintiely check out Segu.

Conversations With Maryse Condé by Françoise Pfaff– an exploration of the life and art of Maryse Condé, including conversations about Condé’s geographical sojourns and literary paths, her personality, and her thoughts. Their conversations reveal connections between Condé’s vivid art and her eventful, passionate life. In her encounters with historical and literary figures, and in her opinions on politics and culture, Condé appears as an engaging witness to her time. The conversations frequently sparkle with humour; at other moments they are infused with profound seriousness.

Maryse Condé was born in Guadeloupe, the youngest of eight children and her essays of childhood provide an excellent base for understanding the motivations that underpin much of her writing, firstly to get to know her family influences and aspirations and why she knew nothing of their origins (a past and ancestral pattern her mother was desperate for them to leave behind), her discovery of the turning points in the history of the Kingdom of Segu in Africa and the exploration of racial, gender and cultural issues in a variety of historical eras and locales, often focused on topics with strong feminist and political concerns. As she herself said:

“I could not write anything… unless it has a certain political significance. I have nothing else to offer that remains important.” extract from an interview with Rebecca Wolff

Further Reading

Who, What, When, Where: A Guide to #WITMonth 2017 – via WomeninTranslation.com

8 New or Forthcoming Books by Arab Women – via ArabLit.org

Have you read any of these?

What books have you decided to read for WIT Month?

Do you have a favourite to recommend as I’ll be topping up my shelf for next years reading!

Masks by Fumiko Enchi tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter #WITMonth

MasksA mysterious novella that begins in a quiet humble way as we meet the young widow Yasuko whose husband, the only son of Meiko Togano, we learn died tragically in an avalanche.

Yasuko has stayed close to her mother-in-law who in the early chapters seems like a peripheral character, however as the story ventures further, it is suspected that she may be manipulating events and that this is not the first time in her life she has done so.

“A woman’s love is quick to turn into a passion for revenge – an obsession that becomes an endless river of blood, flowing on from generation to generation”

Yasuko is ready to move on with her life and the two men who are in love with her become part of a triangle of deception, where the motives take some time to become clear.

Mieko is a poet and an essay she wrote called ‘The Shrine in the Fields‘, resurfaces, intriguing the two men. The shrine is a reference to a location in the Japanese classic The Tale of Genji that is mentioned in connection with tone of the characters in that novel the Rokujo lady.

“She has a peculiar power to move events in whatever direction she pleases, while she stays motionless. She’s like a quiet mountain lake whose waters are rushing beneath the surface toward a waterfall. She’s like the face on a No mask, wrapped in her own secret.”

Tale of GenjiIt is worth knowing a little about the plot of The Tale of Genji and the ‘Masks of Noh’ from the dramatic plays, as we realise there are likely to be references and connections to what is unfolding here. And not surprising given Fumiko Enchi translated this 1,000+ page novel into modern Japanese.

It may be that Masks, is an allegory to one or more chapters of The Tale of Genji, and in particular in relation to the story of the Rokujo lady, something that made me remember reading Sjon’s The Whispering Muse which did a similar thing with the Greek poet, Apollonius of Rhodes, and his epic poem The Argonautica.

Masks is an enchanting read, that begins as a straightforward narrative and becomes an intriguing multi-layered tapestry of long held deceptions and narcissistic conspiracies that will haunt the lives of these characters.

An intriguing, thought-provoking read, that expands our horizons, introducing us as it does, to classic works and theatre from the long Japanese literary culture.

Fumiko EnchiFumiko Enchi was a Tokyo born novelist and playright, the daughter of a distinguished philologist and linguist. Poorly as a child, she was home-schooled in English, French and Chinese literature by private tutors.

Her paternal grandmother introduced her to the Japanese classics such as The Tale of Genji, as well as gesaku novels,  kabuki and bunraku theatre. Her  adolescent reading included the works of Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, Kyōka Izumi, Nagai Kafū, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, and especially Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, whose sado-masochistic aestheticism particularly fascinated her.

Much of her work explores female psychology and sexuality, while three of her works have been influenced by The Tales of Genji, – Masks, The Waiting Years and The Tale of An Enchantress.

Buy a Copy of Masks via Book Depository (Affiliate Link)

 

The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen tr. John Irons #WITMonth

This is a tragedy about a woman who yearns for love but ends up in a painfully destructive conflict with her sister. It is also a story about loneliness – both geographical and psychological. Facing the prospect of a life without love, we fall back into isolating delusions at exactly the moment when we need to connect.

Mieke Ziervogel, Peirene Press

Looking Glass SistersTwo sisters have lived in the same house all their lives, their parents long gone and they can barely tolerate each other. They are bound together in one sense due to the practical disability of the younger sister, but also through the inherent sense of duty and responsibility of the first-born.

At times like these, in the dark, maybe with a candle lit, a sudden, intense feeling overcomes me that Ragna and I are one body, completely inseparable. We have gradually let go of parts of ourselves in favour of the other. Over the years, through conflicts and confrontations, we have shaped, kneaded and formed ourselves into a lopsided, distorted yet complete organism. Ragna has the body and I have the soul. She puts on the firewood, I do the thinking. She makes the tea, I read and write.

They manage with their hostile acceptance of each other until the new neighbour Johan begins to visit and competes for the attention of the able, caring, repressed Ragna, a potential disruptive threat to her invalid sister and to the way things in their household have been for a long time.

Days and weeks go by, I glide into a soothing rhythm of calm everydayness. It is an illusion, I know that, for beneath the dependable surface conspiracies smoulder, along with my sister’s hot-tempered desire for her own life.

Narrated from the perspective of the crippled sister in a stream of consciousness style, its intense, frustrating and laced with a sense of foreboding as the third character, Johan, arrives and either in her imagination or in reality – we are never quite sure – convinces the sister to make plans to change their circumstances.

Can it be that I, the sick one, have given rise to impatience in Ragna because of my exaggerated gestures and unreasonable demands? Can it be that I, the helpless one, have bred the anger in her by making myself more pathetic than I am? And can it be that I, in my struggle to gain the inviolable position of victim, have forged and fashioned Ragna the violator?

Claustrophobic, at times surreal, it fits perfectly with the Peirene Press Close Encounters theme, which comprised the three novellas below.

Chance Encounter Series

Peirene Press publish three books a year in a themed series. Their 6th series ‘Chance Encounters’ comprised three books that explored different aspects of interpersonal relationships and the importance of the Other in our development as individuals and our understanding of ourselves.

The Door by Magda Szabó tr. Len Rix #WITMonth

The DoorThe Door is an overwrought, neurotic narrative by “the lady writer”, (possibly Szabó’s alter-ego, as there are similarities) describing her 20 year relationship with Emerence, the older lady who interviews her prospective employer to see if she’ll consider accepting the cleaning job on offer.

The writer and her husband have recently had a ban on publication lifted from them (for political reasons) and anticipate requiring help around the house as they get back to work. Despite having little respect for intellectuals and only for those who do manual work, in her own time Emerence decides to accept them.

No formal agreement dictated the number of hours Emerence spent in our house, or the precise times of her arrival. We might conceivably see nothing of her all day. Then, at eleven at night, she would appear, not in the inner rooms, but in the kitchen or the pantry, which she would scrub until dawn.

Are they dependent on one another or do they despise each other? Is Emerence an altruistic soul, or a cunning manipulator? Is the lady writer narcissistic or consumed with guilt pursuing her idle occupation while the older woman takes on more and more work?

I stood there gazing after her, wondering why she still stuck with me when I was so very different from her. I had no idea what she liked about me. I said earlier that I still rather young,  and I hadn’t thought it through, how irrational, how unpredictable is the attraction between people, how fatal its current. And yet I was well versed in Greek literature,  which portrayed nothing but  the passions: death and love and friendship, their hands joined together around a glittering axe.

The entire novel hovers with each event between opposing emotional states as they appear to get the measure of the other only for the behaviour to completely change. Emerence will do anything and everything for everyone, she is loved by all, but has never opened the door to her home to a soul, her charges make it to her porch and no further. No one knows anything about her private life and she shuts down anyone who dares to pry.

Dressmakers ribcageLater, only very much later, in one of the most surreal moments I have ever experienced, I wandered amidst the ruin of Emerence’s life, and discovered, there in her garden, standing on the lawn, the faceless dressmaker’s dummy designed for my mother’s exquisite figure. Just before they sprinkled it with petrol and set fire to it, I caught sight of Emerence’s ikonstasis. We were all there, pinned to the fabric over the dolls’ ribcage: the Grossman family, my husband, Viola, the Lieutenant Colonel, the nephew, the baker, the lawyer’s son, and herself, the young Emerence, with radiant golden hair, in her maid’s uniform and little crested cap, holding a baby in her arms.

Seen through the prism of the writer, we observe Emerence only through her eyes, often confused, sometimes suspicious, frequently neurotic. She bears the hallmarks of an unreliable narrator.

It is a slow developing relationship and narrative that entwines these two women’s lives together, creating a delicate trust, the implications of which lead to its tragic denouement.

It’s a compelling, unsettling read, there is a sense of foreboding as the protagonist often jumps forward and provides brief glimpses as to what is coming, building tension and the sense of some kind of catastrophic event or revelation that awaits them all.

Magda SzabóMagda Szabó was born in 1917 in Debrecen, Hungary, her father a member of the City Council, and her mother a teacher.

In 1949 she was awarded the prestigious Hungarian literary Baumgarten Prize, given to “Hungarian authors with serious endeavour whether in literature or in science who are exempt of any religious, racial or social prejudices and serve only ideal aims…”

The prize was withdrawn from her for political reasons the same day it was awarded. She was dismissed from her job at the Ministry and during the establishment of Stalinist rule from 1949 to 1956, the government did not allow her works to be published.

In 2003, the French translation of ‘The Door’ won France’s Prix Femina Étranger.

She died in 2007, at the age of ninety and was one of Hungary’s best-known writers, although very few of her works have been published in English. The ‘Door’ however, was translated in more than 40 languages and published in 64 countries.

Reading Women Writers in Translation

This is my third read in August for #WITMonth, reading Women in Translation.  Have you read anything by Magda Szabó?

Further Reading

New Yorker Article, April 29, 2016 – The Hungarian Despair of Magda Szabó’s “The Door” by Cynthia Zarin

Guardian Review – Labours of love, A thinly veiled self-portrait emerges from Magda Szabó’s The Door by Elena Seymenliyska

Buy a copy of Magda Szabó’s The Door via Book Depository