Best European Fiction 2015: Djørup and Lenz

BestEuroAdda Djørup, ‘Birds’
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken

Teresa, a professor of English, writes to her partner Alejandro to explain why she has gone away without warning. Something like that, anyway:

I should say right away that my story is not an explanation, that I am not even sure myself how it is to be understood. I doubt even that it may be a story at all, for perhaps the beginning does not hang together with the middle, the middle with the end.

Teresa is not quite sure what has happened; but something changed in her when she started spitting out live birds. The line in Adda Djørup’s story that really struck me was this:

All those highly abstract and perhaps quite meaningless words about being oneself… But the birds are real, Alejandro[…]

I love the way that this inverts the standard order of fantasy and reality: the mundane things – thoughts and emotions – are elusive; the impossible birds are the only thing that Teresa feels she can hold on to. Martin Aitken’s translation is dense and discursive with introspection; but, for all Teresa’s words (which, of course, are her tools and her living), they aren’t enough for what she’s experiencing now.

Pedro Lenz, ‘Love Stories’
Translated from the dialect of Berne by Donal McLaughlin

Any work in translation is a duet between author and translator – something that’s notoriously easy to forget as a reader. But it’s perhaps more noticeable in the case of ‘Love Stories’, because Donal McLaughlin has chosen to translate Pedro Lenz‘s series of character sketches from the dialect of Berne into the dialect of Glasgow:

The wee nurse
checked the infusions,
footered aboot wi the switches again
then—a bit embarrassed like—
smiled
an’ left us
oan ur ain again.

The layout, by the way, is in recognition of the fact that Lenz often performs these as spoken-word pieces. So one’s very much aware that these are voices, and the dialect invites the reader the reader to imagine what sort of individuals these might be. I imagined Lenz’s speakers as ‘ordinary’ folk for whom expressing their emotions might not come naturally. But these acute emotional portraits – a son and his dying father; a woman making a public performance of a phone call to her lover; a man who longs to visit Thailand again – remind us that, if you look, there’s really no such thing as an ordinary person after all.

Read my other posts on Best European Fiction 2015 here.

 

 

 

A weekend of novellas

Recently, Scott Pack spent a couple of weekends reading novellas. IT sounded an interesting idea, and I had some time this weekend, so I thought I’d do the same. It did cross my mind that, having recently resolved to slow down and savour the books I read, I might be contradicting myself by now reading a small pile of books in a relatively short space of time – but actually I don’t think I was. If (as I’ve said elsewhere) a novel is like a journey and a short story is more like an intense moment of experience, then a novella is perhaps somewhere between – a sustained period of heightened experience. If I made sure that this wasn’t about reading as many books as I could, but about selecting a few and taking the time and space to appreciate them properly, there was no reason it couldn’t work.

I looked on my shelves for novellas, but also borrowed a few from the library, as I wanted there to be an element of uncertainty to the selection. The one change from my plan was that I read only six novellas, rather than the seven I had lined up – in the event, seven felt like overdoing it; six was a nice round number, manageable in the time, and still a pretty substantial amount to get through.

So, here’s what I read at the weekend (some of these may be too long or too short to count as true novellas, but hey-ho):

ProulxAnnie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain (1997)

Originally published in the New Yorker, then later released as a separate book (interestingly, several years before the film – which I haven’t seen, by the way). Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist meet as young ranch hands in 1963; while working and camping together on Brokeback Mountain, they become intimate; and their feelings for each other will haunt the rest of their lives. Brokeback Mountain is a fine example of short fiction’s ability to distil entire lives into a few pages; indeed, part of the point is that Ennis’ and Jack’s lives have been defined by a few incidents. The problem is, I never really believed in their attraction: it comes on abruptly and, for me at least, never gains the emotional weight that it needs. Now, I recognise that this could be Proulx’s point: that the two men don’t examine their desire for each other, but just accept that it’s there; and at least one of them wants to keep it at a distance, so that’s reflected in the tone of the writing. But even with that thought in mind, Brokeback Mountain doesn’t quite work for me.

garnier

Pascal Garnier, The Islanders (2010)
Translated from the French by Emily Boyce (2014)

This is the sixth of the late Pascal Garnier’s noirs to appear in English from Gallic Books, and the third I’ve read; it’s typically tense, wry, and strange. Olivier returns to Versailles to bury his mother; he discovers that his childhood Jeanne is living opposite with her blind brother Rodolphe. Jeanne and Olivier have a dark secret in their past, which threatens to come out into the open. And they’re about to gain another secret, when Olivier wakes up after a dinner party with the siblings to find the fourth guest – a stranger who had been helping Rodolphe around town – dead in the bathroom. You can guess this isn’t going to end well, but what really keeps the pages turning in The Islanders is the uncertainty over just how far these characters are prepared to go – and maybe even they don’t know until the time comes to find out.

SmithZadie Smith, The Embassy of Cambodia (2013)

My reactions to Zadie Smith’s work range from lukewarm to positive; happily, this one was positive. Its starting point is the fact that the Cambodian Embassy in London, unlike most embassies, is not in the city centre, but is instead a house on a suburban street. About the only thing anyone can see over the wall is a flying shuttlecock; what’s going on behind those walls – apart from a game of badminton – is anyone’s guess. So the Embassy becomes a metaphor for the hidden worlds and lives that lie in our midst. Smith’s protagonist is Fatou, who walks past the Embassy of Cambodia on her way to the swimming pool (where she secretly takes advantage of her employers’ membership) and wonders about her place in the world. This is a satisfying story that swoops in and out, from one person’s life to the wider world, and hinting at the untold stories that become lost in the throng of a busy street.

Garcia Marquez

Gabriel García Márquez, No One Writes to the Colonel (1961)
Translated from the Spanish by J.S. Berstein (1968)

One thing that a project like this novella-reading is useful for is ticking off a few names on the old “authors I’ve been meaning to read” list. So here’s my introduction to Gabriel García Márquez. Every Friday – as he has for the last fifteen years – the colonel eagerly awaits the mail, hoping that this will be the week his army pension arrives. In the meantime, the colonel and his wife subsist as best they can, their only real hope being the prize rooster that might win a few cockfights – if the colonel can resist the temptation to sell it. There’s a sense of absurdity running through this story, but it’s a rueful absurdity, born of being caught in an impossible situation – the absurd (but all too real) bureaucracy that withholds the colonel’s pension, and the absurd (but again all too real) lengths he has to go to in order to survive and keep face. I liked No One Writes to the Colonel, but feel I don’t quite have the measure of García Márquez’s work yet; I’ll have to read something else by him for that.

Yan GeYan Ge, White Horse (2008)
Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman (2014)

Published by HopeRoad Publishing (who have a particular focus on African, Asian, and Caribbean writers), White Horse is the story of Yun Yun, who watches her cousin Zhang Qing grow up and drift away to test the waters of adulthood, though her parents may not approve. Meanwhile, Yun Yun’s widowed father is seeing one of the local teachers, which will reveal further cracks in the family’s relationships. There’s a clarity to Nicky Harman’s translation which makes this novella engaging to read, but it’s the deceptive clarity of a child’s voice – one that doesn’t know or perceive everything. This is what leads into the deeper heart of Yan Ge’s tale; that and the mysterious visions of white horses that Yun Yun keeps seeing, which may represent her own growing awareness. Good stuff.

Suceava

Bogdan Suceavă, Miruna, a Tale (2007)
Translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth (2014)

When I saw this book in the shop it was shrinkwrapped, with no blurb on the back cover; so I had nothing to judge it by but the gorgeous design (hats off to Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press; it really is a beautiful object). Happily, the contents are just as good. The narrator, Trajan, recalls childhood visits to his grandfather in Evil Vale, where the old man would tell stories of family history which blurred the line with myth. Alistair Ian Blyth’s translation captures that elusive magical quality that makes Grandfather’s tales of fays and curses persuasive. But what I like most about Bogdan Suceavă’s book is how fully it dissolves the line between truth and fantasy: Trajan’s sister Miruna shares her grandfather’s affinity for the magical; so something is carried between them with the telling of the tales that Trajan can only guess at. And, as we only ever hear Trajan’s voice, how are we to know what’s real and what isn’t? Ultimately, it seems that what matters most is simply that the stories are told.

My final thoughts? I enjoyed doing this – it brought me into contact with books I might not have read otherwise, and led me to take from my shelves books I hadn’t got around to. I quite like the idea of having an occasion like this to read novellas, and I think I’ll be trying it again before long.

Best European Fiction 2015: Raud and Evtimova

ReinBestEuro Raud, ‘The Demise of Engineer G.’
Translated from the Estonian by Matthew Hyde

The narrator tells of his old friend G. – engineer, philatelist and gourmet, who threw the most fabulous dinner parties in an age when ingredients were scarce for most people. He also had shelves of literature: books he never really read, but which often had curious printing errors Somewhere in all this is the key to the riddle of how G. died.

Rein Raud’s story is delightfully oblique, shorn of the specific details that might enable us to work out exactly what’s going on: it’s mostly just G., his friends and his food. And what food it is:

In his masterfully planned menus one delicacy followed another, such that the most subtle nuances of flavor of every dish created a marked contrast with those of the succeeding course…at exactly the right speed for each subsequent taste to cut into the previous one at the very last moment, when the surface of the tongue, slightly straining, still wanted to keep the fading aftertaste in the mouth, so that the first new aromas had the best possible impact.

Though Matthew Hyde’s translation is capable of bringing to life sensations like that, there’s a certain fustiness about it which gives the sense of a tale being dredged up from the past, complete with the distance that implies. We can hazard a guess as to why G. met his fate; but all we really know is contained in the tale’s wry closing lines.

Zdravka Evtimova, ‘Seldom’
Translated from the Bulgarian by the author

A translator walks up the drab grey street, thinking about all the men who’ve forgotten her, and the banal novella that she’s translating. She comes upon a familiar-seeming car, whose driver turns out to be the author of that very novella. He offers the translator a lift to her office; but, as the car only moves when its passenger is happy, it could be quite a long journey…

I enjoyed this story. Zdravka Evtimova’s prose is unassuming and understated, which only adds to the sense of ordinariness:

I thought one could hardly  dub “town” the dozen ramshackle houses and the narrow, asphalt road that touched the apathetic buildings and climbed to the black sky in the distance.

Of course, what’s going on – be it hallucination or something more mysterious – is far from ordinary; but the lightness of Evtimova’s touch makes her tale entirely persuasive. When the abrupt final lines come along, it’s like waking from a dream – for reader and protagonist alike.

Read my other posts on Best European Fiction 2015 here.

Best European Fiction 2015: Walsh and Armen

BestEuroBest European Fiction is an annual anthology from Dalkey Archive Press which gathers together short stories from all corners of the European continent. This year’s volume is the sixth, and I have it in mind to do a story-by-story review. Unlike previous times doing these, however, I’m not necessarily going to restrict myself to one story per post. I may as well start right now…

Joanna Walsh, ‘Worlds from the Word’s End’

This particular journey around Europe starts in England, with Joanna Walsh, creator of the excellent #Readwomen2014 project. Walsh’s piece takes the form of a break-up letter written by a woman who lives in a place where language is no longer in use. It started off as a hipster trend, then went mainstream: imprecision of speech gave way to silence, then no writing at all; until people lost the ability to name things ansd find meaning in words. Walsh’s narrator explains to her lover (who still lives in the ‘speaking world’) why she can no longer write to them:

As for me, you twisted my words and broke my English until I was only as good as my word: good for nothing, or for saying nothing. I stopped answering and that was the way you liked it. You told me you preferred your women quiet. You wanted to increase your word power? Trouble is, you didn’t know your own strength.

What particularly intrigues about this story is how slippery it all is: this world without words doesn’t quite ring true, especially when you have an individual from it who writes so fluently. The occasional deliberate grammatical errors made in reference to particular changes in the outside world feel almost like challenges to the reader: just try to imagine this! Metaphor slides seamlessly into reality, to create a world that looks coherent on the page – but try to hold it in your head and it evaporates, like the last flimsy ties of a dying relationship.

Armen of Armenia, ‘Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?’
Translated from the Armenian by Haik Movsisian

Here’s another story which has a sense of completeness, yet is difficult to encapsulate mentally. An ‘I’ challenges a ‘you’ to answer six-and-a-half Millionaire-style questions:

Send your list on February 29, and I’m obligated to make mine public on the same day. One million Armenian Drams are being wagered. You’ll get the whole amount, if all of our picks match.

The questions include ‘What do you want?’, ‘What are you looking for?’ and ‘What happened to us on February 29?’ – all with four answers, each implying a different interpretation of events. Are these people lovers? Hired killer and victim? Both? Armen’s piece – and Haik Movsisian’s nimble translation – jumps between different levels of fictional reality, leaving the reader to decide for herself. What’s clear, though, is that the most important question is the last one: ‘Loves me, loves me not?’ The answer to that question makes all the difference.

The Race and The Notebook

Nina Allan, The Race (2014)

AllanNina Allan is one of my favourite contemporary short story writers; but, as her collections often take on interesting larger shapes, I’ve often wondered what a novel by her would be like. Well, now here’s The Race, and it may just be the best thing Allan has written yet.

We begin in the company of Jenna, who lives in Sapphire, a small southern English town whose main (and pretty much sole) reason for existence is the racing of genetically-enhanced ‘smartdogs’. Jenna makes gloves for the smartdogs’ human runners, which is one of the few bright spots in her life. And her brother Del is pinning his hopes on one last smartdog race, which may yet steer his life in a better direction.

There are some indications that this isn’t the future of our world, but essentially The Race seems fairly straightforward – until we reach the second part and meet Christy, who certainly lives in a recognisable contemporary England, and is the ‘author’ of what we’ve just been reading. Christy has a dodgy brother named Derek, and the temptation is right there to map her life on to Jenna’s, even though it doesn’t quite fit. A third part jumps forward twenty years to a lover of Derek’s partner, and challenges key assumptions from Christy’s narrative. The fourth and final part returns to Jenna’s world, and Del’s grown-up daughter Maree, who was kidnapped as a child… but all may not be as it seems.

The Race is a novel of thwarted lives and limiting horizons: chances are missed, landscapes are washed out, knowledge is incomplete. This is also reflected in the book’s structure and language: its individual parts are integral to each other, yet don’t quite cohere. And rarely come across a novel so finely calibrated to the different weights of realist and science-fictional prose: when Maree’s section includes place names like ‘Thalia’ and ‘Crimond’, their effect is very precisely estranging – just as the world seems to be opening up, so it fades back into obscurity. The Race may end in incompleteness, but its sense lingers on.

Agota Kristof, The Notebook (1986)
Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (1989)

KristofTwin brothers are sent from the Big Town to the Little Town to live with their grandmother. With the local school closed, they teach themselves at home: having been given a title, one of the boys will write an account of something that happened to them; the other will check it with a dictionary, and determine whether it is ‘Good’ or ‘Not good’. The criteria for doing this seem simple enough: “the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do” (p. 27).

Of course, it’s not that simple; and the reason is right there in that quotation: everything we read is mediated through the boys’ viewpoint – and it’s a viewpoint that distorts a world we may otherwise expect to recognise. The boys eschew words that describe feelings, dismissing them as too vague. They even eschew feelings, undertaking a series of exercises to harden themselves, leading to escalating acts of cruelty – all told in the twins’ direct, matter-of-fact tone. Never again will I use an expression like ‘spare prose’ without thinking; the writing in The Notebook is so austere that it hurts.

Agota Kristof (1935-2011) was a Hungarian writer who became an exile in Switzerland at the age of 21; there, she learned French, which became the language in which she wrote her novels. The Notebook was her first, at least partly inspired by her childhood memories of Nazi-occupied Hungary. But all the geographical and temporal markers are stripped away from the brothers’ world, in sharp contrast to the precision of how they narrate events. The end result is a nightmarish timelessness that’s very hard to shake off. Kristof wrote two more books featuring the twins, which I’m sure I will go on to read one day. But The Notebook is complete in itself, ending in just the right place, ending on an image which is simple and stark, yet – in its own way – impossible to imagine.

 

“Here I am again : me and a girl and a wall”

howtobebothAli Smith, How to be both (2014)

So much is in the timing: for years I never read Ali Smith (no particular reason; she was just one of those writers I never got around to). My first was Artful, a couple of years ago; I liked it, but it didn’t strike me as a good way into the author’s work. Now felt like a good time to try again: as I want to explore ‘experimental’ fiction (I don’t much like that term, but it’ll do for what I mean), and have resolved to savour the tide of words more when reading, Smith seemed an author I might respond to well. And so it proved.

Perhaps the first thing to make clear about How to be both is which version I read. The novel is in two parts, one focusing on a girl named George who lives in present-day England, the other on the Renaissance Italian painter Francesco del Cossa. The order in which the two halves are presented varies between copies, and you can’t tell from the outside which is which. Alan Bowden asked me on Twitter which version I had; ‘George first,’ I told him. He replied, ‘I can’t imagine reading it that way.’ It’s testament to Smith’s skill that I can’t imagine reading How to be both the other way around (I can see where the connections would be, but so logically does Del Cossa’s half follow on from George’s that the sense of the experience eludes me. I’m sure I’d feel the same had I read the other version – which I fully intend to do one day).

As its title suggests, How to be both is full of duality and mirroring. Both sections collapse the sense of linear time: George’s story moves between her present life, and a few months earlier when her mother was still alive; Del Cossa tells of his life in the fifteenth century, but has also been incarnated as a spirit in the present, where he shadows George. As George also views Del Cossa’s frescoes, the two protagonists observe and are observed by each other, in their own strange loop. So really, both sections come before each other; although I do feel that most of the novel’s emotional weight likes in George’s half. Then again, Del Cossa’s art is intrinsic to making it all happen. You still need both halves to make up the whole.

For all that How to be both dissolves chronological boundaries for the reader, the passage of time remains of central importance to the characters, especially George. She still struggles to comprehend a world in which her mother is no longer alive, and the gap of those few months between life and death is ultimately as vast for George as that between her own time and her mother’s youth in the 1960s – another life that the girl can’t truly envisage. When George’s mother first takes her daughter to see Del Cossa’s paintings in Italy, George can’t see the relevance, can’t see the layers of meaning that her mother can. With time, though, she’s able to do so, thereby bringing the past closer (her intense observation of the artist’s work is what brings Del Cossa’s spirit back); it’s also symbolic of George starting to come to terms with what has happened.

I must mention Smith’s prose, which flows like a river changing course unexpectedly: past and present, dialogue and description, action and reflection merge into one another, always with an unstoppable momentum. After this, Ali Smith goes on to my list of must-read authors – and not before time.

 

 

Reading round-up: late October

A few notes on some of the books I’ve read recently:

Janice Galloway, The Trick Is To keep Breathing (1989)

I enjoyed reading a collection of Janice Galloway’s short stories a few years back, and so was pleased when my book group selected her first novel for this month (as luck would have it, I couldn’t then make the meeting – bah!). It’s the story of Joy Stone, who is sent into a spiral of depression by events that we only gradually piece together as we follow her through daily life and a stint in hospital. Galloway’s novel is written as a collage of documents, from diary entries to magazine snippets to marginal notes – a technique that mirrors the fragmentation of its protagonist. I think it’s a shame that this book seems not to have made as many waves in its day as (say) The Wasp Factory did, because Galloway deserves to read much more widely than she is.

Paul Ewen, Francis Plug: How To Be a Public Author (2014)

The latest book from Galley Beggar Press is ‘written’ by the aspiring author Francis Plug, who documents his meetings with winners of the Booker Prize. Paul Ewen gets the voice of his narrator just right: earnest, and trying just that little bit too hard; whether or not that becomes annoying is probably down to the individual reader. Although Francis Plug starts off as simply amusing, as the novel progresses we start to see the desperation that lies underneath the character’s facade. There’s something of Graham Underhill about Plug; and, like Nat Segnit’s book, there’s an underlying weight and melancholy that leads to a tragicomic ending.

SchumacherJulie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members (2014)

And here’s another novel about someone in the literary world which has a bitter twist beneath its comic surface. It’s the collected correspondence of Jason Filger, a professor of creative writing and literature, who writes copious letters of recommendation for his students (on paper, through the mail) and finds himself feeling increasingly out of step with the world around him. Filger’s letters reveal the absurdities of his world: students having to apply for ever more menial jobs; his department being squeezed out by those of more lucrative subjects; his own obsession with championing  work of one particular student while others find that elusive success. Dear Committee Members takes a particularly sharp and bracing turn towards the end, which makes you see the book in a new light. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more of Julie Schumacher’s work in the future.

Anneliese Mackintosh, Any Other Mouth (2014)

A collection of short stories (published by Freight Books) which, the author says, are 68% true and 32% fictional – though only she knows which is which. Anneliese Mackintosh takes us through various events in her alter ego Gretchen’s life – a precarious family life in childhood; discovery and calamity at university; grief, happiness and more in adulthood. There’s a wonderful range of style and tone in Mackintosh’s stories; it seems beside the point to single out particular pieces, when it’s the totality of Any Other Mouth which really impresses. The intensity that Mackintosh achieves across the whole collection is really quite something.

Slavoj Žižek and Srećko Horvat, What Does Europe Want? (2013)

I read this book (published by Istros Books, who specialise in works from South East Europe) following my call on Twitter for recommended essay collections. It’s one of those occasions where the subject is not a natural fit for me – I’ll be upfront in saying that I’m not into politics and don’t know that much about it - but I read What Does Europe Want? out of curiosity and will find some way to respond to it.  Žižek and Horvat are philosophers from Slovenia and Croatia respectively; in these essays, they explore the present and possible future of Europe and the EU. All I can really say is that I appreciated the authors’ style, and found plenty to think about.

Critchley

Simon Critchley, Memory Theatre (2014)

This is the second title from Fitzcarraldo Editions (following Zone), a short piece that blurs the line between autobiographical essay and fiction. Philosopher Simon Critchley describes how he was sent boxes of unpublished papers belonging to his old friend and teacher, the French philosopher Michel Haar, who had recently died. Amongst the various documents, Critchley found writings on the Renaissance memory theatre: a created space containing images meant to represent all knowledge. He also found an astrological chart which appeared to foretell his own death – which led him to an inevitable conclusion. Critchley’s book reflects on memory, permanence and obsession; and becomes ever more intriguing as the relative security of the essay form gives way to the uncertainty of fiction.