“In these pages, the Professor had walked beyond beaten paths, looking for truth in a place no one knows”

Yoko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor (2003)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2008)

HPIt occurred to me when I was compiling my review list in preparation for Women in Translation Month that I’d read all bar one of Yoko Ogawa’s books which were available to me in English translation – so now seemed as good a time as any to complete the set. It’s a paradoxical feeling: on the one hand, I’ve now read everything of Ogawa’s that I can, so I must have some kind of handle on her work; on the other, it’s only four volumes out of a much larger bibliography, so how can I be sure?

This is particularly relevant in the case of The Housekeeper and the Professor, because it’s a little different from Ogawa’s other books that I’ve read – the intense focus on a distinctive relationship is still there, but it’s noticeably less dark. There’s still a sting to it, but the overriding tone is wistful. I believe from what I’ve heard that it’s not typical of Ogawa’s work as a whole, but I say that with a degree of uncertainty.

Anyway, our narrator is a housekeeper who goes to work in 1992 for a retired professor of mathematics (neither character is named). After being injured in a car accident, the Professor remembers nothing from before 1975, and his short-term memory lasts only eighty minutes – so, each time the Housekeeper arrives, it is their first meeting as far as he’s concerned. But the pair bond (albeit one-sidedly) over maths: it is the Professor’s world, literally and figuratively; and the Housekeeper becomes able to understand more because the Professor will happily explain concepts to her repeatedly (though for him, of course, it’s always the first time he’s done so).

Underpinning the novel is the idea of mathematics as a hidden, eternal map of the universe; Stephen Snyder’s translation really captures the joy of this view of maths. For example, here the Housekeeper imagines the universe as a vast, intricate pattern of lace:

The lace stretches out infinitely in every direction, billowing gently in the cosmic breeze. You want desperately to touch it, hold it up to the light, rub it against your cheek. And all we ask is to be able to re-create the pattern, weave it again with numbers, somehow, in our own language; to make even the tiniest fragment our own, to bring it back to earth. (p. 124)

So the Professor’s worldview comes to influence the Housekeeper’s: she is inspired to do her own investigations into prime numbers, and even refers to her son solely by the Professor’s nickname for him, Root (derived from the flat top of the boy’s head, which reminds the Professor of the square root symbol).

It’s a sign of how far the Professor’s outlook comes to suffuse Ogawa’s novel that the little numerical questions he asks the Housekeeper as a greeting – ‘What’s your shoe size?’, for example – seem jarring when he blurts them out in another context (namely, in the barber’s chair). At that sort of moment, we see the Professor’s outbursts as the rest of the world sees them: the ravings of a confused old man; but when he’s with the Housekeeper, we understand that they are a part of his mental framework.

Stability is a key theme running through The Housekeeper and the Professor: mathematics as an eternal truth against the vagaries of life; maths again as the Professor’s store of knowledge against his fleeting memory; this particular job, these circumstances, as something the Housekeeper wishes to remain in. The melancholy truth, of course, is that the characters’ situation cannot last forever; but hope remains, because the numbers will go on.

Elsewhere
My other blog posts on Yoko Ogawa.
An essay on Ogawa’s work in the LA Review of Books, by Robert Anthony Siegel.

New Fiction Uncovered column: ten short story writers

My second guest column for Fiction Uncovered is now live. I want to cover my main reading interests in these columns, so this one is a celebration of short stories. It’s a list of ten recommended contemporary British short story writers. It’s not a ‘top ten’ as such, because of course there are more than ten authors whom I could have included – and I’d love to hear about your favourite short story writers in the comments.

Further reading

Here are links to my reviews of some of the stories and books mentioned in the column:

The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers
‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall
The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan
The Stone Thrower by Adam Marek
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor
Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Leading the Dance by Sarah Salway
Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical and Everyone’s Just So So Special by Robert Shearman
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Keep up to date with my Fiction Uncovered columns here.

Open thread: the books that changed you

Following on from my Fiction Uncovered article about  how I’ve changed as a reader in recent years, I thought I would open the subject to you. Please leave a comment and tell me about a book that changed the way you read. Is there a book that put you on to a different kind of (non-)fiction? One that you returned to after abandoning and that suddenly ‘clicked’? Something else? Let me know!

Fiction Uncovered Guest Editor

This year, Fiction Uncovered have been inviting various people to act as Guest Editor of the site, each posting four opinion pieces over the course of a month. So far, the Guest Editors have been my fellow book blogger Simon Savidge; my fellow Desmond Elliott shadow juror Kaite Welsh; and the journalist Anita Sethi. I’m excited to announce that this month, it’s my turn.

My brief for the four columns was fairly open, apart from that they should have a British focus (which I’ve mostly stuck to, with a tiny bit of fudging). I won’t reveal exactly what my pieces are about just yet, but I will say that I’ve aimed to cover my main reading interests  in them. I’ve also created a page on the blog where I will linking to the columns as they appear.

The first column is up now. It’s called ‘Uncovering the Reader‘, and is about how we change as readers – how, sometimes, you don’t appreciate a book unless you read it at the right time. I use my own experience as an example, talking about some of the ‘milestone’ books where I think I changed as a reader.

Further reading

If you’re interested, here are some links to where I’ve written more about the books mentioned in the column:

 

 

“The letters, unbeknownst to their authors, had absorbed their entire surroundings”

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw (2007)
Translated from the Greek by Yannis Panas, 2013

WLWSWhat Lot’s Wife Saw is a novel that shifts and evolves as you read it, until you can’t quite be sure what you thought you were looking at in the first place. The story goes that, at some point in the future, a great flood, dubbed the Overflow, has drowned much of the land; the world has become addicted to a violet salt mined in the Colony, a home for outcasts which is located by the Dead Sea and owned by the shadowy Consortium of Seventy-Five – and whose governor has mysteriously died.

In Paris, Phileas Book is inventor of the Epistleword, a kind of three-dimensional crossword puzzle derived from finding connections between newspaper readers’ letters. Book is hired by the Consortium to work out the truth of Governor Bera’s death, from the written testimonies of six members of his inner circle. All former criminals, the six are hoping that the past will stay in the past, and nurturing suspicions towards each other.

As well as being a novelist (this is her fifth, though the first to be translated into English), Ioanna Bourazopoulou is a playwright, and it seems to me that What Lot’s Wife Saw has quite a theatrical quality, particularly in its focus on a small group of characters in an enclosed environment (the Governor’s Palace, at least to begin with); and its background, which feels self-consciously stylised. I could vividly imagine some of the scenes acted out as though on stage, such as the six hapless letter-writers frantically trying to decide what to with the Governor’s body that they’ve unexpectedly discovered.

But, though episodes like this are amusing, there is a serious heart to What Lot’s Wife Saw. At first, the idea of the Epistleword seems largely a flourish, an extravagant way to give Phileas Book the investigatory skills for the task at hand. But then we learn what inspired the puzzle: Book was separated from his family by the Overflow; he read and re-read the letters he had from them, becoming deeply aware of the personality traces left embedded in the writing. He got a job at The Times in London, where he’d pore over the letters from missing persons, searching for those tell-tale traces. Book started to notice certain resonances and patterns among sets of letters; Yannis Panas’s translation captures the rush of insight:

[The letters] are transformed, they integrate and each letter now becomes vitally dependant on the others, one breathes with the lungs of the others and speaks with the other’s voice…the letters are by nature incomplete, like most human expressions, and they struggle for completion. They merge of their own accord, like atoms as dictated by their valences… (p.200)

Having seen these patterns in the letters, Book made a puzzle in the hope that the letter-writers might solve it and recognise themselves. So the Epistleword was born in dire circumstances, and in a belief that writing might have the capacity to reunite a family. This, I think, is central to What Lot’s Wife Saw: the power to solve a mystery is contained within the letters that Phileas Book (and we) read – and with it, the power for an individual to understand and shape the world. That’s also what makes the ending work for me: out of context, the solution to the mystery may seem trite; but, coming at the end of What Lot’s Wife Saw, it symbolises just how completely the world has become subverted by the text.

What Lot’s Wife Saw is published in the UK by Black & White Publishing.

Ivo Stourton, The Happier Dead (2014): Strange Horizons review

StourtonThis week, Strange Horizons published my review of Ivo Stourton’s new novel The Happier Dead. The book is framed as a murder mystery set in a near future where rejuvenation treatment is available to those who can afford it, and riot is fomenting among those who can’t. To go alongside the mystery, Stourton is also interested in exploring the ramifications of the rejuvenation treatment (and the mindset that created it) for his future society. In the end, this doesn’t quite all come together, but The Happier Dead does have its moments.

Click here to read my review in full.

Women in Translation Month: an index of reviews so far

During August, the blogger Biblibio is hosting Women in Translation Month. I’ve been making plans to join in, and aim to have at least four reviews up over the course of the month. But I wanted to start by bringing together all my previous reviews of books in translation by women. I expected that there wouldn’t be many, but it’s still quite sobering to see that there are only 26 from the five-and-a-half years of this blog (I know I haven’t been paying particular attention to books in translation until the last couple of years, but still…).

Anyway: long and short, positive and negative, here they all are…

***

Tamara Astafieva, Born in Siberia (translated from the Russian by Luba Ioffe)

Maria Barbal, Stone in a Landslide (translated from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell)For #WIT

Alina Bronsky, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (translated from the German by Tim Mohr)

Kristina Carlson, Mr Darwin’s Gardener (translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah)

Laurence Cossé, A Novel Bookstore (translated from the French by Alison Anderson)

Viola Di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (translated from the Italian by Michael Reynolds)

Elvira Dones, Sworn Virgin (translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford)

Hélène Grémillon, The Confidant (translated from the French by Alison Anderson)

Katharina Hagena, The Taste of Apple Seeds (translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch)

Marlen Haushofer, The Wall (translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside)

Pia Juul, The Murder of Halland (translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken)

Natsuo Kirino, The Goddess Chronicle (translated from the Japanese by Rebecca Copeland)

Natsuo Kirino, Out (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder)

Hanna Krall, Chasing the King of Hearts (translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm)

Rosa Montero, Tears in Rain (translated from the Spanish by Lilit Žekulin Thwaites)

Yoko Ogawa, Hotel Iris (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder)

Yoko Ogawa, The Diving Pool (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder)

Yoko Ogawa, Revenge (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder)

Véronique Olmi, Beside the Sea (translated from the French by Adriana Hunter)

Susann Pásztor, A Fabulous Liar (translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside)

Maryam Sachs, The Passenger (translated by Gael Schmidt-Cléach)

Simona Sparaco, About Time (translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis)

Birgit Vanderbeke, The Mussel Feast (translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch)

Alissa Walser, Mesmerized (translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch)

Juli Zeh, Decompression (translated from the German by John Cullen)

Alice Zeniter, Take This Man (translated from the French by Alison Anderson)

Reading round-up: late July

Notes on some of my recent reading…

BurtonJessie Burton, The Miniaturist (2014)

Amsterdam, 1686: Nella Oortman is aged eighteen and about to begin her new life as wife of the successful merchant Johannes Brandt – but she is met at the house by Brandt’s stand-offish sister, Marin; the merchant himself is nowhere to be seen. There are secrets to be uncovered in the Brandt household, and someone seems to know about them than ought to be possible – the mysterious miniaturist who sends Nella models for the replica house that was Brandt’s wedding gift. The Miniaturist is a pacey historical mystery; but it’s also about what it means to challenge social roles – Nella, Brandt and Marin all step outside the norms that society prescribes for them, and Jessie Burton explores the ramifications of this in an intriguing debut.

Andrew Crumey, Mr Mee (2000) and Mobius Dick (2004)

Andrew Crumey has been on my list of authors to try for quite some time, having head very good things about his work. Now I have tried him – thanks to Dedalus Books and their new editions of two Crumey novels – and my only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier.

I can’t think of a better way to sum up Crumey’s work in a few words than ‘comedy of ideas’, which is how its blurb describes Mr Mee. Crumey presents us with three narrative threads. In the first, Mr Mee – an elderly amateur researcher – writes to an unknown correspondent detailing his attempts to find out more about Jean-Bernard Rosier, an 18th century French thinker who appeared to have some fairly advanced ideas on physics. The second thread takes us to Paris of 1761 and Ferrand and Minard, copyists in possession of Rosier’s writings, who flee the city and end up living next to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The third strand concerns Petrie, a university lecturer on Rousseau who wants to get closer to one of his students. There’s a good deal of humour in this novel – particularly in Mr Mee’s delightful unworldliness, as he tries to navigate the byways of the internet – but also intrigue from seeing how the different plot threads will tie together. And, though Rosier’s rarefied ideas may be at the root, I find it’s the simpler, more personal revelations that really hit home in Mr Mee.

Both of these books remind me of Christopher Priest’s work, particularly in the sense that reality within them is mutable, but this is mediated through textual accounts, with the added layers of uncertainty that they bring. Mobius Dick put me specifically in mind of Priest’s The Affirmation, as both create multiple realities that vie for validity. Crumey switches between the stories of John Ringer, a university lecturer in quantum physics; and Harry Dick, a man who wakes up in hospital having lost his memory. Alongside these are extracts from novels by one Heinrich Behring, often featuring Erwin Schrödinger. There are contradictions between the different narrative tracks, and once again, the intrigue comes from seeing exactly how these will be resolved. Science and art are intertwined in Mobius Dick, with the sense that both are different ways of addressing the idea of ‘reality’. I like that approach, and I’ll be reading more of Crumey in the future.

Ismailov

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (2011)
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, 2014

This short novel by Usbek writer Hamid Ismailov is the first title in Peirene Press’s ‘coming-of-age’ series. It’s the tale of Yerzhan, a promising young violinist from the Kazakh steppes who has a crush on his neighbour’s daughter, Aisulu. Yerzhan’s life is changed irrevocably when, trying to impress, Aisulu, he dives into a lake which has been poisoned by nuclear testing – and his growth is arrested from thereon.

There’s a fairytale quality to The Dead Lake, as events take an absurd, exaggerated turn; for example, while Yerzhan’s body remains that of a child, Aisulu grows immensely tall. This quality is reflected in the tone of Andrew Bromfield’s translation, which also evokes the vast openness of the landscape in which Ismailov’s story takes place – an openness that contrasts with the way Yerzhan has become trapped. The Dead Lake as a whole is a work of contrast, one that might appear whimsical at times, but never lets you forget the seriousness lying underneath.

Linda Mannheim, Above Sugar Hill (2014)

This collection is from Influx Press, a publisher of ‘site-specific’ fiction. The stories in Above Sugar Hill are all set in Washington Heights, the area of New York City where Linda Mannheim grew up. It’s not a place I know myself, but Mannheim’s characters, and the worlds they inhabit, come vividly off the page. A couple of examples: ‘Once’ tells of a troubled girl’s on-off friendship with a woman who had a difficult past of her own; the background is one of idealism and protest fading away, just as some of the local buildings are decaying. In ‘Tenor’, through a series of interviews, we hear of Ira Gittman, a housing activist who disappeared in tragic circumstances; it is implied that Gittman’s story could be the story of many others – and the whole collection implies that there are many more stories like these out there, waiting to be told.

Giveaway winner and a new Juli Zeh review

A short post to round up a couple of recent bits and pieces. First of all, congratulations to Gareth Beniston who won my Yoko Ogawa giveaway.

DecompressionSecond, there’s a new issue of Shiny New Books online, in which I have a couple of reviews. Brand new is a review of Juli Zeh’s intriguing Decompression (translated from the German by John Cullen), which centres on a love triangle involving a diving instructor and his latest client, and becomes a game of control where you can’t quite be sure who to believe. Elsewhere in the issue, you’ll also find an expanded version of my original blog post on All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, which recently picked up three awards within the space of eight days, and with very good reason.

Book giveaway: Win a set of Yoko Ogawa paperbacks

RevengeYoko Ogawa’s Revenge was one of my favourite books from this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The UK paperback edition of Revenge is out on Thursday 3 July, when Vintage Books will also be reissuing Ogawa’s backlist – Hotel Iris, The Diving Pool, and The Housekeeper and the Professor (all books translated by Stephen Snyder). To mark the occasion, and courtesy of Vintage, I have a set of the four paperbacks to give away to one lucky reader of this blog.

To enter, leave a comment on this post at any time up to 23.59 UK time on Sunday 6 July. Only one entry per person. Sorry, but the giveaway is open to UK residents only.

After the competition has closed, I will select a winner with a random number generator, and contact them for their postal address.

You can also read my blog reviews of Hotel Iris, The Diving Pool, and Revenge.