Posts Tagged ‘translated’

Translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale

In Memory of Memory is a book that has been reviewed brilliantly by so many other bloggers, that if I am honest, I haven’t really been looking forward to trying to write about it. It is a book that is difficult to categorise, I have generally seen it described as autofiction –though it was published by Fitzcarraldo with a white cover, signifying non-fiction, but shortlisted for the International Booker Prize which is for fiction. So, I was a bit confused before I even opened it. Perhaps an exact categorisation doesn’t much matter, because what ever way you categorise this book, it is a remarkable achievement. A complex work which combines, memoir, essay, fiction, history, and travel to slowly reveal the story of a family and the Europe in which they lived and died along with an exploration of culture and memory. It is a fascinating and thoroughly immersive work, not a quick or easy read but one I am glad I tackled for this year’s #Witmonth.

When the author Maria Stepanova’s aunt dies, she is left with an apartment full of ephemera to sort through. Letters, postcards, souvenirs alongside the more personal things like diaries and photographs. Together these represent a century of life in Russia – a century during which the world changed and changed again. Carefully, over time Stepanova begins to piece together the story of this fairly ordinary Jewish family, who – despite the odds, the numerous persecutions, wars, and hardships – managed to survive.

“…that’s why I love photographs that need no interlocutor and have no desire to engage with me. They are in their own way, rehearsals for non-existence, for life without us, for the time when the room is no longer ours to enter.”

I think I have a similar feeling for photographs – well old photographs at least – Instagram has rather changed our relationship with photographs now I think. In fact, Stepanova discusses this very thing – the modern cult of the Selfie as she examines Rembrandt’s self-portraits. There are many fascinating cultural, literary, and artistic references and portraits throughout this book, setting the times of her family in yet another context. All families have those piles or albums of old photographs which when got out spark a memory or a long forgotten story. Those stories weave together to make a complete and complex picture of life – and this book does something very like that.

These stories are elusive, fragmentary and Stepanova has to fill in some gaps for us – this in no way a linear biography of a family, there is much more going on here than that. In order to fill in those gaps she travels around Russia, she goes to the places her family once lived she sees and experiences these places and shares them with us. Maria Stepanova had wanted to write a book about her family since childhood, so in a sense this is a quest for herself an intelligent, loving and ever curious examination of the past. She discusses the very nature of memory, how our memory can’t always be entirely relied upon.

As readers we are left with the memory of a host of vibrant personalities. Too many to write about here – but for me, two women emerged from the shadows of the past – and their stories held me fast. The first was Charlotte Salomon an artist, who I hadn’t heard of previously. She died in Auschwitz. Though Stepanova wants us to see her as much more than another victim of horror. Salomon wasn’t a member of Stepanova’s family, she is one among many artists and writers like Sebald, Susan Sontag, Barthes and even Dickens who come find their way into the pages of this book. The Second of those women was Stepanova’s Great-grandmother Sarra Ginzburg, a doctor who had studied in Paris but returned to the Soviet Union to practise.

“The ability to skip large chunks of time might be useful in the writing of novels, but it starts to frighten me when I realize I am doing it in life, and with real living people – that is, with dead people, of course, although there isn’t really any difference. Great-grandmother Sarra’s youth before Lyolya was born feels like the beginning. Everything is ahead of her, anything could happen. After 1916 time begins folding itself up, tightening into the felt roll of collective fate. A hundred years later I began following in her footsteps, visiting her St. Petersburg addresses, buildings with rebuilt facades, missing apartments and whole missing wings, in poor areas of the city, lit by the setting sun and inhabited by flocks of Sunday soldiers. It always seemed that if I took just another turn to the right, then that would be enough, I could transform her life, restore it, make it fit to be seen again.” 

Of course, it isn’t just the women who have extraordinary stories to tell. One especially memorable one that of Leonid Gimmelfarb, Stepanova’s grandfather’s nineteen year old cousin, who was fighting in the marshes and forests near Leningrad during the siege. He wrote regularly to his mother, and his letters are poignant though often matter of fact, he asks often after the family he has left behind.

The book as I said already isn’t structured in any linear way, Stepanova organises her book around various ideas or particular people. Interspersed with these chapters are short sections called ‘not-a- chapter’ in which through letter extracts we hear from some of these people themselves. The whole becomes a wonderfully personal work, as well as a thoroughly immersive one. Stepanova’s prose is absolutely gorgeous, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that she is a poet.

On a personal level while I enjoyed this book very much, I was probably a little less wowed by it than many others. There is a huge amount to admire in this book, the writing is glorious and I found I was learning about so many fascinating people. However, the fragmentary nature of it took me a while to settle into, and for a while I kept getting people mixed up. Overall, though it is an extraordinary piece of writing and I am very glad I have read it.

Read Full Post »

Translated from the French by Jordan Stump

My first review for #DiverseDecember is The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga it is the story of the author’s mother, Stefania; a Tutsi woman – telling the story of how she raised her children and protected her family during the Rwandan genocide. It is a poignant gentle memoir.

There are times when a book comes in our way, and we think I cannot read that now – it will be too hard, too harrowing, too sad etc. I admit that was something like my reaction when I first received The Barefoot Woman with my Asymptote book subscription (which I have let lapse but may go back to). There is clearly a privilege in being able to choose to look away – while not overwhelming ourselves with things we are not in the right place for. So, I am very glad I held on to this – and I need not have feared the story would overwhelm me either – because it does not. It is very clear – poignantly so – early on what happened to the author’s mother and other members of her family: –   

“Mama, I wasn’t there to cover your body, and all I have left is words – words in a language you didn’t understand – to do as you asked. And I’m all alone with my feeble words, and on the pages of my notebook, over and over, my sentences weave a shroud for your missing body.”

Yet the majority of the book – does not concern itself with violence and horror – although we know they are not far away. Instead this is a story of memory, of love – bringing back to life a woman who did all she possibly could to keep her family safe. This story is a testament of a mother’s love and determination – a very personal memorial to a woman whose story stands for so many others, who despite everything, through this book cannot be erased from history.

Stefania’s family – like so many other Tutsi families spent several years living in exile – in villages away from the majority Hutu population. For the author and her siblings as they grew up, this place was more of a home than it ever could be for their mother who felt her displacement intensely. Mukasonga recalls the constant fear they all lived with, of the soldiers who might suddenly come through the door – and her mother’s ingenious ways of creating escape routes and hiding places for her children.

“But we had to be ready for anything: sometimes the soldiers were too quick even for my mother’s sharp ear. And so, for those times when we wouldn’t be able to reach the brush, she left armloads of wild grass in the middle of the field, mounds just big enough for her three little girls to slip into when the alarm was sounded. She kept a mental catalogue of what she thought would be the safest hiding places in the bush. She discovered the deep burrows dug by the anteaters. She was convinced we could slither into them, and so with Antoine’s help she widened the tunnels and camouflaged the entrances under piles of grasses and branches.”

However, this is also – and mainly – a book about a way of life, a childhood. It is the story of the sorghum harvest, the ceremony involved in the planting, harvesting, and eating of sorghum – the hope for rain at just the right time. Mukasonga recalls in some detail the rites and traditions of a Rwandan village – which knowing so little about Rwanda (aside from the news headlines) I found particularly fascinating. It is a warm, affectionate portrait of a village in exile – where the village ‘doctor’ a former nurse only has two medicines he can prescribe – cough syrup and aspirin – but Stefania created her own botanical pharmacy with which to treat her children and others. Marriages are arranged for local women and the author’s brother – in which Stefania plays her part. Rwandan ideas of beauty are fixed and hard to live up to – but how does a young woman know what she might look like to others living in a village with no mirrors?

“If you wanted to be elegant and refined, you had only to follow Mama’s advice and example: imitate the village ladies’ lazy, swaying walk (with every step they took they seemed to be standing in place), let a slightly vacant gaze drift over the people around you, and above all, when someone speaks to you, always keep your eyes lowered…”

This novella sized memoir published by Archipelago books is a beautifully lyrical tribute, revealing and personal telling an important story from recent history. Scholastique Mukasonga has written another memoir and a novel both published in English which also portray childhood and schooling in Rwanda in the years before the genocide of the Tutsi people. I am keen to read them both.

Read Full Post »

Translated from the French by Francine Yorke

Maman, What are we Called Now? Is Persephone book number 115, first published in French in 1957, it was re-issued by Persephone in 2015. It is the diary of a few weeks in 1944, after the author’s husband was arrested. It depicts the last weeks of the German occupation of Paris.

In July 1944 Jacqueline began her diary, the allies had landed in June – there was the feeling the nightmare could end. Then, Jaqueline’s beloved Andre disappeared. Jacqueline began her diary to record her hopes and fears as well as her memories. Alongside these are her descriptions of Paris in these last tense weeks of occupation, as the Germans start to pull out and de Gaulle’s Free French arrive.

Andre and Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar were a French Jewish couple who had enjoyed a privileged lifestyle before the war. They believed themselves to have fully assimilated, they were French first, Jewish second. Andre was from an old banking family; he had initially joined the French army as a lieutenant but had found his way back to Paris after his demobilisation following the occupation. Before the war, Jaqueline had written articles and sketches of French society for magazines. By the summer of 1944, the couple and their nine year old daughter were living hidden lives, living under assumed identities, Andre working as a liaison officer for London. I can only imagine, the fear that went along with living in such a way, forged papers that would barely stand up to scrutiny, relying on the loyalties of others.

The title of the book is taken from the question that young Sylvie Mesnil-Amar asked her mother one day in a crowded railway station – no doubt keen not to make a mistake. The question, of course could have had catastrophic consequences had anyone been paying attention to them. During these weeks Jaqueline is still surrounded by friends, those sympathetic to the cause of the resistance and who from time to time get to hear snippets of important information about who has been taken where.

The diary ends in August 1944, Paris is liberated, and there is suddenly a happy, if unexpected ending for the Mesnil-Amars.

“The bells of Paris are ringing and ringing. And I am crying for my prisoners, my pale prisoners, out there on the far side of the world. I am crying for those who have fallen in the last battle, those who died yesterday, this morning, all those who will never know that Paris is free, that France will be free. I am crying for my absent friends, I am crying for my absent husband.”

After the diary we have several pages of photographs from the American photographer Thérèse Bonney, taken in Paris in 1943. They are powerful images.

The second part of the book are a series of short essays and reminiscences by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar written between 1945-1946.

“Now, once more, on clear summer mornings in the countryside, we’ll hear the clack of the gardener’s shears as he cuts the grass, the distant sound of trotting horses and cart-wheels on the road, the toot of a car horn, the spinning garden-sprinkler with its little hail of rain, and the postman’s step on the gravel. In Paris we’ll hear the wonderful, deafening roar of cars on the boulevards, impatient horns hooting along the length of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré at 5 o’clock in the evening, and we’ll hear the traditional cries of Paris, in quiet old, out of the way streets, ‘Rabbit skins! Skins!’; and the rag and bone men calling out ‘any ol’ clothes?’; and we’ll hear shouts of ‘Lovely cherries, ladies, buy my sweet cherries,’ followed in the winter by cries of ‘hot chestnuts, hot chestnuts…’ around glowing braziers on street corners.”

In these pieces she asks some fairly difficult, but understandable, questions. Time and again she comes back to children and what they really knew or understood and what the impact upon them might have been. By this time, she was feeling very angry about the people around her – those people who once she would have associated with in those heady pre-war days. These were the people who collaborated with the Germans, or who apathetically carried on with their nice lives. She asks questions about the future and the past.

Both parts of this book are beautifully written, powerfully poignant and endlessly quotable. Maman, What are we Called Now? Is a fantastic companion to other war books – both fiction and non-fiction, books like Little Boy Lost, Few Eggs and No Oranges, A Letter to my Children and others.

I wonder though, at Persephone’s choice of title; the original title was “Ceux qui ne dormaient pas” which I believe translates as something like; Those who did not sleep – which I think is a much better title.

Read Full Post »


Last year I started trying to read a little bit more fiction in translation. I bought an Asymptote book club subscription and acquired a few more titles throughout the year too. I read 18 books in translation in 2018 – which was a pretty good number for me. However, because of the (self-imposed) pressures of ACOB I didn’t read any after October.

I loved being taken outside my comfort zone with some quality world literature last year. None of the translated works I read last year made my Twelve books for 2018 list – but that’s not because they weren’t extremely good. I particularly enjoyed Katalin Street by Magda Szabo, The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwartz-Bart, Brother in Ice by Alice Kopf and Love by Hanne Ørstavik which was so heartbreakingly poignant it stayed with me for weeks. So, I definitely want to carry on where I left off this year.

Despite the fact I am trying to rein in my book expenditure I am seriously considering renewing my subscription – if I can only remember when it runs out.

So, I have collected together a rather interesting little pile of translated works, and I really want to try and read at least one a month – though I am not putting any pressure on myself. Some of these are Asymptote books I haven’t got around to reading yet, one or two are bookcrossing books, several are books I bought myself and there are three review copies from Europa Editions, and one was a recent Christmas gift.

The People in the Photo by Heléne Gestern translated from French by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz – has been on my kindle rather a long time.

I have just started reading Like a Sword Wound by Ahmet Altan, translated from Turkish by Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi – I ended up with two copies of this book, one sent to me by the lovely people at Europa it was also one of the titles included in my Asymptote subscription. So, I was able to pass on one of the copies to a friend. It is the first book in the Ottoman Quartet – and it was because I knew nothing about Turkish history that I was interested in reading it. At the time of writing, I am very much enjoying it.

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga translated from French by Jordan stump.

The Winterlings by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade translated from Spanish by Samuel Rutter.

Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda, translated from French by Adriana Hunter.

Nothing but Dust by Sandrine Collette, translated from French by Alison Anderson.

Butterflies in November by Audur Ava ólafsdóttir translated from Icelandic by Brian Fitzgibbon.

The Passion According to G.H by Clarice Lispector translated from Portuguese by Idra Novey.

The Listener by Tove Jansson translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal.

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson translated from Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella, David McDuff and Kingsley Hart.

Farewell. My Orange by Iwaki Kei translated from Japanese by Meredith McKinney

The Hotel Tito by Ivan Bodrožić translated from Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac.

Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe translated from French by Faith Evans. Not featured in the above photo as I accidentally left it out. It is rather difficult finding all the books in my tbr these days.

They all rather good don’t they? I am very excited about several of them, but which of them should I read next?

Read Full Post »



Translated by Tina Nunnally

I have to admit to not having heard of Tove Ditlevsen until this book came into my life, which happened quite by chance. I was putting together a prize for the bookcrossing event I have just attended. It was a prize of translated works, and a friend passed on a copy of this book which had already been registered on bookcrossing. I decided I wanted to read it myself, and as I wasn’t sure I would finish it in time, I went in search of another copy. I was fortunate to find one, so my original edition went into the prize bundle as intended.

“In the morning there was hope. It sat like a fleeting gleam of light in my mother’s smooth black hair that I never dared touch; it lay on my tongue with the sugar and the lukewarm oatmeal I was slowly eating while I looked at my mother’s slender, folded hands that lay motionless on the newspaper, on top of the reports of Spanish flu and the Treaty of Versailles.”

Tove Ditlevsen was a prolific Danish poet and author, writing poetry, novels, short stories and works of memoir. Born in 1917, she grew up in a working-class neighbourhood of Copenhagen and her childhood became very important throughout her work. Early Spring is a memoir of her childhood, and in it we can see the touch of a poet. This volume contains the first two of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs, Childhood and Youth, both published in 1967, the third volume Gift (not included here) came out in 1971.

“Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own. It’s there all the time and everyone can see it just as clearly as you can see Pretty Ludvig’s harelip.”

Written in a straight forward, no nonsense style, shot through with beautiful descriptive passages and humour – Early Spring faithfully recreates the sights and sounds of Tove Ditlevsen’s 1930s childhood environment. Her community is a tough, conventional working class one where childhood ends with the confirmation ceremony. After which the adult world beckons, with many girls engaged or married in their late teens. The subject of childhood is a recurring one, Tove thinks about that thing that is her childhood constantly, speaking as if she were still in the midst of those turbulent years – it is easy to forget that she was writing from a distance of some years. Young Tove is confounded by her childhood years but she also treasures her childhood, knowing it to be a privilege and fearing the end of it, and the world which may lay beyond. Tove makes friends with the girl from downstairs, two years younger and with a nicer family, she is a little bit of relief in Tove’s loneliness. Life and death surround her – she witnesses the death of her aunt, begins to see the differences between her family and those of the other children at school. As we all do, Tove begins to understand the world around her.

“I always think that when I’m grown up my mother will finally like me the way she likes Edvin now. Because my childhood irritates her just as much as it irritates me, and we are only happy together whenever she suddenly forgets about its existence.”

Tove grew up in a home where she was a lonely, clumsy child. She had an elder brother – who was the more favoured of the two siblings. The family were poor, and there was little in the way of joy or excitement in Tove’s life. Yet, she had the soul of a poet, a rich imagination, and an unflagging determination to be who she knew she could be and achieve the things she wanted to. In the privacy of her room, young Tove began to write her poetry, scribbling them down in her private poetry album and hiding it away. For Tove, the idea of writing was her one chance to escape the narrow confines of her family and community.

Few of the people in Tove’s life appreciate or understand what she is trying to do, they dismiss or ridicule her poetry writing, but Tove is never swayed. In time, boyfriends begin to rear their heads, and Tove must face the traditional end of childhood. Her mother arranges for her to start work as a mother’s help straight away – but she only lasts a day. All the time she writes, showing her poems to just a trusted few, and hanging on to every word of their praise – clinging to each last bit of hope of future publication.

We watch Tove grow and develop into a young woman who never loses the hope that has slowly built up in her over her first eighteen years of life.

“Istedgade is my childhood street – it’s rhythm will always pound in my blood and its voice will always reach me and be the same as in those distant times when we swore to be true to each other. It’s always warm and light, festive and exciting, and it envelops me completely, as if it were created to satisfy my personal need for self-expression.”

Early Spring is a delightful little memoir full of hope and courage it is poignant and compelling at the same time. We know of course, that Tove Ditlevsen survived the poverty and isolation of her childhood and became the writer she dreamed of. To see where and how it began is quite lovely.


Read Full Post »


Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death

August is Women in translation month, and so when not reading books for All Virago/All August or book group reads I like to try and fit two or three #WITmonth books in as well. August is all about juggling books it seems.

witmonth2017My first read for this year’s women in translation month was A World Gone Mad – the diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-1945, which I remember buying in the London review bookshop on my last London shopping expedition in November. Astrid Lindgren, of course the author of the children’s classic Pippi Longstocking books, stories which at the time these diaries were begun has not even been thought of. The title attracted me – how often in the last year or so have people declared ‘dear heavens, the world has gone mad’ – I have certainly said it and the week I picked up this book, there were further world events over which to shake our heads. I was made to think, more than once, how stupid an apparently intelligent species must be – if they fail to learn from their own history.

“Oh! War broke out today. Nobody could believe it.
Yesterday afternoon, Elsa Gullander and I were in Vasa Park with the children running and playing around us and we sat there giving Hitler a nice, cosy telling-off and agreed that there definitely was not going to be a war – and now today!”

Diaries are rather difficult to review, but this a very readable book and its author is very relatable to. Astrid Lindgren stares forlornly from the cover, pulling the reader in and one can’t help but wonder her thoughts. Karin Nyman, Astrid Lindgren’s daughter in her foreword explains how her mother had been determined to document the war from which Sweden remained neutral, but which raged around them on all sides. She remembers seeing her mother scribbling in her notebooks cutting out things from the newspapers, for the five-year-old Karin it was perfectly normal. The diaries were discovered in a wicker laundry basket in the Dalagatan home where Astrid Lindgren had lived from the 1940s until her death in 2002. Her daughter acknowledges how extraordinary it was, for a thirty-two-year-old wife and mother with some secretarial training but no previous experience of political thinking to have produced what she did. For almost six years, recording her thoughts, painstakingly cutting out newspaper articles to stick alongside her entries (these articles are not reproduced in the book).

“Today’s huge sensation – Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, flew to the British Isles in a Messerschmitt plane and parachuted safely to the ground, where a Scottish farm-worker looked after him and took him to hospital in Glasgow. Now we’ve seen everything.”

Throughout the war, Astrid Lindgren documented the war as she saw it, felt about it and feared it, as well as what she read about it in the newspapers. Sweden had elected to remain neutral from the war – and given their precarious geographical position that probably saved a great many Swedes. However, their neutral position was one Astrid sometimes felt uncomfortable about – as she read about devastating occupations, war crimes and food shortages. As she continues to document the war, the shifting political alliances and how they impacted upon the war, she often considers the nature of evil, and the individual’s responsibility at such times to stand against it.

All around Sweden, other nations were suffering terribly, Norway and Denmark occupied by the Germans, Finland by the Russians, resulting in them losing a sizable amount of their territory in uneasy peace negotiations. Sweden was in a vulnerable position, and there were times when Astrid was practically holding her breath, anxious lest her country find themselves invaded, drawn into hostilities against their will.

“It was Karin’s seventh birthday yesterday. I wrote in my diary on this day last year ‘God grant that the world will look different by Karin’s next birthday!’ And it certainly does look different, but there’s no sign of any changes for the better. Possibly Sweden and the other Nordic countries are in slightly less danger, the main focus now seems to be on the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East. Yesterday the Germans launched an air invasion on Crete, or was it the day before? What’s left of Greek resistance is concentrated there, with British assistance.”

Alongside her entries which document the war so well, we get frequent glimpses of ordinary family life. The children’s birthdays, the gifts they received the food that was cooked and eaten in celebration. We also get some moving descriptions of her marriage – hints of some difficulties in the last year of the war, which she doesn’t dwell on or go into any detail about, in what for her was obviously meant as a chronicle of war. As a mother to a teenage boy as well as a young daughter – Astrid felt especially for the mothers of soldiers killed and maimed, realising, as she considered her own dear son, that the pain of just imagining him in their place was more than she could bear.

As the war years advanced Astrid began working as a censor in the postal control division, the letters that passed through her hands, providing Astrid with another more personal perspective on the war that was destroying Europe. An aspiring writer, Astrid won a competition in 1944 with a story about Britt-Marie, the Pippi Longstocking stories were originally invented to entertain her daughter while she was ill.

These diaries were a great way for to celebrate Women in Translation month. I found I really liked Astrid, and on finishing the book looked up her Wikipedia page – she really was a fascinating woman who was obviously very well loved by the people of Sweden.

astrid lindgren

Read Full Post »