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Posts Tagged ‘#WITmonth’

Translated from Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon

My latest read for #Witmonth comes from Iceland a country I am rather fascinated by as it’s a place I visited in 2017. I now really want to visit again. While reading I was googling pictures of the incredible landscape.

(It’s yet another book that I’m not counting for #20booksofsummer as I am trying to get the last four from my original list read now.)

At the heart of Butterflies in November is a free spirited woman, whose life it set on an entirely new course, thanks to an Icelandic road trip and deaf-mute four year old. It’s a charming novel full of colourful characters, long empty roads and self-discovery.

On the day that our unnamed narrator is dumped by both her lover and her husband, she runs over a goose and kills it. It’s not the best of days, she’s a thirty-something woman, a proof-reader who delivers her finished work to her clients by hand. Suddenly she is on her own, moving into a new apartment with her estranged husband dropping round every five minutes. What she wants is to get right away, far away – and she starts dreaming of a tropical get-a-way. However, her plans are thwarted when her best friend, expecting twins is hospitalised for the last three months of her pregnancy. The friend already has a four year old son – Tumi, a deaf child who communicates with a mixture of sign language and sounds difficult to decipher.

“The only thing mothers have in common with each other is the fact that they slept with a man while they were ovulating without the appropriate protection”

When Tumi’s mum asks our narrator to take care of him while she is hospitalised, she is suddenly thrust into a maternal role she is not very comfortable with. With no real idea how to care for a young child, much less one with Tumi’s needs – she can’t sign – there’s a difficult start for both of them. Tumi chooses some numbers for a big lottery draw and they win. Needing a break, and having charge of Tumi for three months, our narrator decides to put some distance between herself, her ex-husband and his new partner.

“You bid your husband farewell forever with a vigorous handshake and then meet him the next morning buying sesame seed bread rolls in the local bakery, queuing in the bank at lunchtime, swimming in the pool in the afternoon, or at the registry office later in the week, and then, the weekend after that, at the theatre with his new significant other – always inevitably bumping into each other.”

So, setting aside her previous tropical plans, she and Tumi set off on a trip across Iceland with a glove box stuffed with lottery winnings. Her destination a summer cottage over on the East coast near to where she grew up, a prefabricated cottage with no electricity she won in another competition (I wish I had such luck). More unusually (for Icelanders) is that she and Tumi set out in November.

Along the way our narrator encounters long, lonely roads, storms and the haunting rugged landscape of the Icelandic Ring Road. Tumi sits quietly in the back, and initially it is easy to forget he is there. She and Tumi have various overnight stops along the way, and as they travel and get to know one another better, they also meet a handsome falconer, an Estonian choir, stop at a cucumber farm and little Tumi comes away with a kitten. As the unlikely duo travel an understanding between them begins to develop, the author depicts their changing relationship beautifully. We can feel out narrator’s focus start to shift, she makes mistakes but has more understanding for Tumi than she realises.

“It’s difficult to gauge distances in the dark; there are no landmarks here. If there were anyone else around I’d ask for directions. I can see through the rear-view mirror that Tumi is tired and feel such an overwhelming responsibility, it’s worse than being alone – I’m responsible for another person’s happiness. The area is incredibly black. No echo of life disturbs the silence of this wilderness.”

Throughout the novel in italicised sections we get flashbacks to our narrator’s past – things that help us understand what has brought her to where she is – and her attitudes to relationships and motherhood.

I really enjoyed this novel – I loved the setting especially, and Tumi is a delightful little character. My only grumble comes right at the end of the novel, which seems to end rather abruptly. I actually thought there was about 40 pages to go – when it all ended – and there were instead a lot of recipes (food mentioned in the book) that follow. I was quite taken aback – I reread the last two or three pages and yes, it works and hangs together – but still feels very abrupt.

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Translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette

When I bought this little collection of stories, I did so because I wanted to learn something about a country that I don’t know much about. I also wasn’t aware just how small a collection it was. As it was, I read it in the car on the way home from Devon last Saturday.

Before I started reading Thirteen Months of Sunrise, I had to ask myself what I knew about Sudan – and the answer was not much. My impressions of the country coming almost entirely from BBC news reports. I found myself googling pictures of the cities in Sudan so I could at least have some realistic images of the places I was reading about.

Rania Mamoun is a Sudanese author, journalist and activist, Thirteen Months of Sunrise is her debut collection of stories, though she has previously published two novels in Arabic.

“Thirteen is not a superstitious or unlucky number, it’s the number of months in a year in Ethiopia.

But that’s another story.”

There are ten stories in a collection that only runs to 70 pages, some are really very short indeed. What I found particularly fascinating was how over the course of all the stories a portrait of modern Sudan starts to emerge.

The collection opens with the title story, in which a young woman working in a computer shop meets an Ethiopian man. She fixes his computer and they start to get to know each other. They talk about Abyssinian culture and start spending more time together.

“We laughed a lot that day, and when he said, ‘I feel at home in this country,’ I was filled with joy that I’d managed to ease his sharp loneliness.”

In Passing, a young woman mourns her father – hears his voice asking why she never became a doctor. She remembers Eid, the day her father became ill. It’s a poignant reminder, should we need it, that whoever we are, wherever we may happen to live, the loss of a parent is always seismic, whatever it is that roots you to this earth is severely shaken.

“Your scent opens channels of memory, it invades me without warning, like armies of ants stinging me fiercely, chaotically: on my eyes, my skin, in my pores, my blood, even my ears, as they pick up the vibrations of your voice drawing closer. I’m flooded with memories: I feel the warmth of your embrace; the warmth of the bed where as a child I slept beside you instead of Mother; you coming home from your errands, me sticking to you like glue. Mother tried to separate me from you, but I didn’t listen. ‘He’s going on a trip tomorrow,’ she’d tell me, and I’d say: ‘But he’ll come back.’”

In Doors, a man leaves his home for a new job. The water isn’t on that morning, he hasn’t paid the bill, the bathroom door is riddled with holes, but nothing can spoil his good mood. A new job, things are looking up. I read on with a sinking feeling.

“He reached the businessman’s office on the second floor, and gazed at the beautiful door, solid and well made. It must be from a factory that makes doors and windows and other things, or maybe it’s imported, he thought to himself. At any rate, it definitely hadn’t come from a workshop in the nearby industrial zone.

A sleek, elegant plaque was affixed up high, engraved with the word DIRECTOR.

He felt the door, how cold it was, and took a deep breath. He grasped the handle and said to himself: I’ve done it; at last I’ve made it into the world.”

In A Woman Asleep on Her Bundle a woman wonders about the elderly woman who appears to have chosen to sleep on the ground near the mosque wall. She’s made a home of sorts under the neem tree, but other people in the neighbourhood said she used to own a house, has children and was tricked out of her money by ‘Madam Cash’. Some people call her a mad woman, the narrator wonders why she is all alone here, why does she keep running away from her family.

In other stories; a woman goes to a charity office day after day to beg for the money needed to help her dying son, children go hungry, a woman travels by bus from one city to another watching a fly on the window. They are stories of ordinary people, the destitute and the lost, in the midst of which we witness those things which make life so difficult for people in Sudan.

Rania Mamoun’s thought provoking collection explores isolation and estrangement within Sudanese urban life. Here is the deep love of a woman for her country and she writes about it with a complete understanding.

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Translated from French by Faith Evans.

With thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy

It’s not very long since I last read Madeleine Bourdouxhe but this little collection from Pushkin Press was just so perfect for #Witmonth I couldn’t possibly hang on to it any longer. I love the cover image – what a fabulous attitude.

Seven of these eight stories have a woman right at the heart of them, just one story concerns a man. Taking place in Belgium and France just before or just after the Second World War, the period during which most of them were written these stories depict ordinary women. Women who are reflective, lonely or locked in unsatisfying relationships. Three of the stories were written much later as Faith Evans explains in her introduction. The occupation overshadows many of these beautiful stories – with two of the stories, the first and the last based quite heavily on Bourdouxhe’s own experiences.

In the title story; A Nail, A Rose Irene walks homeward through the icy and darkness, ruminating on her failed relationship. Suddenly, she is attacked by a man from behind, he is wielding a hammer somewhat half-heartedly. Irene engages the man in conversation – he helps her stem the bleeding, walks her home – he is oddly childlike in his eagerness to please.

“He got out his handkerchief and tried to clean her hair, to staunch the wound. She was standing up, her heart racing. A man was wiping blood from her hair – and although he was doing it gently, she was in pain. He was holding the torch on a level with their faces, and she could see his pale greyish skin and the lock of brown hair that fell on to his forehead. He’d pushed his cap back and his face looked young and very thin. It was the face of an archangel or a fool: that look could belong to either one or the other.”

From here the attacker seems to begin to romantically pursue Irene – who appears less alarmed by this behaviour than one might imagine. The whole story has a bizarreness that can only come from real life. It’s a fabulous opening to an excellent collection.

Five of the stories are titled with the names of their central characters; Anna, Louise, Leah, Clara, Blanche and René. Here we have housewives who dream about the possibility of another life; one of them Anna is fascinated by the woman across the road – who like Anna is living above a garage, serving petrol to travellers who come along, but the other woman has a fancy chignon in her hair. Leah is involved with strikers; Leah finds herself taking drastic action to help the strike achieve its desired ends. Louise is a maid who longs to escape the drudgery of her life, she spends her day looking forward to the evening when she will go out, have a drink and maybe speak to men. She dreams of being friends with her employer – Madame – and tries on Madam’s coat. René is a hairdresser – who has an odd slightly dreamlike, fantastical encounter with one of his clients.

Sous le pont Mirabeau is the longest story in the collection, published here for the first time in English. The illustrations which first accompanied it reproduced with it. It is a story, which like the opening story is based on events in Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s own life.

“There were people everywhere, men, women and children, twenty or twenty five in a lorry, seven or eight in a vehicle meant for four. She was stretched out in the back of a lorry, her tiny baby on top of her, looking straight ahead with impatience in her eyes. She’d brought it upon herself, she thought, getting caught up in this escape – yet she wasn’t really fleeing or abandoning anything, she was merely responding to an appeal. The clarity of her memories guided her like a star.”

Set in 1940, it depicts the desperate flight of Belgians trying to get to France at the time of the occupation. A woman gives birth to a daughter just as the evacuation begins. She has no option, but to take her tiny daughter on the perilous journey, travelling in jeeps with soldiers, staying with kind-hearted strangers along the way.  It is an extraordinary reminder of the times, just what hardships people had to face in the midst of the fear and disruption of occupation. There was clearly much uncertainty and yet despite that, there is hope.

This is an excellent collection – I do hope there is more Madeleine Bourdouxhe novels and stories to be discovered and translated into English. If you’re yet to discover her short novels; La Femme des Gilles and Marie are both wonderful.

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Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

My first read for this year’s Women in Translation month was Liar – chosen by my book group for September, I decided it was would be a perfect holiday read – it was.

Lies are tricky things – they have the habit of multiplying, taking on a life of their own – getting out of control. This novel explores the nature of lies and how quickly they can travel – what those lies might mean to the liar, and what the consequences could be.

“After all, more lies remain undiscovered than are revealed. Harmless little lies absorbed into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from the truth. Time kneads all of them into a single lump of dough, and does it matter what really happened and what didn’t?”

Summer is nearing its end and soon school will be starting again, it will be Nofar Shalev’s final year at school – a year before she will have to join the army. For now, Nofar spends seven hours a day working in an ice-cream parlour – wishing the hours away and mourning the fact her former best friend recently just threw her over, so she could hang around with the cool kids. Nofar is an average seventeen year old, she lacks confidence, worries about her appearance, never learning how to make the best of herself, overshadowed by a prettier younger sister. She has become almost invisible – and she thinks she knows how she appears to others, and this makes her feel even worse – (I wouldn’t be seventeen again for anything).

One day a fading TV reality star comes into the ice-cream parlour – he is rude and Nofar, not knowing who he is, unthinkingly corrects his grammar which enrages him further. Avishai Milner unleashes a torrent of abuse at Nofar – personal and nasty, playing into all the awful things poor Nofar already thinks about herself. Nofar is deeply distressed, and so when in the midst of her hysteria, Avishai follows her and merely touches her on the arm Nofar’s screams bring the whole neighbourhood running. Nofar is surrounded by kind people asking what happened – and so she tells a lie – and it’s a pretty big one.

The media frenzy that blows up around Nofar’s story takes everyone by surprise, particularly Nofar. Avishai Milner is arrested and remanded in custody, the press is positively salivating over the story. She thinks no one can ever know about the lie she told – but she is wrong. Two people know that she lied. One of them is a deaf-mute homeless man – who it turns out isn’t as deaf or as mute as everyone thinks, the other; Lavi Maimon, who had witnessed the whole thing from his bedroom window.

“Some plants must be watered once a day, others don’t have to be watered at all, the more they are left alone the more they thrive. That applies to lies as well; some must be reinforced by a constant stream of words, others are better off left alone, they will grow on their own.”

Like so many boys his age Lavi finds it almost impossible to express himself, like Nofar he lacks confidence. Having already noticed Nofar but been unable to speak to her, he now seizes the opportunity to get to know her – blackmailing her into spending time with him. However, Nofar finds she rather likes this awkward young man, his ‘blackmail’ becoming something of a nonsense as they each develop feelings for the other, each of them incapable of admitting how they feel. Lavi sees beyond Nofar’s lie – he likes her for who she is – if only he could tell her that.

Everything begins to get out of control as the mainstream media begin to talk of Nofar as a heroine, a role model for young girls and women speaking out against men. Nofar is invited on to TV shows, given new clothes invited to a glittering reception. The TV people do her makeup – cover up the pimples that worry her, making her look so different, Nofar barely recognises herself. At school, Nofar is a little less invisible and that is driving her popular sister crazy. All the time, the lie is getting bigger, becoming more impossible to recant.

Later, Nofar meets Raymonde – an elderly woman she is an unlikely friend for a seventeen year old. Raymonde has also told a lie – but her lie won’t hurt anyone – she just wants to keep the memory of her dearest friend Rivka alive a little longer.

“Raymonde knew that Rivka would have wanted someone to tell her story. The way an olive tree wants you to take all the fallen olives and make oil from them. So she took those olives from Rivka, added them to her own and pressed them together really well.”

In time, both Nofar and Raymonde will have to face up to their lies and their consequences.

Gundar-Goshen writes with great understanding, portraying the awkwardness and misery of teenagers who feel on the outside. She shows the complexity of different relationships and the power they hold; familial relationships, relationships with authority, our peers and ourselves.

Liar was my fifteenth book of my #20booksofsummer – another swap – this time swapped for Spring by Ali Smith – which I will probably still read fairly soon.

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Meytal who is the inspiration behind Women in Translation month has been trying to compile a top 100 women in translation titles and so has been asking for us to each nominate ten.

I originally posted my choices on Twitter -but not everyone uses Twitter. So for those who like lists (and I know you’re out there) in no particular order, here are my top ten titles. Click on the titles to take you to my review.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum – (German – translated by Basil Creighton)

Set in the post World-War One world of the Weimar era. Berlin of the 1920’s, and here we meet a host of remarkably well drawn characters, who are explored in astute and searching detail. The lives and various concerns of these characters are woven together brilliantly by Vicki Baum, exploring their hopes, fears, secrets and regrets. There are shades of light and dark in this novel, moments of black comedy, and others of great poignancy. The life, atmosphere of a German hotel in the late 1920’s is brought to life with breath-taking clarity.

Into the Whirlwind – Eugenia Ginzburg – (Russian – translated by Paul Stevenson and Manya Harari )

An extraordinary memoir. In the 1930s Ginzburg was a loyal communist party member, a university teacher and journalist. A wife and mother, living a life surrounded by people who thought as she did, Eugenia (Jenny) found herself caught up in Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937, accused on trumped up charges.

My Mother’s House (Claudine’s House) – Colette (French – translated by Enid Mcleod and Una Troubridge

A novella/memoir of childhood, delightful and exquisitely written. The childhood recounted here was one of country wisdom and good food, wild flowers and animals. A childhood of games with village children who enjoy more freedom than modern children. Colette writes in a series of delightfully vivid vignettes – stories of villagers, siblings, politics and her parents’ marriage, but above all of a place, the place of her childhood – where she was loved.

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante (Italian – translated by Ann Goldstein)

My Brilliant Friend is the first novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series of novels – I loved them all, and this is where it all began. This is a novel of friendship and discovery, a coming of age novel in which two girls grow up to young womanhood with an ever gradually expanding realisation of their potentialities.

Dimanche and other stories – Irène Némirovsky ( French – translated by Bridget Patterson)

Dimanche and other stories were all written in the 1930’s and 40’s but not published in English until 2000. This is a truly wonderful collection, beautifully written, atmospheric stories, breathtakingly observed, some are almost like short novels in themselves, and peopled with memorably complex but very real characters.

The Door – Magda Szabó  (Hungarian – translated by Len Rix)

The narrator of The Door is unnamed – sometimes titled ‘the lady writer’, struggling to cope with both her writing and her domestic tasks she appears to be a thinly veiled portrait of Szabó herself. Having been silenced for years for political reasons, she is now able to write again, and seeks help with running her home from the caretaker of nearby apartments. Set over a period of about twenty years, The Door is the story of the relationship between the writer, and the woman who becomes her housekeeper.

TheDays of Abandonment – Elena Ferrante (Italian – translated by Ann Goldstein)

The Days of Abandonment is on the face of it the story of a woman’s descent into despair following the ending of her marriage; however it is much more the portrayal of her actual breakdown, in all its ugliness and misery. I was ill prepared for the anger and gut wrenching raw intimacy of this novel – at times that anger is almost visceral – and there are moments when the reader really would rather look away. It is brilliant though, and very memorable.

Iza’s Ballad – Magda Szabó (Hungarian – translated by George Szirtes)

Set in around 1960. The novel opens in a traditional small town in Hungary, later moving to the rapidly changing city of Budapest. For people of the older generation, the war and earlier government oppressions live long in their memory – their world was shaped by such events. So many of these past events are shrouded in silence – and the reader only gradually pieces together the history of these characters – very ordinary people, who we find have done small extraordinary things.

The Bridge of Beyond – Simone Schwaz-Bart (French – translated by Barbara Bray)

A novel of mothers and daughters, of love and the legacy of slavery on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe. Telumee narrates the story of her life, paying tribute to the strong line of wonderful Lougandor women who came before her. It is a narration rich in description, slow rhythmic prose which I found completely hypnotic. Simone Schwatz-Bart’s novel is full of long, hot, slow days, superstition and the cruel, gruelling work of the canefields. Telumee is born into a peasant tradition; tough lives in tiny dwellings on the edge of the forest. Often repeated stories, and long memories, nestle alongside magic and romance on the lush island of Guadeloupe so deliciously described by Schwartz-Bart.

Farewell, My Orange – Iwaki Kei (Japanese – translated by Meredith McKinney)

Set in a small Australian, coastal town the novel concerns two immigrant women, their journey with language, and their struggle to make a home in a strange land. The sunrise is a constant for Salimah, something familiar among all that is strange.

So those are my top ten – it was difficult to choose, there were several books vying for those last couple of places. If you’re joining in with #Witmonth during August I hope you read some wonderful books, I will be following the reviews with interest.

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Women in Translation month is fast approaching, and just as with the last few years, as soon as I see people on Twitter talking about what they might read I get totally over-excited.

My problem is having too many challenges – and not having planned properly. I am currently doing #20booksofsummer, and the LT Virago group have our All/Virago/All August during the same month. I can’t do everything – and yet I want to try.

My dilemma with 20 books is that I might have put the wrong books on my pile. I’m currently reading my twelfth book off the pile – so I definitely won’t have finished my 20 books by August, but I would like to be at about fifteen. One of them I tried starting a few days ago but couldn’t get into at all, the others I do want to read – and some will fit with All Virago/All August. So, I might have to swap one or two of my #20books – I’ll decide later, because, despite all the other challenges I am juggling, I really do want to read some books for #witmonth. Now, I won’t get as many read as some #witmonth readers, because I will be reading other things too – but you might be able to help me pick which ones I try and go for. Here are some of what I have to choose from.

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (original language French) A collection of short stories by the Belgian author of La Femme de Gilles and Marie.

“Muslim” A novel by Zahia Rahmani (original language French) A meditation on identity, violence, persecution and loneliness.

The Listener by Tove Jansson (original language Swedish) A story collection from the author of The Summer Book and Winter Book which I so loved.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (original language Polish) winner of the Man Booker International prize 2018, I have heard this is challenging. A novel about travel and human anatomy, life, death, motion and migration.

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk  (original language Polish) An eccentric woman recounts the events surrounding the disappearance of her two dogs. Then members of the local hunting club are murdered.

Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (original language Hebrew) I suggested this to my book group and it’s our September read. A teenage girl who feels invisible, tells a terrible lie.

Thirteen months of Sunrise by Rania Mamoun (original language Arabic) A collection of short stories about the human experience in urban life.

Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir (original language Icelandic). The story of a free spirited woman who reaches a life changing juncture and embarks on a whimsical road trip.

Night School by Zsófia Bán (original language Hungarian) A short story collection masquerading as an encyclopaedia on life.

They all look totally fantastic to me – and I plan to read them all eventually, though I will probably only get to perhaps five of them during #Witmonth  – which five should that be?

Are you joining in with #Witmonth? What are you planning on reading?

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love anger madness

Translated from French by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur

My final read for August’s Women in Translation month was a book of three novellas, Love, Anger, Madness: a Haitian triptych. Knowing nothing about Haiti – expect that voodoo comes from there, I was fascinated to learn more. I didn’t know what to expect from it really – and had never heard of the author at all.

“Fear is a vice that takes root once it is cultivated. It takes time to recover from it.”

Marie Vieux-Chauvet was born in 1916 in the Haitian capital, part of what was called the ‘occupation generation’ – it was the year after the US invaded Haiti. She grew up in a tumultuous period in Haiti history, and this is very much reflected in these three novellas. In 1968 following the publication of this novel and the resulting furore Marie Vieux-Chauvet was exiled to the United States.

These stories depict families and artists struggling to survive, find love and safety in Haiti while living under some of the most terrifying and hostile conditions.

The first novella, Love is told in the form of a journal, by Claire, the eldest of three sisters, who has never married. Her younger two sisters, and her brother-in-law share the old family home with Claire – but there is jealousy and resentment at the heart of this family. As the novel opens, Félicia; the middle sister married to Jean Luze is in the early stages of pregnancy. The youngest sister Annette only twenty-two, is openly conducting an affair with her handsome brother-in-law. Claire is driven to distraction, not at the betrayal of her other sister, but because she too has developed a passion for Jean Luze. In time, Claire becomes devoted to her little nephew when he comes along, and as Félicia becomes more and more fragile and less present in the house, Claire begins to feel as if he is almost her own. With Jean Luze soon tired of Annette, this youngest sister, vain and self-serving, leaves, marrying someone else – and Claire’s fantasies about her brother-in-law increase.

“Jean Luze plays a record in the living room. The notes penetrate me as he listens to them. My senses begin to vibrate so much that I rush to lock myself in my room. The sound explodes like a scream and then lingers in a caress. The entire house is suffused with it. What a hymn to life, this work born of suffering.”

This story of domestic disharmony takes place within a small, frightened community. The commandant, whose jail is across the street from Claire’s house, holds the community in thrall. We are witness to cruelty, fear and tales of sexual violence metered out to neighbours. Claire can hear the screams from her room.

In Anger, we meet the Normil family – with the story is told from multiple perspectives. One morning this large middle-class family wake to find militia men in black uniforms driving stakes into the ground around their home. This act of land seizure terrifies and intimidates the family, who have been proud landowners for many years. Rose, the pretty twenty-year old daughter becomes central to the crimes committed against this family and focus of much of the anger. For a month Rose must submit to the attentions of one of the militia leaders. Rose seeing herself as a martyr, goes to her fate in scenes which make for very uncomfortable reading. Meanwhile her mother, father, brothers and grandfather each deal differently with the unfolding situation. Their anger manifesting in various, destructive ways.

“Louis Normil felt his father’s anger rising in him. The shock was what saved him. He instinctively tilted his head to take his leave of the lawyer and made for the exit. He thought he caught a glint of mockery in the guard’s eyes, but he paid him no mind and went to work.”

The third novella Madness is harder to talk about without completely ruining it. It is that shortest of the three novellas, and the one I liked the least. The story is narrated by a young poet; Rene. Trapped for days inside his house, he watches ‘the devils’ as he calls them through the shutters of the windows, as they rampage their way around the town. There is a body in the street outside and flies have started to gather on it. Opening the door to two friends, brothers and fellow poets Rene encourages them inside to hide from ‘the devils’ who are invading their town. Isolated and terrified – Rene is suffering from a lack of food and water, stealing himself for a last stand against authority.

Despite the fact not all of Vieux-Chauvet’s characters are likeable this triptych remains sympathetic. It is however, also brutal and uncompromising in its depiction of Haitian society, and the reality of a country in turmoil. It is brave and terrifyingly honest.

It really was no wonder that I needed a palate cleanser after this book – which runs to almost 400 pages – and began reading something entirely different a couple of hours after finishing it.

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cof

It’s September already – well August always does fly by.

It’s been a lovely summer, but Monday sees a return to work, and a return to less reading time and blogging time. I always take a couple of weeks to settle back into the routine.

I have read a fair bit during August, the number of books is perhaps not much greater than usual, but I feel as if I have read a few fatter books. The Muriel Spark Complete stories of course was in last month’s photo too, I read almost half of it during July, and in August read the second half.

August is both Women in Translation month and All Virago all August, and so I was happily juggling books for both challenges.

Open the Door by Catherine Carswell was my first VMC of the month, I read while I was on a short break in Belgium. Open the Door! Is the story of a young woman’s awakening, her search for love, independence and happiness is brilliantly and compellingly told. Joanna is both trapped and in time released by her large capacity for love.

New Islands by Maria Luisa Bombal is a small collection of stories from the most creative period of the Chilean author. A couple of the stories are rather strange, but I still enjoyed them.

The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers is a novel about a man who escapes from a concentration camp in Germany in the late 1930s. However, it is also about a lot more than that, showing us exactly what life in Germany was like for ordinary people. It seems timely indeed that this German classic has been reissued now.

Sisters by a River was Barbara Comyns first novel, one which gave me a lot to think about, as Comyns light, bright, breezy tone is very deceptive, behind the humour there is a lot that is really rather dark. Comyns wraps that darkness in witty anecdotes, that rather belie some of the content.

The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart is a novel about mothers and daughter and the legacy of slavery, set on the lush island of Guadeloupe. It was chosen by my book group (my suggestion) and we will meet to discuss the week after next.

Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell – is an enjoyable social comedy written in that last year of peace. It was a deliciously witty bit of escapism.

I found David Golder by Irène Némirovsky to be fascinating – it has been viewed as quite a controversial novel – which now having read it I understand. I enjoyed it though, and the novel gave me a lot to think about, Irène Némirovsky was an interesting and complex woman.

My kindle which is peeping out from among the real books above I took on a trip to the Isle of Wight, having been reminded of poor hotel lighting when I was in Belgium. I read The Night Watch by Sarah Waters – a novel of considerably more than 500 pages – it zips along art a cracking pace and is so well written with excellent period detail. I am reminded I must read more by her.

The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim is the follow up to her first novel Elizabeth and her German Garden and is really every bit as wonderful and life affirming.

Love, Anger, Madness by Marie Vieux-Chauvet is a Haitian triptych. Three novellas, which I still have to review, which were powerful, disturbing and quite compelling.

cofI have started reading a book I bought ages ago from a charity shop (I think) called Summers Day by Mary Bell (1951) – a book published by Greyladies. I really could find virtually no information about either the novel or the author (the name being shared by a notorious British child killer). I came across this piece on Furrowed Middlebrow’s site about the author – which interested me.

September is the start of phase 5 of #ReadingMuriel2018 – and I have three Spark novels to read over the next two months. Apart from that I haven’t made any reading plans, although I need to concentrate on my ACOB – I have precisely thirty years to go. I may just do it! Though a couple of recent purchases might distract me from that, two beautiful looking new books that I really want to read.

cof

I read some excellent things in August, and as always would love to hear what you read.

Happy September reading.

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cof

Translated from French by Sandra Smith

I have been wondering how I would review David Golder for several days. I enjoyed this novel – but it was an enjoyment that felt distinctly uncomfortable.

Irène Némirovsky has become better known in recent years due to the publication of her lost novel Suite Francaise, and the story surrounding its recovery. However, at the time Irène Némirovsky began to write Suite Francaise she was already a well-known writer. David Golder was her second novel, first published in 1929 when its author was just 26, it was a big success. In more recent years the novel has been viewed quite controversially, due its depiction of Jewish characters, some of who could be said to be caricatures. Here we have wealthy Jewish businessmen sacrificing everything in the pursuit of more money, and an elderly Jewish man who walks on tip-toe to save shoe leather. It is such portrayals that have led many people to accuse Irène Némirovsky of anti-Semitism. Born into a Jewish family in Ukraine, she lived most of her life in France, she wrote in French and had converted to Catholicism. None of this was enough to save her under the race laws imposed by the Nazis who occupied France in 1940. Many people seem to believe – and this seems likely to me – that Némirovsky’s antipathy towards Jewishness was turned more inwards than outwards. She did have a famously terrible relationship with her mother. None of that makes reading David Golder any less uncomfortable – and yet, as I said I enjoyed it.

Némirovsky’s characters are so well crafted, that they become far more than caricatures, she is writing about capitalism, the reckless pursuit of money that was so prevalent in the twenties. Despite identifying as a Frenchwoman first and foremost, throughout her writing Némirovsky returns to her roots in the communities and people she portrays. Perhaps in this we see something of the complexity of the woman she was.

David Golder is an ageing businessman – born into poverty in Russia, he has amassed a great fortune. The days of easy money are numbered, and the financial markets of the world are starting to crumble, business is bad. As the novel opens Golder is refusing to help Marcus; his partner of twenty-six years, who is facing bankruptcy.

Days later Marcus is dead, having killed himself – and Golder visits his widow – who he can’t help but notice is wearing an enormous pearl necklace wound three times around her neck. Golder is a hard man; his success has been at the expense of others. Golder gets a train to travel to Biarritz where his wife Gloria and daughter Joyce live in luxurious splendour.

“ ‘Oh!’ Joyce said suddenly, ‘it’s just that I have to have everything on earth otherwise I’d rather die! Everything! Everything!’ she repeated with an imperious, feverish look in her eyes. ‘I don’t know how others do it! Daphne sleeps with old Behring for his money, but I need love, youth, everything the world has to offer…’”

Joyce is Golder’s one Achilles heel – he adores her, and Joyce uses that. Like her mother, Joyce is only interested in the money that her father can give her – and he gives her thousands. Joyce runs around with her boyfriends spending money like water – careless and superficial. Gloria is particularly dreadful, she cares only for the money her husband brings in, she has her own life, her own friends and lovers and no relationship with her husband.

Golder’s health is failing – as he travels through the night to Biarritz – he experiences chest pain. In the loneliness of the long dark night, Golder is briefly afraid – vulnerable, feeling his increasing age.

“The thick darkness flowed into his throat with soft, insistent pressure, as if earth was being pushed into his mouth, as it was into his… the dead man’s…Marcus…And when he thought finally of Marcus, when he finally allowed himself to be taken over by the image, the memory of death, the cemetery, the yellow clay soaked with rain, the long roots clinging like serpents deep inside the grave, he suddenly felt such a tremendous need, such a desperate desire for light, to see familiar, ordinary things round him… his clothing swaying from the hook on the door… the newspapers on the little table…the bottle of mineral water… that he forgot about everything else.”

In Biarritz, in the sumptuous apartment he owns there, Golder is taken ill again. Fearing that her pot of gold may run dry Gloria takes steps to ensure her husband is not persuaded to stop work – for as soon as he does – the money will stop. It is for Joyce though, ultimately that Golder continues to chase money – during days of increasing financial insecurity.

Némirovsky shines a light on a world she would have seen something of through her father – a wealthy businessman in Russia – he had started again as a banker when the family fled the revolution for France in 1917.

There is a chilling atmosphere of dark, claustrophobia throughout the novel. As Golder recalls incidents from his past he travels through Europe, retracing in part the steps he took as a young man setting out to make his fortune. He revisits an old Jewish neighbourhood with an old friend, and finally nearing the end of his life, meets a poor young man, who like he himself once did, is setting out in hopes of a better life.

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Némirovsky’s portrait of Golder is not without sympathy, in his ageing ill health – as he struggles to make money for the daughter he loves but who cares not one jot for him, he is vulnerable and rather tragic. However, in her portrayal of Gloria and Joyce – she is merciless.

This became a short though hugely thought-provoking novel for me during this #Witmonth – Némirovsky is a woman I continue to be both confounded and fascinated by.

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the seventh cross

Translated from German by Margot Bettauer Dembo

The most powerful and important accounts of people living under terrifying regimes are undoubtedly those written during the times they depict – whether they be fictional or non-fictional accounts. The Seventh Cross is such a novel – written in France after the author had fled Nazi Germany, it was finally published in 1942, after the author and her family had had to flee the Nazis again. Despite being a novel, this must surely still be an important historical document. It also happens to be a hugely compelling read. Virago’s re-issue of this German classic feels to me like a timely warning from time – showing us how easy the lure of fascism was for some.

It depicts the insidious rise of a regime, the daily realities for ordinary people. Fear is unspoken and tangible, and people disappear and then reappear – and everyone is living by new rules. Criminals of the regime – communists for a start have already started to be rounded up, what this novel shows is that local people would have been aware of the camps, made uneasy by them perhaps – though ignorant of the true horrors.

It is a few years after Hitler has taken power in Germany (I assumed 1936/7 due to the mention of unrest in Spain) and seven men escape from Westhofen concentration camp.

“Probably no trees ever cut down in our country were as unique, as strange as the seven plane trees growing at the gable end of Barracks III. Their crowns, for a reason to be revealed at a later time, had previously been cut off and a board had been nailed across each of the tree trunks at shoulder height. From afar they looked like seven crosses.”

It is a disgrace to the camp officers for such a thing to happen. Fahrenberg, the camp commandant is under intense pressure – he vows that all the men will be caught within seven days. Interestingly, Seghars portrays him – increasingly throughout the novel – as man losing his grip – he loses sleep, becomes obsessed with the men’s capture, he knows his days in charge are numbered.

Six of the men are captured quite quickly, and made examples of, cruelly and with evil relish by the camp officers. However, the seventh man George Heisler manages to slip through the net, crawling on his belly through mud, stealing clothes, hiding in churches, the desperate man feels his pursuers are only ever a few steps behind.

“An uncontrollable wish, stronger than any fear, or hunger and thirst, and stronger than the damned thumping in his hand, which had long ago bled through the rag: to just keep lying there – after all, night would come soon. And the fog was already providing him with cover; the sun was just a pale disc behind the haze covering his face. They wouldn’t be searching for him here during the night. He’s have some peace.”

George is a changed man, just a few years ago he was a handsome, confident man, a bit selfish, he didn’t always treat his friends well. He had let down a friend he had been living with, left his wife had taken up with another girl – one of many we get the impression. People from his old life would barely recognise George now, the years in a concentration camp have taken their toll, he is already looking a lot older. He is less certain of himself now, less assured, he carries the calming words of fellow camp mate and escapee Wallau with him on his perilous journey. Who – if anyone, can George trust? Unknown to George the years have changed those close to him too – his brother is now an SS officer; a former lover turns him from her door in terror. Despite his flaws, maybe in some way because of them, George is a wholly sympathetic character, I was rather glad he wasn’t some kind of two-dimensional angel. We can all sympathise with someone hurt, hunted alone and afraid.

Rumours of the escape are murmured by the people living within sound of the camp’s sirens, soon the escape is being talked about on the radio. George’s former in-laws are worried about what it will mean for them. His ex-wife is certain he won’t turn up there – but both she and her father an ageing paper hanger, are taken in for questioning, and watched closely after their release.

Injured, desperate and with time running out, George slowly makes his way back to the town where he used to live – in the hope that his old friends and contacts help him get away. Meanwhile for the officers of the Nazi regime capturing the last man becomes a matter of pride.

Told from a variety of perspectives – Seghers paints a picture of a country held in the grip of terrible times, but where not everyone is happy to bow to the fear instilled by the Gestapo. We meet extraordinary people, who know full well what helping someone like George might mean – but who look the danger full in the face.

“Only once in her life had Liesel ever had anything to do with the police. At the time, she was a child, ten or eleven years old. One of her brothers had got into trouble; maybe it was the one who later died in the war, for there was never any mention of it in the family afterwards. It had been buried with him in Flanders. But the fear they had all struggled with back then was still in Liesel’s blood today. A fear that had nothing to do with a bad conscience; it was a poor people’s fear, a chicken’s fear under a hawk, a fear of being persecuted by the state. An ancient fear that better defines to whom the state belongs than any constitutions or history books. But now Liesel resolved to fight tooth and claw to protect her family, with cunning and deceit.”

This was a fascinating, compelling read for #WITmonth – which has put Anna Seghers firmly on my radar – I really must read more of her work soon.

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