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Reading the World: ‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux ****

Annie Ernaux was one of the authors I wanted to get to during 2017, and what better than to tie her together with my Reading the World project?  I chose A Woman’s Story as my first Ernaux as I had previously heard of it, and because it sounded so powerful.  Kirkus Reviews writes that A Woman’s Story is ‘as much about Everywoman as one particular woman… [which] laconically describes the cruel realities of old age for a woman once vibrant and independent.’

The slim memoir chronicles the dementia and death of Ernaux’s mother, as well as weaving in aspects of her life and character.  Translated from its original French by Tanya Leslie, the prose throughout is measured and careful.  This renders some of the more harrowing and touching scenes which Ernaux depicts far more stark and raw than they perhaps would have been had the writing been frilly or overdone in any way.  This is particularly so when coming to terms with the death of her mother: ‘I would be sitting behind the wheel and suddenly it would hit me.  “She will never be alive anywhere in the world again.”  I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that other people behaved normally.’

9781583225752A Woman’s Story is a self-confessed writing exercise which Ernaux embarked upon in order to discover; to ‘capture the real woman, the one who existed independently from me’.  In her own words, she describes the different genres which can be found within her biographical work: ‘The more objective aspect of my writing will probably involve a cross between family history and sociology, reality and fiction’.

In depicting her mother, who lived in relative poverty in Normandy and was the fourth child in a family of six, Ernaux builds a fascinating portrait of a bygone age.  She writes: ‘My mother’s youth involved trying to escape the dull certainties of her fate: inevitable poverty, the threat of alcoholism and everything else that happened to a factory girl who had slipped into bad habits’.  The structure, made up as it is of fragmented memories, works incredibly well here.  Ernaux also renders her work achingly honest, and so personal: ‘As I write, I see her sometimes as a “good,” sometimes as a “bad” mother.  To get away from these contrasting views, which come from my earliest childhood, I try to describe and explain her life as if I were writing about someone else’s mother and a daughter who wasn’t me’.

Ernaux somehow manages to be both frank and heartfelt throughout, making A Woman’s Story both an important exercise in biography for its author, and a fascinating tome for the everyday reader.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Three)

We have reached midway in my rather enormous underrated books wishlist.  I hope you’re enjoying the mini series so far, and finding something which catches your eye.  In this particular post, I have focused upon translated works.

 

1. Le Batarde by Violette Leduc 9781564782892
‘An obsessive and revealing self-portrait of a remarkable woman humiliated by the circumstances of her birth and by her physical appearance, La Batarde relates Violette Leduc’s long search for her own identity through a series of agonizing and passionate love affairs with both men and women. When first published, La Batarde earned Violette Leduc comparisons to Jean Genet for the frank depiction of her sexual escapades and immoral behavior. A confession that contains portraits of several famous French authors, this book is more than just a scintillating memoir. Like that of Henry Miller, Leduc’s brilliant writing style and attention to language transform this autobiography into a work of art.’

 

97815856765142. Hash by Torgny Lindgren
‘The main ingredient in the recipes for Swedish hash, a dish known among the peasants of remote northern villages for its delectability and restorative powers, differ widely. The meats, offal, and grain that go into its preparation – an elaborate process of boiling, pickling, steaming, and stewing – can range from the heinous to the dangerous, and the results can be alternately emetic and sublime. The search for the most delicious dish of hash – the ultimate hash – forms the backbone of the blackly comic, marvellously innovative new novel from one of Sweden’s most esteemed and best-selling authors. In a small town where an epidemic of tuberculosis rages, two very different men arrive to a scene of suffering accepted by the inhabitants not with stoicism or as a test of fate, but almost with glee. Robert Maser is a travelling garment salesman whose accent and demeanour betray the fact that he is actually the fugitive Martin Borman, the Nazi leader rumoured to have slipped past Red Army lines during the fall of Berlin. He engages the local schoolteacher, Lars, on the bizarre quest to find world’s best hash, and together they wander the Swedish countryside, inviting themselves into peasant homes to sample the variety of humble family recipes. As their search becomes more impassioned, it becomes clear that their goal is much more than a culinary marvel, and that what they’ve really been seeking is the force of life that must present itself even in dark times.’

 

3. The Case of Comrade Tuleyev by Victor Serge
‘One cold Moscow night, Comrade Tulayev, a high government official, is shot dead on the street, and the search for the killer begins. In this panoramic vision of the Soviet Great Terror, the investigation leads all over the world, netting a whole series of suspects whose only connection is their innocence—at least of the crime of which they stand accused. But The Case of Comrade Tulayev, unquestionably the finest work of fiction ever written about the Stalinist purges, is not just a story of a totalitarian state. Marked by the deep humanity and generous spirit of its author, the legendary anarchist and exile Victor Serge, it is also a classic twentieth-century tale of risk, adventure, and unexpected nobility’

 

4. The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch 9780679755487
‘It is the reign of the Emperor Augustus, and Publius Vergilius Maro, the poet of the Aeneid and Caesar’s enchanter, has been summoned to the palace, where he will shortly die. Out of the last hours of Virgil’s life and the final stirrings of his consciousness, the Austrian writer Hermann Broch fashioned one of the great works of twentieth-century modernism, a book that embraces an entire world and renders it with an immediacy that is at once sensual and profound. Begun while Broch was imprisoned in a German concentration camp, The Death of Virgil is part historical novel and part prose poem — and always an intensely musical and immensely evocative meditation on the relation between life and death, the ancient and the modern.’

 

5. Cleaned Out by Annie Ernaux
Cleaned Out tells the story of Denise Lesur, a 20-year-old woman suffering the after-effects of a back-alley abortion. Alone in her college dorm room, Denise attempts to understand how her suffocating middle-class upbringing has brought her to such an awful present. Ernaux, one of France’s most important contemporary writers, daringly breaks with formal French literary tradition in this moving novel about abortion, growing up, and coming to terms with one’s childhood.’

 

97815901709536. Asleep in the Sun by Adolfo Bioy Casares
‘Lucio, a normal man in a normal (nosy) city neighborhood with normal problems with his in-laws (ever-present) and job (he lost it) finds he has a new problem on his hands: his beloved wife, Diana. She’s been staying out till all hours of the night and grows more disagreeable by the day. Should Lucio have Diana committed to the Psychiatric Institute, as her friend the dog trainer suggests? Before Lucio can even make up his mind, Diana is carted away by the mysterious head of the institute. Never mind, Diana’s sister, who looks just like Diana—and yet is nothing like her—has moved in. And on the recommendation of the dog trainer, Lucio acquires an adoring German shepherd, also named Diana. Then one glorious day, Diana returns, affectionate and pleasant. She’s been cured!—but have the doctors at the institute gone too far?  Asleep in the Sun is the great work of the Argentine master Adolfo Bioy Casares’s later years. Like his legendary Invention of Morel, it is an intoxicating mixture of fantasy, sly humor, and menace. Whether read as a fable of modern politics, a meditation on the elusive parameters of the self, or a most unusual love story, Bioy’s book is an almost scarily perfect comic turn, as well as a pure delight.’

 

7. The Spanish Ballad by Lion Feuchtwanger
The Spanish Ballad (originally published as “Die Jüdin von Toledo“) is a 1955 novel by German-Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger. The story focuses on the “Golden Age” of learning in medieval Spain, and also describes the affair of Alfonso VIII with the Jewish Raquel in Toledo.  In Lion Feuchtwanger’s prologue to the story, he mentions that the ballad was originally written by Alfonso X of Castile in regards of his Great-Grandfather (Alfonso VIII).’

 

8. Lost Paradise by Cees Nooteboom 9780099497158
‘Cees Nooteboom, hailed by A. S. Byatt as “one of the greatest modern novelists,” is one of Holland’s most important authors. In Lost Paradise, Nooteboom’s most ambitious book yet, he sets out to uncover the connections between two seemingly unrelated travelers: a beautiful stranger aboard a Berlin-bound flight and a haggard-looking man on a Holland train platform. With his fleeting impressions of these encounters, Nooteboom builds a complex, haunting story of longing, regret, and rebirth in the dawn of the new millennium. Alma, a young woman of German descent, leaves her parents’ Sao Paolo home on a hot summer night. Her car engine dies in one of the city’s most dangerous favelas, a mob surrounds her, and she is pulled from the automobile. Not long after, Dutch novelist Erik Zontag is in Perth, Australia, for a literary conference and finds a winged woman curled up in a closet in an empty house. The intersection of their paths illuminates the ways in which the divine touches our lives. Lost Paradise is an affirmation of our underlying humanity in an increasingly fragmented age, a deeply resonant tale of cosmically thwarted love.’

 

9. Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge
‘Unforgiving Years is a thrilling and terrifying journey into the disastrous, blazing core of the twentieth century. Victor Serge’s final novel, here translated into English for the first time, is at once the most ambitious, bleakest, and most lyrical of this neglected major writer’s works.  The book is arranged into four sections, like the panels of an immense mural or the movements of a symphony. In the first, D, a lifelong revolutionary who has broken with the Communist Party and expects retribution at any moment, flees through the streets of prewar Paris, haunted by the ghosts of his past and his fears for the future. Part two finds D’s friend and fellow revolutionary Daria caught up in the defense of a besieged Leningrad, the horrors and heroism of which Serge brings to terrifying life. The third part is set in Germany. On a dangerous assignment behind the lines, Daria finds herself in a city destroyed by both Allied bombing and Nazism, where the populace now confronts the prospect of total defeat. The novel closes in Mexico, in a remote and prodigiously beautiful part of the New World where D and Daria are reunited, hoping that they may at last have escaped the grim reckonings of their modern era.  A visionary novel, a political novel, a novel of adventure, passion, and ideas, of despair and, against all odds, of hope, Unforgiving Years is a rediscovered masterpiece by the author of The Case of Comrade Tulayev.’

 

978178168859510. Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan
‘A new generation of young literary figures in Indonesia, emerging after decades of repressive dictatorship ended in 1998, is renewing the culture of the world’s largest Muslim nation (and its language, which was only nationally instituted in 1945). Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound and Man Tiger are the capstones of this movement. A slim, wry story set in an unnamed town near the Indian Ocean, Man Tiger tells the story of two interlinked and tormented families, and of Margio, an ordinary half-city, half-rural youngster who also happens to be half-man, half-supernatural female white tiger (in many parts of Indonesia, magical tigers protect good villages and families).  At once elegant and bawdy, experimental and political, Man Tiger will help to establish Indonesia’s new voice, underrepresented in world literature, while demonstrating the influence of world literature on Indonesian writers.’

 

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Wishlist: Ten French Books

Following on from my review of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, I thought it might be a nice idea to compile a wishlist of sorts, filled with recommendations which I feel will appeal to the bookish.  I have selected ten different authors here, all of whom have published markedly different works.  For each, I have copied the official blurb.

1. Conversations with Professor Y by Louis-Ferdinand Celine 97954

‘”Here’s the truth, simply stated…bookstores are suffering from a serious crisis of falling sales.” So begins the imaginary interview that comprises this novel: a conversation between the stuffy, incontinent Professor Y and Céline himself, who rails against convention and defends his idiosyncratic methods as a writer. In the course of their outrageous interplay, Céline comes closer to explaining his controversial life and work than in any of his other books. But soon the not-so-polite conversation begins to degenerate into a bizarre farce, as all pretense to the “interview” is dropped and Professor Y reveals his true identity—leading the author on a hilarious quest through the streets of Paris toward a climax skewering pretension, celebrity, polite society, and the establishment itself.’

2. Gilles and Jeanne by Michel Tournier

‘This novella by Prix Goncourt-winner Tournier (Friday, The Ogre) recreates medieval history by exploring the bizarre love of Gilles de Rais for Jeanne d’Arc, satanist and saint respectively. The homosexual Gilles, a noble and a marshal of France, finds in the boylike Jeanne an “intoxicating fusion of sanctity and war.” He escorts and protects her in battle against the English, and later tries vainly to save her from the stake. After her death, Gilles is diabolically transformed. He seeks to raise Jeanne’s spirit by putting on the mystery play Siege of Orleans. Gilles’s subsequent crimes earn him the name of Bluebeard: young boys are lured to his castle, feasted and then torturedwith erotic refinementsto death. Gilles rationalizes his grisly deeds by invoking the martyred Holy Innocents. Obsessed with Jeanne’s memory, he burns the children’s bodies in rites of necromancy, hoping to turn them to spiritual gold. Finally, Gilles is condemned to burn, like his adored saint. Tournier’s fervent and striking meditation on these legendary figures suggests that heaven and hell are the obverse sides of a coin. ‘

3. A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex 9781904738510

‘On April 16, 1942, a handful of Swiss Nazis in Payerne lure Arthur Bloch, a Jewish cattle merchant, into an empty stable and kill him with a crowbar. Europe is in flames, but this is Switzerland, and Payerne, a rural market town of butchers and bankers, is more worried about unemployment and local bankruptcies than the fate of nations across the border. Fernand Ischi, leader of the local Nazi cell, blames it all on the town’s Jewish population and wants to set an example, thinking the German embassy would be grateful. Ischi’s dream of becoming the local gauleiter is shattered, however, when the milk containers used to dissimulate Bloch’s body parts is discovered floating in a lake nearby, leading to his arrest.’

4. The Flight of Icarus by Raymond Queneau

‘Called by some the French Borges, by others the creator of le nouveau roman a generation ahead of its time, Raymond Queneau’s work in fiction continues to defy strict categorization. The Flight of Icarus (Le Vol d’lcare) is his only novel written in the form of a play: seventy-four short scenes, complete with stage directions. Consciously parodying Pirandello and Robbe-Grillet, it begins with a novelist’s discovery that his principal character, Icarus by name, has vanished. This, in turn, sets off a rash of other such disappearances. Before long, a number of desperate authors are found in search of their fugitive characters, who wander through the Paris of the 1890s, occasionally meeting one another, and even straying into new novels. Icarus himself–perhaps following the destiny his name suggests–develops a passion for horseless carriages, kites, and machines that fly. And throughout the almost vaudevillian turns of the plot, we are aware, as always, of Queneau’s evident delight at holding the thin line between farce and philosophy.’

97819419200915. Sphinx by Anne Garreta

‘Sphinx is the remarkable debut novel, originally published in 1986, by the incredibly talented and inventive French author Anne Garreta, one of the few female members of Oulipo, the influential and exclusive French experimental literary group whose mission is to create literature based on mathematical and linguistic restraints, and whose ranks include Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, among others. A beautiful and complex love story between two characters, the narrator, “I,” and their lover, A***, written without using any gender markers to refer to the main characters, Sphinx is a remarkable linguistic feat and paragon of experimental literature that has never been accomplished before or since in the strictly-gendered French language.’

6. Our Beautiful Heroine by Jacques Roubaud

‘This lightweight but appealing romantic mystery in which the crime is never solved and the lovers never united is set in a bustling middle-class Parisian neighborhood replete with butcher shop, bakery, produce market and peopled with a spirited group of opinionated busybodies. These include the narrator George Mornacier, an ardent girl-watcher and astute observer of the human scene; Bertrand Eusebe, an innocently lecherous grocer; Madame Crussant, the goodhearted baker; and Monsieur Orsell, scholar and philosopher. These voluble neighbors are preoccupied with the whereabouts of the heir to the kingdom of oil-rich Poldevia, young Prince Gormanskoi, missing for two years since a state visit to France. Also dominating the neighborhood’s interest is the identity of the perpetrator of the “hardware store horrors,” acts of vandalism against 52 hardware stores carrying plaster Poldevian statuettes. When Hortense, a voluptuous student long admired by Eusebe and George, meets a young man with dark, noble features and long, delicate hands, a uniquely chronicled chain of events ensues that leads to the identification of the missing prince, a passionate liaison ending in marriage and the trial of the hardware store vandal: all with unexpected results. Although it is sometimes sidetracked by tedious digression and much of Kornacker’s translation is clumsily phrased, this is basically a vigorous and agreeable work.’

7. Happening by Annie Ernaux 41js73x1-el-_sx327_bo1204203200_

‘In 1963, Annie Ernaux, 23 and unattached, realizes she is pregnant. Shame arises in her like a plague: Understanding that her pregnancy will mark her and her family as social failures, she knows she cannot keep that child.  This is the story, written forty years later, of a trauma Ernaux never overcame. In a France where abortion was illegal, she attempted, in vain, to self-administer the abortion with a knitting needle. Fearful and desperate, she finally located an abortionist, and ends up in a hospital emergency ward where she nearly dies.  In Happening, Ernaux sifts through her memories and her journal entries dating from those days. Clearly, cleanly, she gleans the meanings of her experience.’

8. The Mustache by Emmanuel Carrere

‘”What would you say if I shaved off my mustache?” asks “The Mustache”‘s hero of his wife. Once removed, his wife and friends not only fail to recognize him, but deny the existence of the former mustache altogether. A metaphysical nightmare of the grandest kind, “The Mustache” is a stunning blend of absurdist comedy and philosophical speculation.In “Class Trip,” young Nicholas’s vivid imagination gets the best of him when a boy disappears from a school excursion. What the youthful detective finds is even more terrifying than his wildest fantasties.Brought together in one volume, the piercing early novels of Emmanuel Carrere constitute some of the most devastating psychological portraits in contemporary fiction.”‘
9. Red Haze by Christian Gailly

‘”One day unlike the others, he’ll run into a husband worse than the others, he’ll run into trouble. I often thought this. Well, I was wrong, it was a woman he ran into, a woman worse than the others, here’s what happened.” What happened is the shocking tale told deftly by the brilliant French minimalist Christian Gailly in Red Haze . It is a story at once spare and mysteriously complex, complicated by the ever odder perspective of the narrator as the details accumulate. Lucien, the narrator’s friend, is a rake, a womanizer who womanizes once too often and loses his offending member to his latest conquest. As the narrator’s interest in the mutilated man and the vengeful woman grows into an obsession, Red Haze becomes an unsettling story of how closely intertwined love and hatred, passion and cruelty can be. Winner of the prestigious Prix France Culture, Red Haze is the third of Christian Gailly’s ten novels to be published in English.’

61uots711il-_sx344_bo1204203200_10. The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

‘In this playful and perplexing book, we meet a young Parisian researcher who lives inside his bathroom. As he sits in his tub meditating on existence (and refusing to tell us his name), the people around him―his girlfriend, Edmondsson, the Polish painters in his kitchen―each in their own way further enables his peculiar lifestyle, supporting his eccentric quest for immobility. But an invitation to the Austrian embassy shakes up his stable world, prompting him to take a risk and leave his bathroom . . .’

 

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