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One From the Archive: ‘There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family’ by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya **

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family is the newest work published in English by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.  The New York Times believes her to be ‘one of Russia’s best living writers…  her tales inhabit a borderline between this world and the next’.

The blurb of There Once Lived a Mother… states that in these ‘darkly imagined’ novellas, ‘both cruelty and love dominate relationships between husband and wife, mother and child…  Blending horror with satire, fantasy with haunting truth, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s newly translated tales create a cast of unlikely heroines in a carnivalesque world of extremes’.

Anna Summers has translated the book, and has also penned its informative introduction.  At the outset, she sets out the ‘story-swapping culture’ which exists in Russia, and goes on to inform us that ‘the three novellas in this volume tell extreme stories that couldn’t be heard for many years – censorship wouldn’t allow it’.  Summers believes that Petrushevskaya is incredibly important within the Russian canon, describing, as she does, ‘in minute detail how ordinary people, Muscovites, lived from day to day in their identical cramped apartments…  She spoke for all those who suffered domestic hell in silence, the way Solzhenitsyn spoke for the countless nameless political prisoners’.

Of the author’s protagonists, Summers says the following: ‘Reading Petrushevskaya is an unforgettable experience.  This testifies to the exceptional power of her art, because her characters, by their own admission, don’t make particularly fascinating subjects.  In this volume, her heroines are tired, scared, impoverished women who have been devastated by domestic tragedies…  Such women are boring even to themselves’.

The three novellas within There Once Lived a Mother… are entitled ‘The Time Is Night’, ‘Chocolates with Liqueur’ and ‘Among Friends’ – Petrushevksaya’s best-known and highly controversial story – and were published in Russia in 1988, 1992 and 2002 respectively.  Each story is unsettling, and they are quite stylistically similar too.  Despite the lulling and almost simplistic narrative voices used in There Once Lived a Mother…, the sense of foreboding is incredibly strong from the start.  Atmosphere is built up marvellously through Petrushevskaya’s use of sparse wording, which gives the reader an immediate indication that something is not quite right.

In these stories, cruelty nestles into every crevice of life.  The narrator of ‘The Time is Night’ is a poet named Anna, who looks after her young grandson, Tima.  He is a young boy who at first appears ‘jealous’ of her ‘so-called success’, and she consequently blames him for all of the problems in her life.  As the tale goes on, however, one realises that Tima is the only thing which she is living for.  Her existence is bleak; her paralysed mother has been in hospital for seven years, and her son has been in prison.  Her daughter, Tima’s mother, is living away with ‘baby number two’, her ‘new fatherless brat’, and taking all of the money which should be Tima’s.  Anna, whilst headstrong, is rather naive, and despite her poor quality of life, there is something in her narrative which prevents any sympathy being felt for her.

The brutality and violence within There Once Lived a Mother… seem senseless after a while, making the stories rather a chore to read.  The cast of characters are not quite realistic; their foibles and traits sometimes sit oddly together, and any believability is therefore diminished.

Vincent Burgeon’s cover design is striking and rather creepy, and certainly sets the tone for the words within.  There Once Lived a Mother… is stark and oppressive, and whilst the tales are certainly not for the faint-hearted, Petrushevskaya does give a moderately interesting insight into a stifling regime.  The novellas here are stranger than her short stories, and far more disturbing.  Summers has done a good job of translating the work, but there is something oddly detached within the tales, even when the first person narrative perspective has been used.  Emotion is lacking in those places which particularly need it, and whilst it is harrowing, the narrative style – particularly in the second story, ‘Chocolates and Liqueur’ – does not suit.

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Reading the World: ‘Gilgi, One Of Us’ by Irmgard Keun *****

Gilgi (full title, Gilgi, One Of Us) has been presented in a new English translation as part of Melville House Publishing’s Neversink Library collection.  First published in its original German in 1931, Irmgard Keun’s debut novel, published when she was just twenty-six, has been rendered into the most beautiful English prose by Geoff Wilkes.  In Germany, Gilgi became an overnight sensation, and Keun was driven to sue the Gestapo several years afterwards for blocking her royalties.

9781612192772The protagonist of Gilgi is Gisela Kron, a ‘disciplined and ambitious secretary’ in a hosiery business.  Immediately admirable with her hardworking stubbornness,  she is desperately ‘trying to establish her independence in a society being overtaken by fascism’.  Falling in love, however, is a ‘fateful choice’ which will ‘unmoor’ Gilgi from her own position in the world, that which she has fought for so long to uphold.  Gilgi is essentially a coming-of-age novel; whilst Gilgi is biologically older than a character whom we might expect to undergo such a formative transformation, she learns much about the world around her, and about herself, as the novel progresses.  She is made aware of her own strengths and weaknesses, and the place which she occupies in both public and private spheres in her home city of Cologne.

Keun’s choice of opening is fascinating, and very much sets the tone for the whole: ‘She’s holding it firmly in her hands, her little life, the girl Gilgi.  She calls herself Gilgi, her name is Gisela.  The two i‘s [sic] are better suited to slim legs and narrow hips like a child’s, to tiny fashionable hats which contrive mysteriously to stay perched on the very top of her head.  When she’s twenty-five, she’ll call herself Gisela.  But she’s not at that point quite yet.’  She is a cool-headed character, and faced with many of the challenges as she is, many other protagonists would have inevitably had some sort of breakdown or existential crisis.  Not Gilgi.  She is a firm believer in dealing with everything thrown at one, and she does so largely flawlessly.

Gilgi’s familial situation is exposed to the reader almost immediately: ‘No one speaks.  Everyone is earnestly and dully occupied with their own concerns.  The complete lack of conversation testifies to the family’s decency and legitimacy.  Herr and Frau Kron have stuck together through years of honorable tedium to their silver wedding anniversary.  They love each other, and are faithful to each other, something which has become a matter of routine, and no longer needs to be discussed, or felt’.

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Irmgard Keun

Gilgi is very of its time; Keun is never far away from inserting snippets of social history, or the economic struggles which many around Gilgi faced on a daily basis.  So many issues which are still of much importance in our modern society are tackled here – patriarchy, sexual relations, pregnancy out of wedlock, and the very concept of womanhood.  It is an astoundingly frank work, both ‘piercingly perceptive and formally innovative’.  Gilgi is told on the morning of her twenty-first birthday, for instance, that her parents are not biologically hers, and then given the details of her birth mother.

Gilgi herself provides a contrast to the societal norms held for women during the period; she is proactive, has her own job, and pays for her own things: ‘I want to work, want to get on, want to be self-supporting and independent…  At the moment I’m learning my languages – I’m saving money…’.  She may still live at home with the Krons who raised her, but she makes clear that her biggest aim in life is to fund her own apartment.

Until she meets Martin, the idea of being a kept woman repulses her; indeed, even with Martin, Keun has allowed Gilgi her independence.  The pair move in with one another to the vacant apartment of one of Martin’s friends; he is unshakeable in his existence and largely lives hand to mouth, so it is up to Gilgi to work and pay for everything.  Again, tradition is eschewed here, and Keun demonstrates to a point that a woman of the period could make things work by herself.  Gilgi’s grand ambitions still live within her, even when she becomes conscious that they are not perhaps achievable due to the pregnancy which befalls her naive self.

I was put in mind of reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage at several points during the novel; the narrative voice which Keun has crafted simultaneously weaves the first and third person perspectives together in a beguiling manner.  There is a wonderful stream-of-consciousness approach to the whole in places.  Gilgi is a fascinating, deeply complex, and thoroughly realistic character.  Each individual consequence which she has to face is tackled with the utmost verisimilitude.  Gilgi is a stunning novel, with prose echoes of Hans Fallada and Stefan Zweig.  It is absolutely wonderful, and sure to delight those with a fondness for strong female characters, or who want to read a striking piece of translated literature.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Leech’ by Cora Sandel ****

I chose to purchase Cora Sandel’s The Leech for my Reading the World project, as she is an author whom has been on my radar for an awfully long time, but whose books appear to be few and far between.  I had originally thought that I would start with the Alberta trilogy which Sandel is arguably most famous for, but  The Leech was the most easily available of her books to me through Abebooks, and so I plumped for it as what I hoped would be a good introduction to her work.  The only other person who has reviewed it on Goodreads also compared it to Virginia Woolf, so of course it was almost inevitable that I was going to begin with this one.

The Leech was first published in Norway in 1958, and in the United Kingdom two years later.  This particular translation has been wonderfully rendered by Elizabeth Rakkan, and printed by The Women’s Press.  Interestingly, we do not meet the woman, Dondi, whom the story revolves around until almost the end of the work.  She is relatively young, and left her home in southern Norway to head to a small town within the Arctic Circle in order to marry.  The Leech begins ten years after Dondi’s decision has been made, and things have not turned out quite as she was expecting them to.  Her writer husband, Gregor, is less than famous, her twin children Bella and Beppo are rebellious, and she is ‘miserable to the point of hysteria’.  Added to this, Gregor’s extended family see Dondi as the reason why he has not quite realised his full potential as a writer; they believe that she has sapped his talent pool dry. 9780704340053-us

The Leech takes place over two days in Midsummer, and from the beginning, Sandel sets the scene perfectly: ‘The veranda doors were open to the radiant North Norwegian summer: a summer which heaps light upon light, shining and brittle, only to fade too soon’.  The majority of the prose takes place within conversations; it opens with Lagerta speaking to her grandmother, who is berating everything modern, from jazz music to motorcycles.  She is grimly comic and belligerent, most fulfilled when she has something to complain about, and somebody to argue her points against.  She is shrewd, and notices everything, telling her granddaughter the following in the opening passage: ‘”But you Lagerta, are over-nervous, my dear.  You must have something in your hands all the time.  You can’t rest any more, don’t think I haven’t noticed it.  One can simply get too tired.”‘

Gregor’s brother, Jonas, acts with his aunt Lagerta and his great-grandmother as a voice of reason in the novel.  We learn an awful lot about Dondi, and her relationship with Gregor, but our view of her is always through their disapproving eyes until she appears in the flesh.  She has very little agency; until she is given a voice of her own, our interpretation of her is negatively biased, and when she is allowed her say, she is forever being fussed over and ordered around somewhat by those around her.  Whilst Dondi is always the focus of their speech, the characters do become protagonists in the piece through Sandel’s clever and effective prose techniques.  Lagerta particularly describes how she has had to live through and adapt to a changing world; she is a thoroughly three-dimensional being, and the most realistic character in the book.

The geographical isolation of the family is best described by Lagerta, when she states: ‘”Coming up here was a violent experience…  I don’t know what to compare it with – being killed and slowly coming alive again.  I was not myself for a while…”‘.  The relationships which Sandel draws are complex and interesting, and the homestead in the middle of nowhere exacerbates the fact that they have few other people for company outside of the familial base.

Sadly, and undeservedly, The Leech has fallen by the wayside.  Using Goodreads as a marker, it has had only a few ratings, and one review other than mine.  There is a marvellous flow to the whole thanks to Rakkan’s translation.  The Leech is a wonderful read, full of interesting and important points about the state of the world and a woman’s place within it, and great writing.  If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s a book which I would certainly recommend.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The World According to Anna’ by Jostein Gaarder **

I have read several of Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder’s books in the past, many of them during my teenage years when I was just discovering the joy of the adult world of translated literature.  Thus far, nothing has matched up to the strength of The Orange Girl for me, a wonderful and underrated festive tale about how the young protagonist’s late father kept crossing paths with a woman he named ‘The Orange Girl’ in his native Oslo. The overtly philosophical Sophie’s World, the book which has been sold over thirty million copies, and which Gaarder is undoubtedly most well-known for, didn’t appeal to me anywhere near as much; whilst it raised some interesting questions, I felt that the plot let the whole down, and the characters which peopled the tome were not as realistic as they should have been for me to invest my feeling with them.  The same can sadly be said for the newest novel of Gaarder’s to be translated into English by Don Bartlett, The World According to Anna.

The novel’s storyline piqued my interest; our protagonist is Anna, a young woman on the eve of her sixteenth birthday.  She begins to have vivid dreams set in the future – in 2082, to be precise – which feature her granddaughter, Nova.  These are not just dreams to Anna; rather, messages are transmitted to her through the medium.  Her parents, who reside in a secluded part of Norway, decide to consult a doctor in Oslo, who refers Anna to a psychologist.  He, of course, believes that there ‘may be some truth to what she is seeing’.

9780297609735The World According to Anna begins on New Year’s Eve, but there is little that is festive about it, despite its promising opening sentence: ‘New Year’s Eve was a special time.  Normal rules did not apply, and everyone mixed freely.  On that evening they left one year behind and entered the next.  They stepped over an invisible boundary between what had been and what would be’.  In fact, the novel can be termed a dystopian work in some ways.  The future which Anna sees is barren and isolated.  She follows Nova through the landscape, along with ‘a band of survivors, after animals and plants have died out’.  Dystopia is not my personal favourite in terms of a literary genre, but if it is done well – for instance, in works by Margaret Atwood – it can be incredibly effective.  Not so here.  It soon becomes up to Anna alone to save the world, which is where the whole thing turned sour as far as I was concerned.

Anna is not a good character.  She is flat and underdeveloped, and the way in which she speaks often seems far above her fifteen years.  She seems to have an unshakeable wisdom, which one would expect of a literary character far older than she.  There is little here, in fact, to indicate that she is a teenager.  When her psychologist, Dr Benjamin, asks her what she is afraid of, she gives this answer, which is at once important, but also curiously impersonal: ‘”… I’m afraid of climate change.  I’m afraid that we’re risking our climate and environment without a second thought for future generations.”‘  Along with the conversations, much of the prose within The World According to Anna tends to read like a geography textbook at times, particularly with regard to the interactions between Anna and Dr Benjamin.  Whilst what they say is interesting, it is relayed so matter-of-factly that it feels as though they are merely reading from a book.  The relationship between them is incredibly strange too; perhaps the professionalism is lost in translation or something of the like, but it is unsettling almost to the point of becoming creepy.

The Norwegian winter is well set out, as are the changing conditions and altered migration patterns which Gaarder portrays.  This is perhaps the strength of the novel; we as readers do see the landscape altering irrevocably.  The third person perspective which has been used throughout is essentially a distancing device; Anna does not feel realistic enough to stand alone in this manner, and it perhaps would have been a more effective novel had Gaarder written from her perspective.  The use of the narrative dream too is unsuccessful, largely because it is a device which is repeated over and over, and thus loses much of its meaning.

The World According to Anna undoubtedly makes one think about issues which our planet and civilisation face.  However, the entirety is rather melodramatic.  The novel sounded promising and important, but it soon becomes trite; its potential has not been reached.  Gaarder has barely scratched the surface at times; it does not feel as though he ever goes deep enough to make his book believable.  There is no lightness of touch in the prose or the translation, and it feels rather banausic in consequence.  Whilst he has clearly attempted to tell this novel in a similar manner to Sophie’s World, The World According to Anna is neither as philosophical, nor as thoughtful.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘Tomorrow Pamplona’ by Jan van Mersbergen **

Celebrated author Jan van Mersbergen’s Tomorrow Pamplona was the fifth book upon the wonderful Peirene Press list of novellas in translation.  In this instance, the tale was originally written in Dutch, and has been translated into English by Laura Watkinson.  De Morgen calls this ‘an intense reading experience…  Van Mersbergen tells what needs to be told and not a word more’. 9780956284044

From the first, I did like the idea of the chance encounter which the whole plot revolves around; a professional boxer and the father of a young child ‘meet by chance on a journey to the Pamplona Bull Run.  The boxer is fleeing an unhappy love.  The father hopes to escape his dull routine.  Both know that, actually, they will have to return to the place each calls “home”‘.  Tomorrow Pamplona has a storyline which I would not automatically be drawn to.  However, I have very much enjoyed the majority of Peirene’s publications, and have high hopes for everything which they painstakingly translate and reprint.

At the outset, Tomorrow Pamplona appears to be very well paced, and the translation, particularly with regard to the sections which feature the boxer, Danny Clare, has such a rhythm to it.  The balance between action and imagery has been well realised: ‘He crosses a busy main road and runs into a park.  He comes to a patch of grass with a bronze statue in the centre, a woman holding a child in the air as though she wants to entrust it to the clouds’.  With regard to the characters, however, the prose does tend to veer toward the relatively simplistic.  The lack of complexity in sentence structure takes something away from the story as far as I am concerned; it felt like rather a plodding reading experience after the first few pages, and it’s not a process which I can say I very much enjoyed.

There was no immediate captivation here for me.  Whilst the scene was set rather well at the beginning, if anything caught my attention, I felt that it would be in the relationship which built up between Danny and the father, Robert, with whom he travels.  The latter picks up Danny whilst he is hitchhiking, and asks him to come along on the journey; he duly accepts.  Robert’s description of the trip, which he makes each year, and the passion which it strikes in him has been well evoked: ‘Tomorrow morning I’m going to come face to face with a bunch of bulls, Robert continues.  He taps the steering wheel.  I’ll be standing there on one of those streets in Pamplona, in my white shirt, together with all those other people in their white shirts.  Then they let the bulls out and you’d better start running’.  It is his pilgrimage of sorts.  ‘It’s a tradition, Robert continues.  It’s a celebration.  It’s danger.  It’s real life’.

I found a lot of the writing about Danny’s fights and preparation for them a little repetitive; perhaps deliberately so, I’m not entirely sure.  There was no wonder for me here; I did not connect with any of the characters, as I so often tend to do with Peirene’s novellas.  Whilst it was an okay read on the whole, it stirred no strong feelings within me, and it isn’t anything which I would recommend.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Rabbit Back Literature Society’ by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskalainen ****

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskalainen was first published in Finland in 2006.  The novel in its lovely Pushkin Press edition has been translated from its original Finnish by Lola M. Rogers.

The novel’s protagonist, twenty six-year-old Ella Milana, is first introduced to us as ‘the reader’.  She is a Finnish language and literature teacher – ‘a dreamy substitute with defective ovaries and gracefully curved lips’ – who has returned to her hometown, Rabbit Back, to work as a substitute at the high school.  Whilst living in her childhood home once more, Ella finds herself with rather a lot to deal with – along with a stressful pile of marking each evening, her father is suffering from quite extreme memory loss, and all that interests her mother are ‘television shows and entering raffle drawings in the hope of winning a prize’.

Ella’s story begins when one of her students is found reading an incorrect version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in which the plot has been altered considerably: ‘… the existence of the irregular Dostoevky deeply offended her, and when she was offended she could sometimes do impulsive, purely intuitive things’.  When returning it to the local library, Ella becomes suspicious that the librarian is not more surprised by the incident: ‘A prank like that would take a very unusual saboteur and it was hard to imagine what the motive would be.  And how could such a book remain in circulation for nearly twenty years without anyone noticing anything strange about it?’

The Rabbit Back Literature Society of the novel’s title is ‘a collection of gifted children who would, with [Laura] White’s guidance, grow up to be writers’.  Promising students at the Rabbit Back school have work sent to local and revered children’s author Laura White, who is continually involved in ‘her search for the new members she desires’.  At the beginning of the novel, however, the society has had no new members for three decades: ‘The possibility of joining the society was practically theoretical, since the entire present membership – nine lifetime member authors – had all joined in the first three years after the Society was established in 1968’.

After one of Ella’s short stories is published in a supplement in the local paper, however, she is invited to join the Society.  We are given quite a fascinating insight into the world of the elite in consequence.  At a society get together, for example, ‘The members of the Rabbit Back Literature Society don’t seem to be talking with each other.  They pass close by each other now and then, but never look each other in the eye, never indulge in conversation.  One could very easily assume that they don’t know each other at all’.  Two elements of mystery – one of which revolves around a shadowy past member whom nobody really remembers, and the other of which deals with the sudden unexplained disappearance of Laura White herself – soon come to light.

Bookish Ella is a character whom I found myself immediately endeared to: ‘She’d read more than was healthy, hundreds of books every year.  Some of them she read twice, or even three times, before returning them.  Some of them she would check out again after letting them sink in a while.  She’d thought at that time that books were at their best when you’d read them two or three times’.

The novel’s third person perspective focuses mainly upon Ella and her place in Rabbit Back; a lot of thought has clearly gone into her character, her past and her actions. Such care has been taken over the translation of The Rabbit Back Literature Society, and it flows wonderfully.  The whole is compelling, and is filled with some lovely passages and ideas.  There is a creative aspect to be found in The Rabbit Back Literature Society, and Jaaskalainen has woven in elements of magical realism here and there, which add a wonderful balance to the whole.  The novel becomes darker as it goes on, and it has been so well crafted that it is a true joy to read.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘Maybe This Time’ by Alois Hotschnig ****

Originally released in 2006, and rendered into English into 2011, Alois Hotschnig’s Maybe This Time is one of Peirene Press’ earliest publications.  World Literature Today declares that ‘Hotschnig’s prose dramatizes the voice of conscience and the psychological mechanisms we use to face reality or, just as often, to avoid it’.  Hotschnig is one of Austria’s most critically acclaimed authors, and he has won major Austrian, and international, literary prizes over his career.  The collection has been translated from the Austrian German by Tess Lewis.

9780956284051Hotschnig’s short story collection has been described by many readers as ‘unsettling’, and this, I feel, is quite a fitting appraisal.  There is a creeping sense of unease which comes over one as soon as the stories are begun.  The initial tale, ‘The Same Silence, the Same Noise’, is about a pair of neighbours who sit side by side in the narrator’s eyeline for days on end: ‘… they didn’t move, not even to wave away the mosquitoes or scratch themselves’.  This has rather a distressing effect upon our unnamed observer: ‘Every day, every night, always the same.  Their stillness made me feel uneasy, and my unease grew until it festered into an affliction I could no longer bear’.  His reaction is perhaps the most interesting one which Hotschnig could have come up with in this instance: ‘I drew closer to them because they rejected me.  Rejection, after all, is still a kind of contact’.  As one might expect as the midway point is reached in this tale, the narrator soon becomes obsessed: ‘I decided to observe them even more closely to calm my unease, as if I no longer had a life of my own but lived only through them’.

There are nine short stories included within Maybe This Time, all of which have rather intriguing titles.  These include the likes of ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’, and ‘You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers’.  Some rather thoughtful ideas have been woven in; they have a definite profundity at times: ‘We looked at the same views, heard the same noises.  We shared a common world and were separated by it’.  Each of the tales is sharp; every one relatively brief, but all of which have a wealth of emotions and scenes packed into them.  Hotschnig is shrewd, and in control at all times; he makes the reader fear impending danger with the most subtle of hints.

No particular time periods have been specified within the collection, and only small clues have been left as to when each story takes place.  They are, one and all, essentially suspended in time.  I did find a couple of the stories a little abrupt in terms of their endings, but this collection is certainly a memorable one.  There is a great fluency in Lewis’ translation, which helps to render Maybe This Time one of the creepiest reads on Peirene’s list thus far.

 

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