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Reading the World: ‘Therese Desqueyroux’ by Francois Mauriac ****

Therese Desqueyroux is my first Francois Mauriac title.  I read, not the edition pictured, but an older Penguin Classics compilation of the titular story, Therese Desqueyroux (1927) as well as three other tales which follow Therese’s life – ‘Therese and the Doctor’ (1928), ‘Therese at the Hotel’ (1928), and ‘The End of the Night’ (1935).  The dates mentioned relate to their original French publication; the years in which they were first translated into English are 1928 for the original, and 1947 for the three others.  Gerald Hopkins is the translator for both Penguin editions.

9780141394053The two novellas, and two short stories, which follow Mauriac’s most famous literary creation, are set in Bordeaux and Paris.  They chart her ‘passionate, tortured life…  Her story, brilliantly and unforgettably told, affirms the beauty and vitality of the human spirit in “the eternal radiance of death”‘.  Of Mauriac’s writing, Justin O’Brien tells the following in the New York Times: ‘Both his subject and his style frequently recall Racine and Baudelaire; and indeed we often feel that we are dealing here with a poem, so rich is the symbolism and so fleet is the arrangement of themes.’  Martin Seymour-Smith says that: ‘His books are bewitchingly readable.’

The author’s foreword, directed as it is toward Therese, ends: ‘I take my leave of you upon a city’s pavements, hoping, at least, that you will not for ever be utterly alone.’  The title story begins with Therese walking from court, ‘having been charged with attempting to poison her husband’.  We then follow Therese as she is banished from her home, escapes to Paris, and spends her final years of solitude waiting.  Mauriac’s depiction of the Paris cityscape is nothing short of stunning: ‘It is not the bricks and mortar that I love, nor even the lectures and museums, but the living human forest that fills the streets, the creatures torn by passions more violent than any storm.’

There are so many small yet unusual details which render Therese a believable, and markedly human, character: ‘She took off her left-hand glove and began picking at the moss which grew between the old stones of the walls they passed’, and ‘Once more she breathed in the damp night air like someone threatened with suffocation.’  Mauriac clearly believes that he has built her up to such a realistic position; he writes: ‘But compared with her own terrible existence all inventions of the novelist would have seemed thin and colourless.’  His depiction of Therese’s motherhood is often startlingly beautiful: ‘There, in the darkness, the young mother would hear the even breathing of her slumbering child, would lean above the bed and drink down, like a draught of cool, refreshing water, the small sleeping life.’

In Therese Desqueyroux, Therese tries desperately to remember why she married her husband; she loves him, both for himself, and what he stands for – property, family, security – but the passion which she would have imagined she had felt is unavailable to her.  Soon after their marriage, Mauriac shows that things began to go sour, particularly for her husband, Bernard: ‘… their being together no longer gave him any happiness.  He was bored to death away from his guns, his dogs, and the inn…  His wife was so cold, so mocking.  She never showed pleasure even if she felt any, would never talk about what interested him.’  As for Therese: ‘She was like a transported criminal, sick to her soul of transit prisons, and anxious only to see the Convict Island where she would have to spend the rest of her life.’

Therese Desqueyroux has been both beautifully written and translated.  Therese’s story is incredibly sad, and demonstrates how one can be overruled and shunned in terms of their character and choices. One cannot help but feel for Therese; she is a fascinating character to study.  I did not quite love the collection, but the title story particularly was so interesting to read.

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‘The Still Storm’ by Francoise Sagan ****

To date, I have read quite a few of Francoise Sagan’s books.  Like the majority of English speakers, I imagine, I began with her quiet masterpiece, Bonjour Tristesse, which was published when the author was just nineteen, and led her to become something of a literary sensation.  I have since encountered such gems as A Certain Smile and her short story collection, Incidental Music.  Each time I come across one of her books therefore, regardless of the invariable ugliness of the paperback copy, I will happily pick it up.

The Still Storm has been heralded ‘Sagan’s finest love story’ by Elle, and The Guardian deems it ‘serious, skilled and successful’.  The rather short novel is set in Angouleme, in the French province of Aquitaine, where Flora de Margelasse, a young woman recently widowed, has arrived to reclaim her family estate.  A local man named Nicholas Lomont, who works in the legal profession, narrates the whole.  He immediately falls in love with Flora, but she is quite unable to return such feelings to him.  When she falls in love with someone else, ‘the son of a farm labourer, who shamelessly betrays her, the world of Nicholas Lomont51ewftrip-l-_sy344_bo1204203200_ and the provincial French bourgeoisie is shattered.’

Told in retrospect, Nicholas attempts to relay his memories of Flora: ‘Writing and remembering, both, have dangerous and painful consequences…  I continue to write for no reason and for no one’s benefit.  The scratching of this pen is an end in itself…’.  He is honest, sometimes painfully so, of his experiences of loving Flora: ‘Let us simply say that right from the start I was resigned to loving Flora; worse, I was proud to love her, proud in advance of all that she would bring upon me, including the cruellest unhappiness.’  He goes on to recount her relationship with the young farmhand, Gildas.

The Still Storm begins in the following manner, which effectively sets the tone of the whole: ‘If one day someone else should read these pages – if an author’s blind vanity or some quirk of fate prevent me from destroying them – that reader should know that it is for my own recollection, and not for the entertainment of others, that I embark on this account of the summer of 1832 and the years that followed.’  Sagan’s style of writing, and the plot which she has woven, put me in mind of Daphne du Maurier throughout.

The French countryside has been vividly evoked, and the changing of the seasons depicted with such care: ‘Despite the little, round, prancing clouds – pink, white, blue, and bright red in the west at sunset – the sky dominates the landscape.  It seems to rest on our meadows, our churches, our little towns, lying heavily on our land and stretching to the horizon on all sides, day after day…  The weather is of more importance here than elsewhere because the sky is closer and the sunshine more direct.  The nights are darker, the winds wilder, and the heat and snow more still.’  Sagan also has a real strength in demonstrating her characters, from their passions to their appearances.  The final time in which Nicholas sees Flora, he writes: ‘I remember her as I saw her then.  She wore a dress of crumpled silk, and her superb profusion of blonde hair danced in the bright sunlight like an oriflamme captured from the enemy that was branded in derision over her face now white and sexless and ageless.’

The edition which I read has been wonderfully translated from its original French by Christine Donougher, and was published in France in 1983, and English for the first time the year afterwards.  The Still Storm is engaging from start to finish.  Sagan’s writing is rich, and has a beautiful clarity to it.  There is undoubtedly a touch of the Gothic, and of overblown melodrama, but that makes it all the more fun to read.  The Still Storm is a wise and contemplative novel, sometimes dark and surprising, which reflects upon both individuals and the wider society.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Brothers’ by Asko Sahlberg **** (One From the Archive)

The Brothers is an early Peirene publication, and one I had not been able to find a copy of.  It really took my fancy, particularly since I will happily read anything set within the bounds of Scandinavia.  This particular novella takes the Finland of 1809 as its setting, and has been translated from its original Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  The blurb hails it ‘a Shakespearean drama from icy Finland’, and it has been written by an author who is quite the celebrity in his native land. 9780956284068

The brothers of the book’s title are Henrik and Erik, who fought on opposing sides in the war between Sweden and Russia.  To borrow a portion of the blurb, ‘with peace declared, they both return to their snowed-in farm.  But who is the master?  Sexual tensions, old grudges, family secrets: all come to a head in this dark and gripping saga’.  Its attention-grabbing beginning immediately sets the scene, and demonstrates the chasm of difference between our protagonists: ‘I have barely caught the crunch of snow and I know who is coming.  Henrik treads heavily and unhurriedly, as is his wont, grinding his feet into the earth.  The brothers are so different.  Erik walks fast, with light steps; he is always in a hurry, here then gone’.  Later, of Henrik, Erik tells Anna: ‘… he said that we came into this world in the wrong order.  That he’s not comfortable here and doesn’t want to remain here, that he wants to see the world’.

Multiple narrators lead us through the whole.  We are treated to the distinctive voices of the farmhand, Anna, Henrik, Erik, and their mother, the Old Mistress.  This technique makes The Brothers feel like a multi-layered work from the very beginning.  Their voices are distinctive, and the farmhand especially – contrary perhaps to expectations – is sometimes rather profound: ‘A human being never sheds his past.  He drags it around like an old overcoat and you know him by this coat, by the way it looks and smells.  Henrik’s coat is heavy and gloomy, exuding the dark stench of blood’.

As one might expect, the landscape plays a big part in this novella, as does darkness, both literally and metaphorically.  Characters are often compared to things like trees and woodpiles.  Sahlberg captures things magnificently; he is perceptive of the smallest of details.  Of the Old Mistress, he writes: ‘Her eyes change again.  A moment ago, they were shaded.  Now they darken, open out in the middle, become tiny black abysses which suck in the gaze’.  His prose is thoughtful too, and he continually views things through the lens of others, thinking to great effect how a particular scene will make an individual feel.  For instance, the Old Mistress says, ‘But boys are fated to grow into men, and a mother has to follow this tragedy as a silent bystander.  And now it seems they will kill each other, and then this, too, can be added to my neverending list of losses’.  Sahlberg is that rare breed of writer who can get inside his characters’ heads, no matter how disparate they are, and regardless of their gender and age.  Each voice here feels authentic, peppered with concerns and thoughts which are utterly believable, and which are specifically tailored to the individual.

The politics of the period have been woven in to good effect, but Sahlberg makes it obvious that it is the characters which are his focus.  Their backstories are thorough and believable; they are never overdone.  The Brothers is an absorbing novella and, as with all of Peirene’s publications, a great addition and perfect fit to their growing list of important translated novellas.

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‘Letters from Klara’ by Tove Jansson *****

‘The rich seam that is Jansson’s adult prose continues with this penultimate collection of short stories, written in her seventies at the height of her Moomin fame and translated into English for the first time. In these light-footed, beautifully crafted yet disquieting stories, Jansson tells of discomfiting encounters, unlooked for connections and moments of isolation that span generations and decades. Letters From Klara proves yet again her mastery of this literary form.’

9781908745613I could not resist ordering a newly translated collection of short stories by one of my absolute favourite authors when I first heard about it, and I dove in almost immediately. Tove Jansson’s Letters from Klara is such a treat. Each tale was written whilst Jansson was in her seventies; one can see a marked shift between these contemplative pieces, and those of her younger years, which share an extremely perceptive vivacity. The stories within the collection are largely quiet and slowly paced, but they are all the lovelier for it. The blurb of Letters from Klara, in fact, describes them as ‘subtle’ and ‘light-footed’ stories, descriptions which I wholeheartedly agree with.

Letters from Klara provides a wonderful breather from the hectic modern world. Its stories are varied and quite diverse, but humanity is at the core of each. A lot of the stories are about ageing and death, clearly subjects which become more pressing and important during Jansson’s literary career. Letters from Klara is neither her best, not her most memorable, collection, but it is absolutely filled to the brim with tiny gems, and gorgeously evoked slices of life which appeal to all of the senses.

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Reading the World: ‘The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy’, edited by Johanna Sinisalo ****

Although I have showcased rather a lot of Finnish literature during my 2017 Reading the World Project, I felt that The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, edited by Johanna Sinisalo, would add something a little different to proceedings.  It is an anthology which is comprised of the work of twenty distinct Finnish authors, who span the period 1870 to 2003.  They range from the well-known – Moomin creator Tove Jansson and Arto Paasilinna, for instance – to those which have not been published in English before.   The entirety, with its rather broad scope, has been translated by David Hackston, and is one of the books in the Dedalus series of Fantasy Literature in Translation.

I must begin by writing that I am not personally the biggest fan of fantasy literature; I picked this up because much of it is involved with magical realism, mythology, and Finnish folklore, three topics which I find markedly interesting.  The Independent writes in its review of the book: ‘These excellent stories share an edginess that’s quite distinct from the quirkiness many contemporary English writers prefer to celebrate.’

In her introduction to the anthology, Sinisalo writes: ‘Literature written in the Finnish language is surprisingly young.’  In fact, written literature has existed for only a few centuries, and secular literature only since the 1800s.  Most Finns did, and still do, write in Swedish, which has official language status throughout the country.  As with other Nordic countries, literature is incredibly important for the population; many people read, and Sinisalo points out that ‘literature is read, bought and borrowed from libraries more than almost anywhere else.  Statistically Finns are among the most literate people in the world.’9781903517291

In The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, a lot of the entries are short stories, but there are also some carefully chosen extracts from longer works.  Each entrant is among good company; six of the twenty authors included have received the most prestigious literary award to exist in Finland, and many have been translated in a whole host of different languages.  Sinisalo has intended to ‘build up a cross-section of Finnish fantasy, both thematically and chronologically.’  Whilst the stories included are largely very different, Sinisalo writes that when compiling the book, she ‘observed that certain distinctly Finnish elements and subjects recur throughout these stories, albeit in a myriad of different ways, but in such a way that we can almost assume that, exceptionally, they comprise a body of imagery central to Finnish fantasy literature.’

Throughout, the sense of place and nature is so strong, and the collection is not simply a conglomeration of run-of-the-mill fantasy; rather, it is incredibly literary.  Finland’s rich history inspires the stories, which include such fantastical elements as werewolves, and resurrections of stuffed creatures, as well as isolated storms which play havoc.  Different perspectives have been used, including a very striking story told from the voice of a ghost.  The prose, overall, is beautiful, and its translation has been handled marvellously.

Some stories, of course, appealed to me more than others; I half expected that this would be the case.  However, the collection read as a whole is incredibly rich, and presents a splendid thematic idea.  It has reminded me of stories which I adore, as well as bringing new writers to my attention – Sari Peltoniemi’s ‘The Golden Apple’ is a firm new favourite, for example – which can only be a positive.

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Reading the World: ‘Feather’ by Cao Wenxuan ***

Cao Wenxuan’s Feather is the only children’s book which I have chosen to include upon my Reading the World list.  It has been translated from its original Chinese by Chloe Garcia-Roberts, and has been written by China’s answer to Hans Christian Andersen.  Feather felt like something a little different, both to read and to write about.

31817594Feather opens with Wenxuan’s inspiration for writing the tale: ‘One day a great wind blew through Beijing.  As I was walking into the gale I suddenly noticed a single white feather on the ground go fluttering and floating up into the sky…  The feather was riding the wind with grace and ease yet at the same time precariously and helplessly.’  He wonders about the fate of the feather, and in his book, has made it visit a whole host of different birds to find out where it comes from.  Whilst this circular structure has been designed for children, Wenxuan writes: ‘Underlying this simply story… are actually the core questions of human thought: where do I come from?  Where do I want to go?  Who do I belong to?’  Essentially, he has decided to emulate the human desire of finding a sense of belonging.

Roger Mello’s illustrations were my favourite part of Feather; they are both beautiful and quirky, and really augment the story.  The writing itself is rather simplistic, as one might expect, but some very nice ideas have been woven into it.  The use of the feather’s own perspective is rather sweet and imaginative: ‘How she longed for the sky!  How she longed to soar!’  Feather is sure to delight children with a love of art and nature.  It is difficult, however, to know which age group makes up the target audience; the text is not advanced enough for a lot of children, but includes too many words to make it accessible to younger readers.

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‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera ****

I was determined to read more translated fiction from South America after realising a year or so ago that I had missed out on an awful lot of classics, or hotly tipped novels.  I travelled to the beautiful Mexican island of Cozumel in September too, and wanted to read some Mexican literature before I set off.  Yuri Herrera, deemed ‘Mexico’s greatest novelist’, struck me as an author whose work I should be more familiar with, and I thus requested Signs Preceding the End of the World from the library.

9781908276421The blurb of the novella states that Herrera ‘does not simply write about the border between Mexico and the United States and those who cross it.  He explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another, especially when there’s no going back.’  Signs Preceding the End of the World thus felt even more timely, dealing as it does with the migrant experience, which is, of course, at levels of crisis at present.

In Signs Preceding the End of the World, a young woman named Makina is tasked with crossing into the United States to find her brother.  Of his moving to a different country, Herrera writes: ‘…. but he insisted Someone’s got to fight for what’s ours and I got the balls if you don’t.  Cora [their mother] merely looked at him, fed up, and didn’t say a word, until she saw him at the door with his rucksack full of odds and ends and said Let him go, let him learn to fend for himself with his own big balls, and he hesitated a moment before he versed, and in the doubt flickering in his eyes you could see he’d spent his whole life there like that, holding back his tears, but before letting them out he turned and cursed and only ever came back in the form of two or three short notes he sent a long while later.’

Makina’s uncertainty about this task, and her place in the world, has been quite startlingly depicted: ‘She looked into the mirrors: in front of her was her back: she looked behind but found only the neverending front, coming forward, as if inviting her to step through its thresholds.  If she crossed them all, eventually, after many bends, she’d reach the right place; but it was a place she didn’t trust.’  Despite this, she is a headstrong and assertive protagonist; she is in control of her own body, to the point of violence at times.

Signs Preceding the End of the World has been split into relatively short sections, with headings such as ‘The Earth’, ‘The Place Where the Hills Meet’, and ‘The Obsidian Mound’.  It is short, even for a novella, and can easily be read in one sitting, but its themes and core ideas are so important that it will be thought about for weeks afterwards.  Herrera’s writing is sometimes beautiful, and at times startling; for instance: ‘There was still some light in the sky but it was burning dark, like a giant pool of drying blood.’

Lisa Dillman’s translation of Herrera’s novella is both intelligent and fluid.  Of course, it is difficult as a non-Spanish speaker for me to ever compare it to the original, but I very much enjoyed the reading experience.  Herrera is so perceptive of the entire migrant experience, and the wealth of emotions which swell within one.  He has made Makina’s crossing at once personal and universal.  Signs Preceding the End of the World is perfectly paced and important, and should be read and chewed over by everyone.

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