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Reading the World: ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus ****

Albert Camus’ debut novel, The Stranger, was first published in its original French in 1942, and in its first English translation in 1946.  Its blurb highlights the fact that it has had ‘a profound impact on millions of American readers’; one can only imagine that the same could also be said for readers of other nationalities.

In The Stranger, Camus presents the story of ‘an ordinary man who unwittingly gets drawn into a senseless murder on a sundrenched Algerian beach’.  The author’s intention was to explore what he termed ‘the nakedness of man faced with the absurd’.  The translator, Matthew Ward, notes in his introduction that ‘The Stranger demanded of Camus the creation of a style at once literary and profoundly popular, an artistic sleight of hand that would make the complexities of a man’s life appear simple’. 9780679720201

The Stranger opens in the following, rather detached, manner: ‘Maman died today.  Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.  I got a telegram from home.  “Mother deceased.  Funeral tomorrow.  Faithfully yours.”  That doesn’t mean anything.  Maybe it was yesterday.’  The voice of the protagonist, Meursault, is used throughout.  He is an interesting character, both in terms of his traits and his view of the world.  He immediately travels to another place in Algeria, the country in which he lives, to keep vigil over his mother’s body until her funeral.  During this sensitive time, he converses with the caretaker: ‘… he told me he had lived in Paris and that he had found it hard to forget it.  In Paris they kept vigil over the body for three, sometimes four days.  But here you barely have time to get used to the idea before you have to start running after the hearse.’

There are many themes at play here, from loss and grief, to identity and belonging.  Meursault is not at all sensitive, and whilst his character alters along the way, following first his mother’s death, and then the murder he is blamed for, there is little by way of his innermost feelings revealed to the reader.  I am sure that some more critical readings point to his falling somewhere upon the Autism spectrum, due to his inability to connect with sad situations, and with his own grief.

With regard to demonstrating the setting particularly, Camus shows real strength; the simplicity with regard to his descriptions of Algeria makes it all the more striking and vivid: ‘I had the whole sky in my eyes and it was blue and gold’, and ‘The street lamps were making the pavement glisten, and the light from the streetcars would glint off someone’s shiny hair, or off a smile or a silver bracelet’ are two of my favourite examples.  Camus’ use of two distinct sections, ‘Before’ and ‘After’, was simple yet effective.

Ward justifies his translation choices in the following way: ‘In addition to giving the book a more “American” quality, I have also attempted to venture farther into the letter of Camus’ novel, to capture what he said and how he said it, not what he meant’.  This is perhaps the widest admission of a translator adapting the text to convey what they want to, rather than what the author intended, that I have come across in my Reading the World Project thus far.  Stylistically, The Stranger is very easy to read.  As demonstrated in the introduction, the sentences are rather short throughout, and have very little complexity.  As this engaging volume runs to just 123 pages, it is the perfect tome with which to introduce yourself to Camus’ work, and a great book to snuggle up with if you have a free afternoon.

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Reading the World: ‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

I had read two of Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s books before making my foray into Hotel Iris: The Housekeeper and the Professor (review), and Revenge (review). The Times Literary Supplement writes that in this particular novel, ‘Image by perfect image, we are led down into a mysterious and gripping universe, simultaneously beautiful and terrifying’.  The Independent goes on to say: ‘This is a brave territory for Ogawa, and she manages it with sharp focus; she creates moments of breathtaking ugliness, often when least expected… but also sometimes a longing that is touching and tender’.  Hotel Iris was first published in Japan in 1996, and in its English translation in 2010.

Hotel Iris, the third of Ogawa’s books to be translated into English, centres upon Mari, a seventeen-year-old who works on the front desk in a ‘crumbling, seaside hotel on the coast of Japan’.  One night, a middle-aged man and a prostitute are ‘ejected from his room’.  Mari finds herself infatuated with the man’s voice.  Just so you, dear reader, are warned, what follows is rather harrowing.  After several clandestine meetings, Mari is drawn to his home, where he ‘initiates her into a dark realm of both pain and pleasure’.9780099548997

Mari is as perceptive a narrator as Ogawa is a writer; of the prostitute, she observes: ‘Frizzy hair hung at her wrinkled neck, and thick, shiny lipstick had smeared onto her cheeks.  Her mascara had run, and her left breast hung out of her blouse where the buttons had come undone.  Pale pink thighs protruded from a short skirt, marked in places with red scratches.  She had lost one of her cheap plastic high heels’.  When her male companion first appears, the following is described rather lyrically: ‘The voice seemed to pass through us, silencing the whole hotel.  It was powerful and deep, but with no trace of anger.  Instead, it was almost serene, like a hypnotic note from a cello or a horn’.

The novel is told from Mari’s perspective, and we learn an awful lot about her.  At first, she comes across as a little naive, but she is soon cast under the translator’s spell, and allows him to do whatever he wants to her: ‘Indeed, the more he shamed me, the more refined he became – like a perfumer plucking the petals from a rose, a jeweler prying open an oyster for its pearl’.  Like the Professor in Ogawa’s aforementioned novel, we are never given the man’s first name; rather, he is identified only by his profession, and known therefore as ‘the translator’.  The passages which include him tend to be rather sinister at times: ‘The translator’s hand was soft.  So soft it seemed my hand would sink completely into his.  This hand had done so many things to me – stroked my hair, made my tea, stripped me, bound me – and with each new act it had been reborn as something different’.  He is a peculiar and rather complex character, who made me feel uncomfortable throughout.  Ogawa has included an interesting contradiction when writing about him; whilst he revels in violent acts with her, his correspondence to Mari expresses a real tenderness.

As in her other books, some of Ogawa’s prose in Hotel Iris is deceptively simple.  The novel feels markedly different from The Housekeeper and the Professor, which has a wonderful, quiet beauty.  There is violence in Hotel Iris, and I found a couple of the scenes incredibly disturbing, something which I was not expecting.  Perhaps it just asserts what a diverse and skilled writer Ogawa is that she can write two very different novels in so confident a manner.  Hotel Iris is, I would say, far closer in its themes and occurrences to Ogawa’s short story collection, Revenge.

Hotel Iris is a continually interesting and unsettling novella, which becomes rather disturbing in places.  I tend to shy away from such novels, and whilst I did enjoy this overall, and have rated it highly, I cannot help but be glad that my usual reading fare is unlike this.  I found the reading process rather exhausting, despite the fact that I easily read it over a single afternoon.  Well plotted and multilayered, with a cleverly rendered ending, Hotel Iris is well worth seeking out, but it’s not something which I would recommend for the faint of heart!

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Reading the World: ‘The Suitcase’ by Sergei Dovlatov ***

Translated from its original Russian by Antonina W. Bouis, Sergei Dovlatov’s The Suitcase fits wonderfully within my Reading the World Project.  I had never read any Dovlatov before picking this novella up in the Books for Amnesty shop in Cambridge, but was intrigued by its premise: ‘Several years after emigrating from the USSR, the author discovers the battered suitcase he had brought with him gathering dust at the back of a wardrobe. As he opens the suitcase, the seemingly undistinguished items he finds inside take on a riotously funny life of their own as Dovlatov inventories the circumstances under which he acquired them’.

9781847492791Dovlatov’s books were banned in Russia, and he was forced into a life of exile in the United States.  The Suitcase, published for the first time in 1986 in Russia, and in English translation in 1990, is perhaps one of the most modern male-written Russian books which I have read, as I tend to plump for the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.  The Suitcase is a comic work, ‘overlaid with Dovlatov’s characteristically dark-edged humour’.  On the book’s blurb, in fact, he is deemed ‘one of the finest satirists of the twentieth century’.

The Suitcase has been simply but effectively split into sections which detail all of the things found in the suitcase, from ‘The Finnish Crepe Socks’ to ‘The Winter Hat’.  This essentially forms a series of interconnected short stories.  The narrator of the piece is named Sergei Dovlatov too, but it is not entirely certain whether this is a work with autobiographical echoes in terms of the existence of such a suitcase and its contents.

We learn quite a lot about Dovlatov the character from the stories which we are told.  After he has been released from prison at the outset of the work, he gives a short appraisal of his life, and where he finds himself: ‘I almost wept with self-pity.  After all, I was thirty-six years old.  Had worked eighteen of them.  I earned money, bought things with it.  I owned a certain amount, it seemed to me.  And still I only needed one suitcase – and of rather modest dimensions at that’.

Dovlatov is amusing and sardonic throughout, although some of the chapters are certainly funnier than others.  He mocks the Communist regime, and the way of life which had to be adhered to when he was young and living in Russia: ‘As a schoolboy I liked to draw the leaders of the world proletariat – especially Marx.  Just start smearing an ordinary splotch of ink around and you’ve already got a resemblance…’.

The Suitcase has been written and translated well, but I did not enjoy it as much as others seem to.  The writing is more matter of fact than pretty, and the descriptions are cursory when talking about anything other than the items within the suitcase.  Dovlatov seems to subscribe to the ‘tell rather than show’ method of prose writing.  It is rather a quick read, and a thoughtful one at times, but whilst there is a social commentary and historical details – black marketeering, politics, figureheads, industry, Communism and Capitalism, and propaganda, to name just a few – running throughout the book, there is not the depth to it which I was expecting there to be.  There is profundity at times, but I feel that this could have been used to better effect had the writing sparkled more.

There is not much of a geographical sense of place within the pages of The Suitcase, which would have added depth and context to the whole.  It is also quite dialogue heavy, something which I’m not that keen on in stories unless it’s done incredibly well.  Whilst it does hold interest for those fascinated by Russian history, I have discovered that I am far more a fan of the descriptive variety of Russian literature, by the likes of Dostoevsky, Pushkin, and Bulgakov.  The Suitcase does present a series of stories which circle around a clever central idea, but I found that I liked the idea of it more than its execution.

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Reading the World: ‘Reader for Hire’ by Raymond Jean **** (One From the Archive)

The French bestseller Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean has recently been published by Peirene Press, as part of their Chance Encounter series.  Published as La Lectrice in 1986, Reader for Hire has been translated by Adriana Hunter.  The blurb heralds it ‘a beautiful homage to the art of reading – light and funny.  A celebration of the union of sensuality and language’, and Cosmopolitan deems it ‘a book that will make you want to read more books’.

Marie-Constance is our protagonist.  The self-confessed owner of ‘an attractive voice’, she decides to place an advert in three local newspapers to ‘offer her services as a paid reader’.  After her first success, her ‘fame spreads and soon the rich, the creative and the famous clamour for her services’.  Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, writes that, ‘As you turn the pages, think of Marie-Constance as the personification of reading itself.  And I promise you an experience you will never forget’.

The introductory paragraph is at once engrossing and rather beguiling: ‘Let me introduce myself: Marie-Constance G., thirty-four years old, one husband, no children, no profession.  I listened to the sound of my own voice yesterday.  It was in the little blue room in our apartment, the one we call the “echo chamber”.  I recited some verses of Baudelaire I happened to remember.  It struck me that my voice was really rather nice.  But can we truly hear ourselves?’  The first person perspective works marvellously, and the female narrative voice which Jean has cultivated feels as realistic as it possibly could for the most part.

Marie-Constance’s first client is a fourteen-year-old paraplegic named Eric, whose mother believes that ‘he needs contact with the outside world’.  The narrator’s observations about characters are quite originally written; of Eric’s mother, for example, she tells us the following: ‘Her mouth is busy talking, her floppy lips moving very quickly, her breath coming in acidic wafts.  A touching woman, in her rather milky forties’.  The subsequent cast of characters is varied.  As well as Eric, we have a former University tutor of Marie-Constance’s, who aids her in her new endeavour; an eighty-year-old Hungarian countess with a passion for Marxism; and a frenzied businessman who desperately wants to learn how to love literature.  The protagonists are different to the extent that the social history which Jean makes use of through them is incredibly rich and diverse.  The most unlikely friendships are struck within Reader for Hire, and this is a definite strength within the framework of the whole.

Seasonal changes are well wrought, and there is a real sense of time moving on whilst experience and expertise are gained.  The whole has been so carefully translated that it is easy to forget that English is not its original language.  The novella feels rather original; I for one haven’t read anything quite like it before.  On the surface, Reader for Hire is a book about books; in reality, it is so much more than that, constructed as it is from a plethora of depths and intrigues.

Stories are nestled within stories here; portions of Maupassant, for example, sit alongside past experiences of Marie-Constance’s clients, and the circumstances which have led them to require her services.  A whirlwind tour of French literature ensues, and Jean exemplifies, above all, as to why books – and the pleasure of reading itself – matter, and how the very act of opening a novel and sharing it with a confidante can transform a life.  We are shown the power that words are able to hold.  Reader for Hire is a real tribute to the arts, and to the importance of literature.  In these times of social cuts and austerity for some of the very groups which Jean places focus upon – the elderly and the disabled – one cannot help but think that such a job as Marie-Constance’s would hold an awful lot of usefulness.

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One From the Archive: ‘White Hunger’ by Aki Ollikainen ***

Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger is the first book in Peirene Press’ Chance Encounter series, and the 16th publication on their list.  It has been hailed an ‘extraordinary Finnish novella that has taken the Nordic literary scene by storm’.  The novella is also the recipient of several prizes, including the Best Finnish Debut Novel of 2012.

As ever with a Peirene publication, one knows that the story which awaits will be intelligent, thought-provoking and difficult to put down.  Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, compares White Hunger to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: ‘this apocalyptic story deals with the human will to survive’.

Set in 1867, White Hunger deals with a devastating famine which swept across Finland, affecting everyone in its wake.  The novella’s main protagonist is Marja, a mother and farmer’s wife from the north of the country.  She and her family are slowly starving, and as she has heard that there is bread in St Petersburg, she decides to travel there with her children, Mataleena and Juho.  Her husband Juhani’s impending death is the crux which leads her to leave her home.  Ollikainen uses colour marvellously to describe his final moments: ‘The colour is being drained from Juhani’s face.  The first to go was red, the colour of blood.  Red changed into yellow, then yellow, too, vanished, leaving grey, which is now fading gradually into white’.

Alongside Marja’s story, we learn about others whom she comes across on her journey.  A subplot deals with that of assistant accountant to Finland’s senator, a man named Lars, who is trying desperately to hold everything together: ‘Lars was a mere messenger, but the senator directed his anger at him…  Finally, he [Lars] cursed the stupid farmers in the country’s interior – fat, lazy landowners who threw out their workers so they would have more for themselves, even though by rights they should have fed their poor’.  Ollikainen also speaks about Lars’ brother Teo, a local doctor, whose methods of practice add more historical perspective to the whole.

The descriptions throughout White Hunger show the desolation and starkness of the surroundings, and the power which nature has upon the people: ‘The wind tugs waves out of the water.  The sky reflected there is patchy, fragmentary, as if smashed’.  The rural and bleak situation of the unnamed Finnish town are well built too: ‘Your hometown’s a miserable village on a wretched little island’, Teo is told.  The author’s building of scenes in this manner adds an almost claustrophobic feel to the whole.  The presence of snow, which is described as a ‘suffocating blanket of white’, is sinister in itself: ‘The door is the worst.  Snow pushes in through the chinks and forms a frame, like a cadaver bent on settling in the cottage…  They need to get as far away as possible from their miserable patch of land.  All that is left here is death’.

Ollikainen’s occasional use of present tense adds an immediacy to the whole, and makes it feel almost contemporary at times, despite its historical setting.  The comparisons which he makes between humans and animals is so perceptive; images such as one character ‘grinning wolf-like’, and another ‘hunching his narrow shoulders in the manner of a dog caught by his master up to no good’ are prevalent.

White Hunger has been translated from its original Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  Both translators are fabulously thoughtful at what they do, and the whole has a marvellous flow to it.  The novella is quite tender in places, and this contrasts well with the more frightening elements.  As one might expect with a plot such as this, darker aspects of life have been woven throughout – prostitution, murder, and the objectification of women, for example.  The bleak and powerful plot and almost compulsive readability make White Hunger a good fit upon the Peirene Press list.

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Reading the World: ‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum’ by Heinrich Boll **

Heinrich Boll, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is an author whom I’d heard rather a lot about but had never read.  I decided to rectify this by picking up perhaps his most famous novel in English translation, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.  The Sunday Telegraph deems it a ‘novel of compassion and irony’, and The Times writes of the way in which ‘Boll sustains a masterly and insidious tension to the end.  He is detached, angry and totally in control’.  It sounded wonderfully unsettling, particularly when one takes into account the fact that its subtitle is ‘or how violence develops and where it can lead’, and I was rather excited to get started with it.

9780749398989Katharina Blum, our twenty seven-year-old protagonist, is at the ‘centre of a big city scandal’ when, at a party, she ‘falls in love with a young radical on the run from the police.  Portrayed by the city’s leading newspaper as a whore, a communist and an atheist, she becomes the target of anonymous phone calls and sexual threats’.  This drives her to shoot the offending journalist, before giving herself up for arrest.  ‘Step by step, and with an affecting forensic identity, Katharina’s story is reconstructed for the reader, gradually disclosing an entire panorama of human relationship and motive.  The novel is a masterful comment on the law and the press, the labyrinth of social truth and the relentless collusion of fact and fiction’.

The structure works well, in that the whole has been split into very short numbered sections; it is intended to read as something akin to a police report.  I am fine with novels being written in the format of a report, provided that it is done well.  Here, though, I was a little put off by the way in which many of the sections are really rather dull, and have very few redeemable or memorable qualities to them.  Sadly, these lacklustre sections were far more frequent than ones which I found of interest.  The story tends to get bogged down with tiny details.  Whilst it is fascinating, and often scary, to see how the media can affect a life, the real impact here for me came when I related the events of Katharina’s story to the ‘fake news’ scandal which has been going on for longer than we would perhaps like to believe.  The development of the characters in The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum was rather slipshod; perhaps this is because we, the readers, learn about the protagonist only through the biased viewpoint of the police.  I certainly lost interest at times, and debated whether to even finish reading the piece.

Unfortunately, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum did next to nothing for me.  The detachment was so acute that I could feel no sympathy for Katharina, and felt merely like an isolated observer.  Its translator has done a good job in rendering it into English, and the phrasing reads well whilst being rather dated; however, I simply found the book too matter-of-fact, and not entirely well paced.  Widely regarded as a German classic, I wonder if I am missing something fundamental with regard to The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.  I suppose it is fair to say that whilst I liked the general idea of the book, I had rather a few qualms with its execution, and can therefore rate it no higher than two mediocre stars.

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Reading the World: ‘Strait is the Gate’ by Andre Gide *****

Strait is the Gate is, for some reason, the first of Andre Gide’s books which I have read, despite his having been on my radar for years.  I had written his name upon the list of authors whom I hoped to get to during 2017, and also thought that he would be a great inclusion upon my Reading the World list.  First published in France in 1909, and in Dorothy Bussy’s 1924 translation, I could not pass up the chance of adding yet another marvellous classic of French literature to my list.

Strait is the Gate also seemed a wonderful place to start, being, as it is, the first novel by the Nobel Prize for Literature winner of 1947, and one of his best works in English; indeed, its blurb states that is is ‘… regarded by many as the most perfect piece of writing which Gide ever achieved.  In its simplicity, its craftsmanship, its limpidity of style, and its power to stimulate the mind and the emotions at one and the same time, it set a standard for the short novel which has not yet been excelled’.

9780141185248Strait is the Gate is a ‘story of young love blighted and turned to tragedy by the sense of religious dedication in the beloved’.  The novella’s opening paragraph is relayed in one of my favourite styles: ‘Some people might have made a book out of it; but the story I am going to tell is one which took all my strength to live and over which I spent all my virtue.  So I shall set down my recollections quite simply, and if in places they are ragged I shall have recourse to no invention, and neither patch nor connect them; any effort I might make to dress them up would take away the last pleasure I hope to gt in telling them’.  All of Gide’s writing holds this strength, and his descriptions in particular are absolutely beautiful, and often quite startling.  Of the house of an uncle, our narrator, Jerome, says thus: ‘Certain others [windows] have flaws in the glass which our parents used to call “bubbles”; a tree seen through them becomes distorted; when the postman passes he suddenly develops a hump’.  He describes his aunt, Lucile, whilst she is playing the piano: ‘… sometimes she would break off in the middle of a bar and pause, suspended motionless on a chord’.

After the death of both of his parents, young Jerome becomes infatuated with his cousin, Alissa, with whom he spends every summer at her family’s secluded house in Le Havre.  ‘No doubt,’ he says, ‘like all boys of fourteen, I was still unformed and pliable, but my love for Alissa soon urged me further and more deliberately along the road on which I had started’.  Alissa’s younger sister, Juliette, fast becomes a go-between for the pair: ‘She was the messenger…  I talked to her interminably of our love, and she never seemed tired of listening.  I told her what I dared not tell Alissa, with whom excess of love made me constrained and shy.  Alissa seemed to lend herself to this child’s play and to be delighted that I should talk so happily to her sister, ignoring or feigning to ignore that in reality we talked only of her’.

Religion was not so much of an aspect here as the blurb makes out; rather, it is more of a familial novel, and a wonderfully wrought one at that.  Interesting family politics are at play throughout.  Letters which Gide writes from the perspective of others in Jerome’s family feel entirely authentic; he has captured such nuanced elements of voice, and renders each distinctive.  His prose is packed with emotion, which grows as the work progresses.

Bussy’s translation is seamless; there is such a marvellous elasticity to the writing, and the whole has been rendered beautifully.  Strait is the Gate is a truly beautiful work, and a novella which I was immediately immersed within.  Whilst it is my first taste of Gide’s work, it certainly will not be my last.  I can fast see him becoming one of my favourite authors, in fact.

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