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‘The Blind Owl’ by Sadegh Hedayat ***

I, perhaps shamefully, had never heard of Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl before spotting it in the Modern Classics section of the library.  Whilst originally banned in the author’s native Iran, it soon became a bestseller, and he is now heralded as one of the fathers of modern Iranian literature.  First published in 1937, and in English twenty years later, a 75th anniversary edition was published in 2011.  Hedayat’s masterpiece has been compared to the likes of Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Edgar Allan Poe, which may give you a feel for the kind of story which is going to unfold.

The Blind Owl, in less than 130 pages, feels masterful in the way in which it takes the reader into the ‘nightmarish exploration of the psyche of a madman’ after the loss of a mysterious lover.  It sounded stra9789186131449nge but intriguing, and I have read very little literature which discusses and examines madness from a male perspective.

This madness, or rather the process of spiralling into it, is captured wonderfully by the haunting and immediate voice of Hedayat’s narrator: ‘In the course of my life I have discovered that a fearful abyss lies between me and other people and have realized that my best course is to remain silent and keep my thoughts to myself for as long as I can.  If I have now made up my mind to write it is only in order to reveal myself to my shadow, that shadow which at this moment is stretched across the wall in the attitude of one denouncing with insatiable appetite each word I write.  It is for his sake that I wish to make the attempt.  Who knows?  We may perhaps come to know each other better.  Ever since I broke the last ties which held me to the rest of mankind, my one desire has been to attain a better knowledge of myself.’

The sense of the ‘Other’ which Hedayat is aware of from the very beginning of The Blind Owl is emphasised through repetitions of certain phrases and paragraphs, which form a kind of backbone within the novella.  There is little plot here really, but it is the way in which Hedayat handles his protagonist, and the changes which he goes through so suddenly, which is the real strength.  The reader is swept along, entirely adrift in the narrator’s mind; it feels as though we have no control, and are entering a world of manic thoughts along with him.  The urgency and confusion of the prose adds to this effect, and it soon begins to feel rather claustrophobic.

Dark and rather gruesome, The Blind Owl gives a real insight into an extremely troubled mind.  Whilst it does not demonstrate, or even really touch upon, its Iranian setting, which was a shame, the translation by Naveed Noori makes it feel fresh and contemporary.  Occasionally, The Blind Owl feels quite jarring to read, but perseverance makes it worth it.  The Blind Owl is a haunting novella, with a powerful voice, and rather a terrifying message buried beneath it.

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‘Mrs Sartoris’ by Elke Schmitter ****

Elke Schmitter’s Mrs Sartoris has been described as ‘an explosive first novel – Madame Bovary in modern Germany – about a wife and mother whose failed love affairs have driven her to the edge of sanity and to a startling attempt at vindication.’  It has been translated from its original German by Carol Brown Janeway, and was first published in English in 2002.

Mrs Sartoris opens in rather an intriguing manner: ‘The street was empty.  It was drizzling, as it often did in this region, and twilight was giving way to darkness – so you can’t say that the visibility was good.  Perhaps that’s why I was so late in spotting him, but it was also probably because I was deep in thought.  I’m often deep in thought.  Not that anything comes of it.’ 9780571219193

Our protagonist is Margarethe Sartoris, transcribed in the English version as Margaret.  After she is jilted by a rich boyfriend, with whom she is much in love, at the age of eighteen, she is sent to a sanitorium.  Reflecting on her experiences, she says: ‘A nervous breakdown didn’t belong in our circle.  Such a thing required a cause, and the cause arbitrarily existed.’  When she is released, she ‘throws herself into a comfortable and stifling marriage to Ernst, a war veteran with a penchant for routine and order who still lives with his mother in a small German village.’

Margaret, who has a wealth of psychological scars attained in her past, quickly becomes dissatisfied in her choice, and ‘neither Ernst’s adoration not the birth of a daughter can reawaken her frozen emotions.’  Of her decision to marry Ernst, she writes: ‘From that moment on, it was a form of ice-cold delirium.  When I awoke next morning, I allowed myself an instant’s reflection – but my mind was made up.  I had enormous willpower, and I had no desire to stop myself.  I was grateful for the rage that had swallowed everything up: the exhaustion of the last six months, the sense of indifference and alienation and the feeling of not being at home in the world.  I thought of all that and was terrified.’

When she first studies her daughter, Daniela, whilst in the hospital’s maternity ward, Margaret muses: ‘She had inherited nothing from either of us…  Ernst’s hair was mouse brown, and my own mop of curls was dark blond… and this daughter of mine, my first and last, had red-gold down on her head and was so delicate she could disappear at any moment, whereas the rest of us were tall and quite well built.’  She is both loving towards, and scared of, her daughter, and becomes indifferent towards Ernst, a catalyst which pushes her in the direction of affairs with a series of troubled males.

Mrs Sartoris is structured in a series of rather short sections, which contain both threads of Margaret’s present story, and memories and reflections of scenarios in her past.  Schmitter’s portrayal of Margaret is a searching one, and there is a strength in both her writing and her creation of a believable narrative voice.  Mrs Sartoris does become taut and tense as it progresses, and is engaging from the first.  Despite being rather a slight book, it is packed with a lot of depth and feeling, as well as much darkness.

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Reading the World: Wrap-Up

This post marks the end of my 2017 Reading the World Project.  When setting out what I wanted to achieve with this particular challenge, I wrote that I wanted to consciously choose and review works of translated literature.  I thought that a structure such as the one which I came up with would allow me to continue with my project throughout the year, without reaching that mid-July slump that I invariably get with reading challenges.  I am pleased to report that I have found the exercise thoroughly successful, and have discovered some new gems, and some little-reviewed tomes too.

Without further ado, I thought that it would be nice to have a wrap-up post to show the best of the books which I read for this challenge, as well as to tot up the numbers of distinct languages which I chose to include.  For this project, I wrote forty-six original reviews, and also included six from the archive.

My top ten picks in translation:

  1. Gilgi, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (German) 9780099561378
  2. The Leech by Cora Sandel (Norwegian)
  3. Fire in the Blood by Irene Nemirovsky (French)
  4. The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price (Welsh)
  5. Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau (French)
  6. Strait is the Gate by Andre Gide (French)
  7. The Immoralist by Andre Gide (French)
  8. Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Russian)
  9. Art in Nature and Other Stories by Tove Jansson (Finnish)
  10. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (Japanese)

 

Language breakdown by number of books read (I think one can say that I like French literature!):

  1. French: 15
  2. Korean: 4
  3. Norwegian: 4 9780956308696
  4. Russian: 4
  5. Finnish: 3
  6. Austrian German: 2
  7. Dutch: 2
  8. German: 2
  9. Spanish: 2
  10. Swedish: 2
  11. Japanese: 3
  12. Argentinian Spanish: 1
  13. Chinese: 1
  14. Danish: 1
  15. Hungarian: 1
  16. Icelandic: 1
  17. Kannada: 1
  18. Portuguese: 1
  19. Turkish: 1
  20. Welsh: 1

 

I have also discovered some wonderful new authors whilst reading for this project.  They include Clarice Lispector, Cora Sandel, Irmgard Keun, Annie Ernaux, Samanta Schweblin, Angharad Price, Jean Cocteau, George Sand, Andre Gide, and Albert Camus.

For a full list of my 2017 Reading the World books, as well as links to their reviews, please visit this page.  Please let me know which of these books you’ve read, and which review has been your favourite.

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Reading the World: ‘Art in Nature and Other Stories’ by Tove Jansson (One From the Archive)

The entirety of Art in Nature and Other Stories has been translated from its original Finnish by Thomas Teal, who won the Rochester Best Translated Book Award in 2011. This prize sets him in wonderful stead to translate one of Finland’s finest authors and to introduce more of her stories to a wider readership.

9780956308696Art in Nature and Other Stories comprises eleven short stories, all of which are mesmerising from the outset. The title story, ‘Art in Nature’, tells of a ‘very old’ caretaker who has been put in charge of looking after a large art exhibition when it closes each night. He works alone through ‘the long, lonely evenings’, finding solace in the peace around him. One night he comes across a man and woman who have made their way into the exhibition past closing time. Rather than throw them out as protocol dictates, an impassioned and rather surprising discussion about art ensues.

The stories themselves are all rather varied, but there are many which feature protagonists who are artists or are involved with art in some way – a sculptor, a cartoonist, an actress and a writer of children’s books, amongst others. A story entitled ‘The Doll’s House’ follows an upholsterer with a love of classic novels ‘which enchanted him with their heavy patience’, who constructs an elaborate wooden house, assembling it bit by bit: it ‘would be allowed to grow however it wished, organically, room by room’. The characters in every story are beautifully portrayed. All are well-developed and feel like real, fully fleshed out people, and not a single one feels as though their construction has been rushed. Many touches of autobiography can be found throughout.

Jansson’s prose is absolutely and often startlingly beautiful. She describes everyday scenes with such deftness and skill that it feels as though we are viewing the scenes afresh. The reader is essentially given a new perspective through Jansson’s words, in which the wonders of the world are evident. In ‘Art in Nature’, she describes how the sculptures in the exhibition ‘grew up out of the grass, huge dark monuments in smooth incomprehensible formlessness or in tangled convulsions, challenging and disturbing’. The ideas woven throughout the majority of the stories are just lovely. A group of young people in ‘White Lady’ are described as being ‘like a flock of birds… that settle for a moment, for as long as it suits them’.

Ali Smith, one of my favourite all-time authors (as Jansson is too), states ‘that there can still be as-yet untranslated fiction by [Tove] Jansson is simultaneously an aberration and a delight, like finding buried treasure’ – a sentiment which could not be more true. To build up such rich, detailed stories within just a few pages as Jansson does here is masterful, and Teal’s translation of her work is faultless.  Art in Nature and Other Stories is a pure delight from beginning to end. It is an absolute joy to read and certainly reaffirms Jansson’s position as a wonderful storyteller and a master of her craft.

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Reading the World: ‘Poor People’ (‘Poor Folk’) by Fyodor Dostoevsky ****

Poor People, more commonly printed with the title Poor Folk, is the debut novel of Russian literary heavyweight Fyodor Dostoevsky, and was first published in Russia in 1846.  I read it in the beautiful Alma Classics edition, which has been wonderfully and fluidly translated by Hugh Aplin.

9781847493125Told in an epistolary manner, it follows two characters who live upon the fringes of society in St Petersburg, struggling with poverty rather acutely.  Devushkin Alexievich is a copywriter working in an office, and Barbara Alexievna a seamstress.   ‘These are people,’ Dostoevsky tells us, who are ‘respected by no one, not even by themselves’.  They are infatuated with one another, but are too poor to marry.  Rather, they live in small apartments opposite one another.  We are witness to their back and forth of letters, and the unfolding correspondence which lets us learn about both protagonists.  We are party to the workings of their minds, and their deepest thoughts and questions about one another.  Barbara writes the following to Devushkin, for instance: ‘… what has made you go and take the room which you have done, where you will be worried and disturbed, and where you have neither elbow-space nor comfort – you who love solitude, and never like to have any one near you?’

Poor People begins on April the 8th, and continues in different letters by both characters, until ending in the September of the same year.  When the novella starts, Devushkin has just moved into a new apartment – the one which faces Barbara’s – and devises a cunning plan with her curtains; when she loops them up, he knows that she is thinking of him, and when they are closed, he knows that it is time to go to bed.  Certainly, Devushkin is a more dreamy, whimsical character than Barbara; she seems to have enough sensibility for the both of them, and thinks practically throughout.  She despairs particularly about her future: ‘Ah, what is going to become of me?  What will be my fate?  To have to be so uncertain as to the future, to have to be unable to foretell what is going to happen, distresses me deeply.  Even to look back at the past is horrible, as it contains sorrow that breaks my heart at the very thought of it.’

Dostoevsky’s use of nature is sublime, and is present from the very first letter, used as a device to lift Devushkin’s spirits: ‘This morning, too, I arose (joyous and full of love) at cockcrow.  How good seemed everything at that hour, my darling!  When I opened my window I could see the sun shining, and hear the birds singing, and smell the air laden with scents of spring.  In short, all nature was awaking to life again.  Everything was in consonance with my mood; everything seemed fair and spring-like.’

The letters are variant in length, and are all suffused with differing levels of love and despair, as well as the emergence of hope at intervals.  Dostoevsky’s prose is gorgeously rich, and has a very modern feel to it.  The characters alter as their circumstances do; they have been so well built, and their shifting relationship too feels true to life.

As with all of Dostoevsky’s work, Poor People is filled with beauty and passion; realistic characters are at its heart.  Dostoevsky is one of my favourite authors, and I am always immediately captivated by his thoughts and stories.  My experience was no different here; for those who already love Russian literature it is a must-read, and it would also serve as a fantastic introduction to the myriad of wonderful works published within the fascinating country.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Ladies’ Paradise’ by Emile Zola

First published in 2014.

Prior to this, the only Zola which I had read was a marvellous little novella entitled The Flood.  I was encouraged to read The Ladies’ Paradise when I saw Astrid the Bookworm wax lyrical about it on her YouTube channel. I searched high and low for it and finally found it on a trip to Waterstone’s Picadilly at the very end of November.  I began to read it the novel on New Year’s Eve, and as I finished it in January, I counted it as my first novel which was read in 2014.

‘The Ladies’ Paradise’ by Emile Zola

I was so captivated by The Ladies’ Paradise from the outset.  First published in France as Au Bonheur des Dames in 1883, the novel tells the story of the rise of department stores in Victorian-era Paris.  In the insightful Oxford World’s Classics introduction, it is said that Zola was given the inspiration to write such a novel after witnessing the rise of Le Bon Marche, one of the city’s most famous department stores.

I did not realise until I had finished the novel that The Ladies’ Paradise is actually a sequel to a novel named Pot-Bouille, which features the same protagonist, Octave Mouret.  The Ladies’ Paradise stood alone marvellously, and it did not matter at all that I had not read the previous novel – nor any of Zola’s other Rougon-Macquart series (this is the eleventh book), for that matter.

Brian Nelson has done a marvellous job with the novel’s translation.  The extra information which has been included in the edition, too, complemented the novel beautifully.  There are maps showing the location of the department store and the main settings of the novel, a select bibliography, and a chronology of Zola’s fascinating life.

The scene was set immediately, and it has left me longing to go back to Paris.  Each and every scene, building and character which Zola turned his hand to describing were truly stunning – so vivid, and dripping with colour.  Whilst this novel is a relatively quiet one in terms of its plot, the way in which Zola cites the foundations of such a store in Paris and how it grew to such dizzying heights has been so well imagined.  The social history has clearly been so well considered.  The characters which Zola uses to people his store – nicknamed The Ladies’ Paradise by all – felt so realistic, and I was particularly enchanted by his main female protagonist, Denise.

The Ladies’ Paradise is an exquisite novel, and parts of it really made me smile.  It was a book which I struggled to put down, and would happily have read it until the clock chimed midnight on New Year’s Eve if we weren’t hosting a party to celebrate.  I cannot wait until Monsieur Zola and I are reacquainted.  I sense that there are some real gems in store to encounter.

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Reading the World: ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ by Sabahattin Ali ***

Originally published in Turkey in 1943, Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat is still a national bestseller.  Ali was ‘one of the most influential Turkish authors of the twentieth century’, and his most famous novel, Madonna in a Fur Coat, which is a ‘classic of love and longing in a changing world’, is now available for the first time in English. 9780241293850

Madonna in a Fur Coat takes as its focus a young Turkish man, who moves to Berlin in the 1920s in order to learn a trade.  A chance meeting with a woman in the city ‘will haunt him for the rest of his life’.  Its blurb calls it ’emotionally powerful, intensely atmospheric and touchingly profound’.  Madonna in a Fur Coat opens in a manner which both coolly beguiles and intrigues: ‘Of all the people I have chanced upon in life, there is no one who has left a greater impression.  Months have passed but still Raif Efendi haunts my thoughts.  As I sit here alone, I can see his honest face, gazing off into the distance, but ready, nonetheless, to greet all who cross his path with a smile.  Yet he was hardly an extraordinary man’.  The narrator then recounts Raif’s story, which is given to him in the form of a rather sensual diary beginning in 1933, when Raif lays upon his deathbed.

Raif is the German translator who is employed by the same company as the narrator in Ankara; the pair share an office.  He soon becomes fascinated by Raif and his disinterest; he keeps himself to himself, and evades questions about his personal life.  This very mystery acts as something akin to a magnet.  The narrator goes to visit him when he is absent from work due to illness, and finds that his home life, spent in an overcrowded and cramped house, is far from pleasant and desirable: ‘Though it was Raif Efendi who bore the cost of all this, it made no difference to him if he was present or absent.  Everyone in the family, from the oldest to the youngest, regarded him as irrelevant.  They spoke to him about their daily needs and money problems, and nothing else.’  The familial relationship, as well as the tentative friendship which unfolds between both men, are both built well, and are thus rendered believable in consequence.

The translation, which has been carried out in tandem by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, is effective.   Ali’s prose is more often than not beautifully wrought, and is sometimes quite profound: ‘It is, perhaps, easier to dismiss a man whose face gives no indication of an inner life.  And what a pity that is: a dash of curiosity is all it takes to stumble upon treasures we never expected.’  The narrative voice has such a clarity, and certainly a lot of realism, to it.

One of the most important elements of this novella is the way in which Ali displays both Turkish and German history, politics, and culture, particularly with regard to the ways in which both countries altered following the First World War.  The mystery at the heart of the novel certainly kept me interested.  Madonna in a Fur Coat is really rather touching, and reminded me a little of Stefan Zweig.  There is something about it, however, which makes it entirely its own.

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