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‘The Summer House’ by Philip Teir ****

Philip Teir’s The Summer House, which was first published in 2018, has been translated from its original Swedish by Tiina Nunnally.  The Telegraph regards Finnish-Swedish author Teir as ‘Scandinavia’s answer to Jonathan Franzen’, and says that he has a ‘remarkable eye for human behaviour’.

In the novel, married couple Erik and Julia ‘marshal their children into the car and start 9781781259276the drive towards the house by the sea on the west coast of Finland where they will spend their summer.’  They are going to be staying at the summer house in Mjölkviken which belonged to Julia’s grandparents, the first time in which the family have stayed there all together.  Outwardly, Julia and Erik, along with their twelve-year-old daughter Alice and ten-year-old son Anton, appear to be a ‘happy young family looking forward to a long holiday together.’  However, each character is rather apprehensive about what the summer may hold.  When focusing on Anton’s perspective, Teir writes: ‘Two whole months.  That was an unimaginable length of time for Anton.  When he thought about how it would seem when they came to the end of their holiday, he couldn’t really picture it.  The summer months quickly flickered past before his eyes.’

Beneath the surface, unspoken things are simmering.  The threat of unemployment hovers over Erik, who oversees the IT of a department store, and he feels unable to tell his wife.  The arrival of novelist Julia’s childhood friend, Marika, at a summer house closeby, ‘deepens the hairline cracks that had so far remained invisible.’  There are also hints of Julia’s struggle to write a new novel.  Alice and Anton are beginning to have a growing awareness of how complicated the world around them is, and have to learn to deal with it in their own ways.  Alice is becoming increasingly self-conscious, and Anton has many anxieties about the world, and his relationship with his mother. Each concern which Teir gives about the family members feels realistic: Anton not knowing whether he enjoys being out in nature; Alice’s lack of connection to the Internet, and by extension her friends, in a place with so little mobile phone coverage; the parents’ awareness of themselves and how they behave when in the company of others.

I found the novel’s short prologue, in which a young and as yet unnamed boy is sitting in the car, the ‘safest place to be’ during a thunderstorm, with his mother, and the opening line of the first chapter intriguing.  The Summer House proper begins: ‘Julia would turn thirty-six in the autumn, yet she had never truly managed to escape her mother’s voice.’  Julia’s mother appears as a secondary character later on in the novel.  Other characters – for example, Erik’s brother who has been travelling in Vietnam – are added into the mix, and add heightened tension to both the novel as a whole, and the relationships which it depicts.

At first, Teir has left things unsaid, and unexplained.  There is a clever building of tension, and of a foreshadowing of things to come, however.  When focusing on Julia in an early chapter, Teir writes: ‘As she walked through the hall, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, and was surprised to realise she looked good in a rather stern sort of way.  So this was how a single mother looked, this was how she would look from now on, when they became a family of three.’  She is continually surprised by her husband, and also dismayed by the way in which their relationship has shifted.  Of her husband, Teir observes: ‘She was always struck by how real Erik was when he was at home, as if there were two Eriks: one she would be cross with in her fantasies, and a real Erik, who talked to her and had opinions that required her attention.’

The sense of place in The Summer House has a vivacity and sensuality to it.  Such emphasis has been given to the plants and animals which now surround the family, who feel such a world away from their flat in Helsinki.  Teir writes, for instance, ‘Anton looked around.  Everywhere he saw blueberries and lingonberries growing.  The trunks of the slender pine trees shifted from grey to reddish-brown where animals had gnawed away at the bark.’  There is a real sense of atmosphere which develops in the novel, both with Mjölkviken and its nature, and within the family.  Teir focuses on the ways in which each family member interacts with the world around them.  When writing about Alice, he says: ‘The water was cold, but Alice didn’t care, because so much was going on inside her body.  She moved slowly, languidly, like in a film, as if surrounded by some sort of membrane that protected her from everything.’

The structure of The Summer House is simple, yet effective.  Teir follows each of the family members in turn, alternating between them.  Each chapter is quite revealing in its way.  The backstory of Julia and Erik has been well developed, and the way in which their marriage has changed over time appears believable.  Interesting and complex relationships are demonstrated between family members, as well as with Marika and her family.  The Summer House has been well situated socially, too; through the use of Marika and her husband Chris, who are ‘eco-warriors’, he manages to ask a series of searching questions about the environment, climate change, and other global concerns.  Again, he situates each character within a wider scope: ‘Erik liked to think of himself as a progressive optimist, but lately it felt like everyone around him had become pessimists.  The climate crisis, the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, the euro crisis, the newspaper crisis, the crisis in Ukraine, in the EU, the crisis within the Social Democratic party…  There was no area of society that wasn’t in crisis.  And in Finland people were especially good at crises, as if they didn’t feel truly comfortable unless everything was going to hell.’

I was wholly engrossed within The Summer House, a short novel which runs to less than 250 pages.  Teir really seems to understand each of his characters and their motivations, and the ways in which they interact with one another feel true to life.  Teir’s prose has been well translated, and the story is a highly accessible one.  The Summer House is a relatively quiet novel, in that not a great deal of action occurs.  It is, instead, focused upon a cast of three-dimensional, emotionally complex characters, and how they connect with one another.

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Translation Database: Day Five

Today marks the final instalment of my picks from the wonderful Translation Database (view it here).  I have chosen all of these books at random, but have tried to ensure that there is a real diversity between picks, both in terms of subject matter, and the original written languages the books were published in.  I hope you have found some books in this week’s showcase which have piqued your interest.

 

1. The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa (translated from the Portuguese 1159038by Daniel Hahn; Simon & Schuster)
The narrator of this novel is a rather charming lizard. He lives on Felix Ventura’s living-room wall, Felix, the lizard’s friend and hero of the story, is a man who sells pasts – if you don’t like yours, he can come up with an new one for you, a new past – full of better memories, with a complete lineage, photos and all.”

 

176987392. The Warmth of the Taxidermied Animal by Tytti Heikkenen (translated from the Finnish by Niina Pollari; Action Books)
Brainy, rambunctious, gross and sad, the poems of Tytti Heikkinen’s debut English collection make clear why this young poet has become a major force in contemporary Finnish poetry. By turns lyric, limpid, lightly encrusted and slightly mad, these poems knit together the language of “where we are now” until it reads like where we’ve never been and where we are always sentenced to be.

 

3. Collected Body by Valzhyna Mort (translated from the Belarusian by Elizabeth 11505557Oehlkers Wright; Copper Canyon)
Valzhyna Mort is a dynamic Belarusian poet, and Collected Body is her first collection composed in English. Whether writing about sex, relatives, violence, or fish markets as opera, Mort insists on vibrant, dark truths. “Death hands you every new day like a golden coin,” she writes, then warns that as the bribe grows “it gets harder to turn down.”

 

254892154. Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson (translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death; Other Press)
Ester Nilsson is a sensible person in a sensible relationship. She knows what she thinks and she acts according to her principles.  Until the day she is asked to give a lecture on renowned artist Hugo Rask. The man himself sits in the audience, spellbound, and when the two meet afterwards, he has the same effect on her. From then on Ester’s existence is intrinsically linked to that day, and the events that follow change her life forever.  Bitingly funny and darkly fascinating, Willful Disregard is a story about total and desperate devotion and about how willingly we betray ourselves in the pursuit of love.

 

5. Walker on Water by Kristiina Ehin (translated from the Estonian by Ilmar Lehtpere; 21918964Unnamed Press)
A woman cultivates a knack for walking on water, but is undermined by her husband’s brain, which he removes each night when he returns home from work; a couple overcomes the irksome mischief of the gods; a skeptical dragon wonders what sex is all about: this is the world of Kristiina Ehin. From the 2007 British Poetry Society Popescu prize winner for European poetry in translation: a series of comic, surreal adventures. Kristiina Ehin’s quirky voice takes each story directly from the dream state, at times stubborn and resistant, at other times masochistically compliant. Ehin offers up modern folktales in which the very nature of our human identity is at stake-rampant with images and archetypes both new and old, and mediated by the abrupt changes we can only experience in dreams.

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Translation Database: Day One

Day one of my showcase of the wonderful Translation Database (view it here) is upon us.  I have chosen all of these books at random, but have tried to ensure that there is a real diversity between picks, both in terms of subject matter, and the original written languages the books were published in.

 

32967771. Summer’s End by Adalet Agaoglu (translated from the Turkish by Figen Bingul; Talisman House Publishers)
Narrated by an author on vacation among the classical ruils of the ancient city of Side on the Mediterannean coast in Turkey, Summer’s End provides an intricate picture of a large cross-section of modern Turkish society. The novel offers a complex multi-dimensional and multi-leveled view of cultural values, politics, sexuality, and personal dilemmas. Summer’s End is one of the most celebrated works by Adalet Angaoglu, widely considered to be one of the principal novelists of our time. Summer’s End, says critic Sibel Erol in her introduction, “is an elegaic novel of attempted reconciliation and consolation set in a lush and delectable setting that intensifies the heartbreaking contrast between life and death and society’s fragmentation and nature’s organic unity.” Adalet Agaoglu is the author of eight novels as well as plays, memoirs, four collections of short stories, and six collections of essays. Her books have been widely translated. Summer’s End is the second to appear in English.

 

2. Five Fingers by Mara Zalite (translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis; Dalkey five-fingers-fcArchive)
‘Five-year-old Laura was born in one of Joseph Stalin’s prison camps in Siberia. When the book opens, she and her parents are on their long journey back to Latvia, a country Laura knows only from the exuberant descriptions that whirled about the Gulag. Upon her arrival, however, she must come to terms with the conflicting images of the life she sees around her and the fairytale Latvia she grew up hearing about and imagining. Based on the author’s life, and written in lush language that defies the narrative’s many hardships, Five Fingers tells the story of a girl who moves between worlds in the hopes of finding a Latvia that she can call home.’

 

178470593. Time on my Hands by Giorgio Vasta (translated from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt; Faber & Faber)
Palermo, Sicily, 1978. The Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro has just been kidnapped in Rome by members of the notorious Red Brigades. Two months after his disappearance on 9th May, Moro is found dead in the boot of a car.  A trio of eleven-year-old schoolboys, Nimbo, Raggio, and Volo, avidly follow the news of the abduction as their admiration for the brigatisti grows. When the boys themselves resolve to abduct a classmate and incarcerate him in a makeshift ‘people’s prison’, the darkness within their world, and the world of the novel, becomes all-pervasive.  A vivid and hellish description of Sicily in the late seventies, Time on my Hands is an unforgettable novel from a significant new voice in Italian fiction.

 

4. The Hedgehog by Zakaria Tamer (translated from the Arabic by Brian O’Rourke; 6131951American University at Cairo Press)
“My mother went to visit our neighbor, Umm Bahaa, but refused to take me with her, on the pretext that women visit women and men visit men. So she left me alone, promising not to be gone more than a few minutes. I told my cat I was going to strangle her, but she paid no attention and continued grooming herself with her tongue.” Thus we meet the five-year-old narrator of The Hedgehog, who introduces us to his world: his house (with the djinn girl who lives in his bedroom), his garden (where he wishes to be a tree), and his best friend the black stone wall. This tightly told novella confirms that Zakaria Tamer remains at the height of his powers. The short stories that follow were first published in the collection Tigers on the Tenth Day. Economical and controlled, they deal with man’s inhumanity to man (and to woman) and showcase the author’s typical sharply satirical style.

 

131813325. The Sorrow Gondola by Tomas Transtromer (translated from the Swedish by Michael McGriff; Green Integer)
The Sorrow Gondola was the great Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer’s first collection of poems after his stroke in 1990. Translated by Michael McGriff, Tranströmer’s great work is available in its first single-volume English edition.  Tomas Tranströmer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011.

 

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‘Lagom: The Swedish Secret of Living Well’ by Lola A. Akerstrom **

‘Perfect for fans of The Little Book of Hygge and Norwegian Wood, find the balance in life that is just right for you. Let Lola A. Akerstrom, Editor-in-chief of Slow Travel Stockholm, be your companion to all things lagom.  As the Swedish proverb goes, ‘Lagom ar bast’ (The right amount is best). Lagom sums up the Swedish psyche and is the reason why Sweden is one of the happiest countries in the world with a healthy work-life balance and high standards of living.  Lagom is a way of living that promotes harmony. It celebrates fairness, moderation and being satisfied with and taking proper care of what you’ve got, including your well-being, relationships, and possessions. It’s not about having too little or too much but about fully inviting contentment into our lives through making optimal decisions. Who better than Lola A. Akerstrom to be your lagom guide? Sweden-based Lola is an award-winning writer, photographer , and editor-in-chief of Slow Travel Stockholm and she offers us a unique vantage point when it comes to adopting elements of a lagom lifestyle.Full of insights and beautiful photographs, taken by Lola herself, this authentic book will help you make small, simple changes to your every day life – whether that’s your diet, lifestyle, money, work or your home – so you can have a more balanced way of living filled with contentment.’

9781472249333I have a real love of Scandinavia, which is why I attempted to read Lagom: The Swedish Secret of Living Well, but for me, it fell short. I was expecting something akin to the wonderful lifestyle books published about the Danish hygge, but that is not what I got at all. A lot of what Akerstrom writes is highly obvious, and can even be construed as patronising at times. It feels as though she is addressing the reader as though they are an incredibly petulant child, and she is an adult with vast reserves of patience to deal with them.

I hoped that Lola A. Akerstrom’s take on the new Swedish phenomenon of lagom would be better than Anna Brones’ Live Lagom, which I found highly disappointing (and, incidentally, which I reviewed last week). Both, however, are very similar tomes, which address almost exactly the same themes, and contain an awful lot of overlapping content. I did like the structure which Akerstrom adopted, but found that a lot of it did not apply to me at all, or was not personally interesting. The only triumph within Lagom was the often lovely photography.

I have concluded that there is nothing overly groundbreaking to be learnt with lagom, and really, that most cultures which I am familiar with already practice a lot of the wellbeing which is linked with it. The majority of what Akerstrom says here could be worked out without too much trouble, and whilst the book is visually lovely, the rest of the content was rather lacking.

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Reading the World: ‘The Mind’s Eye’ by Hakan Nesser ***

I borrowed Hakan Nesser’s The Mind’s Eye from the library for inclusion in my year-long Reading the World project.  I hadn’t heard of it before, but I count myself as a fan of Nordic Noir, and thought it might be just the thing to read on a cold winter’s night.  This volume has been translated from its original Swedish by Laurie Thompson, and was first published in Sweden in 1993; the author was victorious in the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy Prize for it, and subsequently won other prestigious awards for his later work.

9780330492782The Mind’s Eye is the first Inspector van Veeteren mystery, in which a history and philosophy teacher named Janek Mitter awakes to find that he cannot remember who he is.  He then discovers the body of his beautiful young wife, Eva, floating in the bath after an attack.  Even during the trial which follows, he has no memory of attacking his wife, or any idea as to how he could have killed her; indeed, ‘Only when he is sentenced and locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane does he have a snatch of insight.  He scribbles something in his Bible, but is murdered before the clue can be uncovered’.

The novel’s opening passage is quite striking: ‘It’s like being born, he thought.  I’m not a person.  Merely a mass of suffering’.  In this manner, Nesser gets straight into the story.  He continues thus when the body is discovered, using short, snappy sentences to capture the mood: ‘He entered the room and, just as he switched on the light, he became quite clear about who he was. / He could also identify the woman lying in the bath. / Her name was Eva Ringmar and she was his wife of three months. / Her body was strangely twisted…  Her dark hair was floating on the water.  Her head was face-down, and as the bath was full to the brim there could be no doubt that she was dead.’

The Mind’s Eye is rather a quick read, and a page-turner, at least.  It isn’t the most gripping mystery, nor the most memorable slice of Scandicrime; in fact, it lacks the darkness and the often twisted, gory killings of many of its contemporaries.  There are far more grisly whodunnits out there, and part of me wishes I’d selected one such instead.  Nesser’s effort is well plotted, and the plot points do keep one interested in the story.  I cannot help but feel that the blurb of the novel gives a little too much away, however.  There is nothing overly special about the translation, sadly; the way in which it is rendered takes away any memorable prose, and it uses many paragraphs made of short sentences to further push different points home.  Needless to say, it is not a series which I will be continuing with.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Garden’ by Magnus Florin ***

I hadn’t heard of Magnus Florin’s The Garden before spotting it in the library, but when I slid its small form out from where it was sandwiched on the shelf, its premise intrigued me and I added it to the large pile already finding breathing room in my arms.  Florin’s book was first published in Sweden in 1995, and has ‘long been regarded there as a classic of contemporary literature’.  The edition which I read, printed by the small press Vagabond Voices in Glasgow, has been translated into English by Harry Watson.  Florin’s prose is deemed ‘brave’ and ‘colourful’, and the book is proclaimed as ‘a work of imagination of intrigue, unafraid to question the shape of our world and the roots of existence’.

9781908251268Before I began, I was expecting to be able to draw some parallels between this and Kristina Carlsson’s Mr Darwin’s Gardener, which was published a couple of years ago by the wonderful Peirene Press.  Whilst it deals with different figures – one Charles Darwin, and the other Carl Linnaeus – there are many themes in common, and even the structures share some similarities.  The Garden presents a fictionalised account of Linnaeus’ life, the leading figure of the Swedish Enlightenment, whose classifications of plants and animals are still used in biology.

Linnaeus and his scientific counterpart in Sweden, Petrous Arctaedius, ‘imagined everything in the world divided into two halves.  The hard things in one half and the soft things in another.  The fixed and the moveable.  The annual and the perennial.  What had no tail and what had a tail.  That which was fast and that which was slow.  The two-legged and the four-legged’.  The pair take a straightforward approach to classification; they decide to simply halve the animals and plants to give one another a pool to work from: ‘Arctaedius took the amphibians, the reptiles, the frogs and toads and the fish.  Linnaeus took the birds and the insects, the mammals and the stones.  Along with the plants’.

Florin denotes the vast differences between Linnaeus and his gardener, the latter of whom ‘perceives things for what they are in themselves – and for their beauty or usefulness’.  The pair ‘often find themselves in dialogue, but rarely understand one another’.  For me, the gardener was a  shadowy figure; Linnaeus also only came to life in his fictionalised form in the sections in which his young siblings are taken ill, and when he himself is suffering.

Florin’s use of imagery and sense of place are deftly crafted, and there are certainly some lovely ideas here: ‘Linnaeus, awake, steps outside, strolls to his grove.  He hangs pairs of green Kungsholm glasses as bells on the branches of an oak, an elm and an ash in order to listen to the jingling caused by the wind when it rises.  They are his Aeolian beakers, his mind-harps of glass.  But this morning the wind is still, and the bells are motionless’.  Watson’s translation is nice and fluid; the prose is intelligent, and the patterns of dialogue interesting.  The novella, which runs to just ninety pages, is told in slim fragments, which do not lead seamlessly from one to another.  In fact, the overall feel is a little disjointed.  Whilst the story which Florin presents is fascinating, especially with its roots in reality, the structure makes it feel too fragmented to connect with.  The Garden is an interesting tale, but overall, it is a little underwhelming.

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