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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Passion According to G.H.’ by Clarice Lispector ****

Translated from the original Portuguese by Idra Novey, The Passion According to G.H. was the first book by Clarice Lispector which I had the pleasure to read.  Many rave about the Brazilian author, but I have sadly found her books rather difficult to find thus far.  Lispector, born in Ukraine in 1920, was revered for her novels and short stories in South America, the first of which was published when she was just twenty-three.  To begin with some of the favourable reviews dotted around the book’s dust jacket, Orhan Pamuk deems her ‘one of the twentieth century’s most mysterious writers’, and the New York Times Book Review heralds her ‘the premier Latin American prose writer of this century’.

9780141197357The novel is a strange but compelling one, and follows the inner thoughts of a well-to-do sculptress named G.H. in Rio de Janeiro.  After killing a cockroach in her maid’s room, G.H. goes through an existential crisis, in which she questions both her position in the world, and her very identity.  An ‘act of shocking transgression’ follows.  Lispector presents a fascinating and well-evoked glimpse into the female psyche, and the stream-of-consciousness-esque style which she adopts fits the plot marvellously.

Much of Lispector’s imagery is striking: ‘Then, before understanding, my heart went gray as hair goes gray’, for instance. Her prose is incredibly sensual; we feel, hear, sense, and see things just as our narrator does.  Sometimes this feels stifling, but it is necessary to the whole.  Each sentence has been richly – and sometimes confusingly – crafted: ‘I stayed still, calculating wildly.  I was alert, I was totally alert.  Inside me a feeling of intense expectation had grown, and a surprised resignation: because in this state of alert expectation I was seeing all my earlier expectations, I was seeing the awareness from which I’d also lived before, an awareness that never leaves me and that in the first analysis might be the thing that most attached to my life – perhaps that awareness was my life itself’.  The entire book is filled to the very brim with ideas, some of which are repeated three- or fourfold.  Lispector has also asked pertinent and pressing questions: ‘To find out what I really cold hope for, would I first have to pass through my truth?  To what extent had I invented a destiny now, whilst subterraneously living from another?’

The crux of the plot is about so little – the killing of a cockroach, which lasts for several pages – but it soon becomes a pivotal and all-consuming point from which everything else is born; the catalyst, as it were.  The Passion According to G.H. is fascinating, and is quite unlike anything I have read before.  For me, there were elements of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis present, but the novel is something so originally itself too.  Lispector, it is clear, is a marvellous author, and Novey’s is a fluid translation which, I imagine, reads with all the wonder and terror of the original.  The novel held my attention entirely until all of the religious-inspired prose came into play; yes, this is an important part of an existential crisis, I suppose, but I felt as though it was drawn out far too much to retain any interest.  Marvellously paced, The Passion According to G.H. is best savoured slowly.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘Between Dog and Wolf’ by Sasha Sokolov **

First published in Russia in 1980, Sasha Sokolov’s Between Dog and Wolf has been recently translated from its original Russian by Alexander Boguslawski, and the novel forms part of the Russian Library at Columbia University Press.  Sokolov began to write this novel, his second, before he emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1975.  What inspired him was his work as a game warden in the Volga, where he spent almost a full year living in a wooden cabin with no electricity.  In true Russian style, Sokolov’s chosen title comes from a quatrain in Pushkin’s wonderful Eugene Onegin. 9780231181464

On its publication, Between Dog and Wolf was greeted ‘with almost complete silence’, the antithesis to his Nabokov-endorsed first effort, A School for Fools.  The Western world ‘failed to review the novel, while their Russian emigre colleagues produced only a small number of rather general responses, without detailed discussion of its structure, language, or importance for Russian or world literature’.  Perhaps a valid reason for this omission is that the structure is so complex; it is comprised of the ‘uneducated, often dialectical, colloquial narrative of Ilya Petrikeich Zynzyrela’, as well as a poetic, impersonal style designed to reflect Russian literary tradition from the nineteenth century, and a series of poems ‘authored by Yakov’.

The introduction is, without a doubt, informative, and busies itself with allowing the reader the best inroad into this seemingly confusing novel.  Its style is academic; it is intelligent and useful, but reader beware, as it does tend to give away a lot of the later plot details.  In the main body of text, Ilya’s voice takes on a stream-of-consciousness style; Sokolov’s handling of dialect works well, and successfully puts across the kind of character his protagonist is.

It does take much determination to get through Between Dog and Wolf at times, but if you do reach the end, it is a book which is sure to stick with you for quite some time afterwards.  For me, it was a little too all over the place, and whilst it may be a book which I would have enjoyed had I had more patience, it is one which I have given up on for the time being.  It must be said that I did not abandon it because it was poor; I simply wasn’t in the mood for something so heavy going which I would have to work at considerably to enjoy.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Ice Lands’ by Steinar Bragi **

The Ice Lands is the second novel by Icelandic author Steinar Bragi, a critically acclaimed poet and author in his native land.  Translated by Lorenza Garcia, the novel takes as its focus two couples, all in their thirties, who have been affected by Iceland’s financial crisis. We meet reckless Egill, recovering alcoholic Hrafn, and their partners, Anna and Vigdis.  The quartet decide to embark upon a camping trip; the weather and the poor visibility which it brings mean that the Jeep in which they are travelling crashes into a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.  When they meet the couple who live inside said farmhouse, the premise heightens somewhat: ‘… the isolated dwelling is inhabited by a mysterious elderly couple who inexplicably barricade themselves inside every night.  As past tensions within the group rise to the surface, the merciless weather blocks every attempt at escape, forcing them to ask difficult questions: who has been butchering animals near the house?  What happened to the abandoned village nearby where bones lie strewn across the ground?  And most importantly, will they return home?’  A Swedish publication, Corren, deemed the novel ‘Iceland’s Twin Peaks’.

9781447298816The novel’s overall review score is quite poor, I felt, standing at 2.84 out of 5 on Goodreads.  This made me a little sceptical, I must say, but I love Icelandic literature, and was determined to give it a fair chance.  I felt a definite comradeship with all of the reviewers who have marked this a two- or one-star read quite early on, however; the dialogue is rather dull, and whilst the story is what really drives the whole onwards, it has not been overly well executed.

Bragi’s opening paragraph captures Iceland’s darkness effectively, yet rather simply: ‘Over the highlands all was still.  The shadows on the horizon darkened, growing sharper against the sky, before dissolving into the night’.  Sadly, the writing never really regains this quiet power, and an inconsistency is visible throughout.  The prose is very much of the telling rather than the showing variety, which gives the whole an element of dullness, and which renders the reader (or rendered me, at least) rather impatient for something to happen.  Bragi is very matter-of-fact, and a lot of the details discussed or included feel superfluous.  It’s just quite a boring book, and excerpts of prose such as the following would encourage me to avoid the work in question: ‘Through the open door of the barn they glimpsed bales of hay wrapped in green and white plastic.  In the yard in front of the barn stood a sand-blown Willys jeep.  The old woman was crouching beside one of the wheels in a pair of grubby overalls, poking a tool under the body of the vehicle.  Clearly she was in charge of more than the housework’.

The Ice Lands had a lot of potential, due not only to its setting, but to the intrigue of its plot.  Not a great deal else occurs that is not described in the book’s blurb, and it caused this particular reader to give up around a third of the way through.  Had an author such as Halldor Laxness used a similar plot in his fiction, I imagine that it would be incredibly compelling, and quite difficult to put down.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Festival of Insignificance’ by Milan Kundera ***

Milan Kundera’s The Festival of Insignificance was translated from the French by Linda Asher, and was first published in the United Kingdom in 2015.  I hadn’t heard of it before I spotted it in the library, and thought it would be perfect for my Saturdays in Translation challenge.  I have largely enjoyed Kundera’s writing in the past, and the blurb certainly intrigued: ‘Casting light on the most serious of problems and at the same time saying not one serious sentence; being fascinated by the reality of the contemporary world and at the same time avoiding realism – that’s The Festival of Insignificance’. 9780571316465

Split into seven parts, and filling just over one hundred pages, the novella begins in a way that, to me, smacked of Kundera: ‘It was the month of June, the morning sun was emerging from the clouds, and Alain was walking slowly down a Paris street.  He observed the young girls, who – every one of them – showed her naked navel between trousers belted very low and a T-shirt cut very short.  He was captivated; captivated and even disturbed: It was as if their seductive power no longer resided in their thighs, their buttocks, or their breasts, but in that small round hole located in the center of the body’.  In the opening section of the book, we meet what Kundera terms the ‘Heroes’ of the piece.  D’Ardelo, for instance, has been given the all-clear following a rigorous series of medical tests, but decides to fabricate an illness when he meets former colleague Ramon in the park: ‘Just simply, without knowing why, his fictional cancer pleased him’.

As with a lot of Kundera’s work, elaborately philosophical ideas and chapter headings have been inserted into every chapter – for instance, ‘Ramon’s Lesson on Brilliance and Insignificance’, and ‘Alain Sets a Bottle of Armagnac on Top of His Armoire’.  Many of these details are superfluous, but they do occasionally add a little humour to what would otherwise feel like quite a serious, slow-moving piece of literature.  The inclusions about Russian history were fascinating, but some of the philosophy, and a lot of the initial ideas, were repeated, often several times.  The Festival of Insignificance was, to me, a book which I could happily have not read; it was not as compelling as other works of Kundera’s, and did not really reach a favourable ending, slim as it was.  I do admire Kundera’s books, but I certainly wouldn’t count him as among my favourite authors.  It was, I suppose, rather an insignificant entry upon my reading list; one which I am relatively indifferent to.

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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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Reading the World 2017: ‘We, The Drowned’ by Carsten Jensen ***

I purchased We, The Drowned for my dad a couple of years ago in the hope that when he’d finished, I could read it too.  He hadn’t picked it up by the time my TBR was almost entirely diminished, so I decided to use my initiative and sneak it from his bookshelf whilst he wasn’t looking.  (Kidding.  I did ask.  I’m no Book Thief.)

Carsten Jensen’s novel has been voted the best Danish novel of the last 25 years, and has been translated by Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder.  Almost every review I have seen to date has been incredibly complimentary, and has been followed by at least four – but more often five – stars.  Joseph O’Connor’s quote on the back cover struck me immediately: ‘This is a book to sail into, to explore, to get lost in, but it is also a book that brings the reader, dazzled by wonders, home to the heart from which great stories come.  Meet Carsten Jensen halfway and you’re spellbound’.  It is rare, I think, to see a jacket review which is so highly filled with praise as this one is, and which does not rely on cliches to hook the browser.  The novel’s blurb describes it as ‘an epic tale of adventure, ruthlessness and passion’.  Various publications have called it ‘rollocking… rich, powerful and rewarding’, ‘innovative and unique’, and ‘a great hamper of a novel’.  I believed in consequence that I was going to be reading a novel which I would absolutely adore.

We, The Drowned begins in 1848, when a ‘motley crew of Danish sailors sets sail from the small town of Marstal’ in Denmark to fight a war against Germany, ‘who wanted to cut their ties with Denmark’.  Amongst these men is our first protagonist, Laurids Madsen.  He is an experienced seafarer, having sailed all seven seas by the time we meet him.  In the initial paragraph, we learn that he has been thrown up into the air when the ship on which he was sailing blew up.  In his own words, he travelled up to heaven and showed his ‘bare arse’ to Saint Peter; to the surprise of those on the ground beneath him, he ‘landed right back on his feet’. 9780099512967

The scope of Jensen’s novel is enormous.  He encompasses a one hundred year period, and includes four generations of a family.  The narrative perspective used treats the reader too as an onlooker, with its use of ‘we’, no matter which characters are being followed.  The first person narrative voice used in this way is undoubtedly effective in the telling of such an expansive tale, but it also serves to make the entirety feel quite disjointed, particularly from an emotional standpoint.  The reader has to view every occurrence through the same filter as the all-encompassing narrator, and there is thus little scope for adding one’s own opinion into the book whilst one is reading.  We see things exactly as they are set out; consequently, we have a prescribed, and quite restricted view.

The sense of static place in We, The Drowned is strong, and is often evoked dramatically.  Of the changing of the seasons for instance, Jensen writes: ‘Winter arrived, and with it the frost.  The boats were laid up in the harbour, the harbour froze over and an ice pack formed on the beach.  Island and sea became one; we inhabited a white continent whose infinity both beckoned and terrified us.  We could walk as far as Ristinge Klint on the island of Langeland if we wanted to, marching across frozen ships’ channels between sandbanks that lay like white hills, collecting snowdrifts fringed by ice packs.  It looked so wild, windswept and deserted’.  For me, Jensen’s descriptions were the real strength of the novel.

We, The Drowned is undoubtedly well written, but I did find it a little slow at times.  A lot of the details felt drawn out, and there were some sections which did not really hold my interest.  Jensen’s novel is undoubtedly ambitious, but for me, it did not live up to expectations, and verged on the disappointing.

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‘The Brothers’ by Asko Sahlberg ****

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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