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Reading the World: ‘Gilgi, One Of Us’ by Irmgard Keun *****

Gilgi (full title, Gilgi, One Of Us) has been presented in a new English translation as part of Melville House Publishing’s Neversink Library collection.  First published in its original German in 1931, Irmgard Keun’s debut novel, published when she was just twenty-six, has been rendered into the most beautiful English prose by Geoff Wilkes.  In Germany, Gilgi became an overnight sensation, and Keun was driven to sue the Gestapo several years afterwards for blocking her royalties.

9781612192772The protagonist of Gilgi is Gisela Kron, a ‘disciplined and ambitious secretary’ in a hosiery business.  Immediately admirable with her hardworking stubbornness,  she is desperately ‘trying to establish her independence in a society being overtaken by fascism’.  Falling in love, however, is a ‘fateful choice’ which will ‘unmoor’ Gilgi from her own position in the world, that which she has fought for so long to uphold.  Gilgi is essentially a coming-of-age novel; whilst Gilgi is biologically older than a character whom we might expect to undergo such a formative transformation, she learns much about the world around her, and about herself, as the novel progresses.  She is made aware of her own strengths and weaknesses, and the place which she occupies in both public and private spheres in her home city of Cologne.

Keun’s choice of opening is fascinating, and very much sets the tone for the whole: ‘She’s holding it firmly in her hands, her little life, the girl Gilgi.  She calls herself Gilgi, her name is Gisela.  The two i‘s [sic] are better suited to slim legs and narrow hips like a child’s, to tiny fashionable hats which contrive mysteriously to stay perched on the very top of her head.  When she’s twenty-five, she’ll call herself Gisela.  But she’s not at that point quite yet.’  She is a cool-headed character, and faced with many of the challenges as she is, many other protagonists would have inevitably had some sort of breakdown or existential crisis.  Not Gilgi.  She is a firm believer in dealing with everything thrown at one, and she does so largely flawlessly.

Gilgi’s familial situation is exposed to the reader almost immediately: ‘No one speaks.  Everyone is earnestly and dully occupied with their own concerns.  The complete lack of conversation testifies to the family’s decency and legitimacy.  Herr and Frau Kron have stuck together through years of honorable tedium to their silver wedding anniversary.  They love each other, and are faithful to each other, something which has become a matter of routine, and no longer needs to be discussed, or felt’.

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Irmgard Keun

Gilgi is very of its time; Keun is never far away from inserting snippets of social history, or the economic struggles which many around Gilgi faced on a daily basis.  So many issues which are still of much importance in our modern society are tackled here – patriarchy, sexual relations, pregnancy out of wedlock, and the very concept of womanhood.  It is an astoundingly frank work, both ‘piercingly perceptive and formally innovative’.  Gilgi is told on the morning of her twenty-first birthday, for instance, that her parents are not biologically hers, and then given the details of her birth mother.

Gilgi herself provides a contrast to the societal norms held for women during the period; she is proactive, has her own job, and pays for her own things: ‘I want to work, want to get on, want to be self-supporting and independent…  At the moment I’m learning my languages – I’m saving money…’.  She may still live at home with the Krons who raised her, but she makes clear that her biggest aim in life is to fund her own apartment.

Until she meets Martin, the idea of being a kept woman repulses her; indeed, even with Martin, Keun has allowed Gilgi her independence.  The pair move in with one another to the vacant apartment of one of Martin’s friends; he is unshakeable in his existence and largely lives hand to mouth, so it is up to Gilgi to work and pay for everything.  Again, tradition is eschewed here, and Keun demonstrates to a point that a woman of the period could make things work by herself.  Gilgi’s grand ambitions still live within her, even when she becomes conscious that they are not perhaps achievable due to the pregnancy which befalls her naive self.

I was put in mind of reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage at several points during the novel; the narrative voice which Keun has crafted simultaneously weaves the first and third person perspectives together in a beguiling manner.  There is a wonderful stream-of-consciousness approach to the whole in places.  Gilgi is a fascinating, deeply complex, and thoroughly realistic character.  Each individual consequence which she has to face is tackled with the utmost verisimilitude.  Gilgi is a stunning novel, with prose echoes of Hans Fallada and Stefan Zweig.  It is absolutely wonderful, and sure to delight those with a fondness for strong female characters, or who want to read a striking piece of translated literature.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Leech’ by Cora Sandel ****

I chose to purchase Cora Sandel’s The Leech for my Reading the World project, as she is an author whom has been on my radar for an awfully long time, but whose books appear to be few and far between.  I had originally thought that I would start with the Alberta trilogy which Sandel is arguably most famous for, but  The Leech was the most easily available of her books to me through Abebooks, and so I plumped for it as what I hoped would be a good introduction to her work.  The only other person who has reviewed it on Goodreads also compared it to Virginia Woolf, so of course it was almost inevitable that I was going to begin with this one.

The Leech was first published in Norway in 1958, and in the United Kingdom two years later.  This particular translation has been wonderfully rendered by Elizabeth Rakkan, and printed by The Women’s Press.  Interestingly, we do not meet the woman, Dondi, whom the story revolves around until almost the end of the work.  She is relatively young, and left her home in southern Norway to head to a small town within the Arctic Circle in order to marry.  The Leech begins ten years after Dondi’s decision has been made, and things have not turned out quite as she was expecting them to.  Her writer husband, Gregor, is less than famous, her twin children Bella and Beppo are rebellious, and she is ‘miserable to the point of hysteria’.  Added to this, Gregor’s extended family see Dondi as the reason why he has not quite realised his full potential as a writer; they believe that she has sapped his talent pool dry. 9780704340053-us

The Leech takes place over two days in Midsummer, and from the beginning, Sandel sets the scene perfectly: ‘The veranda doors were open to the radiant North Norwegian summer: a summer which heaps light upon light, shining and brittle, only to fade too soon’.  The majority of the prose takes place within conversations; it opens with Lagerta speaking to her grandmother, who is berating everything modern, from jazz music to motorcycles.  She is grimly comic and belligerent, most fulfilled when she has something to complain about, and somebody to argue her points against.  She is shrewd, and notices everything, telling her granddaughter the following in the opening passage: ‘”But you Lagerta, are over-nervous, my dear.  You must have something in your hands all the time.  You can’t rest any more, don’t think I haven’t noticed it.  One can simply get too tired.”‘

Gregor’s brother, Jonas, acts with his aunt Lagerta and his great-grandmother as a voice of reason in the novel.  We learn an awful lot about Dondi, and her relationship with Gregor, but our view of her is always through their disapproving eyes until she appears in the flesh.  She has very little agency; until she is given a voice of her own, our interpretation of her is negatively biased, and when she is allowed her say, she is forever being fussed over and ordered around somewhat by those around her.  Whilst Dondi is always the focus of their speech, the characters do become protagonists in the piece through Sandel’s clever and effective prose techniques.  Lagerta particularly describes how she has had to live through and adapt to a changing world; she is a thoroughly three-dimensional being, and the most realistic character in the book.

The geographical isolation of the family is best described by Lagerta, when she states: ‘”Coming up here was a violent experience…  I don’t know what to compare it with – being killed and slowly coming alive again.  I was not myself for a while…”‘.  The relationships which Sandel draws are complex and interesting, and the homestead in the middle of nowhere exacerbates the fact that they have few other people for company outside of the familial base.

Sadly, and undeservedly, The Leech has fallen by the wayside.  Using Goodreads as a marker, it has had only a few ratings, and one review other than mine.  There is a marvellous flow to the whole thanks to Rakkan’s translation.  The Leech is a wonderful read, full of interesting and important points about the state of the world and a woman’s place within it, and great writing.  If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s a book which I would certainly recommend.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Rabbit Back Literature Society’ by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskalainen ****

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskalainen was first published in Finland in 2006.  The novel in its lovely Pushkin Press edition has been translated from its original Finnish by Lola M. Rogers.

The novel’s protagonist, twenty six-year-old Ella Milana, is first introduced to us as ‘the reader’.  She is a Finnish language and literature teacher – ‘a dreamy substitute with defective ovaries and gracefully curved lips’ – who has returned to her hometown, Rabbit Back, to work as a substitute at the high school.  Whilst living in her childhood home once more, Ella finds herself with rather a lot to deal with – along with a stressful pile of marking each evening, her father is suffering from quite extreme memory loss, and all that interests her mother are ‘television shows and entering raffle drawings in the hope of winning a prize’.

Ella’s story begins when one of her students is found reading an incorrect version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in which the plot has been altered considerably: ‘… the existence of the irregular Dostoevky deeply offended her, and when she was offended she could sometimes do impulsive, purely intuitive things’.  When returning it to the local library, Ella becomes suspicious that the librarian is not more surprised by the incident: ‘A prank like that would take a very unusual saboteur and it was hard to imagine what the motive would be.  And how could such a book remain in circulation for nearly twenty years without anyone noticing anything strange about it?’

The Rabbit Back Literature Society of the novel’s title is ‘a collection of gifted children who would, with [Laura] White’s guidance, grow up to be writers’.  Promising students at the Rabbit Back school have work sent to local and revered children’s author Laura White, who is continually involved in ‘her search for the new members she desires’.  At the beginning of the novel, however, the society has had no new members for three decades: ‘The possibility of joining the society was practically theoretical, since the entire present membership – nine lifetime member authors – had all joined in the first three years after the Society was established in 1968’.

After one of Ella’s short stories is published in a supplement in the local paper, however, she is invited to join the Society.  We are given quite a fascinating insight into the world of the elite in consequence.  At a society get together, for example, ‘The members of the Rabbit Back Literature Society don’t seem to be talking with each other.  They pass close by each other now and then, but never look each other in the eye, never indulge in conversation.  One could very easily assume that they don’t know each other at all’.  Two elements of mystery – one of which revolves around a shadowy past member whom nobody really remembers, and the other of which deals with the sudden unexplained disappearance of Laura White herself – soon come to light.

Bookish Ella is a character whom I found myself immediately endeared to: ‘She’d read more than was healthy, hundreds of books every year.  Some of them she read twice, or even three times, before returning them.  Some of them she would check out again after letting them sink in a while.  She’d thought at that time that books were at their best when you’d read them two or three times’.

The novel’s third person perspective focuses mainly upon Ella and her place in Rabbit Back; a lot of thought has clearly gone into her character, her past and her actions. Such care has been taken over the translation of The Rabbit Back Literature Society, and it flows wonderfully.  The whole is compelling, and is filled with some lovely passages and ideas.  There is a creative aspect to be found in The Rabbit Back Literature Society, and Jaaskalainen has woven in elements of magical realism here and there, which add a wonderful balance to the whole.  The novel becomes darker as it goes on, and it has been so well crafted that it is a true joy to read.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘Maybe This Time’ by Alois Hotschnig ****

Originally released in 2006, and rendered into English into 2011, Alois Hotschnig’s Maybe This Time is one of Peirene Press’ earliest publications.  World Literature Today declares that ‘Hotschnig’s prose dramatizes the voice of conscience and the psychological mechanisms we use to face reality or, just as often, to avoid it’.  Hotschnig is one of Austria’s most critically acclaimed authors, and he has won major Austrian, and international, literary prizes over his career.  The collection has been translated from the Austrian German by Tess Lewis.

9780956284051Hotschnig’s short story collection has been described by many readers as ‘unsettling’, and this, I feel, is quite a fitting appraisal.  There is a creeping sense of unease which comes over one as soon as the stories are begun.  The initial tale, ‘The Same Silence, the Same Noise’, is about a pair of neighbours who sit side by side in the narrator’s eyeline for days on end: ‘… they didn’t move, not even to wave away the mosquitoes or scratch themselves’.  This has rather a distressing effect upon our unnamed observer: ‘Every day, every night, always the same.  Their stillness made me feel uneasy, and my unease grew until it festered into an affliction I could no longer bear’.  His reaction is perhaps the most interesting one which Hotschnig could have come up with in this instance: ‘I drew closer to them because they rejected me.  Rejection, after all, is still a kind of contact’.  As one might expect as the midway point is reached in this tale, the narrator soon becomes obsessed: ‘I decided to observe them even more closely to calm my unease, as if I no longer had a life of my own but lived only through them’.

There are nine short stories included within Maybe This Time, all of which have rather intriguing titles.  These include the likes of ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’, and ‘You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers’.  Some rather thoughtful ideas have been woven in; they have a definite profundity at times: ‘We looked at the same views, heard the same noises.  We shared a common world and were separated by it’.  Each of the tales is sharp; every one relatively brief, but all of which have a wealth of emotions and scenes packed into them.  Hotschnig is shrewd, and in control at all times; he makes the reader fear impending danger with the most subtle of hints.

No particular time periods have been specified within the collection, and only small clues have been left as to when each story takes place.  They are, one and all, essentially suspended in time.  I did find a couple of the stories a little abrupt in terms of their endings, but this collection is certainly a memorable one.  There is a great fluency in Lewis’ translation, which helps to render Maybe This Time one of the creepiest reads on Peirene’s list thus far.

 

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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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