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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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Reading the World: ‘Mend the Living’ by Maylis de Kerangal ***

9780857053855Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living, which won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017, was first published in France in 2014, and has been translated from its original French by Jessica Moore.  Its critical reception has been incredibly good; M. John Harrison in The Guardian writes that the novel is: ‘Filmically powerful, beautifully translated… [and] glorious’, and Astrid de Larminat in Figaro states: ‘This breathless novel has all the beauty of a Greek tragedy.’  Mend the Living was also longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

Mend the Living takes place over the space of a single day, and essentially tells the story of a heart transplant.  At the beginning of the novel, the heart resides in young Simon Limbeau; he is rendered braindead after a severe car accident following a beautifully evoked surfing trip.  The novel’s opening sentence, which is three hundred words long, begins in the following way, and gives one a great taster of de Kerangal’s prose style: ‘What it is, Simon Limbeau’s heart, this human heart, from the moment of birth when its cadence accelerated while other hearts outside were accelerating too, hailing the event, no one really knows…’.

Following Simon’s death, de Kerangal writes: ‘… and on this night – a night without stars – while it was bone-crackingly cold on the estuary and in the Caux region, while a reflectionless swell rolled along the base of the cliffs, while the continental plateau drew back, unveiling its geological stripes, this heart was sounding the regular rhythm of an organ at rest, a muscle slowly recharging…’.  De Kerangal’s prose is similarly poetic throughout, but does tend to verge upon the pretentious – with its ‘grandiloquent choreographies’, and ‘alveolar intensity’ – from time to time.  It is so vivid and sensual, however, that it gives the reader the opportunity to be present in every single moment depicted.  Moore’s translation is flawless; it must have taken an awful lot of work to render such long, complex sentences, and the style of prose.  Of a lot of interest is Moore’s translation note; she describes the way in which she ‘grappled with Maylis’s labyrinthine phrases’.

De Kerangal captures the uncontrollable grief of Simon’s mother incredibly well: ‘… the past has grown massive all at once, a life-guzzling ogre, and the present is nothing but an ultra-thin threshold, a line beyond which there is nothing recognisable.  The ringing of the phone has cloaked the continuity of time, and before the mirror where her reflection freezes, hands clutching the edges of the sink, Marianne turns to stone beneath the shock.’  The author also makes good use of building tension and creating uncertainty.

Mend the Living is certainly an intelligent and thoughtful novel.  It is not an easy read, per se; one really has to concentrate upon each, almost invariably long sentence.  I am one of the few not to adore it, but Mend the Living is certainly an admirable novel, with so many qualities to it.  The medical elements have clearly been meticulously researched, and the use of each chapter following a different character creates further depth.  Regardless, de Kerangal did not quite capture as much as I would have imagined.

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‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ by Yoko Tawada ****

Yoko Tawada is a Japanese author who, in her early twenties, moved to Germany in order to study and has been living there since. A rather prolific author, Tawada writes in both German and Japanese and her works are steadily becoming more and more known worldwide. As a Japanese woman living in Europe, the perspective she offers through her writing is truly unique and very fascinating, as it perfectly captures the feelings of expats without becoming overly dramatic.

33126922Memoirs of a Polar Bear is her most recent novel that’s translated from German to English by Susan Bernofsky, and thanks to the wonderful Lizzy I got the chance to read it as part of the German Literature Month, something I’m really grateful for (you can read Lizzy’s review over here). Coincidentally, the novel was awarded the very first Warwick prize for Women in Translation earlier this month, a prize which in my opinion was very well deserved.

Employing the technique of magical realism, the novel is divided into three parts, each one recounting the story of a polar bear, starting with the grandmother (whose name is unknown), moving on with the daughter (Tosca) and finishing up with the grandson (Knut). The first part, “The Grandmother: An Evolutionary Theory”, is narrated in first person by the polar bear herself as she relates her journey from Russia to Germany to Canada and back to Germany. While working at the circus, like all the polar bears of the novel do, she decides to start writing her autobiography, an attempt which renders her quite popular. Language and writing are two major themes which Tawada uses throughout this novel, as the first bear is constantly faced with linguistic barriers, something which might reflect Tawada’s own initial experience abroad. This dialogue of the polar bear with her editor conveys brilliantly this struggle with language:

“The language gets in my way.”

“The language?”

“Well, to be specific: German.”

[….] “I thought we had communicated quite clearly that you are to write in your own language, since we have a fantastic translator.”

“My own language? I don’t know which language that is. Probably one of the North Pole languages.”

“I see, a joke. Russian is the most magnificent literary language in the world.”

“Somehow I don’t seem to know Russian anymore.”

In the second part, “The Kiss of Death”, we are following Tosca, the daughter’s story. Instead of hearing the bear’s own voice like in the first part, however, here the narrator is Tosca’s human female partner in the circus. Thus, Tosca’s story is initially given through human eyes, but as the relationship between the two deepens further and further, their voices start intermingling and converging and in a way which only magical realism can justify, the woman hears Tosca’s voice in her mind and the words she eventually utters are not her own but the bear’s. Interestingly enough, this intermingling of voices (and identities, to an extent) happens after the woman decides to start writing Tosca’s biography, since, unlike her mother, Tosca is unable to write and communicate with the other humans. I found it particularly intriguing how the woman, who plays such a central role to this part and to Tosca’s life, remains unnamed throughout, just like Tosca’s bear mother in the previous part. IMG_0106

The woman’s obsession with communicating with Tosca ends up becoming a setback to her marriage, as her husband feels like the woman has rather lost touch with reality. This reminds me of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, where the protagonist’s obsession with not consuming meat or anything related to it also becomes detrimental to her marriage. Much like in the first part, language and communication become major issues, along with those of identity, femininity and maternality.

“Memories of the North Pole”, the third part, introduces us to Knut, Tosca’s son. Once again, Tawada beautifully plays with the narrative voices, as the narration here focuses on Knut and his perspective but is in third person. Later on it is revealed that it was Knut narrating his story all along, but he preferred using the third person even when referring to himself.

Like his mother and grandmother before him, Knut is working at the circus. Having never met his mother, he is being raised and taken care of by Matthias and Christian, who also work at the circus. Again, the issue of language ad communication is raised but I felt like the most prevailing theme here was that of family, relationships and familial bonds. Homosexuality is also brought up, since Matthias and Christian become Knut’s “parents” and the parallels to a homosexual couple bringing up a child are easily drawn.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear is a short but very rich book. Throughout the novel, there are many hints/metaphors for race (the whiteness of a polar bear’s fur contrasted with the brownness of a normal bear’s fur, which is much more commonly seen), immigration and different cultural backgrounds (the bears live among humans and they are of different species, so perhaps that insinuates different ethnicities?) and all those themes and issues raised could not be more relevant to today’s society.

I absolutely adored Tawada’s writing. It was beautiful and I wanted to savour each and every word. Despite its short length, this isn’t a novel to be devoured in a few hours, not only because of all the different themes it’s packed with but also because all the nuances of Tawada’s prose will be unfortunately missed. I definitely feel like I can never praise this book highly enough and my own words fail in conveying the magnificence of this novel. I will end this review with one of my favourite quotes:

“And there, in darkness, the grammars of many languages lost their color, they melted and combined, then froze solid again, they drifted in the ocean and joined the drifting floes of ice.”

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Reading the World: ‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov **** (One From the Archive)

Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake is the newest addition to the Peirene list, and is the first in the Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity series.  It was first published in Russia in 2011, and as with all of the Peirene titles, this is its first translation into English.  Andrew Bromfield has done a marvellous job in this respect, and it goes without saying that the book itself is beautiful.

The author’s own life is worth mentioning in this review.  Hamid Ismailov was born in Kyrgyzstan, and moved to Uzbekistan when he was a young man.  In 1994, he was forced to move to the United Kingdom due to his ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’.  Whilst his work has been translated into many European languages – Spanish, French and German among them – it is still banned in Uzbekistan to this day.

The Dead Lake, says its blurb, is ‘a haunting tale about the environmental legacy of the Cold War’.  The novella has received high praise indeed; the Literary Review says that the author ‘has the capacity of Salman Rushdie at his best to show the grotesque realization of history on the ground’.  Meike Ziervogel, the owner of Peirene Press, likens the novella to a Grimm’s fairytale due to the way in which the story ‘transforms an innermost fear into an outward reality’.

‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov (Peirene Press)

Its premise is absolutely stunning, and is at once both clever and creative: “Yerzhan grows up in a remote part of Soviet Kazakhstan where atomic weapons are tested.  As a young boy he falls in love with the neighbour’s daughter and one evening, to impress her, he dives into a forbidden lake.  The radioactive water changes Yerzhan.  He will never grow into a man.”

The Dead Lake begins with a note from the narrator, which denotes the moment at which he met our protagonist, Yerzhan, upon a train.  He tells his tale to the narrator, who remains unnamed throughout, and who punctuates it with his own feedback, recollections and imagined ending: ‘The way Yerzhan told me about his life was like this road of ours, without any discernible bends or backtracking’.

The story then centres upon Yerzhan himself, beginning with his uncertain birth: ‘Yerzhan was born at the Kara-Shagan way station of the East Kazakhstan Railway…  The column for “Father” in his birth certificate had remained blank, except for a thick stroke of the pen’.  His mother attests that his conception came as a surprise after she, ‘more dead than alive’, made her way into the deserted steppe to follow her silk scarf after it had blown away.  Here, she states that she came face to face with ‘a creature who looked like an alien from another planet, wearing a spacesuit’.  Since a cruel beating from her own father which was sustained after her pregnancy began to show, she has not spoken a single word.

Only two families live in the small way station named Kara-Shagan, and the sense of place and the desolation which Ismailov creates from the outset is strong.  The use of local words, folktales and songs adds to this too, and all of the aforementioned elements help to shape both the culture of the characters and their situation in an underpopulated part of their country.  The setting is presented as a character in itself at times, and this is a wonderful tool with which to demonstrate its vital importance to those who live within it.

As with all of Peirene’s titles, The Dead Lake is filled to the brim with intrigue from the very beginning.  Yerzhan has been well crafted, and his childish delight in particular has been well translated to the page.  When hearing his violin being played by a Bulgarian maestro of sorts, Ismailov describes the way in which: ‘the sound was so pure… even a blind man would have seen the blue sky, the dance of the pure air, the clear sunlight, the snow white clouds, the joyful birds’.

On a far darker note, the overriding fear of atomic bombs and the looming of a third world war gives the story an almost apocalyptic feel: ‘We are travellers, and the sky above us is full of enemy planes’.  The Dead Lake is quite unlike anything which I have read to date.  Ismailov presents a most interesting glimpse into a culture which is entirely different to ours.  The novella is absorbing, and the entirety is so powerful, particularly with regard to its ending.

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Two Reviews: ‘The Wheel Spins’ by Ethel Lina White, and ‘Triumph and Disaster’ by Stefan Zweig

The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White *****
I adore ‘The Lady Vanishes’; it is easily one of my favourite films. I also love discovering 7210forgotten authors who have fallen by the wayside for one reason or another. Imagine my delight then when I found a Kindle copy of Ethel Lina White’s collected works, including The Wheel Spins, the novel which Hitchcock’s film was based upon.

The Wheel Spins is remarkably slick. White moves from one character to the next so fluidly, and her writing is strong. I was immediately pulled in. Whilst Hitchcock’s film adaptation follows White’s plot relatively well, there is so much depth within the novel; the backstories of many of the secondary characters are given. The Wheel Spins has a wonderful mystery at its heart, and is both entertaining and perfectly paced. I highly recommend it for fans of Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Edmund Crispin.

 

Triumph and Disaster by Stefan Zweig **** 9781782272748
Triumph and Disaster added something a little different to my October TBR list.  I have read quite a bit of Zweig’s fiction, and very much enjoyed it, but this volume leans more toward non-fiction, presenting as it does a series of five historical figures at pivotal moments in their lives.  Zweig’s content of historical miniatures is varied, even eclectic; here, he discusses Napoleon, Captain Scott, the conquest of Byzantium, Lenin in April 1917, and the Treaty of Versailles.

Zweig’s accounts are beautifully written, and have been splendidly translated.  They are fanciful at times; poetic licence has certainly been used, and accounts are not always factually accurate.  What Zweig does, however, is immediately engage his reader, giving an awareness of rich and fascinating pieces of history.

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Reading the World: ‘Therese Desqueyroux’ by Francois Mauriac ****

Therese Desqueyroux is my first Francois Mauriac title.  I read, not the edition pictured, but an older Penguin Classics compilation of the titular story, Therese Desqueyroux (1927) as well as three other tales which follow Therese’s life – ‘Therese and the Doctor’ (1928), ‘Therese at the Hotel’ (1928), and ‘The End of the Night’ (1935).  The dates mentioned relate to their original French publication; the years in which they were first translated into English are 1928 for the original, and 1947 for the three others.  Gerald Hopkins is the translator for both Penguin editions.

9780141394053The two novellas, and two short stories, which follow Mauriac’s most famous literary creation, are set in Bordeaux and Paris.  They chart her ‘passionate, tortured life…  Her story, brilliantly and unforgettably told, affirms the beauty and vitality of the human spirit in “the eternal radiance of death”‘.  Of Mauriac’s writing, Justin O’Brien tells the following in the New York Times: ‘Both his subject and his style frequently recall Racine and Baudelaire; and indeed we often feel that we are dealing here with a poem, so rich is the symbolism and so fleet is the arrangement of themes.’  Martin Seymour-Smith says that: ‘His books are bewitchingly readable.’

The author’s foreword, directed as it is toward Therese, ends: ‘I take my leave of you upon a city’s pavements, hoping, at least, that you will not for ever be utterly alone.’  The title story begins with Therese walking from court, ‘having been charged with attempting to poison her husband’.  We then follow Therese as she is banished from her home, escapes to Paris, and spends her final years of solitude waiting.  Mauriac’s depiction of the Paris cityscape is nothing short of stunning: ‘It is not the bricks and mortar that I love, nor even the lectures and museums, but the living human forest that fills the streets, the creatures torn by passions more violent than any storm.’

There are so many small yet unusual details which render Therese a believable, and markedly human, character: ‘She took off her left-hand glove and began picking at the moss which grew between the old stones of the walls they passed’, and ‘Once more she breathed in the damp night air like someone threatened with suffocation.’  Mauriac clearly believes that he has built her up to such a realistic position; he writes: ‘But compared with her own terrible existence all inventions of the novelist would have seemed thin and colourless.’  His depiction of Therese’s motherhood is often startlingly beautiful: ‘There, in the darkness, the young mother would hear the even breathing of her slumbering child, would lean above the bed and drink down, like a draught of cool, refreshing water, the small sleeping life.’

In Therese Desqueyroux, Therese tries desperately to remember why she married her husband; she loves him, both for himself, and what he stands for – property, family, security – but the passion which she would have imagined she had felt is unavailable to her.  Soon after their marriage, Mauriac shows that things began to go sour, particularly for her husband, Bernard: ‘… their being together no longer gave him any happiness.  He was bored to death away from his guns, his dogs, and the inn…  His wife was so cold, so mocking.  She never showed pleasure even if she felt any, would never talk about what interested him.’  As for Therese: ‘She was like a transported criminal, sick to her soul of transit prisons, and anxious only to see the Convict Island where she would have to spend the rest of her life.’

Therese Desqueyroux has been both beautifully written and translated.  Therese’s story is incredibly sad, and demonstrates how one can be overruled and shunned in terms of their character and choices. One cannot help but feel for Therese; she is a fascinating character to study.  I did not quite love the collection, but the title story particularly was so interesting to read.

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‘The Still Storm’ by Francoise Sagan ****

To date, I have read quite a few of Francoise Sagan’s books.  Like the majority of English speakers, I imagine, I began with her quiet masterpiece, Bonjour Tristesse, which was published when the author was just nineteen, and led her to become something of a literary sensation.  I have since encountered such gems as A Certain Smile and her short story collection, Incidental Music.  Each time I come across one of her books therefore, regardless of the invariable ugliness of the paperback copy, I will happily pick it up.

The Still Storm has been heralded ‘Sagan’s finest love story’ by Elle, and The Guardian deems it ‘serious, skilled and successful’.  The rather short novel is set in Angouleme, in the French province of Aquitaine, where Flora de Margelasse, a young woman recently widowed, has arrived to reclaim her family estate.  A local man named Nicholas Lomont, who works in the legal profession, narrates the whole.  He immediately falls in love with Flora, but she is quite unable to return such feelings to him.  When she falls in love with someone else, ‘the son of a farm labourer, who shamelessly betrays her, the world of Nicholas Lomont51ewftrip-l-_sy344_bo1204203200_ and the provincial French bourgeoisie is shattered.’

Told in retrospect, Nicholas attempts to relay his memories of Flora: ‘Writing and remembering, both, have dangerous and painful consequences…  I continue to write for no reason and for no one’s benefit.  The scratching of this pen is an end in itself…’.  He is honest, sometimes painfully so, of his experiences of loving Flora: ‘Let us simply say that right from the start I was resigned to loving Flora; worse, I was proud to love her, proud in advance of all that she would bring upon me, including the cruellest unhappiness.’  He goes on to recount her relationship with the young farmhand, Gildas.

The Still Storm begins in the following manner, which effectively sets the tone of the whole: ‘If one day someone else should read these pages – if an author’s blind vanity or some quirk of fate prevent me from destroying them – that reader should know that it is for my own recollection, and not for the entertainment of others, that I embark on this account of the summer of 1832 and the years that followed.’  Sagan’s style of writing, and the plot which she has woven, put me in mind of Daphne du Maurier throughout.

The French countryside has been vividly evoked, and the changing of the seasons depicted with such care: ‘Despite the little, round, prancing clouds – pink, white, blue, and bright red in the west at sunset – the sky dominates the landscape.  It seems to rest on our meadows, our churches, our little towns, lying heavily on our land and stretching to the horizon on all sides, day after day…  The weather is of more importance here than elsewhere because the sky is closer and the sunshine more direct.  The nights are darker, the winds wilder, and the heat and snow more still.’  Sagan also has a real strength in demonstrating her characters, from their passions to their appearances.  The final time in which Nicholas sees Flora, he writes: ‘I remember her as I saw her then.  She wore a dress of crumpled silk, and her superb profusion of blonde hair danced in the bright sunlight like an oriflamme captured from the enemy that was branded in derision over her face now white and sexless and ageless.’

The edition which I read has been wonderfully translated from its original French by Christine Donougher, and was published in France in 1983, and English for the first time the year afterwards.  The Still Storm is engaging from start to finish.  Sagan’s writing is rich, and has a beautiful clarity to it.  There is undoubtedly a touch of the Gothic, and of overblown melodrama, but that makes it all the more fun to read.  The Still Storm is a wise and contemplative novel, sometimes dark and surprising, which reflects upon both individuals and the wider society.