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Women in Translation Month: ‘Go, Went, Gone’ by Jenny Erpenbeck (One From the Archive)

First published in 2019.

Go, Went, Gone by German author Jenny Erpenbeck was my book club’s choice for January.  I have read all of her other books which have been translated into English thus far, and find them all wonderfully strange, and highly memorable.  I was therefore looking forward to dipping into this novel, which is the winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the English PEN Award.  Go, Went, Gone was also longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.  Sally Rooney has called it ‘vital’, and The Guardian ‘profound’.  It has been translated into English by Susan Bernofsky.

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The novel’s protagonist is a retired University professor of Classical Philology named Richard, a man who has lived alone in Berlin since the death of his wife.  Early on in the novel, he finds ‘a surprising new community on Oranienplatz – among the African asylum seekers who have set up a tent city there.’  As Richard slowly gets to know them, his life starts to change, and his own sense of belonging is thrown into question.

The story begins on the first day of Richard’s retirement, in which he finds himself cast rather adrift: ‘He doesn’t know how long it’ll take him to get used to having time.  In any case. his head still works just the same as before.  What’s he going to do with the thoughts still thinking away inside his head?’  His existence, rather than peopled with daily interactions with students and other members of staff, suddenly feels suffused with loneliness.  The inability which he now has to share his work with his peers, and with the wider community, saddens him: ‘As it is, everything his wife always referred to as his stuff now exists for his pleasure alone.  And will exist for no one’s pleasure when he’s gone.’

I admired the way in which Erpenbeck brought together quite disparate goings on in the world, using Richard as the more focused, privileged, Western character, and placing not-so-faraway terrors in his wake.  I found the following scene rather startling: ‘This isn’t the first time he’s felt ashamed to be eating dinner in front of a TV screen displaying the bodies of people felled by gunfire or killed by earthquakes or plane crashes, someone’s shoe left behind after a suicide bombing, or plastic-wrapped corpses lying side by side in a mass grave during an epidemic.’  In this manner, and later through the individuals whom he meets, the migrant crisis is firmly embedded throughout the narrative, entwining with Richard’s own life.  I also enjoyed the parallels which Erpenbeck drew between the Ancient world and the modern; for instance, the comparison made between the anonymous demonstration of migrants on Alexanderplatz, who refused to give their identities or nationalities, to the story in which Odysseus ‘called himself Nobody to escape from the Cyclops’s cave.’

Erpenbeck’s commentary about the Berlin Wall, which ran alongside the present-day crisis, was a forcefultool, establishing similarity between Richard and the migrants.  When Erpenbeck describes the way in which the demolition of the Wall made Berlin almost unknowable to Richard, likenesses form with the borders which the migrants he meets have to try and overcome: ‘Now that the Wall is gone, he no longer knows his way around.  Now that the Wall is gone, the city is twice as big and has changed so much that he often doesn’t recognize the intersections.’  With the Wall as her focus, Erpenbeck is able to mark the passing of time, as well as the changing face of both the city, and its political climate.  Instead of the ‘good bookstore around the corner, a repertory cinema, and a lovely cafe’ around Oranienplatz, the scene now looks more like a ‘construction site: a landscape of tents, wooden shacks, and tarps: white, blue, and green…  What does he see?  What does he hear?  He sees banners and propped-up signs with hand-painted slogans.  He sees black men and white sympathizers…  The sympathizers are young and pale, they dye their hair with henna, they refuse to believe that the world is an idyllic place and want everything to change, for which reason they put rings through their lips, ears, and noses. The refugees, on the other hand, are trying to gain admittance to this world that appears to them convincingly idyllic.  Here on the square, these two forms of wishing and hoping cross paths, there’s an overlap between them, but this silent observer doubts that the overlap is large.

At the novel’s opening, Erpenbeck lets us know that Richard has been shielded from the world around him – physically in terms of the marked space imposed upon him by the Berlin Wall, but figuratively too, moving as he does in the same circles and routines throughout his work, and with his wife.  In Go, Went, Gone, the refugees are given the ability to make Richard more malleable, to open his eyes to the wider world, and to shape elements of his persona.  Richard, despite his good education, job as a professor, and prior travels, was previously ignorant to such things as African geography, and could come across as ignorant.  When he meets a group of migrants for the first time, for instance, Erpenbeck writes: ‘The refugees weren’t all doing so badly, Richard thinks, otherwise how could this fellow be so burly?’ I found some of Richard’s gradual realisations quite moving; for example: ‘There’s something he’s never thought of since these men aren’t being permitted to arrive, what looks to him like peacetime here is for them basically still war.’

The novel’s blurb declares that in Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck makes ‘a passionate contribution to the debate on race, privilege and nationality’.  I agree with this; she certainly explores many issues which revolve around the notions of statehood and selfhood, and the difficulties which so many people have to overcome in order just to live in safety.  Reading such novels as this in our current climate, which places such emphasis on borders and boundaries, is pivotal.  The use which Erpenbeck makes of the present tense throughout just makes the realistic story which she has built feel all the more urgent.  So much of the human experience can be found within this novel.

The only drawback of Go, Went, Gone for me is that it only features the male perspective, but perhaps this is what Erpenbeck was going for.  The few female characters here are either absent – Richard’s wife, and the wives and sisters of many of the migrants – or on the periphery.  In some ways, this absence makes the book seem limiting; in others, I suppose, it is rendered more realistic, as Richard perhaps would not have been allowed the same access to female migrants.  The other slight issue that I had is with the translation; whilst I found Bernofsky’s work fluid, there were some overly long, and occasionally quite muddled, sentences within the novel.

Overall, I found Go, Went, Gone poignant and highly thought-provoking; it made me give so much consideration to the world in which we live, the terrible things which humankind daily proves itself capable of, and notions of privilege.  There is a strong sense of place, and of selfhood, here, and I really did like the way in which the author has not presented Germany, or the wider Western world, as a utopia. Throughout, I found Erpenbeck’s tone, and the omniscient narrative perspective, effective.  I admire the amount of themes which the author has been able to pack in.  She considers, with empathy, what it must be feel like to be an essentially stateless migrant in the modern world, and the injustices which face them on a daily basis.  Go, Went, Gone is a timely novel which I would highly recommend.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray’ by Dominique Barbéris ****

For me, Daunt Books are an incredibly exciting publisher. Not only are they bringing out themed anthologies with commissioned content from contemporary authors both well-known and new to me, they are also making a concerted effort to translate works from other countries. Any reader of my reviews will know that I am an enormous fan of French literature, and so Daunt’s release of Dominique Barbéris’ A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray was a title which immediately made its way onto my must-read list.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray was longlisted for the Prix Goncourt, and shortlisted for the Prix Femina, both incredibly prestigious awards in the author’s native France. This edition has been translated into English by John Cullen. Although Barbéris is a prolific author, this novella is the only one of her books currently available in English.

The novel begins on a Sunday in early September, ‘one of those days thar cross the border between summer and autumn’. Our protagonist, high school teacher Jane, is leaving her home in Paris in order to visit her sister, Claire Marie, in the western suburbs of the city, a place called Ville-d’Avray. Although it is less than an hour away from the centre, our narrator tells us that it ‘seems like another world, with its secluded streets and set-back houses.’ Claire Marie lives in: ‘One of these streets that climb the hills near the Parc de Saint-Cloud’.

The sisters do not see one another often, and Jane rarely visits. In fact, the sisters have not spoken for an entire year before Jane’s unexpected visit. Jane’s partner professes that he finds her sister ‘boring’; she tells us, though, that ‘it would be more accurate to say that he’s suspicious of her’. For Claire Marie, Sundays are a sacred time, where she can devote hours to thinking about life, and ‘whether she expected something more from it, and whether she is still waiting for it to begin.’

Interspersed with the present-day narrative are sections where Jane thinks about Sundays which she spent during her childhood in Brussels. On Sundays, ‘Night fell faster than it did on the other days of the week’, and her mother was perpetually worked up about having to run the household: ‘… she’d say that Sundays were unbearable, and that her life was a failure.’ During this particular visit, Claire Marie is also thinking about the past; she reveals to Jane an ‘encounter’ which she had several years before, with one of her doctor husband’s patients. This could have changed the entire course of her life, and she continually wonders what would have happened if she had chosen this other, different path. She muses: ‘“On Sundays – don’t you think? – certain things come back to you more than on other days.”’

The sisters are both unhappy with aspects of their lives, and are visibly uncomfortable around one another. Jane reveals to us: ‘As I waited in the garden, I also had a familiar with indefinable feeling, slightly heavy, like a mild illness. Ville-d’Avray is just a few minutes from Paris, but you’d think you were hundreds of kilometres away. That, no doubt, explains how a man like [her partner] Luc can be incapable of comprehending the universe my sister lives in.’ She tells us that she was ‘in the melancholy state of mind that often comes over me when I go to see my sister…’.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray is constructed of a series of short vignettes which move back and forth in time. This is something which I love in fiction, and I felt that Barbéris controlled the technique incredibly well. The narrative, despite flipping back and forth somewhat between time periods, never feels confusing, or disjointed. The visceral descriptions throughout were also most enjoyable to read. Jane reflects: ‘I could practically see my sister stalling with her stranger in a setting composed of reflections, of beautiful trees, of leaves speckled with tiny light-coloured patches, like eye floaters, as if the blurriness of dreams interposed itself between the image and the beholder…’. Throughout, I also really liked the way in which our narrator described the physical being of her sister, and revealed snippets about their relationship.

There is something rather creepy which settles throughout this novella. When we learn about the stranger with whom Claire Marie had her ‘encounter’, we are led to put our guard up against him straight away. I think that this element of mystery fitted in well with the narrative, and I could not put the book down. A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray is a striking book, which builds wonderfully to its conclusion.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa (One From the Archive)

Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor was a book club pick for February.  Ogawa is an author whom I have only sampled through her interconnected short story collection, Revenge, which is vivid even two and a half years later.  I plumped for The Housekeeper and the Professor as my book club choice because it sounded utterly charming, and looked like it would present a wonderful – and slightly unusual – slice of Japanese life.  First published in Japan in 2003, and translated into English by Stephen Snyder, the novel both met and exceeded my expectations.

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The Professor of the novel, a former maths teacher whose name we never learn, only has eighty minutes of short-term memory function, following a traumatic head injury seventeen years before the narrative begins.  His memory effectively stops in 1975.  Each morning, his housekeeper has to meet him anew: ‘… as the Professor and the Housekeeper are reintroduced to one another, a strange, beautiful relationship blossoms between them.  The Professor may not remember what he had for breakfast, but his mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past’.  It is she who narrates the story.  The third character in the novel is the Housekeeper’s ten-year-old son.  He is at first rather reluctant to spend so much time with the elderly Professor, but the two soon form an unshakeable bond.

The novel’s opening sentence really sets the tone for the whole: ‘We called him the Professor.  And he called my son Root, because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign’.  Ogawa’s writing is lovely, and she sets scenes simply yet beautifully: ‘It was a rainy evening in early April.  My son’s schoolbag lay abandoned on the rug.  The light in the Professor’s study was dim.  Outside the window, the blossoms on the apricot tree were heavy with rain’.

Maths is the force which serves to really unite the trio; as the Housekeeper describes to us, ‘… I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do.  Numbers were his way of reaching out to the world.  They were safe, a source of comfort’.  There are many mathematical problems, diagrams, and equations which have been included, but they seem a natural addition to the whole.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is rather a peaceful novel about understanding, trust, and family; protection, selflessness, and kindness.  Ogawa’s prose is unfailingly lovely, and the whole has been sensitively wrought.  The Housekeeper and the Professor is an understanding and deep tome, which transports the reader entirely.  All in all, it is a satisfying novel, which restores one’s faith in humankind, particularly within these turbulent times in which we live.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘The Winterlings’ by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade ****

My library kindly purchased Cristina Sánchez-Andrade’s The Winterlings on my behalf. I thought that it would be an excellent choice to review for Women in Translation Month, as I’ve seen little written about it. I also wanted to be sure to include something set in Spain, as I am making a concerted effort to read more fiction set throughout the country. Published in English by Scribe in 2016, and translated from its original Spanish by Samuel Rutter, the novel has been the recipient of a few accolades to date; it is the winner of the English PEN Award for translation, and was also a finalist for the Herralde Novel Prize.

In The Winterlings, we meet two sisters, named Saladina and Dolores who have returned to their childhood home. They lived with their grandfather in a small community in Galicia, named Tierra de Chá. Here, they find that ‘nothing and everything has changed: the people, the distant little house in the rain, the acrid smell of gorse, the flowers, the crops, the customs.’ Their return serves to disrupt the ‘placid existence of the villagers, stirring up memories best left alone.’

The writing in this novel is strong. I particularly admired the romanticism which Sánchez-Andrade weaves into her descriptions, which gives them the feel of a fairytale. She writes, for instance, ‘Bats and owls crashed into each other, flying in loops. Ivy had invaded the house, and the chimney, bursting with foliage, had acquired the dimensions and appearance of a crumbling tower. The house had an orchard with a lemon tree, and bushes that sheltered butterflies and rustling noises; at the bottom, a river coursed with slender and succulent trout.’ The house in which the sisters live is on the edge of a forest described as ‘taut and dense’. I liked the relatively matter-of-fact descriptions too, which contrast nicely with the above. When the sisters spend their first evening in the house, Sánchez-Andrade writes: ‘They swept the floor. They pulled down the cobwebs. They put away the provisions they had brought. They made soup. The light dwindled, and the cold sharpened.’

The character descriptions here are excellent, if rather too few and far between. We learn, early on: ‘The older one was dried-out and bony; she had a pointy face and an aquiline nose… Closed off in her personal universe of magazines, soap operas, and melodrama, she had a single passion: an unhealthy need for security and to be left alone… By the time she was twenty, she looked like she was forty. By thirty-five, she looked like she was outside of time.’ Her sister, on the other hand, ‘was remarkable for her heavy jet-black hair, her narrow figure, her flashy lips, and above all her gaze… She had always been very patient, that patience being both her best quality and her greatest weakness.’

I really liked the way in which the relationship between Saladina and Dolores was depicted. Upon their return to their childhood home, the author tells us: ‘They feel comfortable in this slowness. The less they talk, the better. Words entangle, confuse, and deceive; you don’t need words to feel. They are comfortable, and the mere fact of being together, being alone, sharing their surrounds, a soup, an anise, makes them feel good. They do not expect more, and they do not wish for more.’ Sánchez-Andrade clearly gave a great deal of thought to how the way they interacted with one another would change as their circumstances altered. Later, Sánchez-Andrade comments: ‘Dolores needed her sister’s obsessions, her ascetic discipline, her way of being in the world, somewhere between madness and the void. There was a mixture of order and chaos in Saladina that fascinated her.’

The time period in which The Winterlings is set is not quite precise. The villagers are reeling from the past war, where Spain was split into National and Republican fronts. This still looms large in their memories. During this war, some of them ‘who had voted for the Left in the elections no longer left their houses’, and others fled to Cuba, or Portugal. When the sisters return, the community is still divided, and this is something which I would have liked to seen explored in greater detail as the novel went on. Something which is done relatively expansively, and well, though, is the coverage given to the tumultuous history of Spain, and its effects upon the villagers. Of these, we meet some only in passing, and others in more detail.

I am always drawn to literary fiction which features an element of mystery; The Winterlings has this in abundance. I do not wish to give too much away; just know that I very much enjoyed this intriguing novel, and that my attention was held throughout. The translation is excellent, and I was drawn in from the outset. If you are looking for a relatively quiet novel, which focuses on the ever-shifting relationship between two family members, I would look no further than The Winterlings.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘The Country of Others’ by Leïla Slimani ***

There was so much hype around about Moroccan author Leïla Slimani’s novel, Lullaby (also published as The Perfect Nanny) when it was first translated into English. However, I have not seen much written about the books which followed in translation. I very much enjoyed Adèle, which has a similar tone to Lullaby in its dark, psychological storyline, but The Country of Others seemed quite a departure.

The novel, which has been translated from the French by Sam Taylor, has been called ‘richly layered and deceptively simple’ by Claire Messud, and ‘exceptional’ by Salman Rushdie. It is a work of historical fiction, and begins in the Alsace region in 1944. Mathilde, our protagonist, finds herself falling in love with a Moroccan soldier named Amine Belhaj, who has been billeted in her small town whilst fighting for the French. Following the liberation, Mathilde follows her new husband to Morocco in 1946, where life is quickly ‘unrecognisable to this brave and passionate young woman’.

As soon as she arrives at the Belhaj family’s house, in the early stages of pregnancy, her life is beset with issues: ‘It was at that precise instant that she understood she was a foreigner, a woman, a wife, a being at the mercy of others. Amine was on home soil here: he was the one who explained the rules, who decided the path they would follow, who traced the borders of modesty, shame and decorum.’

Under the threat of violence amidst Morocco’s struggle for independence, Mathilde and Amine refuse to take sides. This causes the family to be ‘at odds with their own desire for freedom’. When they move to the family farm after the current tenant has finally moved out, she feels immediately isolated, and finds it difficult to cope with the heat, her loneliness, the suspicions which many hold against her, and the family’s lack of money. Despite this, Mathilde does grow to love her surroundings. Slimani writes: ‘Everything in this landscape was unexpected, different from what she had known before. She would have needed new words, a whole vocabulary freed of the past, to express her feelings, the light so bright that you lived life through squinting eyes, to describe the awe she felt day after day, when faced with so much mystery, so much beauty.’

Regardless, Mathilde is always aware of, and is made aware of, her differences: ‘She wished she could observe this beautiful world from afar, that she could be invisible. Her height, her whiteness, her status as a foreign woman all combined to keep her at a distance from the heart of things, from the silence that lets you know you are home.’ She is also made to feel inferior in her marriage, as Amine grows increasingly violent toward her: ‘There was something crazed about him, his eyes bloodshot and bulging from their sockets. He obviously wanted to tell her something, but all he could do was wave his arms strangely, as though throwing a ball or preparing to stab someone to death.’

As tensions grow around Mathilde, she resorts to wearing a djellaba and headscarf to hide her identity, and to blend in with the Moroccan women around her. Slimani writes: ‘Eyes lowered and veil raised over her mouth again, she felt herself disappear and she didn’t really know what to think about this. The anonymity protected her, even thrilled her, but she felt as if she were advancing into a dark pit, losing more of her name and identity with each step, as if by masking her face she was also masking some essential part of herself. She was becoming a shadow, a nameless, genderless, ageless being.’ This was an interesting exploration of identity, but it did not go anywhere near far enough, and was not mentioned again in the novel.

As time moves forward, attention is given to Mathilde and Amine’s daughter, Aïcha, who was ‘afraid of everything. Of the owl in the avocado tree, whose presence, according to the laborers, foretold death… Most of all, Aïcha was afraid of the dark. Of the deep, dense, infinite dark that surrounded her parents’ farm… The blackness swallowed up everything.’ She has few friends, and spends much of her time alone.

Slimani has definitely included a lot of detail in The Country of Others, but I never felt as though I connected with the story. I did not get to know the characters as much as I would have expected, and those around Mathilde felt almost like caricatures. The novel held my interest in some places, largely with regard to the social context, but not at all in others. The commentary on Morocco’s role in the Second World War was rather well done, but Slimani’s writing style in these sections did not gel as well with the fictional part of the story as I was expecting. Even the more dramatic moments for the family which occur fell a little flat, and pale alongside the factual elements.

The Country of Others is intended to be the first of a trilogy. Whilst I enjoyed learning a little more about Morocco as I read, for me, the story just did not hold enough interest for me to contemplate reading further. I found that the omniscient perspective, which has been used throughout, made everything feel too detached. I did not feel that The Country of Others was particularly compelling, and whilst I found it interesting to see how Slimani handled the genre of historical fiction, I think her strength lies within darker thrillers, and more contemporary settings.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘Fever Dream’ by Samanta Schweblin (One From the Archive)

First published in 2017

Samanta Schweblin has been heralded as one of the freshest new voices to emerge from the Spanish-speaking world.  An Argentinian author, her debut novel, Fever Dream, is one which I hadn’t heard of before it piqued my interest on Netgalley.  Translated by Megan McDowell, Fever Dream is a tense and well-paced novel, with an intriguing mystery at its heart.

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The general plot deals with a young mother named Amanda, who is lying in bed in a rural hospital clinic.  She is dying.  Beside her is David, a young boy who isn’t her son, but who sees her as holding the pivotal key to the mystery which he needs to unlock.  ‘Together,’ reads the blurb, ‘they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family’.  Fever Dream is ‘a nightmare come to life, a ghost story for the real world, a love story and a cautionary tale’.

David is poisoned when he drinks from an infected stream.  His mother Carla, not trusting that the village doctor will reach him in time to save him, entrusts his care to a local woman. She tells her that a migration of his soul is the only way to save her son: ‘The woman said that she couldn’t choose the family he went to…  She wouldn’t know where he’d gone.  She also said the migration would have its consequences.  There isn’t room in a body for two spirits, and there’s no body without a spirit.  The transmigration would take David’s spirit to a healthy body, but it would also bring an unknown spirit to the sick body.  Something of each of them would be left in the other’.

The narrative style, told solely through the format of a contemporary conversation (think italicised text and no speech marks) is very intriguing, and catapults the reader straight into the story.  Very early on, Amanda tells David – and the reader, by design – ‘… but I’m going to die in a few hours.  That’s going to happen, isn’t it?  It’s strange how calm I am.  Because even though you haven’t told me, I know.  And still, it’s an impossible thing to tell yourself’.  She goes on to ask him the following: ‘How different are you now from the David of six years ago?  What did you do that was so terrible your own mother no longer accepts you as hers?  These are the things I can’t stop wondering about’.

Crossing genre boundaries, Fever Dream is a short but memorable novel.  It strikes the same unsettling chord as a horror film, just before something jumps out and terrifies you.  One is palpably aware of a danger, which has been translated so well that it reads as though English is its original language.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘Three Summers’ by Margarita Liberaki ****

Margarita Liberaki is an author who has been on my radar for quite some time. Three Summers, translated here by Karen Van Dyck and republished as part of Penguin’s European Writers series in 2019, seemed like the obvious choice from her oeuvre to begin with. The novel, which was first published in 1946, is incredibly popular in Liberaki’s native Greece, and is taught in many schools to this day. It has also been voted as the country’s all-time favourite book. Albert Camus was the catalyst which boosted Liberaki’s popularity around Europe; he is partly responsible for this novel being translated and published in France in 1950, where it has been loved ever since.

Three Sisters appealed to me on so many levels. It is described as a ‘warm and tender tale of three sisters growing up in the countryside near Athens before the Second World War’. The girls – ‘flirtatious, hot-headed Maria, beautiful but distant Infanta and dreamy and rebellious Katerina’ – live in a ‘ramshackle old house’ in Kifissia, with their divorced mother, Anna, their Aunt Theresa, and their loving grandfather. In the novel, Liberaki follows the sisters over the course of three summers, as they ‘share and keep secrets, fall in and out of love, try to understand the strange ways of adults and decide what kind of women they hope to become.’

Sixteen-year-old Katerina, the youngest of the three, is our narrator almost entirely throughout. Liberaki, whom I must admit that I know next to nothing about as an individual, used herself as a model for the young protagonist. Katerina’s interests are the same as many of the preoccupations of teenage girls today: her current appearance, and wondering how she will look as an adult, fill much of her time. She tells us: ‘I would sit and stare [into the mirror], completely absorbed in myself. It was as if nothing existed in the world besides myself and my reflection.’

Katerina is a true romantic; later, she recalls: ‘I’m not like Maria… I wouldn’t let a boy touch me just to pass the time. Maybe I’ll find someone who will watch the daisies blooming in the field with me, who will cut me a branch of the first autumn berries and bring it to me with the leaves still damp. Or maybe I’ll set out to see the world alone.’ Like many teenage girls, she does have uncontrolled outbursts from time to time, but she was a character whom I felt immediately drawn to. We learnt much more about her than her sisters, four and two years her senior. I loved the forays which Liberaki gave into her innermost thoughts and feelings; for instance: ‘Something is brewing inside me that I don’t understand. It fills me with joy and agony. I only feel better if I sing or draw many circles one inside the other, or four-leafed clovers.’

Katerina has a real awareness to herself, which grows from one summer to the next. During the second summer, she recollects: ‘How I wanted to go back, take off my clothes, and fall into bed. In my room I know how the light slipped through the shutters and played on the opposite wall each morning and how high the ceiling was and what cracks there were, cracks that looked like faces and a thousand other things.’ The existential quality of the novel, in which Katerina writes about the depths of herself – for instance, when she muses ‘How did anyone decide to travel around the world? I am already so nostalgic for the places and things that I see every day’ – has been wonderfully executed. Liberaki intimately knows her protagonist; she writes as though from memories of her own self.

In her introduction to the volume, Polly Samson compares Three Summers to Dodie Smith’s beautiful novel, I Capture the Castle. She writes that ‘the prose is as languid as the long, sighing summers of adolescence it describes’. I agree completely. The scenes which Liberaki has created are often exquisite, with their sumptuous and visceral descriptions. Katerina is highly observant, particularly with regard to the natural world, and her place within it. Right at the novel’s beginning, for instance, Katerina tells us: ‘I would climb up into the walnut tree and make daisy chains and bracelets from horsehair. Then I would wear them and look for my reflection in the well. But never succeeded since the sun at that hour hit the water’s surface, making it glimmer like a piece of hot, melted gold, blinding me.’

Three Summers is immediately immersive. We learn such striking details about the family, such as their wild Polish grandmother, adored by Katerina from afar, who ran away from the family with a musician when her daughters, Anna and Theresa, were very young. The family dynamic has been so well thought through, as have the plot arcs which fill this coming-of-age story. I enjoyed the position of retrospect from which Katerina tells much of the story, and it certainly swept me along from beginning to end.

There is an almost otherworldly feel which fills Three Summers at points, and the whole is beguiling, and quite charming. Seeing the world before the war through Katerina’s eyes is a wonderful experience, and one which I would highly recommend. Three Summers is one to really savour.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘David Golder’ by Irène Némirovsky ****

Anyone who has been following my reviews for a while will know how much I adore French author Irène Némirovsky, who was tragically murdered at Auschwitz in August 1942. I have been trying to make my way through her works in translation in recent years, but have slowed this project down dramatically, as I know I only have a couple of tomes left to pick up which I can experience for the first time.

David Golder was a novella which I had outstanding, and my library kindly purchased a copy on my behalf. This, Némirovsky’s second book, was first published in French in 1929, when the author was just twenty-six. In 1930, the New York Times wrote that David Golder was ‘the work of a woman who has the strength of one of the masters like Balzac or Dostoyevsky.’

The book’s blurb describes this as an ‘astonishingly mature story of an elderly Jewish businessman who has sold his soul’. Born into poverty, by the 1920s, Golder has managed to catapult himself ‘to fabulous wealth by speculating on gold and oil’. At the outset of the book, Golder is in his enormous Parisian apartment, filled with treasures, whilst his wife and spoilt only daughter, Joyce, are ploughing through his money at their villa in Biarritz. Nothing is quite as it seems, though. Golder’s wealth is volatile, and his health precarious. The intriguing blurb goes on to say: ‘As his body betrays him, so too do his wife and child, leaving him to decide which to pursue: revenge or altruism?’

Golder’s trajectory is, of course, disrupted by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and the chaos which consequently ensued all over the world. His wealth is lost almost overnight, and he is forced to make some difficult decisions. At the point at which his health really deteriorates, we realise quite how selfish and awful his wife and daughter are; they talk only about the money they feel they are entitled to, and care nothing about Golder as an individual.

When we first meet Golder, he is described as ‘an enormous man in his late sixties. He had flabby arms and legs, piercing eyes the colour of water, thick white hair and a ravaged face so hard it looked as if it had been hewn from stone by a rough, clumsy hand.’ At this point in the narrative, he has just broken off the relationship with his business partner, who goes on to commit suicide. Whilst at his funeral, Némirovsky describes Golder’s almost entire lack of sympathy, or compassion, for a man with whom he had spent so much time: ‘It was stupid, just stupid… Yesterday Marcus was sitting opposite him, shouting, alive, and now… No one even used his name anymore… “Why did he do it?” he muttered to himself in disgust, “Why kill yourself at his age, over money, like some little nobody…” How many times had he lost everything, and like everyone else just picked himself up and started again? That was how it was.’

I am always, without fail, struck by the realism in Némirovsky’s work. She successfully probes the pressure which comes with wealth, and with keeping up appearances. Golder is constantly lamenting the position in which he finds himself, where so many people expect things from him that he is not always willing to give. He is continually haunted by his loneliness. She writes: ‘How expensive this idiotic lifestyle was! His wife, his daughter, the houses in Biarritz and Paris… In Paris alone he was paying sixty thousand francs in rent, taxes. The furniture had cost more than a million when he’d bought it. For whom? No one lived there. Closed shutters, dust?’

Golder is not at all a likeable character – he is a wealthy capitalist, with many of the clichéd characteristics of such men – but by giving us an insight into his life and thoughts, Némirovsky does something quite remarkable. There are snippets throughout of how mercenary and unhappy Golder’s personal life is: ‘He pictured his own wife quickly hiding her chequebook whenever he came into the room, as if it were a packet of love letters’, for instance. He craves a good relationship with his eighteen-year-old daughter, completely in vain: ‘Every time he came back from a trip, he looked for her in the crowd, in spite of himself. She was never there, and yet he continued to expect her with the same humiliating, tenacious and vain sense of hope.’ His wife and daughter are arguably much worse than he is, and have not been given much humanity; they are truly odious, concerned only with gross wealth and their outside appearances. His wife Gloria, for example, had ‘an aging face so covered in make-up that it looked like an enamelled plate’, and insists on buying very expensive jewellery which she then laments is still not as good as her neighbour’s.

Sandra Smith’s translation is, as always, flawless. I also very much enjoyed reading Patrick Marnham’s introduction to the volume. He writes that after the novella was published by the leading French house, Grasset, it ‘impressed critics’ greatly, and catapulted the author to fame. Translations soon followed, and the story was subsequently turned into both film and play.

Marnham gives good biographical background about Némirovsky, and the autobiographical details which she has woven into David Golder. Born in Kiev to a rich, self-made banker father, she had to watch as her family lost all of their wealth, and were forced into hiding following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The family finally settled in Paris, where her father, Léon, managed to rebuild their fortune – by accepting the position of manager in a branch of the bank which he used to own.

Much of David Golder, indeed, is a consequence of Némirovsky’s firsthand experience. Markham comments that this ‘enabled her to draw such a vivid picture of the extremes to which men like Golder could be driven in order to escape their roots.’ He goes on: ‘Golder now lives in what seems to be an enviable world, a world of large apartments, spacious villas, sumptuous women and fast cars, where he is feared and obeyed. But it is an empty place. In this society of rootless exiles, money transcends all personal values and becomes the measure of everything – love, strength and self-esteem.’ He then compares David Golder to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, suggesting that Némirovsky rewrote the play by ‘showing us the vulnerability behind Golder’s mask, [and] the humanity of a powerful Jewish villain’.

Némirovsky is an incredibly astute author, and David Golder is another highly evocative and atmospheric work in her oeuvre. The narrative has been so finely tuned, and already shows a great deal of the carefully considered characters, and thoughtful storylines of her later work. There is such attention to detail here, and I found Golder’s story so compelling. Némirovsky is highly insightful about his relationships with those around him, most of which are fraught, and filled with tension. The family dynamic portrayed is fascinatingly chaotic and turbulent. Every single character in David Golder is thoroughly unlikeable, but I felt a really compulsive need to read about them. There is immense depth to be found in this novella, and quite masterful storytelling, too.

5

Women in Translation Month: Recommendations

To my disappointment, I completely forgot to prepare a TBR for Women in Translation Month during 2021. I think this was due largely to the Olympics and Paralympics occurring, and the strange – and often uncomfortable – shifts which I felt I had to make toward a more normal life once all of the restrictions were lifted in England.

This year, I definitely want to actively take part in Women in Translation Month, which runs for the entire month of August. This post marks the beginning of a whole month of applicable reviews, which I have been having so much fun preparing for. I love reading books in translation, and those by women often appeal to me so much.

To kick off the month then, I wanted to gather together several books in translation which I read in the last couple of years, and all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. If you’re taking part in the challenge, I hope you find something here which you can include in your list for the month. If not, then please enjoy anyway. Stay tuned for the rest of the month’s content, too!

1. The Communist’s Daughter by Aroa Moreno Durán; translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore

‘Katia has spent her childhood in the eastern shadow of the Berlin Wall. For her father, refugee of the civil war in Spain, the communist side of Germany represents everything he fought and suffered for. Katia knows no other way of life, until a chance encounter with a young man from the West leaves her to wonder what the other side might offer. It’s only after she’s made the perilous journey that Katia understands all she has left behind, and years until she will finally know the devastating consequences it had on her family.

Translated for the first time in English, this exquisite and powerful novel punches right to the heart of how one choice can change a whole future.’

2. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk; translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

‘One of Poland’s most imaginative and lyrical writers, Olga Tokarczuk presents us with a detective story with a twist in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. After her two dogs go missing and members of the local hunting club are found murdered, teacher and animal rights activist Janina Duszejko becomes involved in the ensuing investigation. Part magic realism, part detective story, Drive Your Plow… is suspenseful and entertaining reimagining of the genre interwoven with poignant and insightful commentaries on our perceptions of madness, marginalised people and animal rights.’

3. I’m Writing You from Tehran by Delphine Minoui; translated from the French by Emma Ramadan

‘Suffering the recent loss of her beloved grandfather and newly committed to a career in journalism, Delphine Minoui decided to visit Iran for the first time since the revolution – since she was four years old. It was 1998. She would stay for ten years.

In the course of that decade, great change comes to both writer and country, often at the same time. Minoui settles into daily life – getting to know her devout grandmother for the first time, making friends with local women who help her escape secret dance parties when the morality police arrive, figuring out how to be a journalist in a country that is suspicious of the press and Westerners. Once she finally starts to learn Persian, she begins to see Iran through her grandfather’s eyes. And so it is all the more crushing when the political situation falters. She is caught up in protests and interrogated by secret police; some friends disappear and others may be tracking her movements. She finds love, loses her press credentials, marries, and is separated from her husband by erupting global conflict. Through it all, her love for this place and its people deepens and she discovers in her family’s past a mission that will shape her entire future.

Framed as a letter to her grandfather and filled with disarming characters in momentous times, I’m Writing You from Tehran is an unforgettable, moving view into an often obscured part of our world.’

4. Inlands by Elin Willows; translated from the Swedish by Duncan J. Lewis

If you wish to read a full review of Willows’ book, you can find one which I have written on the blog.

‘A young woman from Stockholm relocates to her boyfriend’s home town, a small village in the far north of Sweden. The relationship has ended by the time she arrives.

Inlands is a story about loss and change and examines the tangible mechanics of everyday life, the mentality of a small community and the relationship between freedom and loneliness.’

5. Letters from Tove by Tove Jansson; edited by Boel Westin and Helen Svensson; translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death

If you wish to read a more comprehensive review of Letters from Tove, you can find one which I have written on the blog.

‘Out of the thousands of letters Tove Jansson wrote a cache remains that she addressed to her family, her dearest confidantes, and her lovers, male and female. Into these she spilled her innermost thoughts, defended her ideals and revealed her heart. To read these letters is both an act of startling intimacy and a rare privilege.

Penned with grace and humour, Letters from Tove offers an almost seamless commentary on Tove Jansson’s life as it unfolds within Helsinki’s bohemian circles and her island home. Spanning fifty years between her art studies and the height of Moomin fame, we share with her the bleakness of war; the hopes for love that were dashed and renewed, and her determined attempts to establish herself as an artist.

Vivid, inspiring and shining with integrity, Letters from Tove shows precisely how an aspiring and courageous young artist can evolve into a very great one.’

6. A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter; translated from the German by Jane Degras

‘In 1934, the painter Christiane Ritter leaves her comfortable life in Austria and travels to the remote Arctic island of Spitsbergen, to spend a year there with her husband. She thinks it will be a relaxing trip, a chance to “read thick books in the remote quiet and, not least, sleep to my heart’s content”, but when Christiane arrives she is shocked to realize that they are to live in a tiny ramshackle hut on the shores of a lonely fjord, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement, battling the elements every day, just to survive.

At first, Christiane is horrified by the freezing cold, the bleak landscape the lack of equipment and supplies… But as time passes, after encounters with bears and seals, long treks over the ice and months on end of perpetual night, she finds herself falling in love with the Arctic’s harsh, otherworldly beauty, gaining a great sense of inner peace and a new appreciation for the sanctity of life.’

7. Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto; translated from the Japanese by Ann Sherif

‘In these six stories, the author of Goodbye Tsugumi and N.P. explores themes of time, healing and fate, and how her urban, sophisticated, independent young men and women come to terms with them. The stories are a blend of traditional Japanese and contemporary popular culture.’

8. After Midnight by Irmgard Keun; translated from the German by Anthea Bell

‘Nineteen-year-old Sanna just wants to drink her beer in peace, but that’s difficult when Hitler has come to town and his motorcade is blocking the streets of Frankfurt. What’s more, her best friend Gerti is in love with a Jewish boy, her brother writes books that have been blacklisted and her own aunt may denounce her to the authorities at any moment, as Germany teeters on the edge of the abyss. Written after she had fled the Nazi regime, Irmgard Keun’s masterly novel captures the feverish hysteria and horror of the era with devastating perceptiveness and humour.’

9. Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan; translated from the French by George Miller

‘Overwhelmed by the huge success of her latest novel, exhausted and suffering from a crippling inability to write, Delphine meets L.

L. embodies everything Delphine has always secretly admired; she is a glittering image of feminine sophistication and spontaneity and she has an uncanny knack of always saying the right thing. Unusually intuitive, L. senses Delphine’s vulnerability and slowly but deliberately carves herself a niche in the writer’s life. However, as L. makes herself indispensable to Delphine, the intensity of this unexpected friendship manifests itself in increasingly sinister ways. As their lives become more and more entwined, L. threatens Delphine’s identity, both as a writer and as an individual.

This sophisticated psychological thriller skillfully blurs the line between fact and fiction, reality and artifice. Delphine de Vigan has crafted a terrifying, insidious, meta-fictional thriller; a haunting vision of seduction and betrayal; a book which in its hungering for truth implicates the reader, too—even as it holds us in its thrall.

Win a copy of the international sensation that sold half a million copies in France: a chilling work of true-crime literature about a friendship gone terrifyingly toxic and the very nature of reality.’

10. The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun; translated from the Korean by Lizzie Buehler

‘An eco-thriller with a fierce feminist sensibility, The Disaster Tourist engages with the global dialog around climate activism, dark tourism, and the #MeToo movement.

For ten years, Yona has been stuck behind a desk as a coordinator for Jungle, a travel company specializing in vacation packages to destinations devastated by disaster and climate change. Her work life is uneventful until trouble arises in the form of a predatory colleague.

To forestall any disruption of business-as-usual, Jungle makes Yona a proposition: a paid “vacation” to the desert island of Mui. But Yona must pose as a tourist and assess whether Jungle should continue their partnership with the unprofitable destination.

Yona travels to the remote island, whose major attraction is an underwhelming sinkhole, a huge disappointment to the customers who’ve paid a premium. Soon Yona discovers the resort’s plan to fabricate a catastrophe in the interest of regaining their good standing with Jungle–and the manager enlists Yona’s help. Yona must choose between the callous company to whom she’s dedicated her life, or the possibility of a fresh start in a powerful new position. As she begins to understand the cost of the manufactured disaster, Yona realizes that the lives of Mui’s citizens are in danger–and so is she.

In The Disaster Tourist, Korean author Yun Ko-eun grapples with the consequences of our fascination with disaster, and questions an individual’s culpability in the harm done by their industry.’

Please let me know if you are taking part in Women in Translation Month this August, and what your TBR is looking like.