Welcome to the second part of my countdown of 50 bookish memories from the 2010s. The first part went up last week, with the rest to follow each Sunday.
Compiling this list has made me realise just how idiosyncratic a personal reading history is. I read quite a lot of debuts, especially at the start of the decade, and didn’t begin reading works in translation seriously until about 2014. Both of those factors have helped shape my list. When I looked through some other ‘best of the decade’ lists, I was surprised at how few matches I saw with mine. But perhaps that’s how it was always going to be. Anyway, on to the next set of books…
The official announcement of the winner of the 2020 International Booker Prize has been postponed until later in the summer, to give readers more time to get and read copies of the novels.
But our shadow jury of bloggers and reviewers of translated fiction has already completed our reading and re-reading, so it seems fitting to announce our Shadow Winner on the original date of May 19th.
As a reminder our own shortlist was, in alphabetical order of the original author’s name:
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Farsi – Iran), tr. Anonymous (Europa Editions) The Other Name: Septology I-II by Jon Fosse (Norwegian – Norway), tr. Damion Searls (Fitzcarraldo Editions) Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Spanish – Mexico), tr. Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions) The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (Japanese – Japan), tr. Stephen Snyder (Harvill Secker) Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano (French – France), tr. Sophie Lewis & Jennifer Higgins (Peirene Press) The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (Dutch – Netherlands), tr. Michele Hutchison (Faber & Faber)
We were collectively impressed with all of these books, indeed all six had their champions among us.
And three books in particular were so close in our deliberations and our voting that it was almost tempting to go one further than last year’s anglophone Booker judges. But instead we’ve kept with one winner, but decided to acknowledge two books as Runners-Up.
Runners-Up: The Other Name: Septology I-II and The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree
Jon Fosse’s “slow prose”, unfolding his story in one long, flowing stream that reads with great fluidity, took us deep inside his narrator Asle’s mind and thoughts. And we were caught up in the heady mixture of Persian myth, story-telling and magic realism of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, a true ode to literature and to the deeply soothing role books and stories play in our survival of trauma.
But the winner of our 2020 Shadow Jury Prize is: Hurricane Season, written by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
Comments from some of our judges:
“Hurricane Season is an appropriate title for a novel that roars into the unsuspecting reader’s mind, with its long and winding sentences, and its refusal to flinch from the brutalities of its world.”
“There is anger, pain, and the understanding of the role literature plays when it comes to compassion and empathy.”
“As author M. John Harrison said of Melchor’s novel ‘…she had shown me things I needed to be faced with.’ and expanded my understanding of lives so very different from my own.”
“It unflinchingly portrayed a world apart from us and artfully created another layer of distance from subject through the use of mythologized violence. That she both creates distance and ‘makes us look’ simultaneously was incredibly powerful for me.”
“Melchor’s prose, in Hughes’s stunning translation, is raw, brutal and so, so necessary.”
“As readers and intrepid voyagers down Melchor’s Dante-like vision, we are like riveted inmates, incarcerated either by law or by economics or gender, who stand to witness the depravity, despair and pain being inflicted upon this part of the world. The real evidence and reward here is not in unmasking the Witch’s killer or killers or in finding out why this happened, the true recompense of Melchor’s novel is to pay tribute by listening to the dead’s testimony,‘there is no treasure in there, no gold or silver or diamonds or anything more than a searing pain that refuses to go away.’”
And our congratulations extend to the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions who provided two of our top three, and also now have two Shadow Prize wins in three years.
Now it’s over to the official jury for their decision.
In 2009, the writer Stuart Evers posted his “50 best novels of the 2000s” on his blog. I wished I could have done the same, but I hadn’t kept track of my reading in enough detail.
Ten years on, it’s a different story: thanks to this blog, I have a record of what I read, so I decided to put something together. I’m not calling it a ‘best of’, or even a list of favourites – it’s not meant to be that kind of exercise. Instead, I’ve chosen 50 books that have inspired strong memories.
My guidelines are: novels and short story collections allowed. First published in English or English translation during the 2010s, and read by me in that time (so nothing I’ve read this year). One book per author, except in one instance where I couldn’t choose between two.
The plan is to post my list in weekly instalments every Sunday. Here are the first ten entries. It’s a coincidence – but quite appropriate – that the writer who inspired my list is the first to appear on it…
“What can you do when everyone around you is strong and clever?”
Tarjei Vesaas, The Birds (1957) Translated from the Norwegian by Tørbjorn Støverud and Michael Barnes (1968)
Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace was one of the stand-out books I read a couple of years ago, so it was a pleasure to read another of his novels and find it similarly affecting.
Our viewpoint character this time is 37-year-old Mattis, who lives with his older sister Hege in a cottage by the lake. The locals call him ‘Simple Simon’, and he doesn’t have much luck – either with getting women to notice him, or finding work. At one point, we see him join in with thinning out the rows of turnips on a local farm, but he simply can’t keep up.
There’s always the possibility that things will change, though. Towards the beginning of the novel, Mattis sees a woodcock fly directly over the house. He’s never seen one do that before. Mattis’s world is reordered: “It seemed to be a different house now, you had to look at it with different eyes.” He is eager to tell Hege what’s happened, but her reaction is a weary, “go and get some sleep now, Mattis.”
This is the way life tends to go for Mattis: things that mean so much to him leave others indifferent, and he can’t understand why. As readers, we can share his delight and frustration, but we can also see how difficult Hege has found it living with him – even though she doesn’t want to let it show.
There are a couple of chapters in the middle of The Birds that I think will go down as one of my favourite sequences in fiction. Mattis has been out in his boat and become stranded. He is found by a couple of holidaying girls, Anna and Inger, who take him back to shore. I was stunned by the range of emotions covered with such subtlety in these scenes. You see so much all at once.
Mattis is innocently overjoyed that finally some girls have paid attention to him. What’s more, they don’t know him, so he can revel in the freedom of being someone else. At the same time, his wandering eye and emotional intensity make Anna and Inger uncomfortable. But they also feel it would be wrong to leave him there. The sense is that they know on one level that Mattis means no harm, but on another they are instinctively wary of him. Vesaas makes clear that all these emotional contradictions are bound up together, and the tension between them helps give these scenes their power.
Mattis later tries to earn a living as a ferryman, but ends up with only one passenger: Jørgen, a lumberjack. Jørgen needs a bed for the night, so Mattis invites him back to the cottage – and there the lumberjack stays, because Hege falls in love with him. Now the balance of Mattis’s life is upended, and he has to work out his place in the world anew.
The touchstones of Mattis’s world – small events in nature, Hege and her constant knitting – are not those of other people. This is what makes it so difficult for him to relate to others, and them to him. But there are still times when he wants to ask the big questions – “Why are things the way they are?” – if someone would only listen. Vesaas depicts Mattis and his life with piercing clarity.
I first came across Gabriel Josipovici’s name from blogs such as This Space. I read some of his critical work, and was particularly taken with his idea of art as a toy. Broadly speaking, I understand this to mean art that keeps its component parts in view, in the same way that a hobby horse can still obviously be a stick. Then we can take those component parts and make our own experience with them.
This idea struck a chord with me because it seemed to me that many of my favourite books worked that way. Well, now I’ve read a couple of Josipovici’s novels, and discovered that they work that way as well…
Infinity: the Story of a Moment (2012) is the account of an Italian composer, one Tancredo Pavone (inspired by the real-life figure Giacinto Scelsi), whose words are related by his manservant Massimo in interview. Pavone comes across as an absurd, pompous figure in many ways, with his vast collection of clothes that may be worn only minimally, and his strident opinions (“German composers have been so busy airing their souls, he said, that they forgot to air their clothes”).
But there’s something else in there: Pavone argues for a more primal sort of art than what he sees (or hears) around him. He sees music as “a vehicle for the body to express itself.” Pavone goes on: “The language of music is not the sonata and it is not the tone row…it is the same kind of language as weeping, sobbing, shrieking and laughing.” I can understand this by instinct: why I think about the art that I’ve responded to most strongly (books especially, but not only), it was a response that went through my whole body – a sense of being more intensely alive.
The most powerful aspect of Infinity for me is that it’s structured in a way that brings out the same feeling. Pavone’s personality fills the book, larger than life, but his vulnerability starts to show as time goes on. By the end, Massimo is telling of the period after Pavone had a stroke, shoring the composer up, giving him a voice in a way that Pavone himself couldn’t by then. The composer’s intense engagement with existence is what most stands out , and the circuitous way that Massimo tells Pavone’s tale creates a space which allows us to experience that intensity. To bring in a toy metaphor, Infinity is something of a kaleidoscope, turning to reveal different aspects of its subject’s world.
If Infinity is a kaleidoscope, The Cemetery in Barnes (2018) is a set of building blocks. It begins with the unnamed protagonist, a translator, describing his daily routine as a single man in Paris. After three pages, another voice interjects, that of his second wife – and suddenly we’re in Wales, where the couple are entertaining friends in their converted farmhouse.
There’s something quite startling about the way this is done: sketching his Parisian life vividly, then pulling us out of it into a vivid new life. The novel continues, sliding between Wales, Paris, and an earlier stage of the translator’s life, with his first wife in London. The rhythm of these switches is always uneven – it’s not something we’re allowed to take for granted.
Something that I found intriguing early on was the way Josipovici makes the very idea of there being different stages in one life seem strange – it just feels so improbable that the single man in Paris might become the married man bickering with his wife in Wales, for example. But then the novel goes further: “One sprouts so many selves,” comments the protagonist. There are glimpses of contradictory pasts and futures, some much darker than others.
The Cemetery in Barnes put me in mind of a rather different novel, Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation (1981). Priest’s novel has two versions of the same character, one living in what looks like the real world, and one in what looks like a fantasy world – but neither life has more reality than the other, so both have equal weight. Similarly, the question arises in Cemetery: are we reading about one imaginary life or many? The reader can choose which blocks to use to build meaning, but ultimately any meaning only lasts until the book is closed.
Infinity and The Cemetery in Barnes are both published by Carcanet.
Our shadow jury of bloggers and reviewers of translated fiction has completed our reading of the International Booker 2020 longlist, and has chosen our own Shadow Shortlist.
In alphabetical order of the original author’s name our chosen six books are:
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Farsi – Iran), tr. Anonymous (Europa Editions)
The Other Name: Septology I-II by Jon Fosse (Norwegian – Norway), tr. Damion Searls (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Spanish – Mexico), tr. Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (Japanese – Japan), tr. Stephen Snyder (Harvill Secker)
Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano (French – France), tr. Sophie Lewis & Jennifer Higgins (Peirene Press)
The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (Dutch – Netherlands), tr. Michele Hutchison (Faber & Faber)
Firstly, we would like to congratulate the judges on choosing a very strong longlist. There are some stunning books on the list, and almost all of them, including those that missed out on our shortlist, had their champions among us. The books didn’t always make for an easy read – some are quite graphic in their depiction of violence – but certainly a thought provoking one.
You will see that four of our choices overlap with those of the official jury.
The Adventures of China Iron impressed many of us, but couldn’t quite squeeze on to our list. Instead we chose the cleverly connected short stories from Faces on the Tip of My Tongue.
When we were predicting books on the longlist The Eighth Life was the novel we most expected to see given its undoubted popularity both in the Anglosphere but also internationally. And we had expected it to make both the official and our shadow shortlist. Somewhat to our surprise, it missed out on both – the magic of the hot chocolate clearly doesn’t work on everyone.
We were though more surprised, and disappointed, at the exclusion of The Other Name from the official list – Jon Fosse’s trademark slow prose is stunning, and it makes for a very different reading experience from the others on the list. It is a timeless novel, and we fear the jury’s not unreasonable focus on novels relevant for the Covid-19 era may have counted against it. But with the next volume due in the autumn perhaps Fosse will make next year’s shortlist and he’s also overdue the Nobel Prize.
At the other end of the spectrum, the officially shortlisted Tyll didn’t spark much enthusiasm in our panel. But the one provoking the strongest reactions was Serotonin: several of the books on our shortlist are brutal or visceral but parts of Houllebecq’s novel simply felt gratuitous. Only three of our judges finished reading it and none of those were terribly impressed by its inclusion on the longlist.
We’ll now embark on the period of further re-reading, reflection and to choose our winner. We wonder if we and the official jury will see eye to eye as we did in 2018, or reach a different view as we did last year.
Thanks to shadow panellist Paul Fulcher for writing these words.
Today is my second post on the blog tour for this year’s Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize longlistl. I’m looking at the debut collection by Northern Irish poet Stephen Sexton, which won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.
If All the World and Love were Young begins with a note in which Sexton describes a photo that his mother took of his nine-year-old self playing Super Mario World: the garden to his left, the television with the game to his right – the boy himself poised between reality and gameworld.
Sexton’s collection is a poetic tour of the levels of Super Mario World, infused with reflections on grief at the loss of his mother. The iconography of the game twists into memory:
[…]the questions floating in the air
are for a future self to voice decades from now who will return
again and again to this room and these moments of watershed.
Yoshi’s Island 1
The poet writes about his mother’s illness, her time in hospital, and remembering her. All the way through, the fantasy world of the game is something of an escape, but ultimately it’s so bound up with reality in the poems that it becomes a way to process what’s happening in life.
Towards the end of the book, Sexton catches imagined glimpses of his mother:
Every other day I think I see her passing by the window
or crossing a bridge or walking ahead of me in the village
but this is the wrong universe among all the universes.
Moments like these are when the collection is at its most poignant: when the cold light of reality cuts through.
“Please be patient with me,” says Elliott at the start of Toby Litt’s novel Patience. Elliott is a disabled boy living in a Catholic orphanage in 1979. He is largely unable to move or speak, but his inner voice is richly expressive. I was reminded of Gerald Murnane’s writing at times, not just with the long, winding sentences, but also the way that Elliott’s imagination opens up patterns in the world.
For example, here he is watching a greenfinch:
…the green vision danced and fretted and eagered and preened in front of me I could not believe who could believe that I deserved so many feathers that overlapped in such a succinct way and that slid over one another in greens that were doorways to shy sly gardens of other greens that tree green had only hinted at.
Litt asks his readers to experience the world at Elliott’s pace, but the depth that’s revealed in doing so makes Patience a rewarding book. Elliott’s burgeoning friendship with a new boy, Jim, is a delight to read about.