#Woolfalong: Mrs Dalloway’s Party

MrsDallowaysPartyIt’s time for another check-in with the #Woolfalong (see my previous posts on Mrs Dalloway and The Voyage Out). The May/June theme is perhaps a little more off the beaten track: Virginia Woolf’s short stories. I’ve been trying to use my #Woolfalong selections to build a picture of Woolf’s work, piece by piece; so it seemed logical to choose a collection linked to a book I’d already read.

Mrs Dalloway’s Party is a sequence of seven stories put together by Stella McNichol after she became aware of them while working on the manuscripts of Mrs Dalloway. The opening two fall chronologically at or before the start of the novel (the first story, ‘Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street’, was originally meant to be Chapter One of the novel); the remaining five focus on individual guests at the party that closes Mrs Dalloway.

I’m drawn to a musical comparison here. Reading Mrs Dalloway’s Party was like listening to the offcuts of a familiar album: the stories were of a piece with the main work, but not part of it – sometimes disconcertingly so. There are elements of ‘Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street’ that I recognise from their later context, such as a mention of Mrs Foxcroft – so powerful to me in the novel; but not nearly so much the way it’s treated in the story.

I fared better with the wholly unfamiliar material of the later stories. It’s not quite the intoxicating tide of consciousness that I found in Mrs Dalloway; but there is still a sense of the interior world as a three-dimensional space, and the significance (or otherwise) of the social occasion to the individual. Here, for example, are two characters who have been introduced and begun to converse in the story ‘Together and Apart’:

Their eyes met; collided rather, for each felt that behind the eyes the secluded being, who sits in darkness while his shallow agile companion does all the tumbling and beckoning, and keeps the show going, suddenly stood erect; flung off his cloak; confronted the other. It was alarming; it was terrific. They were elderly and burnished into a glowing smoothness, so that Roderick Serle would go, perhaps to a dozen parties in a season, and feel nothing out of the common, or only sentimental regrets, and the desire for pretty images—like this of the flowering cherry tree—and all the time there stagnated in him unstirred a sort of superiority to his company, a sense of untapped resources, which sent him back home dissatisfied with life, with himself, yawning, empty, capricious. But now, quite suddenly, like a white bolt in a mist (but this image forged itself with the inevitability of lightning and loomed up), there it had happened; the old ecstasy of life; its invincible assault; for it was unpleasant, at the same time that it rejoiced and rejuvenated and filled the veins and nerves with threads of ice and fire; it was terrifying. “Canterbury twenty years ago,” said Miss Anning, as one lays a shade over an intense light, or covers some burning peach with a green leaf, for it is too strong, too ripe, too full.

This is a long quotation, but I think you need the length to appreciate the full effect: the familiar torrent of words, within which apparently mundane small talk has stirred a deep, primal sense of being alive (literature can also do that to a reader; reading Mrs Dalloway did it to me). Miss Anning’s distancing comment at the end tries to push this feeling away, but of course it will remain, latent, ready to emerge again if given the chance. This is how close Woolf brings us to her characters: into the very fabric of perception.

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Mrs Dalloway’s Party (1973) by Virginia Woolf, Vintage Classics paperback

Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf, Vintage Classics paperback

The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert

ChildrensHomeI had a few false starts with novels before picking up The Children’s Home and finding that it was the book I needed at that time. What marked it out from the others I’d tried, to make me realise that this wouldn’t be another false start? I wish it were that easy to say: something about how the language opened up, I suppose.

The last book I read by Charles Lambert, his fictionalised memoir With a Zero at its Heart, had a tightly rigid structure (with chapters and paragraphs of a set length) which highlighted the fragmentary nature of memory. His new novel is rather different, with its lengthy, meandering passages:

Other children arrived soon after that, as though Morgan had earned them by taking the first one in. Some were abandoned, as Moira had been, left on the kitchen step, which was now checked hourly; others, he suspected, were given to Engel at the door, by whom, he didn’t know. These were the children who arrived empty-handed. By the end of the third month of Moira’s presence in the house, there were six or seven, he wasn’t sure exactly, of varying ages. Moira remained the youngest. According to Engel, who seemed to know, she couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old when she was left. The oldest among them was a fair-haired boy who walked into the house one day with a cardboard tag—the kind used for parcels—attached to his wrist, on which the name David had been written in a childish hand…

The effective of these long paragraphs is to dissolve all action into dream: there’s nowhere for the reader to gain true purchase; you just plunge in, to be carried away by the torrent of words. It’s appropriate, because the whole novel is built on uncertainty: there’s something preternatural about the children who arrive so mysteriously at the big house inhabited by Morgan and his housekeeper Engel. But, if Morgan doesn’t understand who the children are or why they are there, he doesn’t know much about the outside world, either. He’s been rather protected from having to think about things like that, and it started young:

One of Morgan’s first memories after the building of the wall was hearing gunfire and shouting and seeing flames rise from beyond it, while he stood with his hand in his mother’s and listened to her sing a song he had never heard before, in a language he didn’t know. A rebel song, she told him, her dark eyes burning with anger and affront. He didn’t know what rebel meant. When he found out the meaning, he wondered if he had heard her right. Weren’t rebels the ones on the outside, he wondered, the ones who shouted and used their guns and murdered; the ones with a grievance. Perhaps what she had wanted to say was revel. She was never happier in those days than when she was preparing for a party of some kind.

The whole space in which The Children’s Home unfolds is uncertain: there’s a sense of a post-war European locale, but largely at the impressionistic level of the passage quoted above. Even some of the further recesses of the house are unknown to Morgan, so we really are drifting along in the dark with him. Lambert builds an intense feeling of foreboding as the dream continues, uncontrolled by the sleeper/reader, and you wonder where all this is going to go. I could tell you, but I hear an alarm clock ringing…


Read other reviews of The Children’s Home at Lonesome Reader, A Life in Books, and His Futile Preoccupations.

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The Children’s Home (2016) by Charles Lambert, Aardvark Bureau paperback

The Dyslexic Hearts Club by Hanneke Hendrix

DyslexicHeartsThis is the first novel to appear in English by Dutch writer Hanneke Hendrix (the translation is by David Doherty). It has a delightfully dark streak of humour that put me in mind of Alina Bronsky’s work – always a good thing as far as I’m concerned.

Our narrator, Anna van Veen, wakes up in hospital with burns and a collapsed lung. She is sharing a room with two other burn patients; this isn’t necessarily the best situation for Anna, because she likes her own company:

When I stayed at home, people thought it reflected on them, that I meant something by it, that there was something wrong with them. You might think you’re playing the lead, the star of your own show, but when it comes right down to it you’re mostly just a bit player in other people’s lives. That’s how I see it, in any case.

She’s also not the best reader of people (in her husband’s words, she has a ‘dyslexic heart’). Still, here she is, with a couple of other misfits: a grouchy old woman named Vandersteen; and a younger woman who’s still too ill to speak (it turns out later that these two are named Anna as well). Something’s not quite right, though: the women’s room is guarded by a police officer; and the nurses who attend them seem less sympathetic to their situation than might be expected.

The events that led the trio to their hospital room are only gradually revealed – though things ramp up in the second half, when the women go on the run, and Anna goes from a ‘bit player’ to the uneasy co-star of her own road movie. I’m being cagey about the details because so much of the enjoyment of The Dyslexic Hearts Club comes from the uncertainty of wondering where it’s going to go. But I will say that it was worth the journey, and I’ll be looking out for more of Hendrix’s work in the future.


  • A review of The Dyslexic Hearts Club at Poppy Peacock Pens.
  • An article by Hendrix about the novel at European Literature Network.

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The Dyslexic Hearts Club (2014) by Hanneke Hendrix, tr. David Doherty (2016), World Editions paperback

Classics Club: Sphinx by Anne Garréta

SphinxWhen I put together my Classics Club list, I included a few recent translations of books which had appeared in their original languages over 25 years ago. It stretches my timescale guidelines a little bit (or feels as though it does), but it was a way of catching some particular books that I wanted to read.

Published in French in 1986, Sphinx was Anne Garréta’s first novel; Emma Ramadan’s English translation was released by Deep Vellum in 2015. Garréta is a member of the Oulipo (the French literary group that explores writing under particular restrictions); though Sphinx predates her joining, the book still has its own stylistic constraint. It would be nice to keep that a secret here, because you’d get a different experience if you read Sphinx without knowing the stricture. However, I can’t talk about my own reading experience without revealing it; so that’s what I’m going to do.

Sphinx is a love story between two characters: the nameless narrator, a theology student who abruptly becomes the DJ at a Paris club when the previous one is found dead mid-shift; and a dancer known only as A***, with whom the narrator grows infatuated. What’s notable is that neither character’s gender is identified  over teh course of the novel.

It felt a little strange to read Sphinx knowing this, because in English at least, you might hardly notice (I would assume it’s more obvious in French; if anyone has read the original, I’d be interested to know). In her afterword, Ramadan talks about some of the implications that Garréta’s techniques had for the translation: for example, the narrative voice can tend towards pomposity, because that enabled Garréta to use a more formal version of the past tense, one that doesn’t require gender agreement. The narrator’s personality trait persists in English, though it’s not doing the same job of disguising gender.

I’m trying to avoid using pronouns in this post to refer the main characters, because to me the point about Sphinx is not that A*** and the narrator have particular gender identities which happen to remain unrevealed, but that they have no gender identity at all within the novel. I tried to read Sphinx in that way, and found that it’s difficult: when there’s a gap like that in my knowledge of a character’s identity, an assumption is only too ready to fill it – which is, of course, part of what Garréta’s novel is challenging.

One of Garréta’s other techniques in French was to have her narrator describe features and characteristics of A***, rather than describing A*** directly – because then the pronoun agrees with the gender of the feature, not that of the person whose feature it is. This leads to an intense focus on surfaces:

In a sudden rush of vertigo, I was tantalized by the idea of contact with A***’s skin. I wanted to dismiss, destroy all those who were thronging around A***. keeping this presence from me. I wanted to wrest A*** from their company, from the intrusive glances clinging to us there, and hide us both away. With an unknowingly crazed look, I was always watching this irresistible body. But my gaze was narrowing and stiffening under the tension of carnal desire. That night, A*** was wearing a black silk shirt and white pleated leather pants that showed off a firm behind. A***’s hair, shaved not long ago for the show, was beginning to grow back, materializing as a light shadow.

A*** seems to be less a person to the narrator than a body, a collection of attributes. This pays off to brilliant effect as the novel goes on (and that’s where I’m not going to elaborate). But, when it comes down to it, the narrator is also just a voice on the page; and both characters scatter apart before our eyes.


Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Sphinx (1986) by Anne Garréta, tr. Emma Ramadan (2015), Deep Vellum paperback

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue: a Shiny New Books review

EnrigueI’m back at Shiny New Books with a review of a new Mexican novel: Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death (translated by Natasha Wimmer). As I note in my introduction, there’s some really exciting fiction from Mexico appearing in my translation (see my posts on books by Yuri Herrera, Paulette Jonguitud, and Juan Pablo Villalobos, for example); Sudden Death is no exception.

How to describe it, though? The novel is built around a game of tennis between Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. But it also deals with the forces that shaped the formation of the modern world in the 16th and 17th centuries – and which, perhaps, still help to shape the world today.  A synopsis can’t do it justice; you just have to read it.

A few links:

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Sudden Death (2013) by Álvaro Enrigue, tr. Natasha Wimmer (2016), Harvill Secker paperback


Book Cover Corner: Pocket Penguins

Penguin have just launched a new range of classics called ‘Pocket Penguins’. I couldn’t resist buying a couple when I saw the display in Waterstones yesterday…


I have to say, I love this series design. It’s based on Penguin’s Little Black Classics from last year, but with different colours indicating the original language: books from English are in orange covers; French in dark blue; German in olive green; Spanish in yellow; and so on.

In ‘the flesh’, these books are attractive and a pleasure to read. For a ‘popular classics’ series, the design manages to feel both relaxed and authoritative – they look like books that were meant to be read rather than displayed, but they still have weight. I decided that I would limit myself to two yesterday, but I can certainly see myself buying more…

The Bickford Fuse by Andrey Kurkov: a European Literature Network review

Bickford FuseI have a new review up at the European Literature Network this month: Andrey Kurkov’s The Bickford Fuse (translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk). It’s a journey through an absurd, askew version of the USSR under Khrushchev. We follow a shipwrecked sailor as he wanders the land through a series of strange encounters, all the while trailing the safety fuse with which he could blow it all up.

I enjoyed The Bickford Fuse, and the way it creates its own little world. Read my review to find out more.

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The Bickford Fuse (2009) by Andrey Kurkov, tr. Boris Dralyuk (2016), MacLehose Press paperback

The Last Days of Summer by Vanessa Ronan

LastDaysofSummerThis debut novel came along at the right time to be the kind of refresher that I was looking for. It’s July in Texas: jasper Curtis is released from prison after ten years, to move in with his sister Lizzie and her two daughters. Jasper is an interloper, in his family and the outside world: we don’t know exactly what he did to end up in prison; Lizzie doesn’t know whether she’s about to find her brother or a criminal; Jasper’s nieces don’t know him at all.

What I particularly like about Vanessa Ronan’s book is the way she builds up a sense of menace through her prose. Here, for example, is Lizzie overhearing an approaching truck:

Rumbling sound of the engine low as thunder and as distant, but uninterrupted and now quickly coming closer, growing louder, faster than any storm. Cobalt blue. Bright, shiny, new. Puts her rusted Chevy parked out front to shame. Lizzie turns the faucet off. Dries her hands on a dish towel. Places it, crumpled, on the counter beside her.

It’s the jagged rhythms of long and short sentences that makes this passage work for me; the fragments of action, colour and image. It disturbs the sense of a coherent, easily understood world – paving the way for the darker events to come.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Last Days of Summer (2016) by Vanessa Ronan, Penguin Ireland paperback

Man Booker International Prize 2016: and the winner is…

You might well have heard the news by now, but Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) has won this year’s Man Booker International Prize.



As you can imagine, I’m very pleased with that result: The Vegetarian was my favourite book of last year (here’s my review for Shiny New Books), not to mention my favourite book on the MBIP longlist. I’m pleased that this win will bring it to a wider audience; and it’s good to see such a singular, uncompromising work getting this kind of recognition.

This also brings to an end our award shadowing for this year. Thanks to Stu, Tony Malone, Tony Messenger, Bellezza, Clare, Grant, and Lori for being such excellent reading companions. We chose the same book as the official jury, albeit from rather different shortlists – I’ll champion The Vegetarian to anyone who will listen, but do check out the rest of the MBIP longlist because there’s some really good stuff on there.

What next? Reports are that fiction in translation is thriving, and my hope is that Han’s and Smith’s win will open the door wider. I will continue to search for more of these remarkable books from around the world, and report back here and elsewhere (I’m quite keen to read more Korean fiction, and this reading list by Han Kang seems a good place to start). Reading experiences like The Vegetarian don’t come along every day; but there is always another one out there, waiting.

Read my other posts on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize here.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Vegetarian (2007) by Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith (2015), Portobello Books paperback

Man Booker International Prize 2016: the shadow panel’s winner

Today’s the day when we’ll find out the inaugural winner of the Man Booker International Prize in its new incarnation. But first, we have a shadow winner to announce.

It was close – extremely close. After our initial round of voting, Marie NDiaye’s Ladivine narrowly missed out on a place in the run-off vote…

…and, in the final vote, Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water came a close second…

…but our shadow winner is:


The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

This means that, following last year’s IFFP result, this could be the second year running in which the shadow and official winners coincide. Given how much I love The Vegetarian, I actually hope it will be. Only a few more hours to wait…

Read my other posts on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize here.


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