MonthJune 2011

Tomorrow Pamplona Blog Tour 2011, Gig 13

Hello, and welcome to the final stop on the Tomorrow Pamplona blog tour. Peirene Press have been offering bloggers the chance to ask questions about the book of its author, Jan van Mersbergen, and translator, Laura Watkinson.

My question was for Laura:

How do you go about capturing the tone of a book like Tomorrow Pamplona? My main impression of the translation’s prose is one of restlessness, with scenes often ending on a ‘hanging’ detail. Is the sense of the original Dutch similar? Are there any particular challenges to translating ‘big picture’ aspects like tone and voice?

Laura replies:

Hi David,

That’s a really good question, but I’m not sure that my answer’s going to be very illuminating! When I’m translating, I have a picture of the book as a whole, but I tend to work with my head deep in the sentences and paragraphs for some time before coming up for air. If the writer has a strong and consistent voice, as Jan does, I really get into the atmosphere of the text. My aim is then to replicate that atmosphere in English and to ensure that the English translation captures the sense and the pace of the Dutch original. Jan’s text is certainly restless, so if you’ve picked up the same feeling from the translation, that’s good to hear.

If everything goes well with the translation, working on the tone and the voice isn’t a very conscious process for me. It’s only when something jars or when I become unsure of the author’s intention that I really need to pause and reflect. The ‘big picture’ comes into play more when I’m polishing the draft and I gain a better overview of the English version.


Thanks to Laura for her answer, and to Peirene for organising the tour, which I think has been very interesting and worthwhile. Links to all the other tour gigs are available on the Peirene website, and you can also read my review of Tomorrow Pamplona here.

Sarah Salway, Leading the Dance (2006)

The stories in Sarah Salway’s collection Leading the Dance (recently republished in a new edition) are built from elements that are ostensibly largely quotidian, but often treated in a way that lays bare the significance that everyday things can have to people. Let’s start with the title story, which is a fine illustration of this (as well as being one of my favourite pieces in the book); it tells of a couple attending a school ceilidh, but also of the tensions running through their relationship. The man is quickly—and chillingly—established as a threatening figure (‘For a child to cry during one of Daddy’s moods is not a good thing because then he’ll teach them how it really feels to hurt,’ p. 139); he attends the ceilidh only reluctantly, and makes sure his partner, Deborah, knows that; for Deborah’s part, she knows how destructive is this relationship, but still finds herself drawn to the man (who is not named, thereby depersonalising him and emphasising the sense of his being a threat). The act of leading the dance comes to represent the struggle to exert control over the relationship; Salway superbly maintains a sense of menace throughout.

Some of the tales gain their effect from a quirk of the viewpoint interacting with plot events. ‘Quiet Hour’ is rich in dramatic irony: its child protagonist, Malcolm, waits in his father’s new car and investigates what all the buttons do; he’s not aware of the implications of his father’s comment that ‘Mummy and I are going to have a little sleep’ (p. 44), nor of why his usual tactics for good behaviour are not working at the end—but the reader is, which results in a very entertaining story.

‘Alphabet Wednesdays’ uses its structure as well as its voice to put distance between the reader and its underlying reality. Flora is unable (or unwilling) to talk, and has been placed in a special group with three other girls at school, which aims to raise their self-esteem. The girls have been asked to keep a journal about their role models, each to begin with a different letter of the alphabet; the text of the story is that of Flora’s journal. At first, it’s quite amusing to read Flora’s naive voice describing a series of apparently disconnected subjects, but the difficulties of Flora’s home life (the extent of which she herself is not fully aware) gradually become clear; when Flora writes about dancing to Gloria Gaynor, we sense the additional weight of what her mother always says: ‘We can do it…We can survive” (p.30).

Elsewhere in Leading the Dance are stories where the situation depicted is more extraordinary. The narrator of ‘The Woman Downstairs’ describes matter-of-factly how she pushed a visitor down the cellar stairs, and now keeps her trapped there. Precisely what is going on here is uncertain—there are hints that the captive woman may be a figment of the protagonist’s imagination; but, whatever the situation, it’s clear that the narrator is struggling to cope with reality. Salway evokes the character’s mindset subtly yet thoroughly.

In ‘Painting the Family Pet’, a portrait painter arrives on Helen’s doorstep; Amy Turner paints pets, but there are no animals in this household, so she ends up painting the fridge instead. It’s an absurd situation, but Salway makes it work, partly by treating it with complete conviction within the story, but also by giving it metaphoric import—we learn that Helen has bulimia, and the fridge and its portrait come to represent something of the effect her condition has had on Helen’s relationship with her partner Dan. As with the title story, the events of this tale carry greater significance than they might seem to on their own terms.

By covering five pieces out of eighteen, I’m in a sense only scratching the surface of the collection; but I hope I’ve managed to give a flavour of why Leading the Dance is such an interesting set of stories.

Sarah Salway’s website
Speechbubble Books
Some other reviews of Leading the Dance: Nuala Ní Chonchúir at The Short Review; Caroline Smailes at The Reader; Elizabeth Baines.

Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox (2011)

At first, I was under the impression that Helen Oyeyemi’s fourth book was going to be a short story collection; then I heard it was a novel. Now I’ve read Mr Fox, and it turns out to be a mixture of the two: a novel built around (and largely told through) short stories. We begin in New York of 1938, when the writer St John Fox receives a visit from his (imaginary, yet in a sense perfectly real) muse Mary Foxe, who has come to protest at Fox’s propensity for killing off the women in his fiction. She takes him into a series of stories (some by Mary, others by Foxe), variations on the tale of Bluebeard, in which the two of them play a variety of roles; at the end of this odyssey, Mary hopes, Fox will have changed for the better.

Fox’s attitude is that fiction is fiction, and that what he writes has no bearing on what he thinks in the real world. Yet reality may be closer to Fox’s fiction than he realises; it’s clear from the first that he holds certain contempt for women, as evidenced by this comment about his wife Daphne:

She doesn’t complain about anything I do; she is physically unable to. That’s because I fixed her early. I told her in heartfelt tones that one of the reasons I love her is because she never complains. So now of course she doesn’t dare complain. (1)

Oyeyemi illustrates this connection by literally bringing the real and fictional together. When Fox wants Mary to shut up, it’s no idle request; as she’s a product of his mind, he can make her unable to speak—there’s nothing unreal about that in the context of the novel. And, since the book is almost all stories—indeed, we’re plunged into the stories before we have a proper handle on the ‘main’ narrative—the in-novel fiction becomes the default ‘reality’, and hence not as insignificant as Fox would like to think.

As well as examining how attitudes might slide into violence, the stories of Mr Fox explore different ways in which two people may love or otherwise relate to one another, from the yearning for a fairytale ending, to imagining what someone you’ve never met is like, to living in silence. The variety amongst the stories is quite something, as is the number of different registers in which Oyeyemi writes. One of the earliest tales stays close to the first setting, casting Mary Foxe as a budding writer who corresponds with St John Fox and may (or may not) eventually meet him; but others range further—we see Mary and Fox as the mistress of a finishing school for young men and the prisoner held captive in the school’s lake; a young woman in our present day who was scarred by her father’s murder of her mother, and the psychiatrist she meets on a flight; and even as the mother and soldier from ‘My Daughter the Racist’ (shortlisted for last year’s BBC National Short Story Award), which takes on a new layer of meaning as part of Mr Fox.

Fairytale and fabulation sit happily alongside more realist narratives, united by the two protagonists (or their analogues) and an underlying concern with stories—for it’s through the mode of story that Daphne Fox ultimately finds her voice, and St John Fox starts to learn better. Fox may start off thinking it’s only fiction, but, in Oyeyemi’s novel, there’s no ‘only’ about it.

New Books interview with Helen Oyeyemi
Some other reviews of Mr Fox: Emma Mould for Bookmunch; Justine Jordan for The Guardian; Marianne Brace for The Independent.

Book notes: Stevenson, van Mersbergen, Black

Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)

The first thing I realised on reading Jekyll and Hyde was that I didn’t know the story; I knew the transformation, the dual identity, but not the tale built around it. In fact, the reading of the book turned out to be in large part an exercise in having my preconceptions overturned.

The plot of Stevenson’s book revolves around the investigation by a lawyer named Utterson into why one of his clients, Dr Henry Jekyll, has made a will bequeathing everything to one Edward Hyde, when Hyde is known to be repugnant and violent. The answer, of course, I knew in advance; but that knowledge didn’t stop me finding it interesting to see how Stevenson led his readers towards the conclusion.

The figure of Hyde is what fascinated me most, however, because the reality of him was so different from what I had in mind beforehand. My preconception was that Hyde would be some big, hulking monster; when actually he’s physically small and undistinguished, but with an indefinable aura of there being something not quite right about him, which aura repels everyone he meets. What Hyde represents doesn’t play out in quite the way I’d expected, either; yes, he’s the distilled dark side of Jekyll’s nature, but his defining characteristic is less violence per se than a lack of propriety – Hyde will do the things that Jekyll’s conscience wouldn’t allow, and that makes him an attractive figure to Jekyll. This is what Stevenson captures so vividly: the conflict between restraint and giving in to one’s impulses. No wonder the names of Jekyll and Hyde entered the language as an expression.

Jan van Mersbergen, Tomorrow Pamplona (2007/11)

Boxer Danny Clare is on the move, and hitches a lift with a man named Robert, who is on his way to Pamplona for the Bull Run; not where Danny had in mind, but he needs to go somewhere, and it might as well be there. The chronicle of the two men’s journey to Pamplona is interspersed with passages depicting Danny’s life in the boxing world; the tangle he got into after falling for Ragna, the beautiful assistant of his new promoter; and the ultimate impetus for his current travels.

Tomorrow Pamplona is the fifth title from the ever-interesting Peirene Press, this time by Dutch author van Mersbergen (in the interests of fairness, I should declare that I know Laura Watkinson, the translator). As the publisher, Meike Ziervogel, notes in her brief introduction, the book is not quite as simple and straightforward as its direct style may at first suggest. There’s a twitchiness to the prose that mirrors the nervous energy Danny has as a boxer; for example, the scenes on the road often end it what feels like an extraneous detail, as though to suggest a kind of restless looking-around.

There are three scenes in particular which stand out to me as most effectively utilising the characterisation of Danny as a boxer, and the physicality which comes with that: the opening scene of Danny travelling on foot; the sequence at the Bull Run itself, where one of the key plot events takes place; and the critical incident that set Danny on the road. The book is engaging throughout, but I found those three scenes especially powerful. There’s also an effective contrast between the two travellers, with Robert’s view of the Bull Run as an escape from everyday life coming across as rather naïve (and, ultimately, carrying a bitterly ironic twist) when compared to the burden from which Danny seeks to escape. Tomorrow Pamplona is yet another great read from Peirene.

Other reviews: Book After Book; Just William’s Luck; Notes from the North.

Robin Black, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (2010)

An interesting collection of stories whose characters are frequently dealing with loss, secrets, and troubled relationships. What I find particularly striking in many of the pieces is the way Black foregrounds a particular plot thread that reflects, comments on, or interacts in some way with the relationship situation going on elsewhere.

So, for example, in ‘The Guide’, when Jack Snyder takes his daughter Lila to buy a guide dog, it’s not only a way for him to make up for not being able to protect her from the accident that blinded Lila as a child; it’s also an opportunity for Jack to figure out how he’s going to tell his daughter about his affair. In ‘Harriet Elliot’, the narrator’s relationship with the titular new girl at school – who has outlandish tales of being kidnapped and held to ransom as a small child – is what keeps her going as her home-life disintegrates (the demarcation between background and foreground is particularly sharp and noticeable in this story).

Elsewhere in If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, we have further memorable characters and incidents. Some that stand out in particular to me are: Artie and Nina from ‘Some Women Eat Tar’, a couple about to become parents, though it was Artie’s idea and he wants to be in charge of everything, whilst Nina is at best ambivalent about it; Clara Feinberg, the portrait painter in ‘Immortalizing John Parker’, who’s trying to understand the subject of her latest commission at the same time as her ex-husband’s re-entering her life; and Kate Rodgers, who finds echoes of her relationship with her twin brother when interacting with others on holiday in ‘The History of the World’.

Just about the only story in the collection that I didn’t get along with was the earliest, ‘Gaining Ground’ – not because of its content, but because its prose style was so different from that of the rest; choppier and more self-conscious, it rubbed me the wrong way and really stuck out in  comparison with the smoother telling of the other stories. Leaving that one piece aside, though, Black’s debut is well worth a read.

Robin Black’s website
Other reviews: Bibliophiliac; Short Story Slore; A notebook cracked open…

Notable books: June 2011

It’s the first day of summer, and as good a time as any to cast an eye over some new books on their way this month.

Alice Albinia, Leela’s Book

A family drama set in Delhi, complete with  appearances from Ganesh. Sounds delightfully intricate from the synopsis.

John Burnside, A Summer of Drowning


Was the drowning of two boys on an Arctic island an accident, or the wok of supernatural forces? I hope this is as atmospheric as it sounds.

Richard T. Kelly, The Possessions of Doctor Forrest

A doctor goes missing, and two of his old friends and colleagues investigate. The publisher’s synopsis is rather vague about what ensues beyond a general promise of strangeness, but strangeness is fine with me.

Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox

For some reason, I was originally under the impression that this was a short story collection, but the synopsis makes it sound like a novel, yet the ShortStoryVille programme describes it as ‘linked stories’. I will just have to read this tale of a writer and his (imaginary, or possibly all-too-real) muse to find out.

Jan van Mersbergen, Tomorrow Pamplona

A boxer and a father meet on the way to the Pamplona Bull Run, each trying to escape from something. The latest novella from Peirene Press, this is particularly interesting to me because I know the translator, Laura Watkinson.

David Whitehouse, Bed

The winner of last year’s To Hell with Prizes for unpublished novels, this is the story of a boy who’d like to change the world, but won’t get out of bed, and begins to change. Very intriguing.

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