CategoryFrench

Pushkin Press: At Night All Blood Is Black

David Diop, At Night All Blood Is Black (2018)
Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (2020)

This is a short and powerful novel of World War One by French-Senegalese writer David Diop. Our narrator, Alfa Ndiaye, came from Senegal and joined the French army with his friend (his “more-than-brother”) Mademba Diop. As the novel begins, Mademba is dead – Alfa found him mortally wounded, but couldn’t bring himself to do what his friend pleaded and finish him off. Now Alfa regrets that, and it has driven him to seek bloodthirsty revenge against the German forces.

The scenes set in Alfa’s childhood provide a contrast to the chaos and brutality of war, and it seems clear that the conflict is what has made him like this. Alfa’s commanding officers are happy to let him carry on at first, because his behaviour plays into their stereotypical views of African soldiers. But eventually he is sent to a field hospital for treatment, though even then the outcome is far from certain.

The language of Diop’s novel (a fine translation by Anna Moschovakis) is built around loops and repeated phrases that bring us closer to Alfa’s viewpoint, almost stiflingly so. This leads to some intense shifts of perception. We see with painful clarity what Alfa has done, and what has been done to him.

Published by Pushkin Press.

Three reviews: Modiano, Roffey, Foenkinos

Three more short reviews that were originally published on my Instagram.

Patrick Modiano, Villa Triste (1975)
Translated from the French by John Cullen (2016)

A few years ago, I enjoyed reading three of Patrick Modiano’s novels. When I mentioned one of them in a recommendation series on Instagram, I had a hankering to read him again. So I took Villa Triste down from the shelf, and experienced a welcome return to Modiano’s world.

Modiano’s narrator looks back on his life age 18, at the time of the Algerian War in the early 1960s. Apparently seeking to dodge the draft, he flees to a lakeside town on the Swiss border. Calling himself Count Victor Chmara, he meets the fabulous young actress Yvonne, and her exuberant doctor friend René. Victor joins in with their golden social life, but of course nothing lasts forever. ⁣

There are themes typical of Modiano here: the elusive past, and the fragility of memory. Yvonne and René have their secrets as much as Victor, which means that happy-go-lucky life could dissolve as quickly as it began. ⁣

Published by Daunt Books Publishing.

Monique Roffey, The Mermaid of Black Conch (2020)

In 1976, Aycayia, a mermaid, appears off the shore of St Constance on the Caribbean island of Black Conch. She is captured by a group of visiting American fishermen, and left on the dock. A local man, David Baptiste, rescues Aycayia and hides her at his home. She begins to change back into a woman, and suddenly both she and David find themselves living new lives.

Monique Roffey’s (author of Archipelago) new novel is told in a mixture of voices: standard third-person narration; the dialect of David’s journal, looking back forty years later; the poetry of Aycayia’s own voice. It’s compelling stuff, and there are some really affecting moments, such as Aycayia and a deaf boy finding a connection through sign language. But nothing lasts forever, and a bittersweet ending waits in the wings. ⁣⁣

Published by Peepal Tree Press.

David Foenkinos, The Mystery of Henri Pick (2016)
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor (2020)

Over the last few years, I’ve become a big fan of Walter Presents, Channel 4’s streaming service for world drama. I’ve come across many an enjoyable show on there, and appreciate the fact that it’s curated – like a good bookshop. ⁣

Now, the curator of Walter Presents, Walter Iuzzolino, is branching out into books, selecting a series of titles to be published in translation by Pushkin Press. The first is this charming French literary mystery. ⁣

In the Breton town of Crozon is a library of rejected manuscripts, each left there by its author. A young editor persuades her publishing house to take on a lost book that she finds in the library – and it becomes a bestseller. The author is apparently the late Henri Pick, a pizza chef who, by all accounts, had no literary leanings whatsoever. Did he really write the book, or is there some other explanation? ⁣

Reading The Mystery of Henri Pick is like going on a scenic tour of the countryside, with diversions down interesting byways. It pokes gentle fun at ideas of literary celebrity, but most of all it’s enjoyable to read. ⁣

Three reviews: Joncour, Pimwana, Iczkovits

Another trio of short reviews from my Instagram.

Serge Joncour, Wild Dog (2018)
Translated from the French by Jane Aitken and Polly Mackintosh (2020)

In 1914, a German lion-tamer takes refuge in a house above the French mountain village of Orcières as World War I begins. The villagers are fearful of his lions and tigers, whose roars fill the night – and then sheep start to go missing. ⁣

A century later, Lise and Franck rent that same house. She wants to cut herself off from the modern world. He’s a film producer who can’t bear to be disconnected. Franck is far out of his comfort zone here, but he strikes up something of a friendship with a wild dog – and then he starts to act differently. ⁣

The relationship between humans and the natural world runs through this novel. In both plot strands, characters are challenged and changed by their encounters with wild animals. There’s the implication that a darker, more savage side of human lies just out of sight, capable of resurfacing in the right circumstances. The tension rises constantly in this quietly menacing book. ⁣

Published by Gallic Books.

Duanwad Pimwana, Arid Dreams
Translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul (2019)

For me, Arid Dreams is a set of sharp character studies. One of my favourite stories is ‘The Attendant’, in which an elevator attendant compares his old life in the country with his current, largely static, existence. He feels that his current job has reduced him to little more than a head and an arm. The physicality really comes across in this story, the attendant’s frustration at having to stay still for so long.⁣⁣

In ‘Sandals’, a couple of children are being taken away from home by their parents to help with a job harvesting sugarcane. They don’t want to go, and what they’re willing to do makes this one of the most poignant stories in the collection. ⁣⁣

The narrator of ‘Kanda’s Eyebrows’ doesn’t like his wife’s looks, but there’s a sense that he is projecting his own insecurities about himself on to her. ‘Within These Walls’ seems a woman look around her bedroom while her husband is in hospital and wonder why the walls couldn’t be her preferred colour. This leads her to start thinking about other ways in which life might be different. ⁣⁣

Some of Pimwana’s characters reflect on their situations, while others have very little self-awareness. Time and again, I found them fascinating to read about. ⁣⁣

Published by Tilted Axis Press.

Yaniv Iczkovits, The Slaughterman’s Daughter (2015)
Translated from the Hebrew by Orr Scharf (2020)

In the Russian Empire towards the end of the 19th century, Fanny Keismann heads for Minsk in search of her brother-in-law, who left his family some months earlier. She is joined by Zizek Breshov, once a Jewish boy who was conscripted into the imperial army, now a silent boatman who lives apart from his old community. ⁣

Fanny is the daughter of a ritual slaughterman, who knows how to handle a knife. When she and Zizek are attacked on the road, Fanny defends herself – and the resulting deaths draw the attention of Colonel Piotr Novak of the secret police. ⁣

So begins a grand historical adventure, which winds together a number of stories (not just Fanny’s journey, but the histories of her and other characters as well) into a highly enjoyable tapestry. More than one character will find their preconceptions challenged along the way. ⁣

Published by MacLehose Press.

Three reviews: Ogawa, Dusapin, Mesa

Today I’m rounding up three reviews that I’ve had published on other websites in the last few months. I would recommend all of these books…

First, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder). It’s one of my favourite books from this year’s International Booker Prize, a tale of loss set on an island where things disappear from living memory without warning. I’ve reviewed it for Strange Horizons.

The second book is Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins). The narrator is a young woman working at a guest house in the South Korean tourist town of Sokcho, who’s ill at ease with her life. The novel is a quiet exploration of a moment when that might be about to change. I’ve reviewed Winter in Sokcho for Shiny New Books.

Finally, we have Four by Four by Sara Mesa (translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore). This is a novel about the use and abuse of power, set in an exclusive college. I’ve reviewed the book for European Literature Network.

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 50-41

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…

Continue reading

A Peirene Press round-up

Claudio Morandini, Snow, Dog, Foot (2015)
Translated from the Italian by J Ockenden (2020)

Peirene’s series theme for 2019-20 is ‘Closed Universe’, and this first title takes us into the troubled mind of one old man living in the Alps.

Adelmo Farandola (always referred to by his full name) spends the winter up in the mountains away from people, and the summer even further up in the mountains. When we meet him, he goes down to the village to stock up on supplies for the winter. The shopkeeper is surprised to see him because (she says) he visited only last week. Adelmo has no memory of that.

For most of Morandini’s novel, it’s just Adelmo, his dog, and the young ranger who goes by from time to time. Adelmo is snowed in for months, then has to decide what to do when he sees a foot poking out of the snow.

What makes Snow, Dog, Foot so compelling is the ambiguity running through it. Reality is fluid for Adelmo, so there’s no fanfare when (for example) the dog starts talking to him, because that’s just the way things are. Adelmo has complete trust in his senses, which means we have constant mistrust. The book grows ever more poignant as the layers of perception peel away and we understand what’s happening.

Emmanuelle Pagano, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue (2012)
Translated from the French by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis (2019)

Part of Peirene’s ‘There Be Monsters’ series, this is a collection of linked stories set in rural France. These are vivid tales of character: the hitchhiker who stands in drivers’ blind spots. The old man near the holiday rental who’ll tell stories of the local area to anyone who will listen. The father remembering his daughter’s childhood through an old jigsaw puzzle.

Characters and images recur, not least the roads that link up places but also lead away from them. The repeating references to individuals and events serve to remind how small a community can be. But the details of the stories reveal how even familiar faces may be unknown or forgotten.

Birgit Vanderbeke, You Would Have Missed Me (2016)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch (2019)

Another title from the ‘There Be Monsters’ series. Vanderbeke draws on her own childhood for this tale of an East German refugee trying to settle into West German society in the 1960s.⁣

I particularly like the childlike tone of the narration: the hurried gabble of this happened and then that and this and you know what else, as though the narrator wants to tell us everything.⁣

My favourite books read in 2019

The end of the year has come around again, so it’s time to look back. Going through my list of books read this year has brought back some happy memories, so here are my twelve favourites. As ever, the list is in rough descending order of enjoyment, but they’re all warmly recommended.

12. The Perseverance (2019) by Raymond Antrobus

I’ve been dipping my toes into the world of poetry this year. Antrobus’ highly personal collection – which explores themes of language, communication and family relationships – stood out to me. A worthy winner of the Young Writer of the Year Award.

11. Tamarisk Row (1974) by Gerald Murnane

I’ve never read a novel that evokes childhood imagination quite like this. A boy in 1940s Australia imagines hidden worlds in the abstract patterns of everyday reality (such as the play of light through glass). The raw, deep feelings of growing up are made vertiginous in Murnane’s prose.

10. Notes to Self (2018) by Emilie Pine

A collection of personal essays in which the act of writing seems at least as important to the writer as what she’s writing about. Pine is unflinching as she explores issues of the (her) family, body and self. The sense is that she’s taking the stuff of her life apart and building it anew.

9. The Years (2008) by Annie Ernaux
Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer (2017)

An account of the mid-to-late 20th century whose writing stopped me in my tracks. The narrator’s personal history plays out against and within the broader passage of time. I was particularly struck by the way the text changes shape to reflect different ways of knowing and remembering – stories giving way to fragments of information.

8. The Drover’s Wives (2019) by Ryan O’Neill

Possibly the book that was the most pure fun to read this year. The Drover’s Wives consists of a classic Australian short story retold in 101 different ways, from ‘Hemingwayesque’ to ‘A 1980s Computer Game’ and even a chart of paint swatches. O’Neill brings out different sides to the original story, and though there’s a lot to smile about, there are some poignant moments too.

7. The Cheffe (2016) by Marie NDiaye
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump (2019)

The very last book I read before compiling this list, but one that made a considerable impression. It’s the tale of an elusive culinary genius through the eyes of a former employee who thinks he has insight into her that may be the product of obsession. The ‘double remove’ between us and the Cheffe makes the novel so tantalising.

6. Strike Your Heart (2017) by Amélie Nothomb
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson (2018)

Nothomb takes my ‘should have read this author sooner’ slot for the year. This novel is a short, sharp, 360-degree view of its protagonist’s female relationships, from her jealous mother to the assistant professor who may not be as much of a friend as she appears.

5. Transfer Window (2017) by Maria Gerhardt
Translated from the Danish by Lindy Falk van Rooyen (2019)

Talking of short and sharp… This is the piercing portrait of a terminally ill young woman who has moved to a wealthy suburb of Copenhagen, recently turned into a hospice. Transfer Window is harrowing in its sense of life cut short. Inside the hospice, the protagonist’s old life slips away: for everyone outside, life goes on.

4. The Artificial Silk Girl (1932) by Irmgard Keun
Translated from the German by Kathie von Ankum (2002)

Doris is a secretary with dreams of being a star; she leaves her job and travels to Berlin, where she finds that life’s pendulum may swing in a different direction without warning. Doris’s voice is compelling as the world shifts around her. There are moments of joy, but also signs of the darkness that was to come – signs that seem all the more pronounced from this historical distance.

3. Nocilla Lab (2009) by Agustín Fernández Mallo
Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead (2019)

The final part of Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Trilogy, and my personal favourite. We follow a version (or versions) of the author on a trip to Sardinia, through four sections written in different styles. The question becomes, can we trust the narrator to be the same individual throughout? The sense of a single coherent ‘I’ grows ever more fragile.

2. Follow Me to Ground (2018) by Sue Rainsford

A novel of genuine strangeness that gains power from refusing to explain itself. Ada and her father heal people, but exactly what they do (or even what they are) is a mystery to us. When Ada falls in love with one of her “Cures”, this threatens to upend her entire existence… and that core of mystery gnaws away all the while.

1. Berg (1964) by Ann Quin

I first heard about this novel ten years before reading it, and eventually got to it at just the right time. I was expecting the prose to require some concentration, but I wasn’t expecting the book to be so funny. Quin’s hapless protagonist goes to the seaside intending to kill his father in revenge, but finds he can’t actually go through with it. Events descend into outright farce… and I found a new book to treasure.

***

So, that was my 2019. How was your reading year?

If you’d like to catch up on previous yearly round-up, they’re here: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next year on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or here.

“She told me the meal was there, spare, magnificent and perfect”

Marie NDiaye, The Cheffe (2016)
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump (2019)

Although I’m not much of a foodie, I have a soft spot for programmes like Masterchef and Great British Menu. I think it has something to do with seeing already talented people excelling themselves, especially when it’s in an area I can relate to but couldn’t venture into myself. There’s also a certain mystery in watching these shows, trying to imagine what the food actually tastes like from the judges’ descriptions. I guess it’s a bit like trying to capture what it was like to read a book that you may well not have read yet yourself.

On that note: here is The Cheffe, the latest novel to appear in English translation from the French author Marie NDiaye (whose Ladivine was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize back in 2016). It is the story of an enigmatic culinary genius, known to us mostly by title rather than name.

From humble beginnings in south-western France, the Cheffe discovers her talent as a teenager, working in a wealthy couple’s kitchen. In time, she becomes a celebrated restauranteur, but she’s not interested in showing off – “cooking was sacred” to her. She also remains intensely private. It’s in the kitchen where the Cheffe is in her element:

…it’s a fact that I never saw the Cheffe make a motion or gesture that wasn’t marked by a magical precision, even in the most cramped or cluttered quarters, every tiny part of her diligently obeyed order to make every move precise, and did so gracefully, what’s more, with a radiant eagerness that suggested everything she did in the ritual space of the kitchen was done in accordance with the precepts of beauty and necessity.

NDiaye’s unnamed narrator is a former employee of the Cheffe; the text of the novel is an interview he’s giving after she has died. This man thinks he knows who the Cheffe was and how she thought, but he’s not the most reliable of narrators. He’s rather obsessed with the Cheffe (as you can perhaps tell from the tone of the quotation above), and that colours his account of her. There’s a sense that some of the narrator’s interpretations, such as his view of the Cheffe’s relationship with her daughter (which he sees as a difficult one), might be projections of his own situation.

The end result is a kind of double distancing: an already elusive character made even more so by the overlaying of another character’s preoccupations. We’re apprehending the Cheffe through two thicknesses of glass, as it were – but the impressions left of both her and the narrator are vivid nonetheless. The Cheffe is a tale of imagination filling in the gaps when first-hand knowledge falls short, as tantalising and perilous as that may be.

The Cheffe is published by MacLehose Press in the UK and Knopf in the US.

Strike Your Heart – Amélie Nothomb (#WITMonth)

It was Dan Rhodes on Twitter who first recommended Amélie Nothomb’s work to me. Several years later, I’ve finally acted on the recommendation, with Nothomb’s most recent novel to appear in English. I wish I’d read her much sooner.

Strike Your Heart begins in 1971 with beautiful nineteen-year-old Marie, who loves to be the centre of attention. She marries a handsome young man, and feels that the future will be one of infinite possibility. That’s until she becomes pregnant, and gives birth to Diane the following year. Only once does Marie show any affection towards her daughter, and by the age of four Diane has some insight into her mother’s thinking:

Even if [Marie] had made progress in life, she was still no more than an accountant at her husband’s pharmacy, not a Queen, and while her husband might be the most attentive, infatuated spouse imaginable, he was still not a King. The little girl’s love for her mother was so great that it could even encompass what her own birth must have meant to Marie: resignation, the end of her faith in some kind of ideal.
(translation from the French by Alison Anderson)

It becomes clear in time just how jealous Marie is of Diane, something that tears their relationship (such as it is) apart. Diane goes on to study cardiology at university, where she strikes up a close friendship with Olivia, an assistant professor. She helps Olivia’s daughter with her homework, devotes two years to working with Olivia on the articles Olivia needs to apply for a full professorship… But it seems that Olivia may not be such a friend to Diane after all.

Strike Your Heart is a sharp 360-degree view of the female relationships in its protagonist’s life. I enjoyed it very much, so I’d better not leave it too long before reading another book by Nothomb.

Book details

Strike Your Heart (2017) by Amélie Nothomb, tr. Alison Anderson (2018), Europa Editions, 135 pages, paperback.

The Years – Annie Ernaux: #MBI2019

Annie Ernaux, The Years (2008)
Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer (2017)

Annie Ernaux’s The Years begins with a series of scattered memories, and reflections on the ephemeral nature of existence:

Everything will be erased in a second. The dictionary of words amassed between cradle and deathbed, eliminated. All there will be is silence and no words to say it. Nothing will come out of the open mouth, neither I nor me. Language will continue to put the world into words. In conversation around a holiday table, we will be nothing but a first name, increasingly faceless, until we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation.

This paragraph stopped me in my tracks; it wouldn’t be the last time that happened during the book.

I can understand now I’ve read it why The Years has been accepted as a novel for the purposes of the Man Booker International Prize: it’s not so much the detail of history that lingers as the shape of the text. I’d describe The Years as an individual (auto)biography suspended in a broader account of history. It follows the life and times of a character (presumably a version of Ernaux herself) from 1941 to 2006. The wider historical canvas is mostly kept at ‘eye level’, stitched together from details that emphasise the experience of living through a particular moment in time. For example, the 1950s:

Beneath the surface of the things that never changed, last year’s circus posters with the photo of Roger Lanzac, First Communion photos handed out to schoolfriends, the Club des chansonniers on Radio Luxembourg, our days swelled with new desires. On Sunday afternoons, we crowded around the windows of the general electrics shop to watch television. Cafés invested in TV sets to lure clientele.

Ernaux also evokes the ways in which her protagonist’s mental landscapes change. The world of childhood, immediately after the Second World War, is a world of family voices telling stories, and traditions handed down:

Memory was transmitted not only through the stories but through the ways of walking, sitting, talking, laughing, eating, hailing someone, grabbing hold of objects. It passed body to body, over the years, from the remotest countrysides of France and other parts of Europe: a heritage unseen in the photos, lying beyond individual difference and the gaps between the goodness of some and the wickedness of others.

Over the period narrated in The Years, the old voices fade and machines become the main repository of knowledge (“Only facts presented on TV achieved the status of reality”). The old stories are ultimately replaced by the internet’s grab-bag of information. Memory itself fragments. This is what I like most about The Years: the way it evokes the changing texture of living and remembering through time.

Book details

The Years (2008) by Annie Ernaux, tr. Alison L. Strayer (2017), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 232 pages, paperback.

Read my other posts on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize here.

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