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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.

Reading round-up: late January

Susan Orlean, The Library Book (2018)

In 1986, someone set fire to Los Angeles Central Library, which ultimately led to the destruction of 400,000 volumes. Susan Orlean’s latest book takes this event as its starting point, exploring the past and present of LA’s main library, the investigation into the fire, a more general history of libraries, and the place of libraries in Orlean’s own life. It’s an interesting and varied journey, which introduces us to some colourful characters.

Nihad Sirees, States of Passion (1998)
Translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss (2018)

The second novel by Syrian writer Nihad Sirees to appear in English begins with an unnamed bureaucrat seeking shelter from a storm in a country mansion. The old man living there tells the narrator the story of a young peasant woman sent to Aleppo in the 1930s, and the glamorous wedding singer who was once her mother’s lover. States of Passion becomes a nest of stories as the narrator interjects, curious to know how the old man fits into all this. Sirees’ novel examines love, memory, and what it means to live in a story.

Magda Szabó, Katalin Street (1969)
Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix (2019)

This is my first time reading Magda Szabó (1917-2007), in a translation newly published by MacLehose Press. Katalin Street focuses on three families in adjacent houses in Budapest, returning to them at intervals between 1934 and 1968. This encompasses both the German invasion of Hungary in 1944, and the subsequent period of Soviet rule. Szabó’s focus is very much on her characters, showing how their lives and relationships are shaped by the events around them. It’s a subtle, reflective work.

Catherine Chidgey, The Beat of the Pendulum (2017)

Subtitled “a found novel”, The Beat of the Pendulum is built from real-life conversations, emails, radio ads.. . all things that Catherine Chidgey heard and read around her over the course of a year. Being plunged into this cacophony of voices is disorienting yet intriguing, and brings home just how many odd edges a typical novel shaves off reality – odd edges which are still there in Chidgey’s novel. One of the key themes is communication: Chidgey’s relationships with her baby daughter (born through surrogacy) and mother (who has dementia) show communication becoming closer and more distant at different times.

Ricky Monahan Brown, Stroke (2019)

Ricky Monahan Brown is a Scot who was living in New York in 2012, when he had a stroke at the age of 38. As his memoir’s subtitle says, he had “a 5% chance of survival” – but survive he did. Brown’s account is fascinating for the detail of his painstaking recovery, but what also comes across is the strength and importance of his relationships, especially that with his girlfriend Beth. There’s also a thread of dry humour, which rounds out the book nicely.

Reading round-up: early January

Happy New Year! For my first post of 2019, here are some of the books I read towards the end of last year, including a few new titles:

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer (2018)

This is the short, sharp debut novel by Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite. Our narrator, Korede, is a nurse; her sister Ayoola’s boyfriends have a tendency to end up dead, and Korede helps her clean up afterwards. But, when Ayoola starts going out with a doctor whom her sister secretly loves, Korede has to make a choice… Both writing and viewpoint in Braithwaite’s novel are intensely focused, which throws the reader head-first into its situation. To my mind, My Sister, the Serial Killer is at heart a novel of character, and a compelling one at that.

Evald Flisar, A Swarm of Dust (2017)
Translated from the Slovene by David Limon (2018)

Janek Hudorovec grows up in a Roma family in 1960s Yugoslavia. In the first scene of Evald Flisar’s novel, we discover the dark secret that Janek will carry with him through life. Janek finds social conventions and niceties stifling; though he may think he’s escaping the strictures of village life when he gets the chance to go to university, he realises that he needs the freedom of nature, even though returning to the village means confronting his past. Flisar evokes Janek’s inner life so fully that A Swarm of Dust can be deeply harrowing to be read – but it’s powerful stuff.

Charlotte Runcie, Salt on Your Tongue (2019)

Charlotte Runcie is an arts journalist for the Telegraph; Salt on Your Tongue is her first book. It’s a memoir of pregnancy and motherhood, combined with an exploration of what the sea has meant to women through history. Runcie draws on art, music and mythology, relating these to her own experience and love of the sea, and vice versa. The resulting book is absorbing and intensely personal.

Dalia Grinkevičiutė, Shadows on the Tundra (1997)
Translated from the Lithuanian by Delija Valiukenas (2018)

Dalia Grinkevičiutė was a teenager in 1941 when she and her family were deported to a Siberian Gulag. Seven years later, she escaped and returned to Lithuania, where she wrote down the memories that would become Shadows on the Tundra. She buried the papers in a jar in her garden; they were not found until 1991, after her death. Shadows on the Tundra now appears in English as part of Peirene’s ‘Home in Exile’ series. It’s a harrowing account of life in the prison camp, with Delija Valiukenas’ translation really capturing a rawness to Grinkevičiutė’s writing.

Dov Alfon, A Long Night in Paris (2016)
Translated from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir (2019)

A marketing manager from Israel disembarks at Charles de Gaulle Airport with five colleagues. He approaches a pretty blonde hotel greeter outside, ready for a spot of flirting… only to be abducted instead. This sparks an investigation that will involve Israeli intelligence officers at home and in Paris, as well as the local French police. The first novel by journalist Dov Alfon is a sprawling thriller that keeps up a frenetic pace, with plenty of swerves in the plot.

A Long Night in Paris will be published on 10 January; the other books are available now.

Nevada Days – Bernardo Atxaga

Sometimes, choosing to read a book is a matter of trust. Maybe a particular book doesn’t sound as though it would appeal; but if the recommendation comes from a trusted source, or the book is by a favourite author, that might be enough to persuade one to give the book a try. 

In the case of Nevada Days, I was trusting the publisher. Bernardo Atxaga was a new writer to me; this book is a fictionalised memoir covering the nine months he spent as writer-in-residence of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada in Reno. On the face of it, this probably isn’t the kind of book I would choose to introduce myself to a writer’s work – but I trust MacLehose Press to publish interesting books, and it worked before with Per Olov Enquist’s The Wandering Pine, so why not?

Anyway, I took a chance; and I’m glad I did.

Atxaga arrives in Reno on 18 August 2007, with his wife Ángela (who will be conducting research there) and their daughters Sara and Izaskun. They move into a small house used by the university to lodge visiting writers. We are soon introduced to a core cast of vivid secondary characters, including Mary Lore Bidart, director of the Center for Basque Studies; Bob Earle, the exuberant retired academic who becomes the Atxagas’ new neighbour; and Dennis, the university IT officer with a fascination for insects. 

Along with his work at the university, Atxaga makes a number of trips into the desert and further afield. All adds up to make Nevada Days an engrossing travelogue. Here is Atxaga reflecting on the mountains in the Nevada desert, in one of the letters to his friend L. that appear throughout the text:

Looking at those mountains – far, far, far away, so far away that the most distant ones looked like mere maquettes – I was keenly aware of the world’s utter indifference to us. This wasn’t just an idea either, but something more physical, more emotional, which troubled me and made me feel like crying. I understood then that the mountains were in a different place entirely. They weren’t distant from me in the way a bird in Sicily is distant from a tree in Nevada, but, as I said, in a different place entirely.

(translation by Margaret Jull Costa) 

I chose this extract because it highlights something I was constantly reminded of while reading Nevada Days: namely, that Atxaga’s account is a shaped version of reality. In this passage, he’s working through the process of finding the right words to capture his experience. 

But Nevada Days is also organised in a way that lends it certain themes. One that stands out to me is moral ambivalence, introduced when Atxaga’s daughters feel sorry for King Kong when he is shot at the end of the film; and again for a drug trafficker whom they see being arrested:

What connection was there between justice and compassion? How far should society go to protect itself? What should the city do with King Kong? 

Atxaga peppers his account of Nevada with memories and stories of the Basque Country; these tend to illustrate examples of where the line between right and wrong might be blurred. For instance, he tells of the famed Basque boxer Paulino Uzcudun, presenting him as an ambivalent figure, celebrated as a fighter but also later known as a strong supporter of Franco. Atxaga also recounts how he himself was out dancing and meeting girls as a teenager at the same time as his autistic cousin José Francisco was struggling in his residential school, where one day he swallowed some pieces of metal that killed him. The author asks if his younger self should be blamed for being indifferent to his cousin, when he was essentially following urges that young people have. No answer is forthcoming. 

After Atxaga’s main account of Reno is finished, a couple of further sections serve to tie up the book thematically and cast it in a new light. The author includes phone calls home to his elderly mother in the main text; and, though these are often amusing, it’s still clear enough that something serious is going on. A closing chapter recounts her funeral: it’s structured in the same way as the main text – present-day narration mixed with stories and memories – but intercut much more rapidly. This chapter suggests that an extraordinary event such as a death in the family takes us to its own separate place, and only gradually do we return to our everyday lives. The pace and choppiness of the chapter create that sense of experiencing a heightened reality. But mirroring the structure of the main text suggests that the period represented by the book may have been a “separate place” in reality for Atxaga and his family. 

Closing Nevada Days is a series of document extracts that close off two narrative strands from the main text: a string of sexual assaults and a murder on campus; and the disappearance of the adventurer Steve Fossett. Both of these have previously been left open like plot strands in a novel – and they’ve had the same narrative tension – but their sudden, matter-of-fact closure reinforces that reality doesn’t have the arrangement of fiction after all. In a way, we’re also back to the theme of moral ambivalence, asking whether it’s right to gain narrative pleasure from such real events. But then, that’s what fiction naturally enables, isn’t it? But then again… 

Considering that I was unsure of giving Nevada Days a whirl in the first place, the reading of it (and, indeed, the writing of this review) has given me so much to think about, I feel very happy to have taken the chance. I must also mention the design:this book is published as part of the new ‘MacLehose Press Editions’ series, in a handsome trade paperback (large, but not too large) with flaps. I’m glad to have Nevada Days a worthy addition to my library; and, actually, I think it will be a good starting point for exploring more of Bernardo Atxaga’s work. 
T 

Stu has also reviewed Nevada Days over at Winstonsdad’s Blog

Book details 

Nevada Days (2013) by Bernardo Atxaga, tr. Margaret Jull Costa (2017), MacLehose Press, 342 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Gone: a Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym

Min Kym was a child prodigy on the violin. At the age of 21, she found her perfect instrument, a Stradivarius. Ten years later, the violin was stolen on a train station concourse. Gone is Kym’s memoir of those times. 

I’m not really a classical music person: Gone was one of those books that I was offered unexpectedly by the publisher, and I accepted just because I thought it might be interesting. In the end, I found it absolutely fascinating to read this account of what it’s like to be so gifted at something that it doesn’t feel like a talent, because it just comes so naturally. 

Kym talks about having a nigh-on bodily connection to her instrument, the violin feeling as though it’s part of her. Consequently, when her Stradivarius is stolen, the person she was is also lost. Gone is concerned with some raw, deeply felt emotions; and there’s a powerful sense of that in the reading. 

Book details


Gone (2017) by Min Kym, Viking, 256 pages, hardback (proof copy, provided for review). 

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