Tag: Peirene Press

Reading round-up: early June

More snapshots of some of the books I’ve read lately:

Patrick Ness, The Crane Wife (2013). Fortysomething George Duncan removes an arrow from the wing of a crane which has mysteriously appeared in his garden… then falls in love with a woman named Kumiko who visits his print shop the next day. But what follows is not so simple as “Kumiko is the crane” – she becomes the missing piece in more than one character’s life, and highlights how others do the same. The Crane Wife is a neat exploration of love and communication; I especially like the subtle ways that Ness alters the style and tone of his dialogue, depending on which characters are in conversation.

Kristina Carlson, Mr Darwin’s Gardener (2009; translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, 2013). The latest Peirene Press title centres on Thomas Davies, non-religious gardener to Charles Darwin, who wonders what is left to live for after his wife has died. Carlson’s prose swoops in and out of the minds of various inhabitants of Downe village, examining their faith and slowly revealing their own personal doubts. The lines between faith as a belief and a way of life blur, as do notions of living for this world or the next, in a complex portrait.

Meike Ziervogel, Magda (2013). And here is the first novel by the founder of Peirene Press. It’s a composite of story-chapters, in various voices and styles, about Magda Goebbels, her mother Auguste, and eldest daughter Helga. Ziervogel ddepicts Magda as a girl given the fear of God at convent school; a woman who sees in Hitler what she had been searching for; and a mother preparing to kill her children. She also traces the psychological changes in her characters over the generations, in an interesting piece of work.

Rupert Christiansen, I Know You’re Going to Be Happy (2013). The son of two journalists, Christiansen is himself a newspaper opera and dance critic. In this memoir, he attempts to unpick the story of his parents’ divorce (his father left when Christiansen was a young child; the last time that the author never saw him was at the age of five). Christiansen is frank that this is an act exploration for him as much as one of recollection; but he creates vivid vignettes, whatever he turns to (I particularly appreciated his depiction of the ambivalence of growing up in suburban London). Christiansen’s story is compelling, and his prose a joy to read.

Book notes: Richard Weihe and Robert Jackson Bennett

Richard Weihe, Sea of Ink (2003/12)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

Peirene Press’s Year of the Small Epic has so far brought us a grand domestic drama and a study of bereavement. The series takes a lighter turn in its final instalment, with Swiss writer Richard Weihe’s fictionalised biography of the Chinese painter Bada Shanren. He is born Zhu Da, a scion of the Ming dynasty; but political change and his father’s death lead him to join a monastery and devote his life to art, going through many names before settling on Bada Shanren, ‘man on the mountain of the eight compass points’.

Sea of Ink has eleven illustrations of Bada’s beautiful paintings, and Weihe includes descriptions of how the artist worked, his brush strokes and hand movements. This has the striking effect of creating a detailed impression which remains just that – an impression. Even though we can see the final paintings, there’s room for our subjective interpretation of Weihe’s words. The novella itself works in a similar way, its short chapters acting like brush strokes to create a portrait of Bada’s life which is necessarily a fiction, a construct.

The ultimate story told in Sea of Ink seems to me one of a man finding peace in life through finding (or accepting) his place – finding the world in the marks of ink and brush. The tone of the writing is quiet and reflective; I’d say this is ideal reading for an autumn night.

Robert Jackson Bennett, The Troupe (2012)

Over the last few years, Robert Jackson Bennett has been crafting his own distinctive visions of the American fantastic’s iconic tropes. For his third novel, he turns his attention to the magical travelling show. We meet George Carole, a sixteen-year-old vaudeville pianist as he leaves his current job to visit the troupe of Hieronomo Silenius, whom George believes to be his father. Silenius’s reputation precedes him, but no one ever remembers the details of his show. When George watches a performance, he finds out why: the Silenius troupe plays an extraordinary song that make those who hear it forget what they’ve seen – but it doesn’t work on George.

Falling in with the troupe, George discovers that this music is pat of the ‘First Song’, the one that brought Creation into being; peforming it is the only thing that holds back the ‘wolves’ who would seek to devour reality. Silenius’s band go from place to place in search of fragments of the First Song, which only those of the Silenius blood-line can carry (the song didn’t work on George because he is of that line). So begins a journey into the world’s mythic spaces, with reality itself at stake.

Bennett achieves a nice balance between the personal and cosmic focus. All the members of Silenius’s troupe are pretending to be something they’re not, and the theme of escape runs through the novel – escaping the past, and escaping the inevitable. The ending makes use of a risky technique (I appreciate this is vague, but want to avoid a spoiler), but Bennett pulls it off. His body of work continues to intrigue, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Sunday Story Society: “Two Ways of Leaving” by Alois Hotschnig

Today we have our first story in translation: “Two Ways of Leaving” by Alois Hotschnig (translated from the Austrian German by Tess Lewis). You can read the story here at Untitled Books; you’ll also find it in Hotschnig’s Peirene Press collection Maybe This Time.

First, I’ll link to some reviews of Maybe This Time (not of all of which touch on this particular story): 1streading; Chasing Bawa; Olivia Heal; Andrew Blackman; Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat; The Worm Hole; The Arts Fuse. I’ll also point out this interview with the translator, Tess Lewis, at Love German Books.

Now, something different. I’m going to post some questions as ‘conversation starters’; feel free to answer them or not (I want them to act as jumping-off points, not to strictly define the discussion), or ask questions of your own. Here we go:

Conversation Starters

There’s no small amount of ambiguity in “Two Ways of Leaving”, so I’d be interested to know how you interpret the relationship between the ‘he’ and ‘she’ of the story.

My abiding thought when I finished Maybe This Time was that Hotschnig’s protagonists were caught up in other people’s stories. Would you agree with that in relation to “Two Ways of Leaving”?

Though it relates to a different piece in Maybe This Time, I was struck by 1streading‘s comment that “Hotschnig is playing with the use of the pronoun ‘he’ as a ‘character’”. What does the author do with the pronoun ‘he’ in this story?

Next time: On 30 Sept, we’ll be talking about the story “Drifting House” by Krys Lee.

For now, though, it’s over to you. What did you make of “Two Ways of Leaving”?

Sunday Story Society reminder: “Two Ways of Leaving”

From this Sunday, you’re invited to join me on the blog to talk about Alois Hotschnig’s story “Two Ways of Leaving” (translated from the Austrian German by Tess Lewis). The story is taken from Hotschnig’s fine collection Maybe This Time, published by Peirene Press. It was one of my favourite pieces in the book, so I’m looking forward to the discussion.

You can read “Two Ways of Leaving” online here at Untitled Books; then come back here on Sunday when I’ll have a discussion post up.

Pia Juul, The Murder of Halland (2009/12)

It’s a crime story, but the crime is in the background; the real story is the effect of bereavement on Bess, Pia Juul’s protagonist. When first we meet Bess, she goes to bed shortly after her partner Halland. When she wakes, it’s to discover that Halland has been shot dead. For the rest of the novella, Bess has to live with the aftermath of Halland’s murder, and hope that she can come to some sort of new equilibrium in life.

The Murder of Halland is a fine character study (and Martin Aitken’s translation from the Danish is equally so) which, like a kaleidoscope, keeps turning to reveal something new. One of our first discoveries is that Bess’s personal life is not as happy and untroubled as we may have supposed. She left her husband and daughter behind for Halland, and is still not on best terms with her family (she says she has her mother’s number on speed dial ‘to warn me if she rang’ [p. 16]). But nor was she fully at ease with Halland – Bess loved him, but he could be possessive (‘if I hadn’t been besotted by him, staying would have pointless’ [p. 17]).

As the novella progresses, it becomes clear just how much of a hole Halland’s death has left in Bess’s life. She wants to keep his memory to herself, and treats interlopers with hostility. ‘He’s not your family!’ she tells Pernille, the foster-daughter of Halland’s sister – though, as the two never married, Bess wasn’t technically Halland’s family either; and she hasn’t exactly been concerned with her own family, either. That cry against Pernille is more about Bess than Halland. Likewise, she feels threatened by things which disrupt her image of Halland; like the office he rented in Pernille’s house, whose contents Bess puzzles over (including a poster for La Retour de Martin Guerre, perhaps a symbol of Bess’s not knowing her partner as well as she thought).

But it’s also the case that we as readers don’t know Bess as well as we might think. She is at pains to stress that she’s not telling us everything, but just what is she not saying? Bess’s motivations are not always clear, and sometimes we can see a gap between her words and reality (for example, the impression we gain of Bess’s daughter Abby from her descriptions is not what we see when Abby arrives in person). We’re left with a sense of incompleteness (though not, I don’t think, an unsatisfactory one), just as Bess feels the gaps in her life.

The murder itself is never fully cleared up (though, as I said at the outset, the murder is not the point); but there’s a sense towards the end that Bess has found her way forward. Whether we know everything she went through to get there is another matter – but Juul gives us a fascinating journey all the same.

Video interview with Pia Juul
The publisher, Peirene Press
Some other reviews of The Murder of Halland: Andrew Blackman; Little Words; Reading Matters; The Little Reader Library.

Book notes: Joyce, Sahlberg, Francis

Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012)

Harold Fry is whiling away his retirement – pottering about in south Devon, the spark long having gone out of his marriage to Maureen – when he receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old work colleague. Queenie has written from a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed to tell Harold that she is dying of cancer; moved that she still remembers him after all this time, Harold writes a letter in reply, and goes out to post it – but that feels inadequate to him, and Harold soon finds himself on a mission to walk all the way to Berwick.

Rachel Joyce’s debut is a delight to read: it reminded me of a (less macabre) Dan Rhodes book in its ability to combine whimsy with a genuine emotional punch; Harold’s journey may be eccentric, but his reasons for making it are not – and the colourful characters he meets along the way may have painful stories of their own that they don’t want to share. I particularly like the way that the changing character of Harold’s pilgrimage reflects and reinforces the waxing and waning of his hopes (at his most optimistic, Harold gains a new lease of life, and people want to travel with him; at his most despondent, he is bedraggled and alone). I’ll be interested to see what Joyce writes next.

Asko Sahlberg, The Brothers (2010/2)

Peirene Press’s theme for 2012 is ‘The Small Epic’ – ‘novella length stories of more than 35 chapters’ according to the publisher’s catalogue; but this book (Sahlberg’s ninth, translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah) also fits the bill as a grand-scale story set in a small space. That space is a Finnish farmhouse in 1809, inhabited by brothers Erik and Henrik; their mother; Erik’s wife, Anna; and the brothers’ cousin (who is treated little better than a servant), Mauri. Henrik has been estranged from the rest of his family, and fought on the opposite side to Erik in the recent war between Sweden and Russia. Now, in peacetime, Henrik returns home – and the battle for mastery of the household begins.

There’s a strong sense of character here, especially of Henrik, with his heavy, deliberate steps, and his childhood affinity with a violent horse. The story itself progresses in broad narrative moves, with the small domestic setting only heightening the sense of drama at the plot and character twists. The Brothers feels longer than its 122 pages, in the best possible way.

Paul Michael Francis, The Silver Bridge (2012)

Pavlos is frontman of the band Karma, a rock star with a conscience who is growing disillusioned. He becomes re-energised when he starts to have visions of a beautiful woman, and even more so when he discovers that she is real – the woman is Claire Davis, a Hollywood actress. She has problems of her own, not least her overly controlling mother. Pavlos and Claire might just be the best thing ever to happen to each other – if they could only get it together…

The Silver Bridge is the debut novel by Paul Michael Francis; despite all the differences in setting and subject matter, it shares with The Brothers a larger-than-life quality. I get the sense that Pavlos and Claire might realise how right they are for each other if they’d just stop and think for a bit – but that’s not the kind of story Francis is telling here. It’s outrageous optimism which drives Pavlos to approach Claire in the first place, and the pair fall in and out of love with similar degrees of intensity. Will they get together in the end, or won’t they? It wouldn’t be right for me to say – that’s all part of the novel’s game – but it is rather good fun finding out.

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.

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…

Book notes: Caldwell, Delius, Harrison

Lucy Caldwell, The Meeting Point (2011)

Euan Armstrong takes his young family to Bahrain, ostensibly to undertake missionary work; but Euan’s wife Ruth begins to question all that she holds dear when she discovers the true nature of that work. Meanwhile, teenage Noor Hussain has returned to Bahrain from England to live with her father; she has struggled to fit in and is contemplating suicide. But then Noor finds new hope in the person of Ruth, just as Ruth is falling for Noor’s brother Farid.

There are times, particularly towards the beginning, when Caldwell’s description feels over-egged; but The Meeting Point ultimately succeeds because of the elegance with which it portrays its central dynamic. Both Ruth and Noor have unrealistic desires which will inevitably lead them to clash; the progression of those events is thoroughly credible. Caldwell also draws her protagonists deftly; there’s a nice contrast between the broad strokes of Noor’s teenage impulsiveness, and Ruth’s more measured personality. All in all, The Meeting Point is a well-wrought novel that’s very much worth reading.

Lucy Caldwell’s website

Friedrich Christian Delius, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman (2006/10)

Another fine novella from Peirene Press, this one translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. Margherita is a young German woman who came to Rome to be with her soldier husband Gert, only for him shortly after to be sent to Africa in the aftermath of El Alamein. Now, in 1943, she is alone in Rome, unable to speak Italian, but grateful for the small German enclave which surrounds her. We follow Margherita as she makes her way to a Bach concert, and reflects on her situation.

At a structural level, Portrait of the Mother is masterful, as its 117 pages comprise a single sentence. The affect of this is of a constant unspooling of thought and detail, with certain ideas recurring throughout. Delius captures particularly well Margherita’s naivety, and the irony underpinning it: insulated as she is her little bubble, she can’t comprehend the difficulties faced by ordinary Roman citizens; she’s sure that everything will be fine with Gert, just as she is sure that Rome would never be a target for bombing… Delius’s Portrait is a sharp character study.

M. John Harrison, The Ice Monkey (1983)

One of my reading resolutions for this year is to get around to reading something by M. John Harrison, who has been on my TBR list for rather longer than I’d have liked. I decided to start with collection of seven short stories, which has proven very interesting to read.

The title story sees Harrison’s narrator, Spider, who takes his friend Jones to visit the latter’s estranged ex-wife, Maureen – it doesn’t go well. Later, Jones and Spider go climbing on Ben Nevis, and that ends in tragedy. This piece sets a certain tone that carries through much of the rest of the anthology – many characters have similarly broken lives, for example – but there’s also continuity at a deeper, more structural level. The ending of ‘The Ice Monkey’ reads to me like a formal parody of a horror story, as it goes through the motions of hinting at a supernatural agency without actually doing so with any conviction – as though to emphasise that the mess-ups in the story have very human and natural causes, and there is no escape into the possibility of ‘magic’.

A deliberate turning-away from the fantastic seems integral to the affect of Harrison’s stories, here, as rituals and other strange happenings remain as mysterious to reader and characters alike at the end of a piece as they were at the beginning. In that respect, I’m reminded of when, last year, I read Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe, whose aesthetic is also ‘anti-explanatory’ – though I find Harrison’s tales embody their aesthetic  more thoroughly.

The Ice Monkey is perhaps best summed up for me by its final sentences. In the closing story, ‘Egnaro’ is the name of a secret place which is heard fleetingly by various of its characters. Where other tales might uncover the truth of that place, Egnaro remains no more than a whisper’ As the story’s narrator remarks:

The secret is meaningless before you know it: and…worthless when you do. If Egnaro is the substrate of mystery which underlies all daily life, then the reciprocal of this is also true, and it is the exact dead point of ordinariness which lies beneath every mystery. (p. 144)

My key lasting impression of the stories in The Ice Monkey is that they highlight such ordinariness. Now I look forward to reading Harrison’s Viriconium, to find out if that impression will remain.

Maria Barbal, Stone in a Landslide (1985/2010)

“I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I’ll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I’ll be here, still, for days and days…” (89)

Maria Barbal’s Stone in a Landslide (first published in Catalan in 1985, and now available in English for the first time, thanks to Peirene Press) is the life story of Conxa, who is sent away as a child, in the early years of the twentieth century, to live with and work for her aunt and uncle. The years pass, she falls in love with a young man named Jaume, they marry and have children – and then their lives are disrupted by the Spanish Civil War. But, of course, life continues beyond even this.

Like Laura McGloughlin’s and Paul Mitchell’s translation (which has the kind of precise simplicity that deflects attention away from it), Conxa’s life both is and isn’t as ordinary as it appears, in the sense that all lives can be – and are, in their own way – extraordinary at times, just as a simple stone can be part of an extraordinary landslide. Conxa’s life is one lived largely for, and in relation to, other people: right at the start, she is sent away from home because there isn’t enough room for her in the house; when she falls in love with Jaume, she becomes a different person and defines herself by him (“Now I could only be Jaume’s Conxa” [42]); growing old comes almost as a surprise to Conxa, because she has been so used to seeing her children grow, and suddenly they’re adults.

What I find most striking about Stone in a Landslide is the way that key historical events are experienced (or not, as the case may be) through the domesticity of Conxa’s existence; Jaume is political, but Conxa has no knowledge or interest, and it’s a rude awakening for her when history finally intrudes on her life.

Stone in a Landslide is a quiet study of a life, a life whose treasures vanish all too soon, before the woman living it fully grasped what they were. But the book remains, and its treasures are plain to see.

Some other reviews of Stone in a Landslide: Winstonsdad; Novel Insights; A Common Reader.
Peirene Press

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