Author: David Hebblethwaite

Six Degrees of Separation: Time Shelter

Well, I haven’t done this for a while… nine years, in fact!

Six Degrees of Separation is hosted by Kate of Books Are My Favourite and Best, and takes place on the first Saturday of every month. Everyone starts with the same book, and puts together their own chain of six more.

The starting book for July is the winner of this year’s International Booker Prize, and one of my favourites that I’ve read so far in 2023:

Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov (tr. Angela Rodel). The time shelter is a clinic that re-creates different periods of the 20th century, an immersive environment intended to jog its patients’ memories. Which reminds me of another novel involving elaborate re-creations of the past…

Remainder by Tom McCarthy. The protagonist of Remainder has had an accident that leaves him conscious of every little difficult movement. He spends his settlement money paying people to re-create his past environments, in the hope that he might capture the experience of living as he did then. There are also characters searching for authentic experience in…

Plume by Will Wiles. This novel concerns a lifestyle journalist who gets an interview with a reclusive cult writer, one who appears to have extraordinary insight into the social forces that underpin life in the city – into what makes it real. One of the recurring images is a cockatoo, and another novel in which birds feature prominently is…

Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer (tr. Antoinette Fawcett). This novel is based on the life of Gwendolen (Len) Howard, who conducts in-depth study of the birds near her Sussex home, though her work is rejected by the scientific establishment of the time. Len’s passion for studying birds is all-consuming, which brings me to another book about a deep interest…

Brian by Jeremy Cooper. Here, the main character’s interest is cinema, and he becomes a regular at the BFI, where the world of film opens up and enriches him. There are a lot of films mentioned in this book that I haven’t seen, but that didn’t stop me enjoying the book one bit, because it was so deeply felt. I had a similar reaction to…

The Wandering Pine by Per Olov Enquist (tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner). An autobiographical novel by a writer I didn’t know of beforehand. There was no reason for me to have any great expectations, but I just loved it. I would go so far as to say that The Wandering Pine has one of the most vivid depictions of childhood that I’ve read. I’ll finish this chain with another book about a life lived through most of the 20th century…

Homelands by Chitra Ramaswamy. An account of the friendship between the author and Henry Wuga, who fled Nazi Germany with his wife Ingrid. As Ramaswamy puts it, she and Henry might seem unlikely friends, “a middle-aged Indian woman [and] a white nonagenarian gentleman”, but there are points of connection between their lives. A good place to finish a post about connections.

The quiet joy of a deep interest: Brian by Jeremy Cooper

In my final year of university, I discovered the local independent cinema, which at the time had its own twice-monthly discussion group with discounted tickets. I jumped in, and had a really enjoyable year exploring films from around the world, whatever sounded interesting. I’ve never lived anywhere since that had a cinema like that nearby, so I couldn’t keep going as I had – ultimately, it was easier to maintain a deep interest in books. But I remember that year of film-going fondly. 

I was taken right back to that time by Jeremy Cooper’s new novel. This is the tale of Brian Saunders, a reclusive council worker in London, who discovers the BFI (British Film Institute) and goes to see a film there each night. The world of cinema opens up to him, and he becomes almost-friends with the BFI’s small group of regulars. 

First and foremost, I think, Cooper’s novel is a love letter to the cinema. Much of its length is given over to Brian’s thoughts on the films he sees. Even though I haven’t seen most of them myself, I felt again the sense of openness and possibility that comes from being able to range far and wide with films. 

Cooper really captures the way that a deep, passionate interest in something can enrich a person’s life. This could be an interest in art, though I don’t think it has to be. It’s the depth of Brian’s engagement which strikes me as most significant. 

There are limitations to Brian’s chosen path, though. His film-going deepens his experience of living, but it doesn’t fundamentally change him – he doesn’t suddenly become an extrovert, for example. This gives the novel a note of melancholy, because even though Brian will talk about films with the other film buffs, there’s still a sense that he is holding his full passion for cinema back, or not even allowing himself to acknowledge its extent.

Reading means a lot to me, and sometimes what I read affects me deeply, but it’s not really something that comes up in general conversation. So it’s good to have an outlet like this one where I can try to process my reaction to books and share that with other people who might be interested. Even then, I sometimes find myself holding back, so Brian-the-novel really struck a chord with me.

Naturally, it has also made me want to watch and appreciate more films.

Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

#InternationalBooker2023: and the winner is…

The shadow panel chose Whale for our shadow winner, but would the official judges of the International Booker follow suit..?

Nope. Instead, they went for:

Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, tr. Angela Rodel (Weidenfeld & Nicholson)

Congratulations to all involved! Time Shelter was actually my favourite book from the longlist, so I’m delighted by that result. We picked another of my favourites for the shadow winner, so it’s all good.

My thanks go to all my fellow shadow panellists for making this such an enjoyable experience. See you next year!

Click here to read my other posts on the 2023 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2023: the shadow panel’s winner

Here we go… Before the official winner of the International Booker Prize is revealed later today, it’s time for the shadow panel to announce our winner. We selected our own shadow shortlist, and have individually ranked the titles to award 10, 7, 5, 3, 2 and 1 points.

It was quite an open field this year, but with 47 points, our shadow winner for 2023 is…

Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan, tr. Chi-Young Kim (Europa Editions UK)

We’re also giving a special commendation to our runner-up, which, with 44 points, is While We Were Dreaming by Clemens Meyer, tr. Katy Derbyshire (Fitzcarraldo Editions). Both these books are well worth your time. I wonder if Whale will take the official title as well – we’ll find out soon…

Catching up with Peirene: books from Iceland and Thailand

Peirene Press were one of the first small publishers of translated fiction to emerge at the same time as I was beginning to pay attention to the subject, which is one reason I’ve always tried to keep up with their catalogue. Another reason is that they publish some really good books. Today’s post is all about their first two titles of 2023.

History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir
Translated from Icelandic by Lytton Smith

It begins with an innocuous detail that could change everything. A PhD student in Oxford is studying the diary of one S.B., whom her supervisor believes was Britain’s first professional artist. It’s mostly mundane stuff, but then one passage seems to indicate that S.B. was a woman. On the way home, the protagonist is already daydreaming about the thesis she’ll publish about this revelation. 

Then we move forward in time, and the protagonist has returned to Reykjavík. Her life is far from what she imagined back in Oxford – she hasn’t finished her thesis, and spends most of her time at home. It becomes apparent that, later in her studies, she had found another page in S.B.’s diary that disproved her theory, and that discovery has taken its toll.

The account that follows is not only fragmented and out of chronological order – it also collapses into conjecture. Just as the protagonist couldn’t get to the ultimate truth of S.B.’s identity, so the protagonist is lost to us in a maze of realities. Subjectivity all the way down, that’s what animates this novel. 

[Publisher’s page]

Venom by Saneh Sangsuk
Translated from Thai by Mui Poopoksakul

This year, as well as their usual three novellas, Peirene are publishing two books by the Thai writer Saneh Sangsuk. In Venom, the village of Praeknamdang is lorded over by Song Waad, who has convinced the villagers he is a medium connected to their Patron Goddess. 

Only one small family regard Song Waad as a fake, which makes him their enemy. The boy of the family lost the use of one arm in an accident: Song Waad took the opportunity to paint this as the Goddess’ displeasure, with some of the villagers accepting his word. 

In the present, the boy finds himself in a life-and-death predicament when he is attacked by a king cobra, which he manages to grab before it can bite him. For most of the rest of this short book, the boy is trying to keep the cobra at bay while making his way back to the village for help. 

The story of the boy’s struggle with the snake is compelling in its own right, but it’s also embedded in the broader struggle against oppressive authority (which Song Waad represents). So Venom paints a large portrait on a relatively small canvas. 

[Publisher’s page]

#InternationalBooker2023: Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov (tr. Angela Rodel)

I don’t know whether I’d have read this Bulgarian novel if not for its International Booker listing. I am so glad that I did. 

Gospodinov’s narrator (a version of the author) meets a mysterious figure named Gaustine, who seems preoccupied with the past. With dementia on the rise, Gaustine’s idea is to set up a clinic whose rooms recreate periods of the 20th century, to help jog his patients’ memories. 

It’s an idea that works well for some people, less well for others (and too well for a few). There are striking sequences, such as those where a secret policeman has become the main source of memory for the man he once pursued, because he remembers more about the man’s life than anyone else. 

It turns out that everyone wants a taste of old times. People without memory loss are admitted to the clinic for a hit of nostalgia. Then, the vogue for the past spreads out across Europe, with countries holding referendums on which time period they should revert to. Gospodinov handles this beautifully, illustrating the dangers of being too fixated on the past. Here, his narrator reflects on how the lived present transforms with hindsight:

I presume that 1968 did not exist in 1968. Nobody back then said, Hey, man, that stuff we’re living through now, it’s the great ’68, which’ll go down in history. Everything happens years after it has happened…You need time and a story for that which has supposedly already taken place to happen…with a delay, just as photos were developed and images appeared slowly in the dark…Most likely 1939 did not exist in 1939, there were just mornings when you woke up with a headache, uncertain and afraid.

Translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

Gospodinov adds another layer to his novel by undermining the narrator, whose own memory starts to fail him. He can’t be sure whether Gaustine was real or his creation (or even whether he, the narrator, was Gaustine’s creation). Nothing is certain within the pages of the book, and there is no real shelter from time, after all. 

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2023 International Booker Prize.

HarperNorth: Fray by Chris Carse Wilson

Above all, the main sense I get from Chris Carse Wilson’s debut novel is that this is a book he needed to write. You can just feel the urgency of it, how much it must have meant to capture the feelings in these pages.

Fray begins with its anonymous narrator arriving at a cottage in the Scottish Highlands. The narrator’s mother died some time ago, and shortly afterwards their father disappeared, apparently unable to accept what had happened. The narrator has now traced their father to this cottage – he’s not there himself, but the place is full of papers and maps written and drawn by his hand. The novel chronicles its narrator’s attempt to piece together these texts and, hopefully, find a clue to their father’s whereabouts.

The papers are haphazard and don’t make a great deal of sense. The narrator’s father talks of searching for his wife, but also mentions the Devil. He records times and weather conditions precisely, then describes experiments whose purpose is unclear.  One of his hand-drawn maps has the word ‘hotel’ marked prominently, but there doesn’t seem to be a hotel nearby. Perhaps the father has made some sort of breakthrough, but if so, its nature is inscrutable.

The narrator is driven to their wit’s end trying to puzzle all this out. Along the way, they talk about the darkness that has clouded their life at times, and the ways they’ve tried to cope. Running is one thing that helped, a way to keep moving, to hang on:

Breathing in enough to be given life, softening the pain a little, finding some colour in all the grinding grey. Remembering that something else was possible, that it could change. That was all I could hold on to, never daring to consider that it actually would change. That I would.

Fray can be seen as an active process of working through its narrator’s deep feelings – and there’s cause to wonder how much of what’s narrated is happening in the external world, and how much in the narrator’s mind. Then again, for this narrator, there may not need be much difference. Whatever your interpretation, the experience of Fray’s narrator is vivid in Carse Wilson’s telling.

Published by HarperNorth.

Greek Lessons by Han Kang: a Shiny New Books review

Back in 2015, I read The Vegetarian by Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith). I loved it, and went on to be my favourite book of the year. Human Acts was my favourite book of the following year, too. Han became a must-read author for me, which brings me to her latest book in translation.

Greek Lessons (tr. Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won) concerns a language learner who’s lost the ability to speak, and a language teacher losing the ability to see. It’s about the intimacy of language, and how these two characters eventually forge a connection. I’m please to have reviewed it for Shiny New Books, which is also where I reviewed The Vegetarian.

Read my review of Greek Lessons here.

#InternationalBooker2023: the shadow panel’s shortlist

After the official International Booker shortlist, it’s time for the shadow panel to announce ours. We’ve done our usual process of reading and scoring. Here are the six books that have risen to the top for us:

  • While We Were Dreaming by Clemens Meyer, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • The Birthday Party by Laurent Mauvignier, translated from French by Daniel Levin Becker (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • Is Mother Dead by Vigdis Hjorth, translated from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund (Verso)
  • Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
  • Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan, translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim (Europa Editions)
  • Boulder by Eva Baltasar, translated from Catalan by Julia Sanches (And Other Stories)

So, half of our shortlist is the same as the official one, but – as I predicted in my post on the official shortlist – we have gone in quite a different direction overall. I’m sure we will have some interesting discussions on the way to our shadow winner.

The official winner of the International Booker Prize will be announced on 23 May, and we’ll reveal our shadow winner shortly before then.

Three new reviews: White, Mayo, Voetmann

Today’s post is rounding up a few reviews I’ve had published elsewhere. First off is an Irish novel from Tramp Press, Where I End by Sophie White, which I’ve reviewed here for Strange Horizons. This is the tale of Aoileann, who lives an isolated existence looking after her bedridden mother. It’s not until an artist and her baby son visit Aoileann’s island that she realises what she’s been missing in terms of human connection. What particularly struck me about White’s novel is the way it creates its own little fairytale horror world without ever invoking the supernatural. Aoileann becomes both a source and victim of horror in an intimate piece of work.

The European Literature Network has recently launched The Spanish Riveter, the latest issue of its occasional magazine on European writing. This one has almost 300 pages of articles, extracts and reviews of translated literature from Spain – including a review of mine. I’m looking at a Catalan novel from 3TimesRebel Press: The Carnivorous Plant by Andrea Mayo (tr. Laura McGloughlin). It tells of an abusive relationship, and challenges the reader to understand what it was like for the protagonist, and why she stayed in that situation. The Spanish Riveter is available as a PDF here; you’ll find my review on page 91.

My last stop is Denmark, and Awake by Harald Voetmann (tr. Joanne Sorgenfri Ottosen, pub. Lolli Editions). This is a novel about Pliny the Elder, and his attempt to catalogue the world and its knowledge in his Naturalis Historia. Voetmann brings Pliny’s world to life, and explores the limits of what he could achieve. I’ve reviewed this one for European Literature Network in their regular review section here.

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