Tagfiction

New Passengers – Tine Høeg

One of my favourite literary awards, the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, offers its own Book of the Month subscription. I signed up for it this month, and recently finished my first title, Tine Høeg’s New Passengers (translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra). It’s from a publisher that was new to me – the European-focused Lolli Editions – and has a strikingly stark cover design. I was intrigued even before I knew much about the book.

The first thing you notice about the text of New Passengers is that it’s laid out like a poem:

it’s by chance
we fall to talking on the train
my first day of teaching

I’m nervous and our legs
graze each other
when we sit down

you’re a graphic designer at a travel agency

you’re a commuter too

you’re ten years older than me

you’re married and father to a girl

These two characters embark on an affair, and there you have the basic premise of Høeg’s novel. But it’s not the premise that matters so much as the telling.

What does this fragmentary verse-style prose do? For me, it does two key things: it breaks the novel into small pieces, and allows them to merge together.

Høeg’s narrator is having to compartmentalise her life: over here is teaching, over there is her older lover, and so on. The thing is, the different parts of her life won’t necessarily stay separate, especially after she meets her lover’s wife and daughter. Nor is this the only example: the woman is well aware that she’s not much older than her pupils, and the past keeps threatening to intrude on her – supposedly more responsible – present.

This then plays out in the novel as the sense that snatches of prose from different areas of the narrator’s life are encroaching on each other (Hoekstra’s translation is great at conveying this). It takes you right inside the narrator’s situation, which in turn makes for some powerful reading.

British National Short Story Award 2020: ‘In the Car with the Rain Coming Down’ by Jan Carson

This post is part of a series on the 2020 BBC National Short Story Award.

Nine members of an Irish family head out for a picnic to celebrate William’s birthday. Right from the start, there are power games to play:

There’s a stand-off in the front yard. No significant progress can be made until the men decide who’s driving. It’s the same every time we go anywhere together.

William’s younger son, Buff, tends to be overlooked, never having quite achieved as much in his parents’ eyes as his brother. But Buff’s wife Victoria (our narrator) hopes to change that: she plans to announce today that she’s pregnant, and is sure that this news will alter the balance of favour within the family. But the weather won’t play along with what Victoria has in mind…

Jan Carson’s story revolves around the subtly shifting dynamics of this family. She packs a lot into an essentially mundane situation, and you really get a sense of the currents and hierarchies at work.

Listen to a reading of ‘In the Car with the Rain Coming Down’.

An Inventory of Losses – Judith Schalansky: a Splice review

Judith Schalansky’s An Inventory of Losses (translated from the German by Jackie Smith, and published by MacLehose Press) is a collection of stories, each inspired by something that has been lost to the world: buildings, species, artworks and more besides. Each piece is written in a different style, adding up to a multifaceted exploration of loss. It’s a beautiful looking volume, too.

I’ve reviewed An Inventory of Losses for Splice, where I go into more detail on a selection of the stories.

Read my review here.

Blog tour: Launch titles from V&Q Books

My post today is part of a blog tour for V&Q Books, the new English-language imprint from the German publisher Voland & Quist. The imprint is headed by the translator Katy Derbyshire, and is dedicated to writing from Germany. It’s not necessarily going to be limited to books translated from German, although the first ones are. V&Q offered me review copies of their first three titles, and I take a look at each below…

***

Sandra Hoffmann, Paula (2017)
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (2020)

Paula begins like this:

We have a word in German: schweigen. It means deliberately remaining silent; it is different to merely being quiet.

This autobiographical work explores the effects such a deliberate silence may have on a family. The young Sandra Hoffmann knew that she and her mother looked different from other people in her village – darker-skinned – but she didn’t know who her grandfather was. Her grandmother Paula, a staunch Catholic, refused to say.

This isn’t a story of Hoffmann discovering her grandfather’s identity. It’s a study of the gaps left behind and what might fill them. Hoffmann goes over the many photographs that Paula left behind, and imagines the scenes and people in them.

The silence – the schweigen – permeates the book, spreading through its long passages. The oppressive effects of the silence on family life, in Hoffmann’s childhood and down the years, are vividly conveyed.

Lucy Fricke, Daughters (2018)
Translated from the German by Sinéad Crowe (2020)

Daughters is the story of two women – old friends – trying to find their place in life at age forty, and to deal with the loss of a father-figure.

For Martha, this loss is imminent: her father has booked an appointment for a one-way journey to Switzerland, and wants her to drive him. Betty wants to visit Rome to find the grave, not of her biological father (with whom she has little to do), but an ex-partner of her mother’s, an Italian she remembers as “the Trombonist”. Martha and Betty embark on a road trip across Europe with these intentions in mind. But both of them will find that the situation is not as they imagined, and their relationships will be tested.

Lucy Fricke’s novel is full of wry humour that makes it a pleasure to read:

We were the daughters of fathers who’d only found time to talk to us after they’d retired. We explained the internet to them and they explained the weather. Their love came so late that we barely knew what to do with it. We just accepted it with gratitude. But we had little to give, and nothing at all to give back.

Sinéad Crowe’s translation is wonderful: so often, I found myself stopping at a striking turn of phrase. The plot veers off in unexpected directions… This book is a joy.

Francis Nenik, Journey through a Tragicomic Century (2018)
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (2020)

This non-fiction volume is subtitled “The Absurd Life of Hasso Grabner”. Grabner (1911-76) was a writer, albeit an obscure one – Francis Nenik says that he wanted to write about a forgotten author, and there was barely anything about Grabner online at the time he looked.

The reason Grabner’s life is described as absurd has to do, I think, with its apparent contradictions. He was a committed young communist who ended up being awarded an Iron Cross by Germany for his military service. He was director of a steelworks in the GDR whose writing was banned.

As with Fricke’s book, there’s a wonderfully wry undercurrent – a fine translation by Katy Derbyshire:

And Hasso Grabner? Not only is he part of the grotesque named history and always precisely where it is being made; he is also co-writing it, even though he doesn’t know the script, and history is more than slippery, what with it only ever coming about when it’s already happened…

You can watch a reading from Journey through a Tragicomic Century here.

***

All in all, this set of books is a strong start for V&Q Books (I like their series cover design as well). I look forward to seeing what else they have in store for us.

Three books: Dillon, Gorodischer, Miller

It’s time for another selection of short reviews that first appeared on my Instagram.

Brian Dillon, Suppose a Sentence (2020)

It always fascinates me that I can read something and it will move me so much. How does that work? How does writing do what it does? Brian Dillon’s new essay collection from Fitzcarraldo Editions approaches these sorts of questions by looking at individual sentences. ⁣

Dillon says in his introduction that he’s been collecting striking sentences in notebooks for 25 years. He examines some of these, and others, in this book – sentences by writers from William Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin to Hilary Mantel. ⁣

Dillon’s responses to the sentences are deeply personal and often wide-ranging. He might go into the author’s biography, or look at the wider context of their work. There’s a certain amount of discussing the grammatical nuts and bolts, but it’s always at the service of working out what makes each sentence distinctive. ⁣

I’m struck in particular that Dillon doesn’t always explain the context of the sentences straight away – he waits until the time is right. That means the reader often has to come to each sentence on its own terms, which is especially interesting where a sentence is not taken from its author’s best-known work. ⁣

Above all, Suppose a Sentence inspires me to think about sentences that I find striking, what they do and why. It’s a book to stir one’s enthusiasm for reading. ⁣

Angélica Gorodischer, Trafalgar (1979)
Translated from the Spanish by Amalia Gladhart (2013)

Penguin Classics have launched a new science fiction series which I’m excited about, particularly as half of the launch list is in translation. I also love the series design, all stark line drawings and purple accents (a nod to the purple logo used by Penguin for science fiction back in the ’70s).

The first book I’ve read from the series is this Argentinian novel-in-stories. Trafalgar Medrano (born in the city of Rosario in 1936) is a merchant with a taste for strong coffee, unfiltered cigarettes, and women. He also travels and trades among the stars, returning to his home city to tell the tall tales in this book. ⁣

On the downside, I have to say that Trafalgar’s constant womanising gets tedious. But the sheer imagination of these stories is quite something. Trafalgar travels to all manner of worlds: on one, he seems to jump through time each day. On a different world, everything is rigidly ordered, with just one person willing to break away by speaking nonsense. ⁣

What makes Gorodischer’s book for me is the casual way it narrates such extraordinary events. There’s no need for explanation, you just go with the flow and whole worlds open up. ⁣

Kei Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (2014)

This poetry collection won the Forward Prize in 2014. Broadly speaking, it’s about two ways of knowing the world: the scientific precision of those who set out to find “the measure that / exists in everything”, and the instinct of someone like Quashie, who “knew his poems by how they fit in earthenware”, because each word is just as long as it needs to be.⁣

Much of the book is taken up by the long title poem, which concerns the different views of a cartographer and a rastaman. The mapmaker sees it as his job “to untangle the tangled / to unworry the concerned”. But the rastaman knows that the “tangle” is itself part of his island, and thinks that the cartographer’s work “is to make thin and crushable / all that is big and as real as ourselves”. ⁣

Interspersed among the volume is a series of prose poems which reveal the stories behind different place names, such as Bloody Bay, “after the cetacean slaughter” These pieces highlight the history that lies behind a bare list of names, history unknown to the cartographer. ⁣

“If not where / then what is Zion?” asks the cartographer. It’s “a reckoning day”, replies the rastaman, “a turble day.” Reaching Zion, the rastaman says, is not a matter of travel, but a “chanting up of goodness and rightness and, of course, upfullness…to face the road which is forever inclining hardward.” Not every place that matters can be located on a map. ⁣

Published by Carcanet Press.

#WITMonth: Stockenström, Kawakami, Quintana

Here’s another trio of reviews from my Instagram for Women in Translation Month.

Wilma Stockenström, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree (1981)
Translated from the Afrikaans by J.M. Coetzee (1983)

This short novel introduces us to a young woman living in the hollow of a baobab tree. She finds her own paths to gather food alongside the nearby animals, and measures the days with a string of beads.

LIfe hasn’t always been like this. The woman was a slave, one who has been treated brutally at times. At other times, though, she became a favourite of her owners, which might have made life a little easier, but also left her an outsider in more ways than one.

The woman joined her final owner on an expedition to find an inland city. It didn’t go well, which is how she ended up by herself in the baobab tree. Stockenström’s novel is the story of how the woman becomes isolated, but also finds a certain autonomy in finally being able to shape her own existence for herself.

Published by Faber & Faber.

Hiromi Kawakami, The Nakano Thrift Shop (2005)
Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell (2017)

For this year’s Women in Translation Month, Meytal organised an international book swap. This is the book I got – not a totally random choice, as it was one of a list of options I asked for. I’d been meaning to read Hiromi Kawakami again.

Some of Kawakami’s books are quite strange (such as Record of a Night Too Brief, or my personal favourite, Manazuru), while others (like Strange Weather in Tokyo) are lighter. The Nakano Thrift Shop is one of the lighter ones.

Haruo Nakano is the eccentric fiftysomething owner of a thrift shop. He has two young employees: Hitomi, our narrator, and delivery boy Takeo. There’s also Nakano’s sister Masayo, an artist who brings a level head to the shop.

Each chapter is almost like a self-contained story, so we see snapshots in the lives of Kawakami’s characters, and the halting relationship between Hitomi and Takeo. The Nakano Thrift Shop is fun to read, and quite touching.

Published by Granta Books.

Pilar Quintana, The Bitch (2017)
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (2020)

Damaris lives with her husband in a shack on the Colombian coast. They both look after the property of a rich family, but since that family left some years ago, they are no longer paid. The couple have no children, and Damaris’ uncle reminds her that she is at the age “when women dry up”. When the opportunity arises to adopt a puppy, Damaris sees a way to fill a gap in her life.

But the dog has a tendency to disappear into the jungle, which tests Damaris’ patience. The Bitch is a short novel that rattles along with tension. It explores Damaris’ character and relationships with others through her changing attitude to her dog. You never quite know where the story will turn, which keeps it compelling to the end.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher, World Editions.

#WITMonth: Ginzburg, Gabrielsen, Bae

August is Women in Translation Month (hostel by Meytal from Biblibio), so here are three (well, two-and-a-half) relevant reviews first posted on my Instagram.

Natalia Ginzburg, Happiness, as Such (1973)
Translated from the Italian by Minna Zallman Proctor (2019)

This is the second novel that I’ve read by Natalia Ginzburg (1916-91), following Voices in the Evening. ⁣

Happiness, as Such was originally published in Italian in 1973 with the title Caro Michele (“Dear Michele”). As that might suggest, it’s told mainly in the form of letters. In 1970, Adriana writes to her son Michele. She doesn’t have high expectations (“I doubt you’ll come over for my birthday because I don’t think you’ll have remembered it”), but needs to tell him that his father is dying. A woman has also turned up with a baby that might be Michele’s. What Adriana doesn’t know is that Michele has moved to England, and isn’t planning to come back. ⁣⁣

Adriana’s letters to Michele are particularly barbed, but as the correspondence we read extends more widely through Michele’s family and friends, there is a growing sense of characters talking past each other. We never get to see Michele’s life directly, and it’s as though the other characters can make of it whatever suits them. ⁣⁣

The English title of this translation is referenced a couple of times, such as when Adriana wishes her son happiness, “if there is such a thing as happiness.” Looking at the book as a whole, this is an open question, and it keeps the novel on edge throughout. ⁣⁣

Published by Daunt Books.

Gøhril Gabrielsen, Ankomst (2017)
Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin (2020)

Ankomst is the second title in Peirene Press‘s Closed Universe series, following the marvellous Snow, Dog, Foot. In this book, we meet another individual slowly unravelling on their own, somewhere cold. ⁣

Our narrator is an environmental scientist who’s spending the winter in a cabin in northern Norway, studying seabirds. She’d like it if everything could be about reliable, measurable facts, but she can’t shake off the emotionally complicated situation she has left behind. ⁣

The narrator has left her young daughter Lina in the care of her ex, Lina’s father, whom she refers to only as S and detests. She’s in regular Skype contact with her current partner, Jo; he’s supposed to be coming to visit but his trip keeps being delayed. ⁣

Our protagonist becomes fascinated with the story of a couple of settlers who lived on this peninsula in the 19th century and whose house burnt down. She has visions of how she imagines their lives to have been, but there’s a sense that she is actually rehearsing her anxieties about her own life. Then there are the missing days, the cries she thinks she hears… ⁣

The title Ankomst means ‘arrival’, and there’s a growing tension as different arrivals are delayed and unexpectedly brought forward. Ankomst is an immersive, disorienting character study, and it ends in just the right place. ⁣

Bae Suah, Untold Night and Day (2013)
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2020)

Bae Suah has been on my list of authors to try for some time. This short novel of hers is short and strange and… difficult to capture in words. (which is why I haven’t written more about it!).

⁣We begin with Ayami, the sole employee of an audio theatre that plays back recorded performances for visually impaired people. Strange things are happening: she keeps hearing spoken lines from the radio that turns itself on and off. She sees an old couple outside the theatre who she thinks may be her parents. Today is also the last day the theatre will be open, so Ayami needs a new job. ⁣

What follows is day merging into night, reality fraying at the edges, in sweltering summer heat. A summary wouldn’t do it justice, but it is a suffocating and disorienting book to read.⁣

Published by Jonathan Cape.

The Housing Lark – Sam Selvon

The Trinidadian author Sam Selvon is probably best known for his 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners. I haven’t read that book, but I was interested to try The Housing Lark (1965), which has just been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic in the UK. 

The Housing Lark begins with Trinidadian immigrant Battersby staring at the wall of his Brixton basement room, wishing for a better life:

The irony of it was that the wallpaper really had a design with lamps on it, Aladdin lamps all over the room. It may be that the company know they could only get dreamers to live in a dilapidated room like that, and they put up this wallpaper to keep the fires of hope burning.

Battersby is having trouble paying the rent, so he agrees to another tenant moving in, Jamaican musician Harry Banjo. It’s Harry who has the big idea: Battersby’s circle of friends should club together to put down a deposit on a house. That would change everything: as one character, Gallows, puts it, “if a man have a house he establish his right to live”. 

Of course, it doesn’t work out as straightforwardly as that. There are some very funny episodes in the tale that unfolds, such as the character Nobby’s attempts to lose a puppy that he’s been given by his landlady. But Selvon shows a wide view of his characters’ experience in England at that time, from racism to a trip to Hampton Court, during which Battersby and friends reshape the history of the place for themselves:

“…suppose old Henry was still alive and he look out the window and see all these swarthy characters walking about in his gardens!”

This was my first Sam Selvon book, but it won’t be the last – I enjoyed it very much. 

Three reviews: Williams. Perišić, Makholwa

It’s time for another three reviews from my Instagram.

Eley Williams, The Liar’s Dictionary (2020)

I’ve heard a lot of praise for Eley Williams’ story collection Attrib. over the last couple of years, but haven’t got around to reading it. So I had high hopes for her debut novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, but didn’t quite know what to expect. ⁣

What I found is a joyous celebration of language. Here, for example, is one character trying to identify a bird:⁣

He pored over zoological catalogues and pawed through illustrated guides but for all he was able to glean about various small birds’ feeding habits, migratory patterns, taxonomies, use of ants to clean their feathers, use and misuse in mythology and folklore, prominence on menus and milliners’ manifests, &c., &c., its species remained a mystery. Basically, it was a sparrow with access to theatrical costumiers.

The music of Williams’ writing is all its own. If you’re interested in words and wordplay, I would recommend The Liar’s Dictionary on its prose style alone. ⁣

But there’s more than that. The novel revolves around Swansby’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary, a grand yet incomplete work that has been in existence for over a hundred years. We follow two main characters: the first is Mallory, an intern in the present day, when it’s just her and old David Swansby left, and there are plans to digitise and update the existing entries. The second protagonist is Peter Winceworth, a lexicographer who works at the dictionary in its Victorian heyday, and often finds himself overlooked. ⁣

The two characters are (unknowingly) brought together by mountweazels: false dictionary entries such as “skipsty (v.) The act of taking steps two at a time”. Peter inserts them in the dictionary for his own amusement, and Mallory is tasked with weeding them out. For both characters, working with mountweazels creates an outside space that gives them a greater sense of belonging. For Peter, it’s a chance to leave his mark on the dictionary when others tend to ignore him. Mallory gains the confidence to come out to the rest of the world and not just to her girlfriend. Williams explores how words can shape and reshape ourselves. ⁣

Published by William Heinemann.

Robert Perišić, No-Signal Area (2015)
Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać, 2020

This is the first title in a new line of translated fiction published in the UK by the US publisher Seven Stories Press. It begins with cousins Oleg and Nikola arriving in the remote town of N., somewhere in the former Yugoslavia. They’ve come to revive an old factory that manufactures an obsolete model of turbine, so they can sell a couple to an overseas buyer. ⁣

The pair recruit Sobotka, the chief engineer from the factory, to work with them. Gradually the old workers return, and Oleg and Nikola (who aren’t all that business-minded) leave them to manage themselves. The factory becomes poised between the past and the future, socialism and capitalism. As the novel’s title suggests, this place is something of a world apart, where outside influences reach only haphazardly. ⁣

As No-Signal Area progresses, it spirals out into telling the histories of Oleg, Nikola and the factory workers, turning into a complex tapestry of story. ⁣

Angela Makholwa, The Blessed Girl (2017)

Bontle is a twentysomething woman (don’t ask her what number the “something” is) with her own hair extension business. Thanks to the government’s Black Economic Empowerment policy (brought in to redress the effects of apartheid), she is now also trying her hand at running a construction business, though it’s not as straightforward as she thought. ⁣

Bontle might seem to have it all: looks, the trappings of wealth, a large social media following, her pick of suitors… She is indeed blessed. “Blessed” in this context (according to the novel’s epigraph) is a South African term that means Bontle’s lifestyle is sponsored by wealthy older men in return for a relationship. She has several “blessers” in her life, and it all gets rather complicated… ⁣

I heard about Angela Makholwa’s novel because it has been shortlisted for the Comedy Women in Print Prize, and it is indeed very funny. There’s also an undercurrent of sadness, the sense that Bontle is using her fancy lifestyle and breezy language as a form of displacement. This sense grows more and more pronounced as the book progresses and Bontle is forced to confront the past. It’s a really effective ending to an enjoyable book. ⁣

Published in the UK by Bloomsbury.

Stand By Me – Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is a writer and farmer from Kentucky. The 18 stories collected in Stand By Me chronicle almost a hundred years in the life of the fictional rural community of Port William. Berry’s characters are deeply connected to this place, and there’s a keen sense of how life in the town changes (or stays the same) over time.

The opening story, ‘The Hurt Man’, sets out broadly what kind of book this is going to be. In 1888, Port William is a small, self-contained town:

It had no formal government or formal history. It was without pretense or ambition, for it was the sort of place that pretentious or ambitious people were inclined to leave. It had never declared an aspiration to become anything it was not. It did not thrive so much as it merely lived, doing the things it needed to do to stay alive.

There’s a school at one end of Port William, and a graveyard at the other. You could spend your whole life there.

Mat Feltner is five when an injured man runs up to his porch, and Mat’s mother takes the man in to treat his wounds. Mat sees an expression of profound concern on his mother’s face, one that reveals to him a truth he’ll carry with him always:

What did he learn from his mother that day? He learned it all his life. There are few words for it, perhaps none. After that, her losses would be his. The losses would come. They would come to him and his mother.

I like the way that Berry emphasises how past, present and future flow into each other in Port William. In ‘The Hurt Man’, the process of loss that becomes apparent to young Mat will continue for the rest of his life. ‘Pray Without Ceasing’ begins with Mat’s grandson Andy looking back, and knowing that his family’s past is still within him. By the time of ‘The Boundary’, Mat Feltner is an old man, and his memories bubble up into present reality as he begins to decline mentally.

For all that Berry’s voice is unmistakable throughout, there’s a variety of tone to his stories. There is gentle comedy in ‘A Consent’, as lumbering farmer Ptolemy Proudfoot tries to catch the attention of schoolteacher Miss Minnie. Contrasting with this is ‘Making It Home’, in which Art Rowanberry returns from fighting in the Second World War, bringing vivid and harrowing memories with him.

What unites the tales in Stand By Me above all for me is the place, and the sense that life continues. As the narrator of the title story puts it:

It was maybe the animals that most of all kept us going, the good animals we depended on, that depended on us: our work mules, the cattle, the sheep, the hogs, even the chickens. They were a help to us because they didn’t know our grief… We took care of them, we did what had to be done, we went on.

“We went on.” Perhaps that’s the whole book summed up in three words: the persistence of a community in the face of time itself.

(Published by Penguin.)

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