Taghistorical fiction

Peirene Press: Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve (tr. Adriana Hunter)

This latest title from Peirene Press takes us to Paris in 1918, where we meet Jeanne, who makes paper flowers for a living. Her husband Toussaint has been recovering from facial injuries sustained in the war. He told her not to visit him in hospital, and she has feared the thought of what’s happened to him. 

Now, Toussaint has returned home, face covered, unable to speak. Not only is he a stranger to Jeanne, she struggles to see him as a person at first:

She doesn’t think, He’s here, she thinks, It’s here. This unknown thing that’s coming home to her. That she’s dreaded, and longed for. It’s here. It’s going to come in, it’s going to make its life with her, and with Léo [their daughter] too, it will come here, into this room that the two of them have shared so little since they left Belleville

Jeanne could be talking about Toussaint’s disfigurement in the abstract here, as much as Toussaint the person. Winter Flowers reminds me of David Diop’s At Night All Blood Is Black, in that both are First World War novels which strongly evoke sensation and feeling. Hunter’s translation is so vivid, as Villeneuve’s novel explores not just Jeanne and Toussaint working out how to relate again, but also the different traumas of the community around them. This is the first of Villeneuve’s novels to appear in English translation; I hope there will be more. 

Henningham Family Press: The Tomb Guardians by Paul Griffiths

Henningham Family Press and Paul Griffiths were two of my favourite discoveries last year, and now here’s another beautifully produced book by the author of Mr. Beethoven. I was looking forward to The Tomb Guardians, but even so I wasn’t prepared for it. 

When I look at my most favourite novels, it’s not about subject matter or subgenre – it’s about the reaction I have to reading them. The writing somehow bypasses the rational brain and affects me at a more fundamental level. The Tomb Guardians is that sort of novel. 

Two conversations intertwine within the book. The first (in italics) is between the guardians of Christ’s tomb. They’ve woken up to find that the stone has been moved, the tomb is empty, and one of their number has also vanished. The guardians can’t work out exactly how all this happened, but they know they can’t admit to having been asleep. They have to concoct a plausible explanation that won’t land them in trouble. 

In the present day, a lecturer is preparing a talk on the ‘sleeping grave guard’ paintings by the 16th-century German artist Bernhard Strigel [example], which are reproduced in the book as colour plates). The lecturer feels the talk is “falling apart”, and discusses it with a friend. The key question occupying the lecturer is: why doesn’t Strigel’s placid depiction of the guards reflect the Gospel of Matthew? The lecturer has some ideas about this: what if the figures are meant to reflect Strigel’s contemporary reality rather than the biblical one? What if they’re not meant to be the guardians of Christ’s tomb at all? 

Both conversations then revolve around a fundamental absence of knowledge, though approached from opposite directions. The guardians are constructing a falsehood to explain away the empty tomb. The lecturer and friend are reaching for a truth about Strigel’s paintings that they’ll never fully grasp. 

Maybe I’ve made The Tomb Guardians sound heavy so far, but actually it wears its seriousness lightly. The book is at its most playful when the conversations seem to talk to each other:

What?

It’s this lecture.

Yes.

I just don’t like it.

It’s falling apart on me.

There’s a lot I don’t like, beginning with that dirty great rock having shifted on its own-i-o.

That’s happened before.

He shouldn’t have gone.

Not like this. The whole point it’s…. Never mind.

No, he shouldn’t have gone.

It’s also interesting to see how the balance of the novel changes. The guardians feel dominant at the beginning, racing ahead to work their story out as the lecturer is hesitantly forming questions. Then the lecturer’s strand takes control, forging ahead with art-historical exploration, at times almost seeming as though it might be the guardians’ undoing. 

The ending of The Tomb Guardians has the same sudden power as that of Convenience Store Woman, as we experience something of what is at stake for the characters. Griffiths’ novel doesn’t resolve, but stays vividly on the knife-edge of uncertainty. This undermines everything the lecturer has worked towards:

These four were my life. For years. And still there was so much I wanted to say to them. If they’d been here, I could have done that – never mind that they wouldn’t have been able to respond. I could have said they’re the only human beings right there, at exactly the right moment, and they’re missing the event. I could have said their sleep is an admonishment to us, who also sleep through so much….

But the lecturer’s friend sees how it is: you have to go on from where you are, even if there is doubt. For the guardians, meanwhile, there is possibility in the uncertainty as we leave them, and this opens the book up again just as we close it. 

The Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian: Women in Translation Month

I’ve had this book (originally published in Chinese in 2005) on my shelves for a few years, and finally took the time to read it. I’m glad I did. 

The Last Quarter of the Moon is set among the Evenki people, reindeer herders of north-eastern China. The narrator is a ninety-year-old woman, who doesn’t reveal her name because she doesn’t want traces of herself to be left behind. Most of her clan are moving permanently to the town, leaving their nomadic lives behind. She remains, telling her story to “the fire and the rain”. 

When the narrator is growing up, it’s clear how much her people’s lifestyle is shaped by the landscape:

But we were unable to leave this river. We always treated it as our centre, living alongside its many tributaries. If the Argun is the palm of a hand, then its tributaries are five open fingers. They extend in different directions, illuminating our lives like flashes of lightning. 

Translation by Bruce Humes

There are vivid descriptions of place throughout Chi’s novel. As a whole, the book is structured around changes in the narrator’s family, set against the broader movement of history and encounters with outside cultures. Throughout, there is the sense of just how precarious is the Evenkis’ traditional culture. The story always comes back to the personal, but Chi makes clear how much is really at stake. 

Published by Vintage Books.

Sylvia Townsend Warner: Mr Fortune’s Maggot & The True Heart

Last year, I read and enjoyed Lolly Willowes (1926), the debut novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Penguin Modern Classics have continued to reissue her novels, so I’ve caught up with the next two. I found them intriguingly different from Lolly Willowes and each other – and, above all, worth reading.

Warner’s second novel was Mr Fortune’s Maggot (1927). ‘Maggot’ here means a fad or whimsy, and it’s perhaps a whimsical desire for solitude that leads bank clerk-turned-priest Timothy Fortune, a bank clerk turned priest, to become a missionary on the (fictitious) Polynesian island of Fanua.

After three years, Fortune has not lived up to his name: he has only one convert, a boy named Lueli. Fortune thinks he is getting through to the boy, but Lueli insists on keeping his wooden idol. The time comes for Fortune to take decisive action… and events unfold in a way that challenges his own faith. 

Mr Fortune’s Maggot is focused tightly on these two characters, and in that it makes broader points about faith and colonialism. The change in Fortune’s thinking is carefully drawn, and I found the ending deeply affecting.

***

Warner’s introduction to her third novel, The True Heart (1929), says that it’s a retelling of Cupid and Psyche. This wasn’t really on my mind as I read the book, because it’s not a story I knew much about – but there it is anyway. It must be quite a well disguised retelling, because Warner adds that only her mother made the connection at the time!

In 1873, sixteen-year-old orphan Sukey Bond is sent from London to work as a maid on a farm in the Essex marshes. She falls in love with Eric, whom she mistakes for one of the family. He’s actually the son of the rector of Southend, who has been sent away to the farm because his own family consider him “an idiot”. 

When Sukey’s and Eric’s love is revealed, he is taken back to Southend, and Sukey sets out to find him. There’s a heightened quality to The True Heart that I really appreciated – Sukey even takes her plight to Queen Victoria – as well as a vivid sense of place. 

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I’ve discovered that this week is Sylvia Townsend Warner Reading Week, hosted by Helen at A Gallimaufry. Head over there for more Warner!

#2021InternationalBooker: The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard

This slim volume (under 100 pages) introduced me to an unfamiliar name from history: Thomas Müntzer, a preacher who became a leading figure in the German Peasants’ War of 1525. He opposed both the Roman Catholic Church and Martin Luther, and he went from questioning the prevailing theology to encouraging more general revolt against the ruling authorities. 

There’s a real sense in Vuillard’s prose of dynamic and open-ended societal change. For example, I loved this passage describing the effects of the printing press:

Fifty years earlier, a molten substance had flowed from Mainz over the rest of Europe, flowed between the hills of every town, between the letters of every name, in the gutters, between every twist and turn of thought; and every letter, every fragment of an idea, every punctuation mark had found itself cast in a bit of metal. 

Translation from french by mark polizzotti

Vuillard places Müntzer in a line of popular rebels and preachers, including Wat Tyler and Jan Hus. The restlessness of rebellion is reflected in the way Vuillard writes and structures his book (and, of course, Polizzotti’s translation). Ultimately, The War of the Poor may be a little too slight to really shine for me, but it certainly has powerful moments. 

Published by Picador.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

This is the first novel by poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa. It’s partly autobiographical, partly essayistic, often intensely felt. 

In 2012, our narrator is a young mother. Life is full of domestic routines, with repeated phrases in the prose to match. There’s a strong sense of how stifling this can be. When the narrator has to stay in hospital with her newly born child, it becomes downright terrifying – she doesn’t know how this will end, and we feel her fear from the inside. 

Ní Ghríofa’s protagonist is fascinated by the 18th century poem ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, composed by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. The narrator resolves to uncover everything she can of Ní Chonaill’s life. (The original Gaelic poem and Ní Ghríofa’s translation ‘The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire’ appear at the end of the volume.)

Something that really comes across to me in this book is how the act of researching and writing about Ní Chonaill is a means of self-expression and assertion for the narrator. There’s a similar effect in the prose, when passages about Ní Chonaill disrupt the everyday detail. At the same time, the sequences concerning the narrator’s motherhood and domestic life share something with the historical researches: they highlight women’s experiences that might otherwise be treated less seriously than they deserve, if not ignored. 

A Ghost in the Throat is a novel that takes us deeply into its narrator’s viewpoint, where we can experience for ourselves how much Ní Chonaill’s poem means to her.

Published by Tramp Press.

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: Unknown Language by Hildegard of Bingen and Huw Lemmey

One thing I value the Republic of Consciousness Prize for is that it highlights books I would never have come across otherwise. This is such a book, and I’m so glad to have read it.

Unknown Language is a reimagining of the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century German mystic. It’s mostly written by Huw Lemmey, but there’s also an introductory story by Bhanu Kapil and a closing essay by Alice Sprawls, which add their own dimensions to the book. 

Lemmey’s Hildegard lives in a version of reality which has elements of 21st century life, yet which nevertheless seems timeless. It feels like a place where profound transformations could happen at any moment. 

Divine judgement is visited upon Hildegard’s city, which forces her into exile. There’s danger beyond the city walls, but also the chance for Hildegard to begin anew. She’s looking for the unknown language to describe the all-encompassing visions she experiences, and the unknown language to articulate her own personal form of grace. 

Lemmey’s prose is always compelling and vivid, but I find it rises in intensity along with Hildegard’s experiences – such as when she meets and falls in love with a young woman. At those times, you really get a sense of the personal transcendence Hildegard is feeling. Unknown Language is a powerful book to experience. 

Published by Ignota Books.

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter

It’s nine years since I last read Alice Zeniter: Take This Man was a compelling tale of a young Frenchwoman preparing to marry a friend in order to stop him being deported. The Art of Losing (translated from the French by Frank Wynne) is a longer novel on a bigger canvas: a saga tracing a line between the Algerian War of Independence and contemporary France, and inspired by the author’s own family history. 

Zeniter’s novel follows three generations, each with a different relationship to Algeria. In the 1950s, Ali is a landowner who fought on the side of France in World War Two. But when the National Liberation Front comes to his village, he is forced into a position of complicity, which leads him to a resettlement camp in France. 

Ali remains tied to Algeria, but his son Hamid turns his back on the country, determined to forge a life for himself in France. In turn, Hamid’s daughter Naïma has no knowledge of Algeria, nor the language to communicate with her grandparents. She has to make a journey of her own to uncover the past and make sense of her history. 

The Art of Losing highlights the personal histories that may fall through the gaps in official (colonial) accounts. It asks how people may carry on in the face of profound loss, and how they might regain what has been lost. 

Published by Picador.

Kokoschka’s Doll by Afonso Cruz

Afonso Cruz, Kokoschka’s Doll (2010)
Translated from the Portuguese by Rahul Bery (2021)

I like it when a novel challenges me to work out why it takes the form that it does. Kokoschka’s Doll challenged me in that me. I kept mulling over such questions as: why is a third of it given over to a novel-within-a-novel of the same title, with pages tinted grey? Why does it go off on so many tangents, with characters who might (at first) seem disconnected? What’s the importance of the title, when the doll in question appears relatively briefly and late on? 

Well, it took me until I had finished the book before I felt I had a handle on why Kokoschka’s Doll is the way it is. But it was never less than compelling for all that.

We begin in wartime Dresden. In a brief, harrowing passage, young Isaac Dresner runs away from a German soldier, and takes refuge in the cellar of a bird shop owned by one Bonifaz Vogel. When Vogel hears a voice coming from the floorboards, he assumes he’s hearing mice. But there’s a quiet authority in that voice, and in time Isaac comes to act as Vogel’s conscience. When he emerges from the cellar at war’s end, Isaac is both a son- and father-figure to Vogel, in different ways. 

As an adult, Isaac has become a publisher. He meets an author named Mathias Popa, who writes a book called Kokoschka’s Doll which has several fluid layers of reality, including a version of Isaac Dresner as a character.

The novel’s title refers to the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka, who had a three-year romance with Alma Mahler (the composer’s widow). When the affair ended, Kokoschka remained so infatuated with Alma that he commissioned a life-size replica of her. The key point for this novel, I think, is that Kokoschka had his servant spread rumours about the doll as though it had its own social life – because the doll could only ever be considered ‘real’ if it had its own social reality, and other people to witness that. 

This is what I take away as the main theme of Kokoschka’s Doll: that everyone’s connected, no one complete without other people. So, for example, Isaac’s voice helps complete Vogel as a person, and Vogel does the same for Isaacs. That’s why there’s no single, stable account of life for most of Cruz’s characters – because there isn’t a single, stable life to begin with. 

The theme of interconnectedness comes together poignantly at the end. After this, I look forward to reading more by Afonso Cruz in the future. 

Published by MacLehose Press.

Holiday reading, and a blog anniversary

Happy New Year! Wishing you a better year than 2020, anyway…

It was eleven years ago today [EDIT: I’m wrong, it’s twelve years!] that I published the first post on this blog. How time flies, and how things change. The blog has a greater focus on books now; my tastes have evolved, as has my approach to blogging – not to mention the world of book blogging itself.

But this is still my place for writing about reading and books. I’m thinking about what direction to go in with the blog this year, but for now I have a few books to tell you about that I read over Christmas and New Year…

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Emily Jeremiah, Blue Moments (2020)

I know of Emily Jeremiah as co-translator of several Finnish titles for Peirene Press (including Children of the Cave, White Hunger and Mr Darwin’s Gardener). Blue Moments is a novella by Jeremiah, recently published by Valley Press

We’re introduced to Eeva as a young girl. Her parents have divorced, and she moved with her father to his home country of Finland – her mother remains in England, recovering from depression. Eeva finds it hard to adjust, feeling caught between the two cultures. Years later, Eeva goes to study in England, and resolves to understand more about her parents’ lives. 

Blue Moments is a fine example of how much a novella can encompass in a relatively small space. We see Eeva coming to terms with her past, and find a place for herself in the present. 

Samantha Clark, The Clearing (2020)

Samantha Clark is a Scottish artist; this memoir revolves around the process of clearing out her parents’ old home in Glasgow after they have passed away. The act of doing this leads Clark to reconsider her relationship with both of her parents: her mother, who developed severe mental health problems; and her father, whose role caring for his wife distanced him from his daughter. 

The ‘clearing’ of the title doesn’t just refer to clearing the house. It’s also about the space within oneself, or between oneself and the world. Clark contemplates the gap between her parents’ silent, static house and her own memories and experiences. She considers what this means for her, and illuminates her thoughts with various artistic and scientific ideas. The Clearing is a fascinating book that leaves its readers with much to reflect on themselves.

Published by Little, Brown.

Paolo Maurensig, Game of the Gods (2019)
Translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel (2021)

Paolo Maurensig has written several previous novels set in the world of chess. His latest book to appear in English returns to that world, with a fictional account of the life of Malik Mir Sultan Khan. In the early 20th century, Sultan Khan is a Punjab village boy who becomes a servant to the powerful landowner Sir Umar Khan. He excels at chaturanga, the ancient forerunner of chess. Umar Khan has the boy master the Western rules of chess, and takes him to Britain, where Sultan Khan becomes renowned for his prowess. But life has more than one further twist in store for him. 

In Maurensig’s telling, Sultan Khan becomes something of a pawn in a wider game: for Umar Khan, he’s a way to get back at the British; and when war comes, his strategic skills are useful to others. There is a sense that giving an interview about his life (which is how the novel is framed) allows Sultan Khan to exercise some control over how his legacy will be viewed. It’s not completely so, of course: this story is being told by a European author, after all. But there is a reminder at the end that conflict continues, outside of one person’s control. 

Published on 14 January by World Editions.

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