Tagnon-fiction

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…

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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.

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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.

A Silent Fury – Yuri Herrera

“Silence is not the absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered.”

Yuri Herrera, A Silent Fury: the El Bordo Mine Fire (2018)
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (2020)

It’s July, which means Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog and Richard from Caravana de recuerdos. Today I’m returning to Yuri Herrera, who wrote one of my very favourite novels, Signs Preceding the End of the World. His latest book is a non-fiction account of a tragedy that took place in his hometown of Pachuca, Mexico.

On 10 May 1920, there was a fire in the El Bordo mine. After a short period of evacuation, the authorities decided there was no possibility that anyone else trapped in the mine could have survived, and the shafts were sealed. When they were reopened, 87 bodies were removed from the mine, and seven other men found in there were still alive. The subsequent report exonerated the authorities of all blame, and even suggested that the miners might have been at fault.

Herrera’s project in this book is not so much about telling the story of the fire – though he does that in part, and it’s vivid and harrowing. He is most focused on the historical documents: the case file and newspaper reports. Herrera aims to show how the victims, survivors and their families have been obscured by the official record.

Sometimes this becomes evident because the record does not acknowledge that these are human lives which were lost. Sometimes it’s the contradictions which draw the investigators’ focus into question. Sometimes people were spoken for by others, such as the female relatives who had to give statements of their relationship to the deceased in order to apply for compensation. These statements mostly “appear only in the voice of some court clerk who interprets, edits, formalizes” – and they all had to be witnessed by a man.

The English title A Silent Fury is well chosen. It appears in the text when Herrera is describing an official photograph of the survivors:

They don’t look like they just escaped from hell: their week of underground starvation is not reflected in their expressions or on their bodies, with the exception of one, the first man on the left, who seems to betray a silent fury: lips clamped together, brows arched. But, again, no one recorded what they thought or felt at that moment.

The “silent fury” is then the kind of reaction that doesn’t appear in the official record, at least not without an act of recovery like this book. It’s also there in Herrera’s writing, a controlled anger verging on sarcasm, which is one of the powerful qualities of Lisa Dillman’s translation.

In some ways, A Silent Fury reminds me of Han Kang’s Human Acts, in that both books confront the question of how to put a human disaster into words, and the implications of doing so. The resulting work brings the victims of the El Bordo fire into focus, allows them to be seen.

Published by And Other Stories.

#FitzcarraldoFortnight: Langley and Hildyard

Patrick Langley, Arkady (2018)

I’m starting Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight with the first debut that Fitzcarraldo published: Patrick Langley’s novel Arkady. It’s told as a series of episodes from the lives of Jackson and Frank, brothers on the margins of an austerity-ravaged society that feels only a few steps away from now. They find an abandoned canal boat that they name Arkady. The brothers then have a chance to leave their city and look for a new life.

What really makes Arkady work for me is its impressionistic quality. It is tempting to read the brothers’ city as being London, but really it’s not a place with a precise geography. The brothers experience their environment as an abstract urban landscape, and that’s how Langley makes us see it. That background makes the relationship between Frank and Jackson all the more vivid. Their bond is one thing that might weather the storms life throws at them, in a strikingly affecting piece of work.

Daisy Hildyard, The Second Body (2017)

This book is an essay in trying to square the human sense of being a physical-bodied individual with the fact of being embedded in an ecosystem. Daisy Hildyard refers to the latter as “having a second body”, one that reaches around the world. ⁣

Hildyard draws together science, literature (this book gave me a new perspective on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels in particular) and personal experience. She argues that it’s difficult for us to imagine the individual and the global scale at the same time, unless perhaps nature invades your personal space, as when Hildyard’s house is flooded in the book’s final chapter.

I find myself agreeing with her on that – it has been my experience, in the past and even during the reading of this book. So The Second Body is a challenge: to think differently. It will stay with me for some time. ⁣

A Simple Story – Leila Guerriero

After a look back, it’s time for my first ‘new’ post for this year’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month. Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story is a piece of journalism from Argentina. Every year in the town of Laborde, young working-class men compete to be crowned champion of the malambo, a physically-demanding traditional dance. Custom dictates that the winner must never perform the malambo again – but the prestige he’ll gain is unparalleled.

Guerriero says in the book that she set out to write about the malambo competition in general, but that changed when she saw Rodolfo González Alcántara dance:

He became the countryside, the dry earth, the taut pampas horizon, he was the smell of horses, the sound of the sky in summer, and the hum of solitude – fury, illness, and war. He became the opposite of peace. He was the slashing knife, the cannibal, and a decree. At the end he stamped his foot with terrific force and stood, covered in stars, resplendent, staring through the peeling layers of night air. And, with a sidelong smile – like that of a prince, a vagabond, or a demon – he touched the brim of his hat, And was gone.
(translation by Thomas Bunstead)

A Simple Story then follows Rodolfo as he trains for the 2012 Laborde festival. Though the two books are quite different, I was reminded of Katie Kitamura’s The Longshot, which captures a similar sense of physicality and all-consuming determination.

If you’d like to see Rodolfo dancing the malambo, here’s a clip.

Book details

A Simple Story (2013) by Leila Guerriero, tr. Thomas Bunstead (2015), Pushkin Press, 160 pages, paperback.

What I’ve been reading lately: 12 June 2019

My book group chose Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (Canongate) to read for May. It’s an account of the author’s return from London to her native Orkney after ten years of struggling with alcoholism. I’ve heard of praise for The Outrun in the years since it was published, and was glad to have an excuse to read it. Overall, I enjoyed it: in particular, I felt that Liptrot struck a fine balance between life before and after the return to Orkney (her recovery is ongoing throughout the book). It combines aspects of nature writing and memoir of illness into a work very much its own.

At this time, I was in the middle of three books for review elsewhere; I felt the need for something else, to decompress. I’d been interested in Ash Before Oak (Fitzcarraldo Editions) by Jeremy Cooper since I first heard about it. It takes the form of a nature diary written by a man who has moved to Somerset, to start a new life in the country. But he also has mental health problems, something that emerges gradually within the text. We gain glimpses of his breakdown and recovery as the novel goes on. The structure of Ash Before Oak – very short chapters that progress serenely rather than choppily – provided the ideal contrast to my more concentrated review reading. I could just let Cooper’s novel open up in my mind as it would – it’s affecting stuff.

Termin by Henrik Nor-Hansen (tr. Matt Bagguley) is a particularly short, particularly sharp Norwegian novel from Nordisk Books. It tells the story of Kjetil Tuestad, who is severely assaulted in 1998. Over the following years, Kjetil struggles to deal with the psychological repercussions of this; his relationship falls apart, and there’s economic hardship in the background. What makes Termin especially powerful is that it’s written in the detached tone of a police report, and even the most innocuous or intimate event is treated with cold scepticism (“They supposedly gave each other a hug”). This technique drains all the warmth out of what happens, suggesting a loss of empathy in Kjetil’s life and more broadly across society.

The theme for this year’s Peirene Press titles is “There Be Monsters”. The first one comes from Finland: Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (tr. Emily and Fleur Jeremiah). It’s written as a recovered expedition diary from the 1820s; Iax Agolasky is research assistant on an expedition to north-west Russia. The party comes across a group of creatures that resemble human children with certain animal features. Differences of opinion arise over what this discovery might mean and what should be done. Children of the Cave explores what it means to be human, as both Agolasky (whose instinct is to protect the children) and those with other ideas start to seem more animalistic. I found this a thought-provoking piece of work.

The Years – Annie Ernaux: #MBI2019

Annie Ernaux, The Years (2008)
Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer (2017)

Annie Ernaux’s The Years begins with a series of scattered memories, and reflections on the ephemeral nature of existence:

Everything will be erased in a second. The dictionary of words amassed between cradle and deathbed, eliminated. All there will be is silence and no words to say it. Nothing will come out of the open mouth, neither I nor me. Language will continue to put the world into words. In conversation around a holiday table, we will be nothing but a first name, increasingly faceless, until we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation.

This paragraph stopped me in my tracks; it wouldn’t be the last time that happened during the book.

I can understand now I’ve read it why The Years has been accepted as a novel for the purposes of the Man Booker International Prize: it’s not so much the detail of history that lingers as the shape of the text. I’d describe The Years as an individual (auto)biography suspended in a broader account of history. It follows the life and times of a character (presumably a version of Ernaux herself) from 1941 to 2006. The wider historical canvas is mostly kept at ‘eye level’, stitched together from details that emphasise the experience of living through a particular moment in time. For example, the 1950s:

Beneath the surface of the things that never changed, last year’s circus posters with the photo of Roger Lanzac, First Communion photos handed out to schoolfriends, the Club des chansonniers on Radio Luxembourg, our days swelled with new desires. On Sunday afternoons, we crowded around the windows of the general electrics shop to watch television. Cafés invested in TV sets to lure clientele.

Ernaux also evokes the ways in which her protagonist’s mental landscapes change. The world of childhood, immediately after the Second World War, is a world of family voices telling stories, and traditions handed down:

Memory was transmitted not only through the stories but through the ways of walking, sitting, talking, laughing, eating, hailing someone, grabbing hold of objects. It passed body to body, over the years, from the remotest countrysides of France and other parts of Europe: a heritage unseen in the photos, lying beyond individual difference and the gaps between the goodness of some and the wickedness of others.

Over the period narrated in The Years, the old voices fade and machines become the main repository of knowledge (“Only facts presented on TV achieved the status of reality”). The old stories are ultimately replaced by the internet’s grab-bag of information. Memory itself fragments. This is what I like most about The Years: the way it evokes the changing texture of living and remembering through time.

Book details

The Years (2008) by Annie Ernaux, tr. Alison L. Strayer (2017), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 232 pages, paperback.

Read my other posts on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize here.

Notes to Self – Emilie Pine

Emilie Pine is an academic at University College Dublin. Notes to Self is a collection of personal essays, first published in Ireland by Tramp Press, and now given a UK edition by Penguin. The book begins with Pine and her sister visiting their seriously ill father in a Greek hospital:

By the time we find him, he has been lying in a small pool of his own shit for several hours.

This is typically unflinching of Pine as she delves into her life across the six essays. In the first piece, ‘Notes on Intemperance’, she details that immediate situation, where she and her sister have to clean up and look after their father because the hospital is so understaffed, but also her complicated relationship with her father’s illness. He was an alcoholic, which caused liver failure and the haemmorage that has put him in hospital, but also left him cold and antagonistic as a father. For Pine, this made him difficult to love:

I used to push myself to reject him, to walk away, failing each time. I oscillated between caring for the man who was afflicted with this terrible disease, and attempting to protect myself from the emotional fallout of having an alcoholic father. It took years of refusing him empathy before I realised that the only person I was hurting was myself.

Pine captures these ambivalent feelings on the page, but she also confronts what it means for herself and her family to write about life in this way. Yet ultimately there’s a sense that this act of writing is vital: “what my dad really taught me, despite himself perhaps, is that writing is a way of making sense of the world, a way of processing – of possessing – thought and emotion, a way of making something worthwhile out of pain.”

Through writing, Pine then takes possession of deeply personal experiences: infertility, her parents’ separation, sexual violence. Sometimes the subject of an essay is intertwined with writing itself. For example, Pine begins ‘Notes on Bleeding & Other Crimes’ with the metaphor of a writer bleeding on to the page, before going to consider periods and societal taboos around her body. At the end of this essay, she wonders what her body might say if it could tell its story:

I think it would talk about blood. Its mesmerising flow and its ebb. About ending and renewing. I think it would talk about the touch of my fingers and my hands and another’s lips. The feel of skin on skin. Wet and slow. Soft and hard. The shock of cold, the pleasure of warmth…

Notes to Self is a raw and powerful reading experience. It’s often harrowing, but there are also compelling moments of hope and optimism. The passage I’ve just quoted reads like that to me: hope through writing, the stuff of life taken apart and rebuilt to find a way forward.

Book details

Notes to Self (2018) by Emilie Pine, Hamish Hamilton, 206 pages, hardback. Also available in Tramp Press paperback.

Reading round-up: late January

Susan Orlean, The Library Book (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

Catherine Chidgey, The Beat of the Pendulum (2017)

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

Ricky Monahan Brown, Stroke (2019)

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

Reading round-up: early January

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte Runcie, Salt on Your Tongue (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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