Archive for August, 2015

Karate Chop / Minna Needs Rehearsal Space

August 27, 2015

Karate Chop

At Edinburgh International Book Festival, Dorthe Nors spoke about the spaces she leaves in her stories. In the novella which comes with her first collection to be translated into English, ‘Minna Needs Rehearsal Space’ (translated by Misha Hoekstra), those spaces are visible on the page:

“Minna is on Facebook.
Minna isn’t a day over forty.
Minna is a composer.
Minna can play four instruments.
Minna’s lost her rehearsal space.”

In a series of short statements which abhor the pronoun and are suspicious of the conjunction, Nors tells Minna’s story, the story of a search for rehearsal space, which is also a search for love, and for herself. Each introductory statement can be seen as a rehearsal of her own character, couched in the format of an online dating profile. It is quickly apparent that her problems lie not only with obtaining a suitable rehearsal space, but with coming to terms with a deteriorating relationship. Though her boyfriend, Lars, is similarly represented, it is immediately clear that Minna’s perspective remains:

“Lars ought to help her but
Lars uses condoms.
Lars is on his bike and gone.
Lars is Lars.”

The final statement, particularly as it is repeated, is an example of how meaningful the meaningless can become in the hands of a skilled writer. Lars is drifting away from Minna (Lars vanishing on his bike is also a reoccurring event) and Minna is struggling to come to terms with this:

“Lars is a hit-and-run driver.
The hit-and-run driver has suffered at most a dented fender.”

Nors’ brevity does not mean she cannot alight on the perfect metaphor to describe Minna’s sense of the relationship ending. A style that might at first appear inevitably linked to superficial characterisation (however entertaining) in fact proves synonymous with complexity, the layering sentences creating an unexpected depth. Statements like “Minna isn’t shielded from anything” lie subtly between authorial omniscience and Minna’s interior monologue. Nors also moves deftly between the unembellished action and the surreal:

“Minna places her hands cross her eyes.
Minna feels something: Was that hair?
Minna slips out to the mirror.
Minna places her face against it, and there she is:
Minna with fur on her face.
Minna in a wild stampede.”

Later we are told “Minna’s fur is a metaphor,” but, importantly, it is not a symbol imposed upon her by the narrative, but an image which rises from her own subconscious to describe her sense of herself at that moment.

In reference to another story, ‘The Buddhist’, Nors spoke of how the story similarly turns inwards to the psychology of the protagonist and how he views himself. Before the Buddhist’s conversion he is a government official, but his new belief system requires a new occupation and leading the charity People to People seems ideal:

Aha, he thinks, an organisation is a good place to begin if you want to change the world.”

Throughout the story he is simply ‘the Buddhist’, another example of the narrative voice enforcing the character’s interior monologue while creating an ironic distance. It is as he drives in his ridiculous Berlingo (which he believes “signals inner values”) that the story verges into the surreal:

“The moment the wheels of the Berlingo touch the Lillebaelt Bridge, the grey metal of the Lillebaelt Bridge is transformed into a shining Bifrost arching across the strait and stretching into the sky. It is like a mirage and yet quite real.”

In fact it is, as Nors points out, either a delusion of the character or the author’s use of surrealism: importantly, we do not have to decide which. That it is the key to the story’s conclusion is what matters.

While such flights of fancy are not the norm in Nors stories, the use of something seemingly extraneous to the plot (or artificially creating it as ‘The Big Tomato’) to explore her characters’ inner lives is. Often this is used to open the story: the overheard remark from the television in ‘Do You Know Jussi?’; the comedian’s death in ‘The Winter Garden’; the duck farm in ‘Duckling.’ The final lines of ‘The Wadden Sea’ are indicative of her approach:

“Then she pointed into the fog. She pointed into it like it was a piece of psychology. She said the Wadden Sea was an image in the mind’s eye, and that she was glad I wanted to go with her into it.”

As with ‘Minna Needs a Rehearsal Space’, this gives her stories a depth that belies their brevity. Both the novella and the short story collection (which has a different translator, Martin Aitken, and was published alone in the US) suggest a writer of great talent; hopefully Nors’ novels will follow them into English.

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This Should Be Written in the Present Tense

August 21, 2015

helle helle

Whose book is it – reader’s or writer’s? I ask that question because my reading experience of Helle Helle’s This Should Be Written in the Present Tense differed from my normal relationship with a novel as I had the opportunity to hear Helle speak after I’d finished reading. Although unusual, this isn’t the first time I have listened to an author discuss a book I have just read, but on this occasion my understanding of the novel was altered in a way I hadn’t experienced before.

The novel itself tells the story of a young woman, Dorte, who leaves for university but does not attend, a fact she keeps hidden even from her aunt (also Dorte), the person she seems closest to. While she drifts through her present existence we learn about her past life and relationships. For a while she seems to live an idyllic existence with her boyfriend, Per, and his parents, but she leaves him to live with his cousin, Lars. The transition from one relationship to another is described in terms of action rather than emotion:

“He put his hand on my shoulder, I turned towards him and then we kissed. Per came back with his LP… When Per went to the bathroom we kissed again.”

Similarly her decision to leave Per:

“After we got home it seemed like the only thing to do was pack. I did it on the Tuesday morning before Per woke up, and when he did I told him. I carried the suitcase down the stairs and put it down und the sycamore tree while I got my bike out of the barn.”

In this way, the novel gives the false impression that nothing much happens; in fact, it disguises its eventfulness by burying moments such as these, which would be foregrounded in a traditional story, amid the prosaic details of everyday life. A perfect example of this is Dorte’s abortion:

“Per went with me to work and back again, he tickled me on the waterbed until I nearly fainted, he took his clothes off and put them back on again several times a day, went with me to the doctor’s when I got pregnant and on the bus to the hospital seven long days later, and on the way back that same afternoon he’d got me a present…”

Only the word ‘long’ reveals any kind of emotional reaction, and ironically Helle makes the telling as short as possible, not even allowing this event a sentence to itself. This style led me to assume that that Dorte was, in fact, suffering from depression (a feeling that intensified when her namesake has a breakdown near the novel’s end):

“I didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt I should wash my hair. I realised I hadn’t had my dinner.”

Helle, however, presented her character as someone who was not unhappy but simply drifting through life. As an example, she mentioned the scene where Dorte boards a train when the conductor waves her on even though she has no intention of travelling – tearing her jeans as she gets off again. In this reading her passivity is a pause in her life, perhaps a reaction to the events the novel describes, but one which has the potential to be healing. This idea of letting life happen to you seems anathema to our contemporary driven society (perhaps on reason why the novel is set in the eighties, along with the absence of smart phones) but becomes an element in Dorte’s coming of age. A stylistic difference also goes some way to explain my different perception of Dorte’s state of mind: in the English version many of the commas have been replaced by full stops, creating a much slower, more lifeless narrative voice.

Helle, in fact, described This Should Be Written in the Present Tense as her most optimistic novel (of course, having not read the others, the context of that statement is unclear). At the beginning (which is the novel’s endpoint – everything is told in retrospect) Dorte seems determined on a new start: her parents have just washed down the apartment, her torn jeans are repaired, and she has filled three black bin bags with what she no longer needs – including pages of her writing. The novel begins with the phrase “I wrote too much…” and ends with advice from a writer:

“I’m always asking myself why does this have to be there, why does that have to be there? And if I can’t find a reason, it goes.”

This feels like a defence of Helle’s style, a declaration that, although she may seem to privilege the trivial over more serious events, what she has included has been deliberately selected. This style allows the novel space for the reader, hence more than one reading is available – something that it is all the better for.

Lost Books – Girl in a Turban

August 11, 2015

girl in a turban

One example of the lack of women writers in translation is the dearth of Independent Foreign Fiction Prize winners of that gender. When Jenny Erpenbeck claimed the award with The End of Days this year, many declared her the first ever female winner. In fact, when the prize returned after a five year absence in 2001, it was won by Marta Morazzoni for The Alphonse Courrier Affair, an award that later went temporarily missing from the prize’s history. (You can read a review of The Alphonse Courrier Affair here). This still represents a depressing 2 out of 21 winners – less than ten percent.

The Alphonse Courrier Affair was not Morazzoni’s first work – or indeed, her first work translated into English. Prior to writing the novel, she had published a collection of short stories – Girl in a Turban – in Italy in 1986, swiftly translated into English by Patrick Creagh in 1988. All five stories are set in the past (the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries), often touching on the lives of famous historical figures, and all, in one way or another, contemplating mortality.

The first story, ‘The White Door’, deals with Mozart’s final days, spent as the guest of a wealthy patron writing his Requiem. When his wife Constanze, visits unexpectedly, she is determined to visit the Villa of his sponsors, but he puts her off:

“ ‘How old you’ve got,’ she said, with all the savagery of a child who does not weigh its words.”

“So his malady was so obvious that it even had a name,” Mozart thinks to himself. That night he dreams of entering the Villa. Once inside he is drawn to a white door – “by instinct he knew that there was the way and that was the ineluctable access.” the door is clearly death but once opened:

“The boyish laugh that rose slowly in his throat spread forth in harmonious sound.”

In accepting death Mozart rediscovers his prematurely vanished youth.

The idea of a good death features in a number of the stories, most noticeably in ‘The Last Assignment’ which tells of Charles V’s decision to retreat to a monastery in the final years of his life through the eyes of Don Luis, a noble who is called to follow the King and is placed in charge of providing provisions for the royal party. Don Luis seems a simple man who goes about his task to the best of his ability, but he also strikes up a relationship with a gypsy whom he passes on the road to and from the town. He helps her when he finds her fallen on the ground, and she later returns the favour when he falls ill; and yet, you would not call their relationship even friendship. After his illness, Charles takes him into his confidence and allows him to read his memoirs, which he takes charge off after Charles’ death, deciding not to release them into the world for reasons we never discover, yet somehow seeming entirely in keeping with his character.

The title story refers to a painting more famously known as ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, currently residing in the home of art dealer Van Rijk

“Propped up against the wall opposite the window in the bedroom, the picture by this time had reigned supreme for a month.”

Though reluctant to sell it, he eventually does, taking the trouble to travel to Denmark with it. He is remembered by the buyer’s daughter when her father dies, and the picture is seen to rise above the commercial bargain they made.

Although death does not feature in the two remaining stories, ‘The Dignity of Signor da Ponte’ centres on an act of violence which we might assume the title character fears has ended in death, and ‘Order in the House’ concerns a living death as its protagonist, Karl, finds himself suddenly paralysed.

Morazzoni’s stories do not attempt to be neat or tricky; they moved with a staid pace in suiting to their settings. Each feels particular to its time period yet has a certain mythic quality thanks to her choice of subjects – kings, paintings, composers. None ends with a shock, yet each conclusion, on reflection, seems well-timed. Given that these were Morazzoni’s first published work, she handles the pressures of historical writing, especially with the use of characters who have actually lived, with enormous confidence. A writer who deserves to be rediscovered.

Three Strong Women

August 7, 2015

three strong women

Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye is a novel of (unsurprisingly, perhaps) three parts; less expected is the fact that the central character is a woman in only two of them. All three tell of characters suspended between France and Senegal: NDiaye herself has a French mother and a Senegalese father – a father who returned to the continent when she was only one year old, perhaps explain why her own characters’ lives seem determined by their journeys between these two places. As each section in some way explores the relationship between Europe and Africa, so too does it examine the relationship between a man and a woman, relationships where communication is often fractured and failing.

In the first section Norah, a lawyer, leaves the life she has created for herself in France – her recently moved in lover remains behind to look after her daughter along with his own – to visit her father at his request. Once a powerful man who bullied those around him, he is reduced to a feeble glutton who takes every opportunity to fill his face with food. Norah is most worried about her brother – while she and her sister were brought up by her mother in France after her parents relationship broke down, he was taken by her father to be raised in Senegal. She soon discovers that her brother is, in fact, the reason for her father’s call – he is in prison, awaiting trial after confessing to the murder of her father’s lover.

In the second section the viewpoint moves to that of kitchen salesman Rudy. He met his wife, Fanta, while teaching in Senegal but, after an incident which brought his classroom career to an end, selfishly convinced her to come to France, though he knew she would be unable to work as a teacher there. He hates his present job and is aware that his marriage is in danger of falling apart – so much so that he plans to collect his son and take him to his mother’s for the night so his wife cannot leave him – but he feels powerless in the face of his problems, reacting only with an uncontrollable rage which exacerbates every situation.

In the final section we return to Senegal and follow the journey of Khady, a young woman attempting to reach Europe after her deceased husband’s family tell her she must go. Abandoning the idea of crossing by sea as too dangerous, she is befriended by a young man, Lamine, who has decided to undertake the journey by land.

The three sections have the slightest of connections: Norah’s father has made his wealth through a holiday village in Dara Salam, a business Rudy father was also involved in; Khady is first seen as a servant at Norah’s father’s house, and is told to contact Fanta should she make it to France. These connections, however, are not important to our understating of the stories, which could easily be read as three novellas. Placing the three parts within a novel seems intended to encourage the reader to develop their own connections.

In all three relationships have broken down. Norah resents her father; her father avoids communication (two girl she claims are his daughters stay with him, but he does not speak to them). Every time Rudy attempts to communicate with Fanta they argue:

“…she had inflicted upon herself the absurd obligation of spending the rest of her days in a house she disliked, beside a man she shunned and who from the outset had deceived her as to what he really was…”

Khady has no relationships left – her husband is dead and his family do not want her. The relationship which seems the most loving is that she develops with Lamine as he demonstrates his selflessness again and again – however, this is the relationship where the greatest betrayal takes place.

Despite this it can be argue that all three stories end with sense of peace. NDiaye uses bird imagery to achieve this in each one. Norah’s father is associated with “the lush, wilting vegetation of the flame tree” – “whatever flame tree, exhausted by flowering, he had flown down from.” The end finds him in its branches:

“…his daughter Norah was there, close by, perched among the branches that were now bereft of flowers… Why would she come and alight on the flame tree if not to make peace, once and for all?”

Rudy, as his world falls apart around him, finds himself stalked by a buzzard:

“With its wings spread out along the windscreen, its head turned to one side, it glared at him with its horridly severe yellow eye.”

Towards the story’s end he experiences an epiphany regarding his mother; shortly after his son tells him, “We’ve run a bird over.” The final section also uses a bird in order to create a sense of peace at the story’s conclusion:

“With staring eyes she saw a bird with long grey wings hovering above the fence. ‘It’s me, Khady Demba,’ she thought, dazed by the revelation, knowing that she was the bird and that the bird knew it too.”

The three sections may not cohere or even resonate particularly powerfully, but the writing in each of them is superb. The central section, in particular, where NDiaye conveys Rudy’s frustrations with great skill and sympathy, is utterly absorbing. She is clearly a writer who can inhabit different characters, different worlds, with ease.

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In

August 3, 2015

mother

August is, once again, Women in Translation month, an opportunity to highlight some great women writers but also acknowledge the particular difficulties faced by women in being translated into English. While the gender barriers facing women writers who write in English have diminished (though inequality often remains as to how their work is perceived once in print), an unreasonably low percentage of literature translated into English (and that’s already an unreasonably low percentage of what is published) is by women. If you’re looking for a piece of literature which demonstrates the difficulties faced by women writers, however, you would be hard-pressed to beat Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s novella ‘The Time is Night’ which is the centre piece of her newest collection from Penguin Classics, There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In.

The narrator of The Time is Night, Anna, is a poet who spends most of her time surviving poverty and her troublesome family rather than writing. The pram in the hall for her is the grandson, Tima, abandoned to her care, but, as she tells him, she remains somehow responsible for her mother and two children as well:

“But I must work, my little one – your Anna needs to provide for you, and for Granny Sima; Alena at least is using your child support and doesn’t bleed me for more. But Andrey, my beloved son, what about him? I must give him something, mustn’t I? For his injured foot (more on that later), for his life ruined in prison.”

To say ‘the story is narrated by’ doesn’t convey the experience of the reader: Anna’s narrative reads like an inner monologue, sometimes addressed to Tima, at other times simply to herself, moving back in time to recall the misfortunes’ of her family (Alena’s pregnancies and Andrey’s prison sentence) as well as detailing the difficulties of the present. While her own resilience is in evidence, there is plenty of vitriol to go with the love she feels for her children:

“Breaking into sobs, my daughter enumerated the sums she lived on, as if to say that we, Tima and I, were living in luxury while she was homeless. A home for her, I told her calmly, should come from the dick that knocked her up and then skipped off because no-one can stand her two days in a row.”

Men receive particularly short shrift: abusive, drunken, and with a tendency to disappear when needed. Anna nicknames Alena’s husband ‘the dud’:

“For god’s sake, my darling girl, kick him out! We’ll manage! What do we need him for? To stuff his face with our food? So you could humiliate yourself night after night begging his forgiveness?”

If this sounds rather desperate (it is) and bleak (it is), I can also say that it is riveting. Partly this is a kind of jaw-dropping astonishment at the pile up of horror upon horror, but it is also the vitality of the voice (credit to the translator Anna Summers) even in its moments of hate and anger. Strangely, it’s not without humour, for example when Anna reads her daughter’s diary with her own bracketed asides. The final section, where Anna attempts to prevent her mother being moved hospital and bring her home, becomes a kind of grotesque comedy.

‘The Time is Night’ is accompanied by two short stories, ‘Chocolates with Liqueur’ and ‘Among Friends’ (they’re described as novellas but neither is long enough). The first tells the story of a failed relationship (Petrushevskaya seems to allow no other kind). As in all three stories, living space is at a premium, and who is registered to live where is of enormous importance. In the story’s first chapter, the husband, Nikita, returns every night at seven to spend two hours in ‘his’ room. The second chapter returns to the beginning of their relationship, Nikita’s courtship, and the marriage which follows:

“Nikita needed a slave who would cost him nothing and whom he could kick whenever he wanted.”

The story is apparently a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe and ends in suitably gothic fashion.

The final story tells of a group of friends who meet every Friday for many years, their relationships slowly deteriorating. Initially it seems as dispiriting as everything that has gone before, but ultimately it is about a dying mother’s desire to safeguard her son – though in such a way as to suggest little faith in humanity.

I loved the stories in this volume: through their cynicism and despair some desperate but irrepressible life force still shines; it’s that force which continued to write.