Meytal Radzinski, the inspiration behind Women in Translation month every August, is looking to compile a list of top 100 women in translation titles. All those who want to participate have to nominate their 10 best books for the purpose. Here are the precise rules…
I have read some great books by Women Writers in Translation over the years and had a tough time narrowing down the list to ten.
Having said that, here are the 10 books that I nominate…
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels took the world by storm when they were published, and My Brilliant Friend – the first book in the quartet – is where it all started. Set in a poor and violent neighbourhood in Naples, these novels chart the friendship between two girls – the fiery and fiercely intelligent Lila Cerullo and the clever and hardworking Elena Greco. My Brilliant Friend begins their story when the girls are eight years old and ends when they turn sixteen. Intense, cinematic in scope with richly drawn characters, this is a fabulous and highly addictive novel (as are the subsequent books in the series).
Billed as Japan’s equivalent of Wuthering Heights, A True Novel is an expansive story charting the doomed relationship between the brooding and intense Taro Azumo and the beautiful Yoko. The story is narrated by Fumiko (the Nelly Dean of the novel), although she is very much a finely etched character in her own right. Despite the comparison to the Bronte classic, A True Novel is strong enough to stand on its own. Set in post-war Japan, the novel also examones class differences and the meteoric rise and fall of Japan’s economy.
Katri Kling is an outcast who lives in the village with her simpleminded brother. She hates white lies and can see straight to the core of any problem. Anna Aemelin is just the opposite – a respected member of the village, but aloof. Anna has something Katri wants, and to get it Katri will take control of Anna’s life and livelihood.
The Vegetarian – Han Kang
One day, Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat – an act of revolt unheard of in Korean society, thereby shocking her family. Combining three tales told from the viewpoints of Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law and sister (Yeong-hye is the central focus in the novel although we never hear her voice), this is an excellent novel that examines rebellion, mental illness, and desire. It’s the book that has made me a fan of Han Kang and I intend to read every novel of hers that is released.
The Looking Glass Sisters – Gohril Gabrielsen
Two sisters – one is bedridden, the other is the carer – live in a remote town in Northern Norway. This is a riveting, psychological tale narrated by the bed ridden sister. Are they living harmoniously together? Or is each one deliberately trying to wreck the life of the other? This is a story in which all is not necessarily what it seems.
A young, recently divorced Japanese woman and her daughter move into an apartment filled with light. This is a bracing, unsettling yet poignant tale in which Tsushima, in unflinching and crystal clear prose, highlights the challenges of being a single parent.
Sphinx is a love story between the narrator (who is never named) and A***, who is a dancer in America. But what makes this novel interesting is this – throughout the book the gender of both the narrator and A*** is never revealed.
La Femme de Gilles – Madeleine Bourdouxhe
Elisa loves her husband Gilles deeply and her world revolves around him. Until her sister Victorine appears on the scene causing her much anguish. This is a beautifully rendered tale of desire and the fear of losing what you value the most.
Although 2017 is long gone and we are well into 2018, I couldn’t resist compiling this list. It’s a great way to summarize what had been an excellent reading year. Besides my Top 12 Books for the Year, this includes many more books that I loved but just missed the Best of the Year list.
So here goes…
A Book with More Than 500 Pages
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura
At around 800 pages, this is a wonderful novel from Japan about family, class distinction and the rise and fall of Japan’s economy. It has also been billed the Japanese ‘Wuthering Heights’ focusing on the intense relationship between the brooding Taro Azuma and the beautiful Yoko. And yet without the Bronte tag, this rich, layered novel stands well on its own feet.
A Forgotten Classic
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
Barbara Pym wrote some excellent novels during her time but probably fell out of fashion later. But she has seen a revival of late in the book blogging world. ‘Excellent Women’ in particular is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people. Mildred Lathbury is a spinster, leads an uneventful life and is quite happy with her circumstances, until a new couple move in as neighbours and wreak havoc.
A Book That Became a Movie
Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
The first book released by the Pushkin vertigo crime imprint, but much earlier it was the inspiration for the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. This is classic crime fiction with enough suspense, good characterization and plot twists.
A Book Published This Year
Compass by Mathias Enard
An erudite, mesmerizing novel about the cultural influence that the East has had on the West. Over the course of a single night, the protagonist reminisces on his experiences in Damascus, Aleppo, Tehran and his unrequited love for the fiery and intelligent scholar Sarah.
A Book with a Number in the Title
Madame Zero by Sarah Hall
I love Sarah hall’s novels for her raw, spiky writing and she is particularly a master of the short story. This is another brilliant collection of stories about metamorphosis, sexuality and motherhood, the standouts being ‘Evie’ and ‘Mrs Fox’.
A Book Written by Someone under Thirty
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Waugh penned this novel in 1930, when he was 27. A humorous, witty novel and a satire on the ‘Bright Young Things’ – essentially decadent young London society between the two World Wars.
A Book with Non-Human Characters
Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami
This is a strange, surreal but highly original collection of three stories. From the blurb on Amazon – In a dreamlike adventure, one woman travels through an apparently unending night with a porcelain girlfriend, mist-monsters and villainous moneys; a sister mourns her invisible brother whom only she can still see, while the rest of her family welcome his would-be wife into their home; and an accident with a snake leads a shop girl to discover the snake-families everyone else seems to be concealing.
A Funny Book
Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes
The novel’s protagonist is the highly volatile Gloria, now in her middle age, but having lost none of her capacity for rage and outbursts of anger. And yet it is not a gory novel. Infact, it has many moments of humour and compassion; a novel brimming with spunk.
A Book by a Female Author
Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith
There were many this year, but I chose one of my favourite female authors, Patricia Highsmith. Edith’s family is breaking apart and she takes to writing a diary. A heartbreaking novel about a woman’s gradual descent into madness told in very subtle prose.
A Book with a Mystery
Black Money by Ross MacDonald
Ross MacDonald wrote the excellent Lew Archer (private detective) series of novels and this is one of them. A solid mystery with wonderful evocation of California, interesting set of characters, and a tightly woven and compelling plot with enough twists and turns.
A Book with a One-Word Title
Sphinx by Anne Garreta
An ingeniously written love story between a dancer and a disc jockey where the gender of the principle characters is never revealed. An even remarkable feat by the translator for ensuring that the essence of the novel (unimportance of gender) is not lost.
A Book of Short Stories
A Circle in the Fire and Other Stories by Flannery O’ Connor
Remarkable collection of stories by the Queen of Southern American gothic. A dash of menace lurks in the everyday lives of ordinary Americans living in the rural regions of the South. The theme of her macabre stories? The painful, necessary salvation that emerges from catastrophic, life-changing, and sometimes life-ending, events. ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ and ‘Good Country People’ particularly are classics.
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
This is a passionate love story between an eighteen year old drama student and an actor in his thirties written in innovative prose that brings out the intensity of feelings of the young girl. It was the first book I read in 2017; I loved it and it pretty much set the tone for the rest of a wonderful reading year. The novel had also been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.
A Book Set on a Different Continent
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
The continent is Europe and the novel is Solar Bones – a wonderful, quiet story of a man, his whole life, his work, his marriage, his children set in a small town in Ireland. It is an ode to small town life, a novel suffused with moments of happiness, loss and yearning, and quite simply beautifully penned. This novel was the winner of the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.
A Non-Fiction Book
Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart
This is a fabulous book on the history of the iconic bookshop in Paris – Shakespeare and Company. It is the story about its founder George Whitman, his passion for books and how some of the most famous authors of his time frequented the shop. Budding authors were allowed to stay in the bookshop (they were called ‘Tumbleweeds’), provided in return – they helped around in the shop and wrote a bit about themselves. The book is a wonderful collection of stories, anecdotes, pictures and also displays many of the written autobiographies of those Tumbleweeds.
The First Book by a Favourite Author
A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
This isn’t exactly his first book but one of his earlier ones. James Salter has a knack of crafting exquisite sentences and conveying a lot in poetic, pared back prose. ‘Light Years’ still remains my favourite one of his, but this title is also good.
A Book You Heard About Online
Climates by Andre Maurois
Climates is a story of two marriages. The first is between Phillipe Marcenat and the beautiful Odile, and when Odile abandons him, Phillipe marries the devoted Isabelle. It is a superb novel with profound psychological insights, a book I only heard about through one of the reading blogs I regularly frequent.
A Bestselling Book
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Not sure this is a bestselling book, but I can say that it was certainly the most well-known of all that I read last year. I have always balked at the idea of reading a Woolf for fear of her novels being difficult and highbrow. But I decided to take the plunge with the more accessible Mrs Dalloway. And closed the final pages feeling exhilarated. More of Woolf shall be explored – perhaps, To the Lighthouse will be next?
A Book Based on a True Story
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
Penelope Fitzgerald is a wonderful but underrated writer. The Blue Flower is a compelling novel that centres around the unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his young fiancé Sophie. Novalis was the pen name of Georg von Harden berg who was a poet, author and philosopher of Early German Romanticism in the 18th century.
A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi
This was the first title published by Peirene Press way back in 2011, and on the strength of some solid reviews, had been meaning to read it for a while, only to find it languishing at the back of some shelf. I finally pulled it out and gulped it in a single sitting. It is quite a dark, bleak but poignant tale of a young mother and her two sons and the extreme step she takes to shield them from a cruel world.
A Book your Friend Loves
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
First Love had received quite some rave reviews last year and was also shortlisted for a couple of prestigious prizes. It is a story of a woman in an abusive marriage told in sharp, intelligent, lucid prose. Here’s the blurb on Amazon – Catastrophically ill-suited for each other, and forever straddling a line between relative calm and explosive confrontation, Neve and her husband, Edwyn, live together in London. As Neve recalls the decisions that brought her to Edwyn, she describes other loves and other debts–from her bullying father and her self-involved mother, to a musician she struggled to forget. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.
A Book that Scares You
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
This is a tense, chilling and utterly gripping book that combines elements of the supernatural with the more real matters of agricultural disasters. The tone of storytelling is feverish and urgent; it filled me with dread as I raced towards the ending.
A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
A great novel with psychologically complex characters and a narrative style that forces you to keep shifting sympathies with them. And the opening sentence is a corker – This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
The Second Book in a Series
Transit by Rachel Cusk
The first was Outline, which I read at the start of the year. So impressed was I that I read the second in the trilogy – Transit – the same year too. The third one is yet to be published. In both the novels, the protagonist who is a writer meets people while she is away in Greece or in London. They tell her stories about their lives, each one with a different perspective. Paradoxically, the protagonist is in the background as the stories told by her friends, colleagues and new people she meets take centre stage. While the main character’s story is never directly narrated, we learn something about her from the way she interacts with the others. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016. Incidentally, Outline was shortlisted for the same prize in 2014.
A Book with a Blue Cover
The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova
This one was easy simply because the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions made it so. All their fiction titles have blue covers. The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories. Each story is wondrous, fantastical, weird and an ode to anachronism. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness.
As 2017 draws to a close, it is time to look back on the books that I greatly enjoyed during the year, and select the best among those.
I had a tough time whittling the list down to 12, but I absolutely loved the ones that I did end up selecting.
Three of these, I had already reviewed on my blog earlier, the rest I had not. For the ones I had reviewed earlier, I have given a brief snapshot and you can click on the book’s title, which will take you to the detailed review.
Without much ado, here is my list of my Top 12 books for 2017, and why I thought they were special…
ATrue Novel – Minae Mizumura
This novel was billed as a Wuthering Heights set in postwar Japan, and that greatly piqued my interest. I had loved Bronte’s Wuthering Heights when I read it in college, and its tale about a brooding hero, and his tempestuous heroine captured my imagination.
But it would be a disservice to judge A True Novel solely by this comparison, because the novel is strong enough to stand on its own. Read more
The blurb has billed Sphinx as a love story that delves into the nightclubs and cabarets of afterhours Paris. But it is much more than that. It is not just the story but the way that it is told that makes the novel stand out.
Indeed, it is all very well to write any kind of novel. But how about writing a novel by deliberately imposing a constraint and then writing within its confines? Not that simple. This is what the writers from the ‘Oulipian’ movement chose to do. The most illustrative example is the author Georges Perec. He wrote his book ‘La Disparition’ (which I have not read) by not using words containing the letter E in the entire text.
Anne Garreta chooses to do something similar; making this the first novel by a female member of the Oulipo.
So where is the Oulipian constraint in Sphinx?
Sphinx, in very simple terms, is a love story between the narrator (who is never named) and A***, who is a dancer from America. Basically, this is not just a love story but a genderless love story. And that is its main conceit.
Throughout the novel, the gender of both the narrator and A*** is never revealed.
A glimpse into the plot then. It begins with the unnamed narrator reminiscing about the time when he or she met the dancer A*** in a cabaret in Paris.
It is revealed to us that the narrator is an intelligent student looking to major in theology but somewhere along the line is gripped by an infinite sense of boredom. It doesn’t help that debates and the classes in general lack intellectual rigour. Not surprisingly, the narrator starts drifting.
A priest tries to be a sounding board to the narrator and help provide some direction. They start meeting regularly and ironically these discussions take place in clubs and cabarets. One such nightclub, The Apocryphe, becomes a regular haunt.
The narrator then recalls the catastrophe that takes place in The Apocryphe, which leads to him/her taking up the temporary post of the resident DJ in that club.
And so began what seemed to me a new life, but what seemed to all those who knew me the beginning of a resigned and aimless wandering. The Padre neither encouraged nor discouraged me from this new path; after all, he had been partly responsible for leading me into it.
Post the shift at The Apocryphe, a tour of clubs and dives followed with a group of friends. That is how they end up in the Eden and where the narrator meets A***.
Over many meetings, the narrator relentlessly pursues A***, who finally relents. What follows therefore is a whirlwind relationship between the two. But it’s not always easy as society, bogged by stereotypes, is all too ready to condemn them. Nobody understands why they are together in the first place.
At the Apocryphe and everywhere we went, people made remarks about our striking dissimilarity. They teased me over the contrast in colour between our skins, they stressed the difference in our mannerisms: the impulsiveness of A***’s voice and gestures, that wild exuberance and openness to the world, which by comparison underscored my moderation and reserve. A*** in turn had to bear the incessant prattle about my religious and social background. They painted a picture of my incomprehensible oddities: my isolation; my taste for solitude strangely coexisting with a sudden dive into this world; an unheralded abandon of a university career for the improvised post of DJ. For want of any intelligible coherence, they assumed I must be harbouring some kind of vice or perversion.
This then is a novel about love, its difficulties and the unimportance of gender. The writing shines too. It is indeed a feat that Garreta could write such a novel and still manage to not reveal the gender. Certainly, it would have been a challenging task in the original language French, where the construction of verbs in a sentence, typically gives an idea of the gender of the subject.
What about its translation to English? Here the translator Emma Ramadan has to be applauded too. In an illuminating afterword, Ramadan has pointed out the challenges in translating such a text and how she had to bend or rewrite the text in such a way that the gender of the characters is not revealed and at the same time the essence of the text is not lost.
In a world where pre-conceived notions about gender, race, religion and identity form the fabric of modern society, Sphinx does a great job in ripping it apart.