A Month of Reading – August 2020

Since August was WITMonth, my original plan was to focus only on WIT books and to read as many as possible. That didn’t quite work out. I did read 4 WIT novels from Poland, Denmark China and Germany, which I ultimately felt was not too bad. And I also threw in a Ross Macdonald and the latest novel from Daisy Johnson.  

So here’s a brief summary of all that I read in August 2020…

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – Olga Tokarczuk (tr. from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

Set in a Polish village in deep midwinter, Drive Your Plow has the makings of a murder mystery when throughout the novel various men at regular intervals are found dead under mysterious circumstances. Our narrator, Janina, finds herself to be the first at these scenes of crime a couple of times, and she has her own theory on these murders, which she persistently presents to the police but to no avail.

Janina is viewed as a cankerous old woman in the village, not to be taken seriously. An engineer turned school teacher, she is also the caretaker of some holiday properties of owners who come to stay during the summer months. Janina clearly loves animals (possibly more than humans) and has strong opinions on hunting and animal brutality and non-vegetarianism. She also is a deep believer in astrology looking for answers in stars and cosmic planets to make sense of the chaos around her. And in her free time, she keeps herself busy translating poems of William Blake.

Drive Your Plow is no ordinary ‘whodunnit’, that’s really not the point of the book. Peppered with doses of black humour as well as melancholia, this book has existential overtones as it poses questions on our place in the universe, and challenges notions that humans are superior to animals. Strange and unique, with fascinatingly named characters (Oddball, Big Foot, Dizzy), and a fierce, eccentric personality in Janina, Drive Your Plow was a strong start for WITMonth.

Love in a Fallen City – Eileen Chang (tr. from Chinese by Karen S. Kingsbury)

Love in a Fallen City is a collection of four novellas and two short stories offering a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people in 1930s/1940s Shanghai and Hong Kong.

I really liked the flavor of the four novellas in this collection accentuated by the fact that Eileen Chang’s writing is elegant and incisive with a lovely way of describing things. She has a flair for painting a detailed picture of the social mores of the time and well as for her perceptive depictions of the inner workings of her characters’ minds. And she also highlights the subtle differences between Hong Kong, which has more of a British essence, and Shanghai which is more Chinese.

Ultimately, there is something tragic about the men and women (the latter particularly) in her novellas, a sense of melancholy that leaves its mark on the reader.

The Artificial Silk Girl – Irmgard Keun (tr. from German by Kathie von Ankum)

The Artificial Silk Girl is narrated in the first person, in a voice that is immediately captivating, fresh and lively – a voice I was instantly drawn to.

After being fired from a dull office job and followed by a failed attempt at theatre in her mid-sized hometown, Doris makes her way to the big city – Berlin.

While she is dazzled at first by the city’s charms, she gradually drifts into homelessness and her reduced circumstances compel her to rely on men for money and company.

In a nutshell, The Artificial Silk Girl is a wonderful novel that captures Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in all its glitter and grimness, seen through the eyes of an unforgettable protagonist.

Wild Swims – Dorthe Nors (tr. from Danish by Misha Hoekstra)

I had been meaning to read Dorthe Nors for quite a while now, ever since her first collection of stories Karate Chop/Minna Needs Rehearsal Space was released a few years ago (a book I had purchased then but is now languishing somewhere on the shelves).

I delved right into her latest collection Wild Swims instead. The themes of loneliness and human connection are central to these stories, but they are also brief character sketches encapsulated in certain moments with an element of darkness running through them.  

In ‘In a Deer Stand’, man in his late forties, finds himself miles away from home on a deserted dirt track, wet and frozen. Hampered by an injured ankle, he thinks desolately of his wife and the toxic nature of their marriage.

In ‘By Sydvest Station’, two girls who are going around houses collecting charity from people for a cause, encounter an old woman living in considerable poverty and distress. While one of the girls is quite disturbed by the incident, it barely ruffles the other who is more preoccupied with a relationship gone sour.

In ‘Our Narrow Paved Paths’, Alice is super busy taking care of a friend – Einar – who is suffering from cancer and expected to die anytime, although by the end you get a feeling that its Alice who possibly needs support as she is wracked by a feeling of emptiness.

In a disturbing story called ‘Honeysuckle’, a medical student studying at the NYU meets a blind Hasidic woman with whom he frequently has sex. It is during these moments that her face truly comes alive when at other times she is described as ‘a pale blotch in the midsummer night’.

All in all, there are fourteen stories in this collection and despite their brevity, it’s the sharpness in them that makes quite an impression.

Sisters – Daisy Johnson

Sisters is the second novel I have read this year where the relationship between two sisters is the focal point (the first was the marvelous We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson).

September and July are born ten months apart but are almost inseparable. When the book opens, the girls (in their late teens) have just moved to Settle House in the remote Yorkshire moors with their mother. A certain ‘incident’ at school is alluded to – the primary reason for the house move – though not revealed to us (that will come later on).

As sisters, September and July could not have been more different. September is the dominant personality, she is assertive, willful, fiercely protective of July but also prone to bouts of cruelty. July, on the other hand, is always in September’s shadow, doing what her elder sister tells her to do, although there are moments where she yearns to have an independent identity.

Their mother, Sheela, is an author of children’s books but prone to bouts of depression after a failed marriage, her ex-husband having died since then. She loves her daughters but is also unsettled by their closeness. The sisters are in some sense self-sufficient in their own private world, a world from which Sheela is excluded. This greatly disturbs her, although she feels powerless to do anything about it.

The relationship between September and July is complex suffused with love but also extreme possessiveness and manipulation. So entwined are the two sisters, it almost feels like there is a merging of identities into one (September insists that rather than have separate birthdays, the sisters celebrate it on a single day). However, for a considerable part of the novel, particularly after the ‘incident’, July becomes increasingly unsure of their bond, and where they stand in relation to the other. She is loyal for the most part but also wants to break away from September.

All these elements pretty much set the tone of the novel right from the start – there’s a creeping sense of dread that pervades it. Daisy Johnson is great at creating atmosphere, there’s a gothic fairytale feel to the story, where the house is as much as a character in its own right as the mother and her two daughters. Throughout the book the narrative voice shifts from July’s first person to a third person from Sheela’s point of view offering us a glimpse into their shifting mental states.

Ultimately, Sisters is a very-well written novel, which besides the overarching theme of the unconventional rapport between two sisters also takes a look the intricacy and delicate balance of the mother-daughter bond.

The Zebra-Striped Hearse – Ross Macdonald

I always turn to Ross Macdonald when I am going through a bit of a reading slump and he never disappoints. I am gradually making my way through his Lew Archer novels in the order of publication and The Zebra-Striped Hearse is the tenth in the series.

The novel begins when Archer is paid a visit by a client – Colonel Blackwell – who wants Archer to find dirt on a certain Burke Damis who is set to marry Blackwell’s daughter Harriet. Blackwell is a man prone to quick flashes of temper and his attempts to dissuade Harriet from marrying Davis are in vain. Archer for his part realizes that although Harriet is besotted by Davis, he is anything but.

A deeper examination into Damis’ background leads to a trail of murders which takes Archer to San Francisco, Lake Tahoe and Guadalajara in Mexico as he tries to get a sense of Damis’ personality.

The Zebra-Striped Hearse is another excellent addition to the Lew Archer oeuvre with a solid plot, a keen insight into the nature of family and how the past always comes back to haunt the present.  

So, that’s it for August. It was a solid month of reading with not a single dud among them. My favourites, though, were the Chang, Keun and Johnson.

The Artificial Silk Girl – Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

Inspired by the example of Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), Keun set out to write the German answer to the bestselling novel from the US (a book I haven’t yet read). That’s how The Artificial Silk Girl was born, first published in the early 1930s in Germany at a time when the Nazis were in power. Not surprisingly, this book, along with many of Keun’s writings, was banned at the time.

The Artificial Silk Girl is narrated in the first person, in a voice that is immediately captivating, fresh and lively – a voice I was instantly drawn to.

Our narrator and protagonist is the feisty Doris residing in a mid-size town in Germany with her parents. When the book opens, Doris finds herself stuck in a staid, stifling job with a legal firm, which requires her to insert commas in the appropriate places in letters. Not only does she not enjoy this role, she is not particularly good at it, something she tries to make up for by flirting with her boss. But it’s a job that pays even if half of her salary goes to her domineering father who wastes it away.

Inevitably, Doris loses her job but through her mother’s connections manages to find an opening in the glittering world of theatre. Theatre life is full of politics and backbiting but Doris is street-smart and carves a place for herself by falsely letting on that she’s in a relationship with the director. Subsequently, a competition with the other girls for a one-line part in the play ensues. Doris bags the part, although she is eventually fired when her lies are exposed. She steals a fur coat from the dressing room and makes her way to the big city, Berlin.

In those first heady days, Doris is dazzled by the grandeur and splendor of Berlin.

Berlin is so wonderful. I would like to be a Berliner and belong here. The Resi, which is behind Blumenstrasse, isn’t a restaurant really. It’s all colors and whirling lights, it’s a beer belly that’s all lit up, it’s a tremendous piece of art. You can find that sort of thing only in Berlin. You have to picture everything in red and shimmery, more and more and more, and incredibly sophisticated.

She has ambitions of becoming a movie star and leading a glittering life filled with glamour and romance. There’s one section where Doris is in conversation with her blind neighbour Brenner with whom she’s possibly having an affair, which is particularly fascinating in the way Doris describes the vibrancy of Berlin. For Brenner, Doris is his eyes for a view of the big city. To his recurring question, “What did you see?”, Doris embarks on a stream of consciousness style narrative that depicts Berlin in a series of dazzling images following one after the other.

“I see – swirling lights with lightbulbs right next to each other – women without veils with hair blown into their faces. That’s the new hairstyle – it’s called ‘wind-blown’ – and the corners of their mouths are like actresses before they take on a big role and black furs and fancy gowns underneath – and shiny eyes – and they are either a black drama or a blonde cinema.

But it dawns on her that the reality is quite different, made all the more apparent when she takes Brenner out for a night on the town. Wandering through the streets and visiting cafes and restaurants, Doris desperately aims to convince herself and Brenner that Berlin has the power to entice and seduce with its myriad diversions.

I just want him to like my Berlin.

But what is visible instead is the grimness of urban life and a sense of existential angst, which seeps through the core of their beings, disillusioning them both. Doris begins to experience these harsher realities in everyday life as well as she struggles to find a place to stay and call home and has to rely on men for money and some company. The only thing she can hold onto is her fur coat which gives her not only warmth but also a sense of self.

In The Artificial Silk Girl, Irmgard Keun has painted a memorable character in Doris, who is both naïve and streetwise at the same time. While Doris somehow has the guts to navigate the tougher side of Berlin, she harbours romantic illusions of making it big as a movie star, dreams that do not come to fruition.

The latter half of the novel particularly takes on a darker undertone, the bleakness of which is blunted to some extent by Doris’ unique and breezy voice. I could not help but think of Jean Rhys’ novels when reading the last section. In a way, while depending on the company of men for money and warmth, Doris bears a lot of resemblance to Rhys’ heroines in Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight. And yet, I couldn’t help but think that despite the similar circumstances, the heroine in Keun’s novel is not as defeated as in Rhys’.

But it’s a good thing that I’m unhappy, because if you’re happy you don’t get ahead.

In a nutshell, The Artificial Silk Girl is a wonderful novel that captures Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in all its glitter and grimness, transmitted to us by an unforgettable protagonist.

Love in a Fallen City – Eileen Chang (tr. Karen S. Kingsbury)

Eileen Chang is one of those authors whose books I have been collecting over the years without actually reading them. Until now. As I was scouring some potential reads for WITMonth, I felt the time was ripe to finally delve into some of her work. And Love in a Fallen City published by the ever reliable NYRB Classics is what I decided to go with.

Love in a Fallen City is a collection of four novellas and two short stories offering a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people in 1930s/1940s Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Eileen Chang’s real life itself was quite dramatic and full of upheavals and possibly provided her with some rich material for her writing. Chang’s father was deeply traditional and an opium addict. Her mother, on the other hand, was a sophisticated woman of cosmopolitan tastes. With such a varied outlook on life, her parents eventually divorced and Eileen initially chose to stay with her father. But that experience proved traumatic as she was beaten for defying her stepmother and locked in her room for nearly half a year. She managed to escape. While she studied in Hong Kong, Japanese invasion of the city in 1941 forced her to return to occupied Shanghai where she first published the stories included in this collection, making her a literary star.

So here’s a brief taster of her novellas and some of the themes that are displayed in them…

In the first novella “Aloeswood Incense”, the protagonist finds out that love is not a simple, romantic affair, rather more of a business transaction. In the opening pages, young Weilong visits the residence her wealthy aunt who is otherwise estranged from the family. Weilong’s parents have decided to move to Shanghai but Weilong wants to stay back in Hong Kong and complete her schooling. Thus, she approaches her Aunt Liang with a request that she be given a room to stay in the house. Aunt Liang, at first, is hesitant given her strained relations with the girl’s family. But she relents on the condition that Weilong actively participates in various social gatherings in her home and learns the attributes of being a good hostess. Gradually, Weilong is introduced to a world of fine dresses, parties, flirting and socializing with rich men. When she does actually fall in love, she realizes that it’s not all smooth sailing and she resigns to a pact of compromise.

The second novella “Love in a Fallen City” has a happier ending but not without a sword of uncertainty hanging over the couple’s heads. As the novel opens, our protagonist Liusu has already come back home to stay with her large, extended family. Liusu was married, but having suffered constant abuse by her husband, she is compelled her to divorce him. When Liusu’s family learns of his death, they pressurize her to go back to her married home and assume the role of a dignified, mourning widow.  Liusu flatly refuses and this further strains her relations with her family making living with them quite unbearable. Meanwhile, having given up hopes of Liusui ever remarrying given her age, the family begins focusing on getting her younger sister married off. A suitable match is found – his name is Liuyuan. However, when the family goes for an outing with Liuyuan, it is Liusu who catches his fancy.

The matchmaker offers to take Liusu with her as a companion to Hong Kong. Liusu readily accepts because it also means it is an opportunity for her to meet Liuyuan and also get away from her family. However, when Liusu and Liuyuan regularly start seeing each other, she still remains uncertain of her position in their relationship. Until one day, Japan invades Hong Kong in December 1941.

Family tensions are also palpable in the third novella “The Golden Cangue”, the only one that has been translated by Eileen Chang herself. Our protagonist is a woman called Ch’i-ch’iao who is married into the well-to-do Chiang family. However, Ch’i-ch’iao’s husband is a cripple and Ch’i-ch’iao herself comes from a family of traders (they run a sesame oil shop), a social background that is looked down upon by the Chiangs. Her origins as well as her irascible personality alienate her from the Chiang family and several years later she vents her frustration on her son and daughter.

Ch’i-ch’iao lay half asleep on the opium couch. For thirty years now she had worn a golden cangue. She had used its heavy edges to chop down several people; those that did not die were half killed. She knew that her son and daughter hated her to the death, that the relatives on her husband’s side hated her, and that her own kinsfolk also hated her.

Women are the central figures in the first three novellas but in “Red Rose, White Rose” our protagonist is Zhenbao, who has worked his way up and is a self-made man. Here’s how the novella opens:

There were two women in Zhenbao’s life: one he called his white rose, the other his red rose. One was a spotless wife, the other a passionate mistress.

Coming from a poor background, he becomes an engineer through sheer hard work and secures a good position in a textile company. Zhenbao takes it upon himself to provide for his mother and also fund the education of his brother and sisters. And then he becomes passionately involved with his friend’s wife Jiaorui who is a progressive woman with a London upbringing. Not wanting to damage his reputation and irk his mother with this alliance, Zhenbao ends it and marries a traditional woman called Yanli. But he remains disappointed and the zeal with which he aspires to be a so-called ‘good’ man does not give him much satisfaction. Yanli, for her part, also finds herself trapped in a claustrophobic setting.

In these stories, the one theme that stands out is the limited opportunities available to women in Chinese society in the early 20th century. Having a career, in the way we understand it today, was pretty much unheard of. The only way to climb up the society ladder and attain financial security was by marrying a well-to-do man. For instance, in “Love in a Fallen City” when Liusu can no longer stand the presence of her family, she realizes that a good marriage is the only way she can escape their clutches and that too quickly rather than finding a job and establishing herself, which will turn out to be a slow, painstaking process.  

Married men having mistresses is rampant and the women in Chang’s world can’t do much about it. But if it’s all about the money, even mistresses can attain financial means. This is apparent in “Aloeswood Incense”, where Weilong’s aunt is financially secure simply because she was well provided for despite her status as a mistress.

And yet, despite such a constrained environment, the women in Chang’s novellas are not necessarily doormats. Even in such confined circumstances, they harbor ambitions of getting ahead.

The other striking feature in Chang’s novellas is the prevalence of sexual politics. It is vividly described in conversations when couples are either flirting or courting seriously. A simple declaration of love is not taken at face value but is only an indication that there is something more simmering under the surface.

Chang’s novellas also bring to the fore a blend of traditional and modern values. Men, who have been abroad for a while and have seen something of the world, are fascinated by traditional Chinese women back home. And yet, divorces, although probably looked down upon, were not entirely non-existent in early 20th century China.

Difficulties of being an offspring with a mixed heritage are also hinted at in this conversation between Weilong and a girl called Jijie whose origins are an amalgamation of Arab, Indian, Negro, Indonesian, Portuguese with a dash of Chinese.

“I’m mixed-blood myself and I’ve been through it all. These mixed-blood boys are the ones we’re most likely to marry. We can’t marry a Chinese – we’ve got foreign-style educations, so we don’t fit in with the pure Chinese types. We can’t marry a foreigner, either – have you seen any whites here who aren’t deeply influenced by race concepts? Even if one of them wanted to marry one of us, there’d be too much social pressure against it. Anyone who marries an Oriental loses his career. In this day and age, who could be that romantic?”

I really liked the flavor of the four novellas in this collection accentuated by the fact that Eileen Chang’s writing is elegant and incisive with a lovely way of describing things.

It was a humid spring evening, and the Hong Kong hills are famous for their fog. The white Liang mansion was melting viscously into the white mist, leaving only the greenish gleam of the lamplight shining through square after square of the green windowpanes, like ice cubes in peppermint schnapps. When the fog thickened, the ice cubes dissolved, and the lights went out.

She has a flair for painting a detailed picture of the social mores of the time and well as for her perceptive depictions of the inner workings of her characters’ minds. And she also highlights the subtle differences between Hong Kong, which has more of a British essence, and Shanghai which is more Chinese.

Ultimately, there is something tragic about the men and women (the latter particularly) in her novellas, a sense of melancholy that leaves its mark on the reader.

My Top 10 Nominations for the 100 Best Books by Women Writers in Translation

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…

100bestWIT

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…

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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).

A True Novel – Minae Mizumura

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.

The True Deceiver – Tove Jansson

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.

Territory of Light – Yuko Tsushima

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 – Anne Garreta

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.

Fish Soup – Margarita Garcia Robayo

Fish Soup is an invigorating collection of novellas and stories that explore the themes of frayed relationships, travel and the opposing forces of sex and desire as against abstinence and self-denial.

Tentacle – Rita Indiana

This is a wonderful, roller coaster of a novel that effortlessly packs in big topics such as time travel, environmental disasters, gender fluidity, and art history all in a few pages.