My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump – The Los Angeles Review of Books #WITMonth

“WE’RE ALL WAITING for Marie NDiaye’s breakthrough book in English. You’re waiting, too, whether you know it or not. Despite being an award-winning French writer (she won the Prix Femina in 2001, the Prix Goncourt in 2009, was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, and shortlisted for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award) whose first book was published when she was 17, whose work is both regularly translated into English and generally well reviewed by American critics, NDiaye has yet to gain traction with American readers. At 50, she still hasn’t established the niche audience of, say, Michel Houellebecq, a writer with whom she shares nationality, a tendency toward the cerebral, and a provocateur’s spirit (though the nature of her provocations is more earnest and less performative than Houellebecq’s)…”

Why this failure to connect? Click on the image to find out.

Happy Women In Translation Month!

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Captive by Claudine Dumont, tr. David Scott Hamilton #WITMonth

Captive CoverThe plot of Claudine Dumont’s debut novel, Captive, is fast-moving. We’re given just a glimpse of the protagonist’s, Emma’s, life before she’s ripped out of it. “I’m afraid of the dark. That’s what happens when I drink too much. And I drink too much. Often. And for some time now, even on weeknights. I can’t get to sleep without it. I can’t forget the empty box of my life without it.” Everything that follows depends on readers’ acceptance of what Emma’s words imply – that what came before was worse. That up until this point Emma has only gone through the motions of living.

Because after three pages everything changes .  Emma is kidnapped from her apartment and drugged. Two pages later she wakes up alone, in a locked, gray room. There are no windows and no furnishings other than a mattress on the floor. No food or water. She’s been both washed and dressed, but she has no idea who took her or why. During a panic attack she blacks out.

I don’t get up anymore. I lie on the mattress. I open my eyes. I close my eyes. I don’t dream anymore. I’m not sure if I sleep. I drift. Conscious, unconscious. But it’s always grey. And time doesn’t pass. Nothing changes. A hell in which nothing happens and nothing moves. As if I were already dead. Something has to change. I need something to mark the passage of time. So I don’t go crazy…

Short chapters and sentences are Dumont’s forte.

It’s a bit unnerving how quickly Emma grows accustomed to her new home. Pitchers of water appear which she suspects are the vehicle by which they (her captors) are drugging her. She still drinks. Her acceptance of and complacency about her circumstances is both frustrating and comforting. Emma’s life in the outside world was no life at all, remember? She used alcohol to insulate herself and in her captivity, strange it may seem, she has found the perfect substitute for tequila.

And then everything changes again.

Emma wakes up to find she has a roommate. They become subjects in a series of experiments. The suspense ramps up chapter by chapter. As far as quick reads go, Captive can’t be beat – it’s as easily digestible as an episode from The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror. The pacing is perfect. Emma’s narrative voice and her reactions, though unusual, are plausible. It’s easy for the reader to buy into the bizarre premise on which this strange little novella is based.

Everything in the pages of Captive works. Dumont is a good writer and David Scott Hamilton’s translation captures the urgency of the story. If it has a weakness, it is the parameters Dumont set for herself are too small, too confining. There’s more to this story.  Captive is the second act in a three act play, and I’d like to be allowed to it through the entire performance.

Title:  Captive

Author:  Claudine Dumont

Translator:  David Scott Hamilton

Publisher: Arachnide Editions, Toronto (2017)

ISBN: 978 1 4870 0051 6


Welcome to Women In Translation Month 2017!  August seemed like the perfect time to start the blog back up again, so until the end of the month I’ll be featuring reviews of translated books by women writers.

WIT2017

Book Reviews In the Wild

20170415_174812-e1492299406699.jpgSo far, 2017 has been a good reading year. I’m even a few books ahead on my Goodreads Reading Challenge.

I wanted to post links to some reviews I’ve written for other sites in the past few months (in case you all missed me).

Cockroaches, written by Scholastique Mukasonga and translated by Jordan Stump, is a memoir from of a survivor of the Rwandan genocides.  What makes her account so moving is that Mukasonga was living in France when the majority of her family was massacred, and so her story is as much about surviving having your loved ones violently taken from you as it is about the years leading up to and surrounding  the horrific event.  You can read my review of Cockroaches at The Quarterly Conversation.

I wasn’t that impressed with South Korean writer Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale (translated by Janet Hong), but I have a pretty low tolerance for performative, avant garde literature.  The story which superficially is about abuse and violence in children devolves in the second half of the book into a meta-fictional hodge-podge. Such Small Hands by Spanish writer Andrés Barba (translated by Lisa Dillman) is a more powerful, and less pretentious, novel that deals with similar themes. You can read my review of The Impossible Fairy Tale at The Rumpus.

I’ve also been writing fairly regularly over at Book Riot about translations – mostly lists of book recommendations organized by themes, though there are some essays in the mix. There you’ll find recommendations of Japanese novels, French feminist writers, micropresses or – if you’re feeling political – an essay about hearing Masha Gessen give the Arthur Miller Lecture at the 2017 PEN Festival in New York which shaped my reflections on the current U.S. president’s lack of literary background and inability to articulate clear thoughts.  I’ve been writing at Book Riot for a few months now and am trying to keep my Clippings Page (see the menu above) updated with links.

Hopefully I’ll have more to share soon.

 

If Only She’d Been Prettier… Charlotte Brontë & The Male Gaze

the_bronte_sisters_by_patrick_branwell_bronte_restoredI never liked Mr. Rochester. His high-handed behavior and moodiness with Jane Eyre. His sneering treatment of his young ward, Adèle. And his final, obscene pretense that he locked away his mad wife for her sake rather than his own convenience (with all that land and money he couldn’t have had a small cottage built where she could have been kept in relative comfort?). Even when I was much too young to understand how different power dynamics play out in relationships I instinctively knew that Rochester was not for me.

I did like Jane, though. I liked that she was small and plain. And that she was also stubborn and honest and brave, but not a goody-goody. She seemed real to me, particularly when I was younger.  I’d imagine us doing our homework together after school. And the more I learned about Charlotte Brontë the more I assumed she was just like Jane.

In her entertaining, very readable but ultimately frustrating biography Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart* Claire Harman does not share my opinions. Her sympathies seem to reside with the Rochesters of the world.

There is very little left to be discovered about Charlotte Brontë.  The vicarage, her childhood home (as well as the home of her two equally famous sisters) is now a shrine dedicated to all thing Brontë – something which occurred within years of the writer’s death.  Friends and acquaintances happily sold their letters from Charlotte and their memories of the family. Mary Gaskell, a friend and fellow novelist, was chosen by Charlotte’s father to write his daughter’s biography.  He did this largely in an attempt to combat the unpleasant rumors being spread across London (rumors which, ironically, Gaskell was in  large part responsible for spreading) about Charlotte after her death.  The resulting book was thorough, if not entirely objective and possibly fraught with factual errors. But it laid the foundation for the dozens of biographies and critical studies that have followed.  

What is left, then, for the modern biographer? Other than curating the known facts in the hopes of gleaning some new insight the answer is: very little.  And so that is what Harman does. She presents her interpretation of the facts, but it is an interpretation which relies heavily on the Gaskell narrative. Where Charlotte is portrayed as a tragic figure – the kind of feminine martyr of which the Victorians were so fond.

Unfortunately, Harman doesn’t acknowledge that those same facts could just as easily form an entirely different picture if viewed from a contemporary perspective.

The centerpiece of Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart is Brontë’s romantic infatuation with her former Belgium teacher and employer, the married Constantin Héger. This is old news to most Brontë scholars. Even Gaskell was aware of it, though she discreetly chose to omit the details from her biography. Charlotte’s letters written to Héger were published in a London newspaper as early as 1912 – having been preserved and passed down by Héger and his wife to their daughter. None of his letters survive. In the end, any romantic feelings appear to have been entirely one-sided and ultimately an embarrassment to all those involved.  By Harman’s own admission this obsession was conducted entirely via post and lasted one year, perhaps two at the most, before Héger firmly put an end to it. 

So it’s hard to understand why, other than the salacious nature of the tidbit, that Harman insists on amplifying the episode’s importance in the writer’s life. It is inarguable that Constantin Héger was the model for the romantic heroes in Brontë’s novels, particularly Mr. Rochester. But it is also a well known fact that Charlotte frequently based her characters on people she knew. Her four novels are filled with portraits of friends and acquaintances, including her talented siblings. Yet they are not given the same prominence as Héger in Harman’s biography.  Neither is the actual inspiration for Jane Eyre, a story Charlotte once heard about a man who locked his wife in the attic, given more than a few sentences.

Instead Harman focuses specifically on those episodes which reflect poorly on her subject.  When she is done with Héger she moves quickly on to Brontë’s publisher, George Smith.  We are told that Charlotte also had a crush on him, – despite his being handsome, several years her junior and clearly (according to Harman) out of Charlotte’s league. This unkindness, this tendency to exaggerate the negative aspects of the novelist’s character as seen through the male gaze, is a weakness of Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart that is difficult to dismiss. Take for example the following passage –  

‘George Smith… seemed puzzled and sorry that his admired author was, in effect, vain, that “the possession of genius did not lift her above the weakness of an excessive anxiety about her personal appearance. But I believe that she would have given all her genius and her fame to have been beautiful. Perhaps few women ever existed more anxious to be pretty than she, or more angrily conscious of the circumstances that she was not pretty.” One would like to hope this was not true for Charlotte, that the creator of Jane Eyre had more faith in herself, but the more she went into society, the more she was worn down by extreme self- consciousness.’

One would like to hope that the biographer would feel more empathy towards her subject… or at the very least attempt to understand the source of the writer’s (apparently entirely justified based on the above) insecurities. And yet this passage is just one of several which reference Charlotte Brontë’s homeliness. This focus, if nothing else, should call into question the superficiality of Brontë’s London friends – and yet their opinions are reported without judgement or context.

In sharp contrast to Héger and Smith, Harman spends much less space discussing the three marriage proposals Charlotte received (seemingly against all comprehension) and declined. Including one from the man she would eventually consent to marry.

Of her marriage to the Reverend Arthur Nicholls, despite the newlywed couple appearing by all accounts to have been extremely happy and well matched, we are rather preemptively told that it was “not a situation that promised well for her writing” and that “By the end of 1854, Charlotte’s London friendships had all but dried up”as a result of her marriage.  These are rather broad statements to make considering the couple married in June of 1854 and Charlotte would be dead nine short months later (after three months of illness).  To put it in perspective: nine months seems hardly enough time on which to base such dire judgments.

In many ways this is Claire Harman continuing the Brontë legend begun by Mary Gaskell.  That of a love-starved novelist who lived a tragic (even Gothic) existence.  And there is something to this: the Yorkshire moors, the heartbreaking deaths of her mother and five siblings, the strange fantasy worlds the siblings created as children and maintained into early adulthood, the prodigious amount juvenalia which they left behind… all the most dramatic elements of the Brontë mythos, and in Anne, Emily and Charlotte’s novels, had a foundation in the three sisters’  lives.

But a life is many things.

A case can just as easily be made that Charlotte Brontë was remarkably independent, highly educated for her time and strongly opinionated. She keenly followed local politics and current events.  (All this is in a large part thanks to her father, though he also fares poorly in Harman’s and Gaskell’s estimation).  She taught, albeit unhappily, at a girl’s school. She took multiple governess posts though, again, unhappily.  But she also was responsible for organizing her and Emily’s trip to Belgium to further their education. And she would eventually return there, alone, to teach. It was Charlotte who  instigated and organized the publication of her and her sisters’ poetry and novels.  And it was Charlotte who would travel to London with Anne to confront their publisher when she felt they were being dealt with unfairly.

Charlotte would eventually find herself a new publisher, the aforementioned George Smith.  After the success of Jane Eyre she visited London frequently as his guest. London’s literary lights were all fans.

While she seems to never have been comfortable moving in the literary circles of London, in spheres where she was more comfortable Charlotte formed meaningful and enduring friendships – most significantly with two women of equally independent dispositions, Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor.  And then there was her close relationship to her talented siblings, also given short shrift by Ms. Harman.  These relationships, it should go without saying, were as influential as her crush on Professor Héger… if not more so. And while Harman acknowledges these female friendships, she gives them much less page space in proportion to the men in Charlotte’s life.

As for the novels, themselves, they are only discussed in depth as they function as further evidence of Charlotte’s unrequited love for both Héger and Smith.

Claire Harman’s biggest contribution, and the one for which the book will be remembered in my opinion, is that she manages to shed some light on what is perhaps the one remaining mystery of the Brontë family – the tragic cause of Charlotte Brontë’s death. She makes a strong case for hyperemesis gravidarum, a disease which causes “violent and ceaseless disruption of stomach and sense” in pregnant women. Charlotte wrote in a letter to a friend “my sufferings are very great – my nights indescribable – sickness with scarcely a reprieve – I strain until what I vomit is mixed with blood.” It was long believed that her symptoms were related consumption, the disease that took so many members of her family, but Harman’s theory is more than plausible.

This revelation does not excuse the book’s failings.  Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart makes no effort towards reconciling the writer of Jane Eyre and Villette with the awkward creature Harman is intent on depicting. A woman defined almost entirely by her relationships to men – father, brother, romantic infatuations and husband. Our attentions are constantly directed towards her appearance; her romantic and personal failures (both real and insinuated). All at the expense of the woman… the beloved writer…  and her brilliant, revolutionary mind.

 

Title: Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart

Author:  Claire Harman

Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2016)

ISBN: 978 0 307 96208 9

 

*published in England with the more dignified title of Charlotte Brontë: A Life

 

In Defense of Reviewing Mediocre Books #WITMonth

On Wednesday I posted a review of The Case of Lisandra P., a thriller written by the French writer Hélène Grémillon and translated by Alison Anderson. I began the review with a paragraph defending the position that while I felt it was a mediocre book, even mediocre books deserve reviews. That it was unfair to demand that women to produce only amazing books which are worthy of being reviewed when we do not hold male authors to the same high standard.

One of my favorite bloggers, Lisa from ANZLitLovers, called me out on that introductory paragraph, and rightly so, in the comments of that post. You can read her entire comment here. I started typing a response into the comments section as well but realized I had a lot to say on the subject and… well… it is my blog. 🙂

Lisa always pulls me into these conversations – I think that’s how we first “met”. I want to thank her for that. She’s very thoughtful about what she reads – and the comments she leaves force me to be more thoughtful about what I write.

So I’d like to start by saying that I initially agreed with many of the points she makes. We perceive women as tending to do well in genre categories, both financially and in online reviews.  Val McDermid is a writer that comes immediately to mind. But since I began analyzing my reading habits I’ve been made painfully aware that what I perceive to be true is not always actually true. So I did a quick , completely unscientific survey of the genders of the authors who made it onto two of the major crime/mystery awards shortlists before typing up my response.

Next I googled “Top Paid Mystery Writers” to see what turned up… just because. I found a list on the Christian Science Monitor website of the Top Ten Best Paid American Mystery Writers.  9 were men.

Again, the above is an entirely unscientific survey which has almost nothing to do with translations (the CWA Dagger Award does have an International category). But it does illustrate my point – these were NOT the results I was expecting.

This might also be a good time to mention that Hélène Grémillon probably doesn’t consider herself a genre writer.  Her first novel was widely praised and nominated for the prestigious Prix Goncourt due Premier Roman (past winners  included Laurent Binet for HhHH and Kamal Daoud for The Meursault Affair).

The truth is that Grémillon does not need my help to sell books or gain any kind of critical attention.  She is doing just fine and in many ways she’s proof to Lisa’s comment.  So if The Case of Lisandra P. is not a good book why bother reviewing it?  Well, mostly because I can’t definitely say that it is any worse  than The DaVinci Code, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or any number of thrillers that find their way into airport bookstores and onto the beaches every Summer.

And because I think any review makes a difference. Stephen King, Grahame Green, Simenon, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan have written a lot of books, individually and combined. Not all of those books were good, but their authors are still considered good (even great) writers in their spheres. What was the one thing all these men had in common? Most of their books got reviewed regardless of quality.

Books don’t exist in vacuums. The truth is we would never be able to identify good books if we (or someone else) hadn’t slogged through the bad ones. (Even the bad ones can still be a lot of fun.  I still smile when I think about the ridiculous over-the-top contrivance that passed for a plot in The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen). To achieve true gender equality we need to review men and women with the same consistency. Women writers need to play a bigger part in the literary conversation, whether that be in print reviews or online.

In the end it’s a numbers game.

A review is an opinion. Hopefully a well thought out opinion by someone willing to spend the time to build an argument which backs it up… but an opinion nonetheless. And we need more reviewers expressing their opinions about Women In Translation… hell, according to the VIDA Count we need more opinions out there about women’s literature in general. Which has me believing that there is still some merit in reviewing and bringing attention to those mediocre books, if only to establish a space we can eventually fill with the great ones.