Two Novels by Therese Bohman, both translated by Marlaine Delargy.

This is a review I wrote for The Quarterly Conversation a few years ago. I’ve linked to it before, during a past Women In Translation months even, but now that the site is no longer — RIP QC! — I’ve revised and moved it permanently to Reader at Large. Bohman is one of my favorite writers. She doesn’t coddle her characters or give her heroines an easy time of it… and yet they thrive.

This past October I also reviewed Eventide, another Bohman novel with a flawed, interesting female protagonist. You can read that review here.


The Swedish writer Therese Bohman seems to have an affinity for aimless young women vulnerable to the attentions of older men. In two of her novels, Drowned and the newly translated The Other Woman, she channels the psyches of twenty-something University students engaged in liaisons with men already involved with other women. 

The books share so much in common that they might be the same novel: both explore almost identical situations, share many of the same structural and plot devices, and the author’s and her translator’s, Marlaine Delargy, prose styles remain consistent from book to book. What differences exist are relatively superficial. Drowned and The Other Woman are conveyances for Bohman’s thoughts on feminism, sisterhood, and perhaps even the socio-economic status of women in modern society. Regardless of the ambiguous morality of her female characters’ decisions, Bohman’s treatment of them is inarguably sympathetic. Their affairs with men may be the impetus for coming-of-age journeys, but they do not represent a final destination.

Drowned is a psychological thriller—dark, gothic, and fraught with eroticized violence. In my opinion, it is technically the better, more innovative novel. A story about two sisters: Stella, the elder, lives in a beautiful “yellow wooden house” with a garden; she has the perfect job at the local parks and gardens department; her boyfriend, Gabriel, is devastatingly attractive and a successful novelist. He is also fifteen years her senior. Everything about their life together appears picture-perfect.

By contrast, Stella’s younger sister Marina is adrift and directionless. She attends university in Stockholm, is working on a thesis she’ll probably never finish, and is in a stalled relationship which she is too apathetic to end. Everything about her is nebulous and undefined. 

A love triangle develops between the sisters and Gabriel. We are given the impression that rather than rivals, these two sisters, separated by a significant age gap, desire a closer relationship. (Indeed, this is why Marina is spending her summer holiday with the couple.) Stella remains completely unaware of the attraction between the two people she loves. 

It gradually becomes apparent that something is not right about Gabriel. Microfractures appear on the surface of his and Stella’s relationship. He is prone to unexpected (and seemingly out of character) rages. He is sometimes fumbling, vulnerable, and haunted, only to act with calculated violence moments later. Readers are left unbalanced, asking questions and quickly turning the pages. 

Bohman generates tension by allowing much of the action to take place between sentences. She focuses on meticulously rendered details: the seasons and environment through which the characters move play pivotal roles in her narrative. Inanimate objects like a bottle of nail polish, an angora sweater, a hothouse orchid, and a book of Pre-Raphaelite paintings are laden with symbolism. Each element has been considered and imbued with a menacing prescience. 

The garden is in the process of decay. The sunflowers look like scarecrows now that they have gone over, their seed heads black and wet, their leaves straggling and shriveled. I pull on Stella’s Wellington boots that are in the back porch and take a walk around the garden, noticing the tomatoes that ripened but were never picked, their split skins exposing the dried flesh, rhubarb with leaves as big as umbrellas, the stalks so thick they are presumably inedible. They taste best before they get too big, as far as I remember, then they become bitter, woody. The pods of the sugar snap peas are swollen and lumpy, distorted, also too big for anyone but the worms to eat. Only the parsley is still green, glowing amid all the brown and gray, tiny drops of water have collected in its curly leaves. I break off a piece and push it in my mouth, it has the harsh taste of iron. A few sparse marigolds are still flowering stoically in the borders.

Bohman avoids the inherent clichés, elevating her plots above the stuff of Lifetime movies through acts of restraint. She creates rich and vivid scenes with only a few broad, carefully considered brushstrokes. Utilizing the concept of chiaroscuro, she fills these books with oppositions and dualities, both subtle and blatant.

A similar dynamic plays out in The Other Woman, which is a looser, much more casual production. It follows an arc readers are all too familiar with—a young cafeteria worker falls for a distinguished and married doctor, who she meets at the hospital where they both work. But that is where the familiar formula begins and ends.

The narrator of The Other Woman never reveals her name. Like Marina, she is a student, and the two young women are of an age. Unlike Marina, she is completely self-aware. Whereas Stella and Marina appear to come from an affluent family, this narrator makes it very clear that she has no such advantages. She works her menial job because she needs to support herself. She has only half-formed dreams of becoming a writer, and her early fantasies about Carl are pathetic in their yearnings. They center around his realizing she is special, that she doesn’t “belong there” among her coworkers. She is the young ingénue, the shop girl, Pygmalion archetype, whose seduction has as much to do with the trappings of class and status as it does with sexual desire. “I have always known there is something vulgar about me, something I cannot hide. . . . I have felt it all my life, even as a child: the aura around some of my classmates was different, more solid somehow.” When she talks about the difference between her classmates and herself, it transcends mere possessions and moves into the elusive realm of taste: “Raincoats and boots that weren’t the cheapest because their wearer would soon grow out of them, but were well made and practical, handed down from older siblings, yet they were not unfashionable because they had never been fashionable in the first place.” When she meets another student at a party, a girl named Alex, it is immediately apparent that her attraction to Alex and her life represents a parallel to her relationship with Carl. 

The journey for these two young women is perhaps as much about identity as it is about sexual desire. Stella and Alex represent the women Bohman’s two narrators wish to become. The men are props in those lives. Carl, the less threatening of the two men, and the doctor in The Other Woman, comes across as entirely solid and dependable. But, while she is in love with him, his influence over the narrator is arguably less than Alex’s. Whereas Gabriel is without question the dominant personality over both Marina and Stella, yet it is Stella who dominates Marina’s thoughts. 

This theme of feminism and a female confederacy is more present in The Other Woman than in Drowned. It is dealt with directly as the former’s narrator spends several pages sorting through her feelings toward her fellow female students. “It feels like I will be brought up before a women’s tribunal to justify every decision I make, while at the same time I have no interest whatsoever in the approval of other women. I sometimes wonder if I’m a misogynist, but I’ve never heard of a female misogynist, and in any case I don’t really hate women, I just find it difficult to empathize with them.” These passages about how young women tend to align themselves for or against an obscure, collective feminist “we” are honest, depicting how blurry such boundaries can be. Carl and Gabriel, are using these young women to re-create a former sexual partner or fantasy. But the girls are using them in return, fulfilling an altogether different fantasy. Bohman is much more forgiving of the girls. 

Drowned ‘s dependence on the natural world juxtaposes with The Other Woman‘s emphasis on humid, close (often cozy) lit interiors, which alternate with the cold, windy expanse of the harbor where the narrator walks late at night. Bohman uses the transitions from interiors to exteriors to mirror the conflicts within her protagonists’ psyches. 

The dishwasher down in the main kitchen is a cubist whale made of aluminum, lying on its belly with its mouth wide open, filtering dishes and containers through a series of vibrating rubber strips, stroking them into position before it slowly swallows them, washing and rinsing deep down in its belly, then delivering them on the other side, sparkling and red hot. Sometimes it feels like my friend, or at least my pet. I am its caregiver, I clean it and take care of it when it has done its work for the day, when the last containers have passed through it and been blown dry and the room is like a warm, damp cave, where the air exhaled by the dishwasher has misted up the huge windows against the December darkness outside. 

Therese Bohman strikes the right balance between lavish prose and simple storytelling—allowing her books to be both beautiful literary objects and vehicles which engage readers through larger ideas. Neither Marina nor the titular other woman walks away innocent from their encounters. Both, in a sense, get out of their affairs exactly what they most desired—though what that is may not be what they believed it to be going in. As a society we are quick to cast judgment, particularly on women. And Bohman is provoking us into casting those judgments—perhaps in order to show us how hypocritical and ultimately unrealistic they are. 

Title: Drowned
Author: Therese Bohman
Translator: Marlaine Delargy
Publisher: Other Press (New York, 2012)
ISBN: 978 1 59051 524 2
Title: The Other Woman
Author: Therese Bohman
Publisher: Marlaine Delargy
ISBN: 978 1 59051 743 7

Currently Reading: Igifu by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump and Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Grace Frick & the author.

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