Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado, tr. Antony Shugaar

Title:  Hollow Heart

Author:  Viola Di Grado

Translator:  Antony Shugaar  / Italian

Publisher:  Europa Editions, New York (2015)

ISBN:  978 1 60945 271 1

HollowHeart

“I’m not afraid of death because I don’t believe in it.
It’s just getting out of one car, and into another.”
― John Lennon

“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
― Edgar Allan Poe

“When you look into the abyss, it’s not supposed to wave back.”
― Terry Pratchett

Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011) is the unlikely heroine of the Italian novel, Hollow Heart, released in English this past August by the increasingly chic publisher Europa Editions.  Unlikely because she’s already dead when the book (which functions as a sort of memoir of the afterlife) starts, having employed the perennial method of opening her wrists in a warm bath.  To female suicide what the double axel is to female figure skaters, the way she kills herself grounds by its very ubiquity what proves to be a mesmerizing and wholly original literary work about a young woman navigating death. And doing so with more dexterity than she ever showed in life. Probably not a coincidence.  The very things which she loses – the emotional and physical connections which define our humanity – are the things which caused her so much pain while alive.  Death, if nothing else, grants objectivity.

The bad news about the afterlife is that it’s rather bleak.  Viola Di Grado paints a black landscape where the dead exist as shadows, isolated from those they love, lonely, unable to experience the pleasures they took for granted while alive.  Of course, Dorotea’s existence (as we come to understand it) was rather bleak prior to her suicide. At least now she has some friends and perspective. She keeps a journal recording the decomposition of her body, which she visits frequently and lovingly. She continues to live with her mother and aunt – observing their grief, comforting and tormenting them as the whim strikes her.  She goes to an Amy Winehouse concert (after the singer’s death, of course) with another suicide named Euridice. She seeks out other ghosts, leaving touchingly wistful messages for recently deceased acquaintances.

Hi, I’m Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011). We did theater together in middle school. I was the one who was three years older than you, I had dark hair and freckles, you remember? I’m the one who that time we went to Milan to see the show about Pirandello, on the bus, told you about when my cousin’s duckling almost drowned after it got tangled up in a piece of twine and the other duckling saved it by peeping really loud. You said it was a crazy story. Do you remember that? I know we didn’t talk much for the rest of the trip. And I know that we haven’t been in touch in the fourteen years since. But I heard that you died of leukemia, and since I was in your neighborhood, having died myself just last year, I though that maybe we could get together…

I got your number from a girl who died of an overdose and used to do aerobics with you. I stopped by the hospital room where you stopped living, but you weren’t there. I thought you might be in the morgue, hanging ribbons and necklaces on you frozen body, but you weren’t there either. Nor at the cemetery; that’s where I spend a lot of my time these days. Would you call me at this number? I really hope to hear from you. Ciao, kisses.

Much of Hollow Heart is about Dorotea coming to terms with the life she gave up. The prose is beautiful – moving from the lyrical to the biological – sentences defiantly bright in the face of such a dark subject. “Down there my body feels no regrets: the regrets have stayed with me, and I have to fight them off on my own. My regrets shrill, they whine, they throw tantrums, they keep me from sleeping. They disobey me. They grow. My body has enxymes instead of regrets. They emerged from the lacerated lysosomes and set about destroying their own tissues. And so every one of my cells crumbled itself from within, alone, in silence.”  Life and viscera saturate page after page as Dorotea describes the insects who eat her flesh and then, moments later, is caught up in a memory of a plane ride she took while alive: “The clouds outside the airplane window looked like a motionless sea. A slab of dark waves, caught by surprise in the middle of a storm. Breakers suspended in that enchanted instant right before they crash down on the shore. You could see the entire arch of their bodies, the hook-shaped curve, soon thrust into the earth. A huge hand lifted to grab, as if full of yearning.” Di Grado’s writing is so lovely at times it makes you ache.

I’ve included more than the usual number of excerpts because the writing, as well as the originality of thought behind the character, are what make Hollow Heart worth reading – and, in fact, readable.  Violet Di Grado appears to have done her research, acknowledging the hereditary component of suicide.  She does not hesitate to make her readers uncomfortable or sad.  But in Dorotea she’s given us a character whose charm is only revealed after she sheds her depression with her corporeal form.  Once that happens an inquisitive, sweet, admittedly quirky young woman emerges.  You can’t help cheering her on, if only because she is so hopeful in a place where we’ve been told all hope should be abandoned.  Somehow managing to embrace the afterlife as she was never able to embrace the life that came before.

 

The Last Days by Laurent Seksik, translated from French by Andre Naffis-Sahely

22669613The Last Days by Laurent Seksik

Translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely

Published by Pushkin Press, London (2014)

Historical fiction is strange. We approach it with the understanding that what we are reading is and is not true.  We contract with the writer to accept his (or her) interpretation of events without requiring he take on the burden of proof.  The situation become even more convoluted when we deal with historical figures, versus fictional characters placed in historical settings. For better or worse,  Philippa Gregory’s Boleyn sisters have supplanted the historical Ann & Mary in her reader’s minds.  Personally, I prefer Hilary Mantel’s versions – but the point is that both portraits are flawed and filled with inaccuracies due to the limits of the historical records. The facts that are represented – dates, portraits, whatever written documentation remains – are true. The mannerisms, the inflections of the voice, the emotions and motivations, events that took place behind closed doors – all this information is fabricated by the author to add depth to the narrative. But it raises the question:  if history is, as Voltaire said, “fables that have been agreed upon” what then, are historical fictions?

Laurent Seksik’s The Last Days attempts to understand the last days of the author Stefan Zweig and his young wife Lotte, who will kill themselves at the end of the novel.

During his lifetime Stefan Zweig was one of the most celebrated and translated authors in the world. But while he was commercially successful, he is considered by critics to have been a minor author at best. It was an opinion he accepted, perhaps even shared, showing extraordinary humility. When his books were burned by the Nazis in 1933 he is reported to have called it an honor to see them thrown into the same bonfires as the works of great men like Einstein, Freud and Mann.

The Last Days skips over most of Zweig’s life and goes straight to the year 1942.  Stefan & Lotte are attempting to make a home in Petrópolis, Brazil after fleeing from Austria to England, then England to New York. Zweig is presented as a man dealing with middle age (he was 61) and – a bit like the varsity football player who peaked in high school – obsessed with the golden days of a Vienna that no longer existed.*  Lotte,  half his age and in awe of his celebrity, finds herself living a life of exile and self-imposed isolation that is very different from the glamorous existence she fantasized. The Last Days is a complicated novel – contemplative & thoughtfully written in a way that is uniquely French.

Andre Naffis-Sahely’s translation moves readers towards the couple’s death gently – the cadence of the writing slow and sad and achingly beautiful.  Zweig seems aged past his actual years and is actively disengaging from the world. Many of his friends are dead.  Those who managed to escape are pressuring him to take a political stand condemning Germany.** His world is shrinking – geographically and intellectually.  Something those around him are beginning to recognize.

“It’s funny to notice how the choices you made as a writers reveal your true inner nature. Mann opted to write about Goethe, while you chose to focus on Kleist and Nietzsche. You look for a path through the darkness and wander from country to country, with neither children nor a fixed address, and now you’ve buried yourself in this godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere, Meanwhile, Mann proceeds full steam ahead. Mann surrounds himself with people and protects himself. He has placed himself at the crossroads so as to watch all comings and goings, he’s the sun around which everyone else revolves. Whereas you have escaped to a place where nothing happens and have reached a point of no return. Mann is planning his reconquest of the literary world. Mann is busy building a statue to himself, while concealing his true nature. Mann will never own up to his pederastic inclinations. Mann conceals anything that might compromise his public image.  Mann sees himself as peerless. Mann looks for light and finds it in Thomas Mann. On the other hand, here you are doing your utmost to disappear.”

Seksik uses Ernst Feder, as he uses everything in his novel, as an opportunity to psychoanalyze these two people. He has a hypothesis that he is working through on the page.  It is fascinating to watch – though I couldn’t help wondering if reality wasn’t as tidy as he would like us to believe. Zweig’s suicide was, in fact. not entirely surprising when viewed in retrospect.  He had a history of depression (something his first wife, Friderike Maria von Winternitz, confirmed in her memoir about their life together after his death) and something Seksik only alludes to.***  Lotte, in my opinion, provides much more complicated subject matter.  She was hired by Friderike to act as Zweig’s secretary. They began an affair. Zweig eventually convinced Friderike to divorce him, and he and Lotte were married. She was completely devoted to the both the man and the world famous author. But Seksik is insightful enough to understand that a young wife might not have been entirely content with their life in Petrópolis.  Seksik’s portrait of Lotte, his interpretation of her psyche, is fascinating and troubling at the same time. She’s a pathetic creature willing to diminish herself in return for his love, and yet there are sparks of rebellion.  They amount to nothing, but their brief existence prevents the character from becoming two-dimensional.

On the whole neither Stefan or Lotte Zweig are sympathetic.  They are isolated, from society and each other, by the fog of depression. Yet Seksik manages to channel that depression into a semblance of life.  His characters are made of blood and bone. When husband & wife venture out with friends to celebrate Carnival Lotte wears a new red dress.  In the crowds Stefan loses sight of  her and Seksik describes his initial panic and his reaction when he finds her again.

He had lost hold of Lotte’s hand.  He looked around frantically. The thought that she might have drowned in that human flood terrified him. Pushing his way through the pandemonium, he began screaming out her name, a cry that was lost in the midst of that racket. Everyone around him was lost in jubilation. A man wearing a skeleton costume and a skull mask roared in his face. He felt oppressed by the crowd and began thinking he’d lost her for good. A group of women wearing open bodices surrounded him, their bodies dripping with sweat as they shook in a sort of primitive dance. He saw himself as rather grotesque, lost in a ragged crowd wearing a white linen suit. A man wearing a fake beard jumped towards him and stole his Panama hat from his head. He stood motionless, petrified. Then, just as quickly as the crowd had assembled, it dispersed. All of a sudden, he caught sight of her, covered in ticker tape, swaying her hips in front of a man playing maracas. He lingered for a while observing the scene, in the middle of that frenzied outburst, keeping his gaze obstinately fixed on his wife. She appeared to be floating before his eyes as if in a dream.  He felt a hand on his shoulder.

While Zweig’s popularity has waxed and waned in the decades since his death, European additions of his books have continued to be widely read.  He is currently experiencing a revival – the beneficiary of the public’s nostalgia for the Edwardian period fueled by the popularity of shows like Downton Abbey, as well as films like Atonement and The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson’s film was, in fact, inspired by Zweig’s novels). The New York Review of Books & Pushkin Press have recently reissued, between them, almost his complete catalog of books – translated into English to moderate success. There have been reviews and articles in The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, The NY Times Book Review, to name a few.  His suicide has been of particular interest, we humans are by our nature somewhat morbid.  Seksik has managed to elevate the conversation, gleaning beauty from tragedy.  Discovering truth in the absence of facts.

*The Youtube video below provides a sense of what that lost world was like.

**Fellow Jews who had fled the Third Reich took Zweig’s pascifism in life & eventual suicide to be an almost personal betrayal.  Mann wrote after learning of Zweig’s death: “He should never have granted the Nazis this triumph, and had he had a more powerful hatred and contempt for them, he would never have done it.”

***I can’t help seeing parallels to Virginia Woolf’s suicide at the beginning of the war. Her nephew, Quentin Bell, in his amazing biography tells how the Woolfs planned to commit suicide should there be a German invasion.  Leonard Woolf was Jewish, and rumors had already begun to spread on the fate of the Jews under Hitler. Bell attributes the stress of a possible invasion, along with the loss of their London home and the Hogarth Press offices during a Blitz as contributing to her final breakdown.   

 

The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé, translated from the original French by Sue Dyson

Gallic Books is a small UK press that publishes French books translated into English. They  were founded in 2007 by two Random House alumni.   Later in September I’ll be reviewing The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain. It tells the story of Daniel Mercier, an average man who finds President François Mitterrand’s black felt hat and puts it on.  “It’s a perfect fit, and as he leaves the restaurant Daniel begins to feel somehow… different.”

Intriguing, right?  I can’t wait to find out where the author intends to go from there.

The Suicide Shop is an altogether different book by an altogether different author.  Yet, the two novels are similar enough – whimsical plots that don’t take themselves too seriously – for the personality of the publisher to begin to show itself.  Gallic Books seems to delight in the slightly off-kilter.  They’re a refreshing new (despite being established 6-years ago this is the first I’ve encountered them) voice in the world of translations.  A world too often dominated by dense, cerebral novels at one end of the spectrum and Nordic Crime fiction at the other.

The Tuvaches are a family of French shopkeepers who provide a very specific service to the citizens of a post-apocalyptic Paris: selling the implements necessary for suicide. Their motto: “Has your life been a failure?  Let’s make your death a success.”  In the Suicide Shop you can find handcrafted ropes with which to hang yourself, candies laced with arsenic mixed in jars with regular candies (Russian roulette for the very young), a poison du jour mixed-up by Madame Tuvache daily and – for those of an artistic temperament – a poisoned apple painting kit (complete with a small canvas and a paint set so that you can paint the apple before eating it).

Death has been good to this family.  The Tuvaches have successfully operated The Suicide Shop for generations.  But that changes with the birth of their youngest son.  He is a child who laughs, and smiles and wishes the customers a good day.  He has an outrageously sunny personality and it’s beginning to rub off on his older siblings.  Such happiness is (forgive the pun) killing business.

Quirky, silly, delightfully light-hearted –  the story rolls along with the comic timing of a French cabaret.  The author, Jean Teulé,  is also a film maker and The Suicide Shop was made into an animated film.   The books structure lends itself to a screen adaptation.  Each chapter is a set piece, advancing the plot in self-contained scenes that jump forward in years.  And just when you think the author has decided to end on a cliché, you arrive at the jaw-dropping last sentence.

My one small, nit-picky criticism is Teulé’s decision to place his family in a dystopian future.  While it doesn’t take anything away from the story, it doesn’t add anything to it either.   No time is spent developing the world other than to make it clear that suicides have increased with the decline of the society.  And so the insistence on events happening in some distant future – when they could have just as easily happened in a manipulated present – feels superfluous.

But, overall, this novel is a quick and entertaining read.  Written at roughly a YA level, Sue Dyson does a wonderful job capturing the upbeat swing of the prose in her playful translation.  I’d classify The Suicide Shop as dark gray versus black comedy (for example,  it’s nowhere near as dark as the 1988 film Heathers) – so everyone from junior high school students up to and including adults should find something to enjoy in the ever-amusing antics of the Tuvaches.

Publisher:  Gallic Books, London (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 906040 093

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