The Barefoot Woman – Scholastique Mukasonga (tr. Jordan Stump)

Barefoot Woman

“Don’t bear any children, because when you bring them into this world you’re giving them death. You’re not bearers of life anymore, you’re bearers of death.” (p22)

Reports vary on the extent of the Rwandan genocide that occurred in 1994, depending upon the source the numbers fall between 500,000 and one million deaths. An estimated 70% of the Tutsi population were slaughtered, along with 30% of the Pygmy Batwa people.  Tutsi writer Scholastique Mukasonga had settled in France two years prior to the genocide, later leaning that twenty seven of her family members had been massacred.

Prior to fleeing to Burindi and then onto France, Scholastique Mukasonga and her family were displaced, along with a large number of other Tutsi people, to the Bugesera district of Rwanda, an underdeveloped and harsh region. It is the experiences of this life in exile that is the subject of her latest work to be translated in English, ‘The Barefoot Woman’ (tr. Jordan Stump). These tales form an homage to her slain mother, the central driver of each of the ten chapters.

Mama, I wasn’t there to cover your body, and all I have left is words – words in a language you didn’t understand – to do as you asked. And I’m all alone with my feeble words, and on the pages of my notebook, over and over, my sentences weave a shroud for your missing body. (p9)

A powerful, moving and heartbreaking opening to a book that shakes you on almost every page, this is a story of exile, survival, of extremely inhumane acts against the Tutsi. The simple things in life become something to celebrate, to share with her readers, celebration for things we take for granted, like the home;

An inzu (and I’ll keep its name in Kinyarwanda, because the only words French gives me to describe it sounds contemptuous: hut, shanty, shack…). There are precious few houses life Stefania’s left in Rwanda today. Now they’re in museums, life the skeletons of huge beasts dead for millions of years. But in my memory the inzu is not that empty carcass, it’s a house full of life, of children’s laughter, of the young girls’ lively chatter, the quiet singsong of storytelling, the scrape of the grinding stone on the sorghum grains, the bubbling of the jugs full of fermenting beer, and just by the front door, the rhythmic pounding of the pestle in the mortar. How I wish the lines I write on this page could be the path that leads me back to Stefania’s house! (pg 30-31)

A simple foodstuff, like bread, has a raft of associated rituals, memories and actions, a whole chapter alone is dedicated to ‘bread’. And there is the sharing of traditions;

Sorghum is harvested in July, at the start of the dry season. But before that, when the heads have already formed but the grains aren’t quite dry yet, my mother celebrated Umuganura. Umuganura is the name of the festival and also of the sorghum paste you have to eat for the occasion. There was no question of harvesting before the whole family had eaten the first sorghum paste, in accordance with the ritual. No ethnologist had told us that what we were doing was celebrating the first fruits of the harvest, but we knew that Umuganura marked the start of a new year, that this was the time to make wishes so the year ushered in by the sorghum would bring us good fortune. Back then, we knew nothing of the white people’s New Year’s Day. (pgs 43-44)

Colonisation, and the role of the Belgians, their introduced customs, plants, the fact that the Huta authorities were put in charge by the Belgians are also peppered throughout the work;

In the Rwanda of the Belgians or President Kayibanda, joining the church was the surest, smoothest path to “civilization.” In seminaries and convent schools, the clothes, the food, the bedding, everything – or almost – was just like the white people’s. If you were properly fervent in your obedience to the rules of conduct and piety that were imposed on you, then without too much effort you could enter the much-envied ranks of the evolved people. (pgs 90-91)

This collection of what it means to be ostracised, exiled, highlighting numerous small details of not only colonisation, but also the humiliation of extradition in your own country. Details such as the state of one’s feet, the Tutsi in exile worked barefoot, therefore their feet were worn, damaged, cracked. In school they were branded lesser citizens due to the state of their feet! (Hence the book’s title).

Scholastique Mukasonga’s first novel to be translated into English, ‘Our Lady of the Nile’ (tr. Melanie Mauther), was shortlisted for the Dublin Literary Award in 2016 and made the longlist of the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. And instead of a fictionalised account of life as a Tutsi exile, here is a collection on memories, but memories that are not only brutal or shocking, such as the horrific incidents of rape, but also delicate stories of pride, resistance and survival.

A moving and educational work from a voice that has rightfully been published in numerous languages, this is another poignant work from Scholastique Mukasonga and one that should be more widely read. If only the stories of the horrors that exiled people suffered under their original country’s regimes, or more stories of the brutality of colonisation were published, maybe a little more compassion from our world leaders would be forthcoming.

Review copy supplied to me courtesy of the publisher.

Advertisements

Minute-Operas – Frédéric Forte (Translated by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom & Jean-Jacques Poucel)

Recently I have been posting a few thoughts about books from members of the Oulipo (“The Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle”) and thought it relevant to repost my thoughts on the 2016 NLTA National Translation Awards for Poetry shortlisted ‘Minute-Operas’ by Frédéric Forte.
Frédéric Forte was elected a member of the Oulipo in 2005, shortly after the publication of ‘Minute-Operas’, and two of his other works appear in the recently published ‘All That Is Evident Is Suspect- Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018’, “99 Preparatory Notes to 99 Preparatory Notes” (tr. Daniel Levin Becker) and “The Pitch Drop Experiment” (tr. Ian Monk).
My original post was back in 2016 and the author was kind enough to visit and comment:
It’s such a pleasure to be read so far from France, very heart-warming…
By the way, the minute-operas are also 3 inches long in the original version, just by chance. Designing the form, I measured a Jacques Roubaud’s sonnet (in one of his Gallimard books) as a benchmark, and it was… 7,62 cm long, which appears to be 3 inches exactly! Very incredible when the work goes this way.
Thanks again for your time and commitment.
This in response to my comment:
Each poem is “Staged” on the page, where a “simple vertical line of 3 inches (I measured the line thinking it would more likely to be in centimetres, but inches it was, I wonder if this is part of the translation or a US audience too?) separates, what Forte calls the stage and the wings”.
Reading more Oulipoen works I have revisited ‘Minute-Operas’ and am still amazed by the typographical delight and the stunning array of word games. If you are interested in the works of the Oulipo this is one to add to your collection – my mind hasn’t changed in 2 and a half years.

Messenger's Booker (and more)

First up from the American Literary Translators Association, 2016 National Translation Awards longlist for Poetry (geez that’s a mouthful), is Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte (Translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom & Jean-Jacques Poucel).
Stepping into Frédéric Forte’s work is like stepping into a vast sparse gallery space, open space around you, take time to ponder what your eye has been drawn towards. Broken into two sections, “Phase one – January – October 2001” and “Phase two – February – December 2002”. Each section containing 55 “poems” or creations.
Each poem is “Staged” on the page, where a “simple vertical line of 3 inches (I measured the line thinking it would more likely to be in centimetres, but inches it was, I wonder if this is part of the translation or a US audience too?) separates, what Forte calls the stage and the wings”. Typographically the word…

View original post 686 more words

Aviaries – Zuzana Brabcová (tr. Tereza Novická)

aviaries

In his “Preface” to ‘L’Assommoir’ Émile Zola claimed the novel “is a work of truth, the first novel about the common people that does not lie and that smells of the common people. And readers should not conclude that the common people as a whole are bad, for my characters are not bad, they are only ignorant and ruined by the conditions of sweated toil and poverty in which they live.”

The protagonist narrator of Zuzana Brabcová’s last novel, ‘Aviaries’, Alžběta is a common person, and is linked inextricably to Émile Zola’s ‘L’Assommoir’;

Underneath the mattress

The trap snapped shut and firmly clamped around my memory. On February 18,1961, my mom had wedged a book underneath my mattress to make sure I’d be sleeping on a flat surface. She forgot about it. Hanging from a long string, a monkey-shaped rattle quivered above me, and I didn’t take my eyes off it for a single moment. They say the blind live in time, not space. If that’s true, I was a blind person back then. All of Grandpa’s clocks ticked away within my veins, and in my left hemisphere, my grandma diced apples from the garden for strudel.
Mom’s friend later took the crib for her own child. She discovered the forgotten book underneath the mattress. It was Zola’s
L’Assommoir. (p69)

Whilst Zola’s “project is indebted to the Positivist philosopher’s isolation of three principal determinants on human behavior: heredity, environment, and the historical moment”, Zuzana Brabcová’s novel adds in the influence of literature, literally sleeping on a book, which can determine behavior and in this case fate.

‘Aviaries’ is a collection of fragments, labelled from December 20, 2011 to February 19, 2015, however they are not simply diary entries, there are recollections, newspaper headlines, interior monologues, dreams, excerpts from prose, poetry and psalms (including a passage from C.G. Jung’s essay on the “The Psychological Aspects of the Kore” from 1951 and Oliver Sack’s “An Anthropologist on Mars, 1995). This is a work full of contradictions, that move the reader in contradictory directions, from anger to empathy within a paragraph. It is not unusual for a sentence to spin off in a tangent. All adding to the fragmentary nature of the book;

This frightens me: what if disintegration into prime elements, the fragmentation into particulars, is also true for other phenomena, and reality will churn before my eyes in an incomprehensible muddle? (p78)

Our narrator is from the fringes, being treated for mental illness, recently made redundant with no prospect of reemployment – although she tries – she spends her days emailing her dumpster diving daughter – who is going out with Bob Dylan – and sharing her time and space with a homeless alcoholic who has had “a tumor the size if a lemon removed from his brain”, a soul mate, Melda, who she met in the neurological ward of the local hospital.

“I have no money,” I said to keep the conversation going. “I have no money, no job, no family. Apart from Alice, that is, who’s found lifelong lover in the flap of a discarded wallet in a dumpster, and my sister, Nadia, whose sets all burned down.”
And suddenly, with no warning, Doctor Gnuj quite unexpectedly fixed on me his brown-pink gaze, matching the waiting room, the gaze of a polyp: “Your inner world is like that basement lair of yours. Kick down the doors, file through the bars! Do you even notice the world around you?”
I do. Don’t you worry. I know well enough what the world around me lives for: the season of wine tastings and exhibitions of corpses. (pgs 31-32)

A deeply moving work of social exclusion, it is akin to William Kennedy’s ‘Ironweed’ on magic mushrooms, a melancholic work where we wonder if there is to be any redemption for the narrator as she slips further and further into decline.

Most of the fragments are at the most two pages long and this broken collection of seemingly disparate parts is well suited to exploring a life on the edges, where the kaleidoscopic motes blur the lines between fantasy and reality. As the publisher’s notes say “to testify to what it is like to be alone and lost and indignant in a world that has stopped making sense.”

And suddenly I recall how my mom took me to see a psychologist once, I was twelve or thirteen and maybe ever weirder back then than I am now, I don’t really remember, even memory is just a play of colors and shapes behind eyelids shut in a desire for non-existence. He showed me some pictures, ink blots symmetrical along a vertical axis running through the center of the card. Did it remind me of anything? Was I supposed to let my imagination run wild? What swaddled dimensions, what unknowable universes existed back then, just like today, between my mental images and the words I was forced to use to express them?
Indeed: the infamous Rorschach test.
“A blot,” I told the psychologist when he showed me the first card, but I imagined horse shit on a forest path, which was very strange, given the path was so narrow, no horse could possibly squeeze its way down it.
“Okay, but what does the blot remind you of?”
“A blot.”
“And this picture?”
“A blot. A blot. A blot.”
It reminded me of the noble profile of Old Shatterhand’s face, it reminded me of a human brain and a singed map of Prague, it reminded me of…But why in the world should I tell him that? Just like today, I stubbornly insisted on words quite different to those bursting inside me like bubbles on the water’s surface.
Melda’s lying on a foam mattress and drinking no euro-rotgut but the good Chilean wine he’d given me for my birthday. He drinks it all in one go, being an alcoholic. And me? A blot. Behind the closed eyelids of God knows who. Blots. (p52)

Zuzana Brabcová has taken the three principal determinants on human behavior: heredity, environment, and the historical moment, from Zola’s ‘L’Assommoir’, set the tale in modern day Prague and blended these into an experimental “morass of the bizarre and the grotesque”. At times the protagonist Alžběta is referred to in the third person, others the first, omniscient overlaid with monologue, this approach forcing to reader to recoil, but then to embrace.

‘Aviaries’ was the winner of the Josef Škvorecký Award, a Czech language award in 2016 for the best prose of the year, unfortunately Zuzana Brabcová had died soon after completing this work. A social commentary on the political state in Prague and the ill treatment of socially disadvantaged people, this is a powerful and lingering book.

As Émile Zola says (again) in his Preface to ‘L’Assommoir’; “ I wanted to depict the inexorable downfall of a working-class family in the poisonous atmosphere of our industrial suburbs. Intoxication and idleness lead to a weakening of family ties, to the filth of promiscuity, to the progressive neglect of decent feeling and ultimately to degradation and death. It is simply morality in action.”

Whist Zola has a simple linear narrative arc, a moral story of decline into squalor, Zuzana Brabcová starts us deeply immersed in the mire, the opening fragment at sunset;

December 20, 2011

It arrives around four, five o’clock in the afternoon, hangs around until about seven, and then at night it reigns. It’s been that way for years, I don’t recall it ever having been any different. A day devoted to staying in is the music of a melody nobody has ever played. And when I do have to go out, there’s a bloom coating the people I pass, a frost blurring their features. I can imagine they don’t exist, and in this way I love them. All that exists: just disrupts and mars, as if somebody had graffiti-tagged The Night Watch.
V
áclav Havel died the day before yesterday. In his sleep, in the morning. So its reign extends beyond the night.

The book starting the in the days after the first President of the Czech Republic’s death. Even the reference to Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ pervades the opening with darkness, will there be an escape from the gloom?

Brabcová draws on a number of Zola references;

and she looked along the outer boulevards, to the left and to the right, her eyes pausing at either end, filled with a nameless dread, as if, from now on, her life would be lived out within this space, bounded by a slaughterhouse and a hospital. (‘L’Assommoir’ p33)

No, I really can’t complain about where I live. I have a complete range of public facilities nearby: two hospitals, numerous pharmacies, a cemetery, even a crematorium. (‘Aviaries’)

A highlight of my recent reading journey and yet again a great publication from Twisted Spoon Press in Prague. Now I have read Zuzana Brabcová’s final novel I am eagerly awaiting more of her work to appear in English, ‘Rok Perel’ apparently the first Czech novel to deal with lesbian love, set in a psychiatric hospital it deals with an adult woman’s love for a young girl. Her first novel ‘Daleko od stromu’ was published in 1984 in Cologne and Zuzana Brabcová was the first recipient of the Jiří Orten Award in 1987, a prize established to raise the profile of authors whose works had been rejected by the regime. Her work ‘Stropy’ (‘Ceilings’) won the Magnesia Litera in 2013, the title referring to the thing which people hospitalised in psychiatric clinics see most often – a ceiling. All of these blurbs (taken from the Czech Lit website), look most appealing indeed, let’s hope some translators are on the case.

I think it is going to take something special for this book not to remain at the top of my highlights for 2019 and if you enjoy works that push the boundaries, books that examine the fringes, mysterious, grotesque and hallucinatory works then I suggest you order a copy of this post haste.

Copy courtesy of the publisher Twisted Spoon Press.

 

Dreamverse – Jindřich Štyrský (tr. Jed Slast)

dreamverse

I’ve never really contemplated the thought that another’s dreams could pervade my own. Literature is overloaded with dream references, thinly veiled references to an unconscious mind, or a sub-plot or even prophecy. However, Jindřich Štyrský’s ‘Dreamverse’, a collection of poems, prose, sketches, collages and paintings does not use the “dream” as a literary device, it is the core subject matter.

The original ‘Dreams’, published posthumously in 1970, was a dream journal spanning the interwar period, and this new release from Twisted Spoon Press, includes Jindřich Štyrský’s 1940’s original layout of full colour and half tone images, and texts, and also includes his sole volume of published poetry and twenty-three essays, articles, speeches and manifestos. It is the dream journal and the poems that insert themselves into your own mind, only to come resurfacing as you attempt to sleep. The essays and articles giving further context to his practice and production and stirring a pot or two along the way.

As always with Twisted Spoon Press publications, this is a beautifully presented book, the images reproduced alongside the dream prose is more akin to an art book than a literary work.

The dreams so vividly recalled that they pervaded my own sleep, and I can assure you that these are not idyllic dreams of stunning landscapes or love, there are images of decapitations, deformities, haunted houses, tattooed infants, tiny hands;

Dream of the Deserted House
(SUMMER 1940)

I am standing in front of an old derelict house built of rough stone, unplastered.
The windows and door are boarded up. I walk around it to see if there might be a way in. When I’ve walked around three sides, I notice on the
eastern side, where the house abuts a garden, female legs protruding from the wall. As if a woman has been immured here. A stocking and a show cover one leg, and the other has been picked clean to the bone. I want to get into the house. Bears. I rip one of the boards from a window and break into the house. Then I barricade the window and am satisfied I’m safe. I lie down on a bed and sleep. – – A particular noise jolts me from the dream – – – maybe it was my regular breathing. Light enters the room, and in a corner above me, above the bed, are giant cobwebs, dense, as if hundreds of years old, but instead of spiders there are two copulating frogs – – –breathing deeply – –

(p107)

The poems are complex, haunting and disturbing, reflecting the surrealist, cubist, and/or artificialist views of Jindřich Štyrský, the collection presenting twenty-four poems, again the paradoxes continue, maidens wearing coats made from their own skin, swine, elephants, tombs and cemeteries;

Only Harps Now Love Silence

A toad sleeping on a clock
A clock showing toad time

Everything happens under turbid water
Where maidens sit reading
Under green water
Luckily
Coats of their own skin
Made whenever we wish

Expensive skin

But when the eye of God looks on us toads
I’ll take delight
In we toads clad in the fur of divine mice
Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven

(p134)

The book is presented firstly with the Dreams prose, with artworks, followed by the poetry collection, and closes with Jindřich Štyrský’s other writings. And it is through this final section of the book that historical placement, explanations of his work and a deeper understanding of the earlier sections comes to the fore. Although some of the writings also leap into a surrealist world;

there is no reason to attach importance to anything in this text
it matters very little to us if you deteriorate by old age or paralysis others shall bring us joy
(p153)

The reflections on poetry, poetics, fellow artists, art and form are very enlightening. Jindřich Štyrský’s artistic partner was Marie Čerinová (Toyen) and in the 1920’s they exhibited works in Paris and founded their own movement “Artificialism”. Founding, along with Toyen, Bohuslav Brouk, and Vitezslav Nezval, the Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia and returned to Paris at the invitation of the Paris Surrealists. His writings used to comment freely, and at times controversially, on the movements at the time.

Poets, for the most part, are fools. They’re content with rubbing against maidens when they could be triumphing over singing cows. (p194-195)

No one is easier to get drunk than a poet, and the cheapest way is on violet perfume. Poetry will remain modern as long as it doesn’t pick a fight with the new worldview. (p195)

Yet the poet will experience success only when he quits shocking the public. (p195)

A few years ago, the French Journal L’Esprit nouveau ran a survey that asked if the Louvre should be burned down. The question incited the entire global milieu of cultural snobs, and many artists, philosophers, art dealers, and others responded for or against the idea. Those who were in favour of burning down the Louvre, and they were by and large the very top poets and artists from around the world, often found themselves in a rather unenviable position. In one well-known incident, Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dada and one of the greatest contemporary poets, was assaulted at Café de la Rotonde by students of the School of Fine Arts in Paris.
In my opinion, the existence of the Louvre today, with its celebrated Mona Lisa’s smile and ranks of mouldy canvases, restored a hundred times over, depicting outmoded Madonnas, pastoral idylls, and all that allurement bereft of historical context, means little. If the Louvre ceased to exist it would truly be a major loss since we would no longer be able to behold those lovely English ladies staring starry-eyed at the nudes of Giorgione and Titan, but it would hardly be an irreplaceable loss as we live our adventures in front of canvases much more fascinating, intoxicated by the gaze that has escaped the lidded eyes of sultry Greta Garbo and Brigitte Helm. The faces of worldly beauties and chaste Renaissance Madonnas are so vapid, expressionless, entirely devoid of passion, that to us they seen like decaying junk and a tedious bore. (p165)

Jindřich Štyrský’s ‘Dreamverse’ is part artwork, part diary, part poetic and part historical artefact, a work that pervades your own subconscious and plants seeds of nightmares, whilst also giving historical context to the art movements that Jindřich Štyrský was associated with, another fine addition to my collection of surrealist tinged works and yet again a fine example of the quality publications produced by Twisted Spoon Press in Prague.

Photos of some of the artworks are available on the publisher’s Facebook Page

Convalescent Conversations – Madeleine Vara (Laura Riding)

convalescentcoversations

Laura (Riding) Jackson is not a poet who I have spent much time with, and after reading this book when researching her, I was amazed that the majority of references refer to her via her relationship and collaborations with Robert Graves, not as a poet herself. As the introduction to this short novel tells us, “‘Convalescent Conversations’ was published in 1936, under her pseudonym, Madeline Vara, by Seizin Press, which she ran with Robert Graves, who was at the time both lover and collaborator; this was the same year in which Riding and Graves would flee Mallorca and Franco’s fascism.”

The introduction goes on to advise,

After marrying writer Schulyer B. Jackson in 1941, Riding officially changed her name to Laura (Riding) Jackson. We have decided to refer to the author as Riding not (Riding) Jackson in this edition for two reasons: first, to maintain fidelity to the text as it was originally published; secondly, to emphasise the radical break between the Riding of the 1930’s and the (Riding) Jackson who renounced most of her earlier work.

This is a novel presented as a series of philosophical discussions between two patients of a hospital, Eleanor and Adam, we do not know whey they are interred, which “opens their illnesses to interpretation as metaphor” (p vii). The conversations are interspersed with an Omniscient narrator, generally setting the scene and place or at times commenting on the periphery of characters moving in and out of Eleanor and Adam’s sphere, interrupting their conversations. Likely to have been viewed as experimental in the 1930’s, this novel at times is quite dated, a product of its times?

ADAM: Yes, it’s easy enough for Russians to be Communists, because they have absolutely no sense of property, their own or anybody else’s. It’s just a lack of any kind of ambition, and sitting about criticizing people who have ambitions as greedy and ruthless – and there are some quite decent ambitions. I once let my rooms to some Russians for six months when I had to be out of England. And when I took them over again – well, there are some things you can’t blame on the cat – and they didn’t even have a cat. (pgs 102-103)

However, the philosophical discussions between Eleanor and Adam, present a raft of existentialist musings on subjects such as religion, language and sex.

‘You don’t really think we’re being anything but silly do you?’ asked Eleanor.
‘I think we’ve been as serious as tow philosophers. Didn’t Miss Kenwood say patients were fond of philosophy?’
‘You don’t really think that philosophers are serios, so you?’ asked Eleanor.
‘I’d like to know what else they are if they’re not serious. Why, it’s the only excuse they have. Take that away, and –’
‘Take that away, and they’re just talking. Like you and me. What better excuse can you ask?’
‘But there has to be an excuse for talking,’ Adam said. ‘For instance, us. The demands of common politeness.’
Eleanor seemed to regard this as an excuse for silence: was he, after all, just tiresome? It was difficult to tell with men. They weren’t naturally good talkers.
‘I don’t want to break in on any private reveries,’ said Davis, coming up later, ‘but it’s time to go back to bed. It’ll taste all the sweeter when you pick up the lost threads to-morrow.’
‘Aren’t you slightly mixing the metaphors?’ asked Adam.
‘I was never much good at keeping them separate,’ said Davis. (pgs 26-27)

The rise of Fascism and modernism is a sub-plot at play here, with numerous comments on literature, politics and current affairs being subtly drip fed throughout;

‘…It’s crime stories that have all the happy endings these days, and love stories all the tearful ones. I don’t know what’s come over the world all of a sudden.’ (p12)

Sex is also a frequent subject of conversation, between two recently introduced patients, with a backdrop of polite manners where the nurses ensure the two talking patients are placed a certain distance apart on the balcony, where polite introductions are required to promote potential romance. The liberal, and early feminist, views of Laura Riding, would surely have caused quite a stir in the 1930’s;

ADAM: But have women a secret – a real secret?
ELEANOR: Indeed they have! And they know how to keep it. They keep it so well that men think they can master it just by sleeping with them. It’s like with some mysterious island, say the Island of the Hesperides, where the golden apples grow. The apples aren’t real golden apples, merely symbols that it’s a pretty wonderful island. But Hercules kills the dragon and steals the apples and brings them home, thinking he’s conquered the secret of the island. Every man is a sort of Hercules and sex is just a tour to foreign places. He kills the dragon, brings home the fruit, and thinks he knows it all. (p37)

Outside of Adam and Eleanor’s conversations there are a handful of other characters, only one another patient the majority being nurses, and our narrators refer to them a number of times as being “simple-minded”.

Now, Mrs. Lyley was a simple-minded but not small-minded person. Many people are simple-minded because their interests do not extend beyond themselves; and we call this innocence, if they are not very active people, and egotism if they are. And both kinds we should say that they were small-minded. Not so with Mrs. Lyley. Her interests did extend beyond herself; but she did not have much confidence in her ability to help other people in their problems, her ideas were not very well organized and not many – the world would never call on her for advice, and if it did her answer would be that she had no head for dealing with other people’s affairs, having little enough for her own, which she always settled by making herself happy in the little world that fate had assigned to her. She saw life, that is, as a conglomeration of little worlds. And her interest in all the other little worlds besides her own was confined to a desire that the people living in them should be as happy as she was in hers. Her simple-mindedness, which was neither innocent nor egotistical, consisted in this desire that everyone should be happy. (p104)

A short work, running to 132 pages, this is an addition to the Ugly Duckling Presse ‘Lost Literature’ series and their work has brought a missing piece of the prolific Laura Riding’s writing back into print. Given Laura Riding renounced a lot of her earlier work, Wikipedia lists 38 collections in her “selected bibliography” with this book not being on that list, I am grateful to come across something of hers that is a little more obscure as it is a book that presents a number of themes and discussions that are ripe for further examination in other writings. An engaging, interesting and thought provoking book.

It was very interesting to mix with other people, just as conversation was interesting, but it wasn’t life. Life was something little, not big. (p105)

Eleanor and Adam’s conversations, are they big?

In Every Wave – Charles Quimper (tr. Guil Lefebvre)

ineverywave

Every day is the day you died. (p43)

As the blurb advises us “a man loses his daughter while swimming one summer’ and this very short novella is a lament, a letter or confessional to a very young daughter lost under tragic circumstances. An event that becomes “just a line or two in the local paper. A tragic accident, a momentary distraction with fatal consequences.” But for our writer that day is relived over and over again, and it is the day where his search for his daughter, in every drop of water, “behind every rock, in every bush, in every wave” begins.

Our protagonist takes his grief into isolation, and the opening two pages bring forth a raft of images;

My voice has changed and it keeps catching me off guard. It isn’t mine anymore. It isn’t even a voice anymore. More like the rasping, creaking sound of a raven or locust. (p10)

Besides the usual associations of bad luck, ravens also connect the material world with the world of spirits, In Greek mythology they are associated with Apollo and were his messengers into the moral world. In Christian lore they protect the bodies of Saints. And locusts are associated with plague proportions, destroying every living thing. Such vivid imagery in a few short sentences.

Our writer of this lament takes his grief to sea, a search for the missing body of his drowned daughter’s body. Gestation is associated with the sea, “as time passes, somewhere deep beneath the surface, the ocean’s belly swells with a rumbling, palpable electric charge.” (p10)

Childhood games are associated with the macabre, “I draw a hopscotch court on the deck with the chalk of my bones. It runs from heaven to hell.” (p62)

Filled with recollections, looping revisits to the fateful day of his daughter’s disappearance, where the memories change, this is a deeply affecting tale of ceaseless grief. A grief that our writer takes into isolation and scribbles, later with a compass tip and squid ink, covering his skin. His grief, his memories, his guilt, all physically become himself.

Looping from the present, to memories of his daughter, and the period between her death and his launching a vessel to sea, this work wholly embodies his grief. Our protagonist explains to his daughter his life since the fateful day where a moment of distraction leads to tragedy. His personal and marriage breakdown, his withdrawal from society, his visions. Akin to an epic poem, every sentence contains a link to her memory.

Did you know that in some very dry countries they string nets among the clouds in the mountaintops? The fog gets trapped in the nets, then trickles down to the villages below.
You’re like one of those nets stretched out inside me. (p61)

In every incarnation of water, he sees his dead daughter, in tears, in drinking water, in rivers, in puddles, in rain, in the sea.

The sheer size of the sea, where our writer searches for his daughter’s body, becomes the sheer size of his grief.

Elias Canetti, in his non-fiction work ‘Crowds and Power’ (translated by Carol Stewart) gives this explanation of the sea as a symbol;

The sea is multiple, it moves, and it is dense and cohesive. Its multiplicity lies in its waves; they constitute it. They are innumerable; the sea-farer is completely surrounded by them. The sameness of their movement does not preclude difference of size. They are never entirely still. The wind coming from outside them determines their motion; they beat in this or that direction in accordance with its command. The dense coherence of the waves is something which men in a crowd know well. It entails a yielding to others as though they were oneself, as though there were no strict division between oneself and them. There is no escape from this compliance and thus the consequent impetus and feeling of strength is something engendered by all the units together. The specific nature of this coherence among men is unknown. The sea, while not explaining, expresses it. (p80)

In this novella the sea represents the writer’s grief.  “It is dense and cohesive”, “never entirely still”, “there is no escape from this compliance”.

An extremely powerful soliloquy that addresses every parent’s fear, losing a child, in a poetic and powerful manner, this is a work that is deeper and more complex than its apparent parts. A very short book that demands re-reading. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this debut work appear on the Best Translated Book Awards longlist and will be eagerly awaiting Charles Quimper’s later writings.

A review copy of this novella was provided by the publisher QC Fiction, a publisher of contemporary Quebec fiction translated into English.

Hopscotch – Julio Cortázar (tr. Gregory Rabassa)

hopscotch_cover

…man only feels secure when he is on grounds that do not touch his deepest part: when he plays, when he conquers, when he puts on his various suits of armor that are products of an ethos, when he hands over the central mystery to some revelation. (p166)

Continuing the theme of novels with an unusual structure, or in some cases written with constraints. Julio Cortázar’s ‘Hopscotch’, another work with a playful theme.

For the uninitiated Julio Cortázar’s novel consists of one hundred and fifty-five chapters and comes with a “Table of Instructions”;

In its own way, this book consists of many books, but two books above all.
The first can be read in a normal fashion and it ends with Chapter 56, at the close of which there are three garish little stars which stand for the words The End. Consequently, the reader may ignore what follows with a clean conscience.
The second should be read by beginning with Chapter 73 and the following the sequence indicated at the end of each chapter.

A few months ago I mapped the second reading chart on a simple grid;

hopscotch

As you can see pure chaos, none of the sequential harmony seen in Georges Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’.

Narratively ‘Hopscotch’ “recounts the adventures of an Argentine intellectual living in Paris with his lover and bohemian friends, and follows him back to Buenos Aires, where he works in a circus and a mental asylum.” However, it is not this narrative where the riches of this work are at play.

Hopscotch itself is a game, tossing a small object or a stone, and jumping through space(s), numbered, to reach the goal, in Cortázar’s version the ultimate square is heaven.

Hopscotch is played with a pebble that you move with the tip of your toe. The things you need: a sidewalk, a pebble, a toe, and a pretty chalk drawing, preferably in colors. On top is Heaven, on the bottom is Earth, it’s very hard to get the pebble up to Heaven, you almost always miscalculate and the stone goes off the drawing. But little by little you start to get the knack of how to jump over the different squares (spiral hopscotch, rectangular hopscotch, fantasy hopscotch, not played very often) and then one day you learn how to leave Earth and make the pebble climb up to Heaven…the worst part of it is that precisely at that moment, when practically no one has learned how to make the pebble climb up into Heaven, childhood is over all of a sudden and you’re into novels, into the anguish of the senseless divine trajectory, into the speculation about another Heaven that you have to learn to reach too. And since you have come out of childhood… you forget that in order to get to Heaven you have to have a pebble and a toe. (pgs 221-222)

And not unlike Georges Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’ this work contains a number of other play or games references;

…the bishop moves, rooks move, the knight jumps, pawns fall away, and in the center of the board, big as anthracite lions the kings remain flanked by the cleanest and last and purest of their armies, at dawn the deciding lances will be crossed, fate will be served, peace will reign. (p80)

Given the bohemian lifestyle in Paris, the book is filled with philosophical discussions and digressions, from straightforward intellectual arguments through to jazz style blabbering, accompanied by references to the records being played at the time. There are quotable quotes galore, a Twitter feed’s paradise, however these insights are also peppered with acerbic literary commentary;

…the only way to get a hold on Argentina was to come up on it from the shameful side, find the blush hidden under a century of usurpations of all kinds, as writers had pointed out so well, and therefore the best way was to show it in some way in which it didn’t have to take itself so seriously. (pgs 241-242)

In the expendable chapters the character “Morelli”, and his writings, frequently pops up, he’s a character hinting at the construction and writing of ‘Hopscotch’ (or a similarly structured novel) itself, Cortázar’s alter-ego (ignore the male/female reader in the following quote, it is explained in the work, although it is sexist).

It would seem that the usual novel misses in its mark because it limits the reader to its own ambit; the better defined it is, the better the novelist is thought to be. An unavoidable detention in the varying degrees of the dramatic, the psychological, the tragic, the satirical, or the political. To attempt on the other hand a text that would not clutch the reader but would oblige him to become an accomplice as it whispers to him underneath the conventional exposition other more esoteric directions. Demonic writing for the female-reader (who otherwise will not get beyond the first few pages, rudely lost and scandalized, cursing at what he paid for the book), with a vague reverse side of hieratic writing.
“To provoke, assume a text that is out of line, untied, incongruous, minutely antinovelistic (although not antinovelish). Without prohibiting the genre’s great effects if the situation should require it, but keeping in mind the Gidean advice,
ne jamais profiter de l’élan acquis. Like all creatures of choice in the Western world, the novel is content in a closed order. Resolutely opposed to this, we should search for an opening and therefore cut the roots of all systematic construction of characters and situations. Method: irony, ceaseless self-criticism, incongruity, imagination in the service of no one. (p404)

One final interesting section of the book, and there are so many, a chapter that completely shook my reading style and forced me to slow down and absorb, Chapter 34. It is written in alternate lines, the opening line coming from a book that our protagonist’s lover is reading, the second line is his thoughts about the book he is reading, the third the book again and so forth;

In September of 1880, a few months after the demise of my
And the things she reads, a clumsy novel, in a cheap edition
father, I decided to give up my business activities, transferring
besides, but you wonder how she can get interested in things
them to another house in Jerez whose standing was as solvent
like this. To think that she’s spent hours on end reading tasteless (p198)

A systematic breakdown of the structures we are used to.

No need to add more accolades to the innumerable that exist out there, if you haven’t read this book yet, take the time to do so. Just like my chart of the chapter sequence, there is no order to the chaos, immerse yourself, enjoy.

The page numbers in the quotes above are taken from the Everyman’s Library edition, which also includes Julio Cortázar’s short story collections ‘Blow-Up’ (translated by Paul Blackburn) and ‘We Love Glenda So Much’ (translated by Gregory Rabassa)