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

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 creations then perform on this stage created on each page. It is probably best to cite an example.
This example showing the passing of time, the polar opposites of marking off weeks but stating that during a “poem’s construction you never count your days”, ageing and creation (in the wings) whilst the seconds pass on the stage. Complexity all on a single page. To quote the ‘Preface” from “The End of Oulipo? An attempt to exhaust a movement” by Lauren Elkin and Scott Esosito;
The concept of potential literature is founded on a paradoxical principle: that through the use of a formal constraint the writer’s creative energy is liberated. The work which results may be “complete” in itself, but it will gesture at all the other work that could potentially be generated using that constraint.
The poem I have used as an example doesn’t actually fall into the Oulipian section of Frédéric Forte’s work, which in fact comes in phase two, but the concept of the paradox and liberation are stunningly obvious.
This is a collection that forces you to pause, as if in an art gallery, to observe, linger, absorb, reflect before moving on, each poem an artwork in its own right, a creation that can work on numerous levels, artistically, literary, poetically, theatrically or even structurally.
Phase two’s poems come with a “Detailed index of fixed forms” where the poem uses existing poetic forms, either traditional or invented by the Oulipo. Another example for you;

Here the detailed index explains that the poem is a “Quintina. Level-5 quenina. In (central pillar of a house [the title of the poem]) the permutation operates on punctuation marks.” Permutations boundless in this example, I‘ll leave it for you to ponder.
This book is not only a feat of typographical wonder, to even contemplate the translation that would have been required, is a feat in itself. For example, the oulipo ‘heterogram’ “invented by Georges Perec. The letters chosen by the poet (the ten most frequently used in the French alphabet, plus one) cannot be used again before the whole series is completed. In the poem ‘(whistle statue II)’ the letters “SILENTBAROU” go through various iterations as words (eg. Silent Bar: our tale is….) eleven times until they end with the words “burial stone”. How on earth did this originally appear in French and how did the translator make it coherent in English? I’m still astounded, initially upon reading the poem, again when taking my notes, and now when attempting to explain it.
The cover of the book tells us that the content of the poems “also constitute, in their cryptic way, a journal of the poet’s life during the period of composition (2001-2002): his love life, the loss of his father…” unfortunately this depth was something that was personally lost in the translation. Whilst the word games, and cryptic style was extremely impressive, the content, as a cohesive whole, seemed to fall by the wayside.
Phase two of the book containing fifty-five word games for you to explore slowly, wonder upon, stretch your limits, refer to the index and back to the poem, research, ponder. An absolute marvel of potential literature. The first fifty-five poems more structured within the space confines, created by the poet, or simply the limits of the page, but still wonderfully rich and detailed in their construction.

A collection that I think would not be out of place in an art gallery. Illuminating and one I will revisit often, if simply just to be stunned at the creation involved.
In a nut shell this is a book I can’t adequately review, here’s what others have said….if that helps…
“A book as intriguing (by its staging of typographic variations) as it is invigorating (in its micro-narratives).” —Emmanuel Laugier, Le Matricule des Anges n°67 (octobre 2005)
“Extraordinary inventiveness…funny, original, brilliant” —Jean-Michel Espitallier, Caisse à Outils: Un panorama de la poésie française aujourd’hui (Pocket, 2006)
“positively acrobatic, even balletic” – ALTA Blog
How about you buy a copy and see for yourself? I can guarantee literary lovers, Oulipo readers and poetry aficionados will not be disappointed.

Football – Jean-Philippe Toussaint (translated by Shaun Whiteside)

If you follow me on Twitter or if you read between the lines of my review of “Mend The Living” by Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore) and her fictionalised account of a football France vs Italy you would probably know that I am a bit of a football crazy. I watch leagues from around the world (basically the only television I watch), I attend Australian League and local Victorian Premier League matches, however my only “involvement” is watching my two young boys play each week and taking up volunteer linesman duties. So when Fitzcarraldo Editions announced a release in mid-May of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s “essay” titled “Football” I was straight in the pre-order queue.
It is perfect timing for such a release, with the Copa America kicking off this weekend I can sit down and watch such teams as Brazil, Ecuador, USA, and Columbia, over my weekend (secretly I will be watching all of the matches, just don’t let my wife know that!) before grabbing a few hours shut eye and mulling over the Euro opening weekend with France, England, Croatia, Germany, and a host of others in action in the opening days. Whilst an exciting time my home nation of Australia is, of course, not involved, they already won the Asian Cup in 2015 and if I want to watch my adopted nation play “the world game” then my viewing pleasure is restricted to friendlies or the BIG one, qualification for the FIFA World Cup.
Belgian Jean-Philippe Toussaint has nine works translated into English and published by Dalkey Archive Press (and the short essay “Zidane’s Melancholy” translated by Thangam Ravindranathan and Timothy Bewes in their “Best European Fiction” collection of 2009, the same essay appears in this Fitzcarraldo release as a “bonus” but translated by Shaun Whiteside). There is also the book “Making Love”, the first in the ‘Cycle of Marie’ collection, translated by Linda Coverdale and published by The New Press in 2004. He has also directed four films, and been the screenwriter for three of those and one other, as well as having a number of major photographic exhibitions.
His latest book translated into English is “Football” published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, a plain white cover, as all the non-fiction publications have, as opposed to the plain blue cover for the fiction publications.
This book is a short read, I managed to get through the 85 pages during a single airplane journey, and being a fan of football I was intrigued by the opening page:
This is a book that no one will like, not intellectuals, who aren’t interested in football, or football-lovers, who will find it too intellectual. But I had to write it, I didn’t want to break the fine thread that still connects me to the world.
I have to apologise to Jean-Philippe Toussaint, I did like this book, am I a football-lover who is a little short of being an intellectual? It is a strange way to market a book – “no one will like” it!
I like that moment, going to the stadium, when, climbing the concrete stairs of the stands inside among the crowd of spectators to get to my seat, I emerge into the open air of the terraces and down below I see the absolutegreen of the pitch beneath the powerful floodlights of the stadium. I no longer have the eyes of a child, but I still see the magic of colours at football with the naïve innocence of childhood, the age-old green of the turf and the jerseys of the players, the timeless colours of the national teams, the blue of France or Italy, the red of Spain, the orange of the Netherlands, not to mention the striped sky-blue and white of Argentina. Everything returns to a state of order, nature becomes immutable and reassuring again when I see, as I did at the final in Yokohama in 2002, the Germans playing in black shorts and white jerseys against the Brazilians in yellow and green, but it is with a little twinge of annoyance in my heart, of aesthetic dissatisfaction and metaphysical unease, that I see Brazil playing in dark blue or, even worse, the German players afflicted with that laterally striped red and black rugby jersey (is it Toulouse, is it Toulon?) that they wore for the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. I feel wronged, not myself (I’ve seen worse), but the child I used to be, who is deprived of the simple and reassuring happiness of seeing for all eternity the Germans moving in black shorts and white jerseys on football grounds.
A book that moves through Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s childhood associations, his recollections and experiences of World Cups (lucky man has attended them!), his moments of angst and anguish. Simple everyday activities that take place during a game, and let’s face it football is a game (heresy?), become artful and exquisite recollections and personal experiences come bubbling to the surface when explained by Toussaint’s pen.
A book that I believe the intellectuals will actually like as it can be read as one man’s obsession, a journey through his childhood, his rejection, addictions, or as a football lover you can simply relish in the memories of past World Cups (the addition of “Zidane’s Melancholy”, a musing on his actions in the World Cup Final is worth the purchase price alone, even if it is only four and a half pages long) or find a little piece of yourself in Toussaint’s actions at the matches, or his frantic rearranging of speaking engagements to watch or listen to a match. An enjoyable read as my Man Booker International Prize and Best Translated Book Award reading came to a conclusion (there are still reviews pending for those – I am miles behind).
This coming weekend I will be watching the yellow and green of Brazil when they play Ecuador, next week the black and white of Germany as they take on Ukraine and in a small part of my mind the detailed expression of Toussaint’s love affair with the wonderful game will be watching with me.

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Ladivine – Marie Ndiaye (translated by Jordan Stump) – Man Booker International Prize 2016

And so she said nothing.
Readers of translated fiction would probably have come across Marie NDiaye through her 2009 Prix Goncourt winning work “Three Strong Women, the work also making the shortlist of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2014 (the Award won by Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s “The Sound of Things Falling – translated by Anne McLean). The English translation of her latest work Ladivine, just being released in the United Kingdom and is scheduled for release in the United States next week.
If you were to read this book looking for a linear narrative, or a simple plot, you would be disappointed, whilst basically we can follow the lives of three women, Ladivine, Clarisse (or Malinka) and Ladvine, the work is a lot more complex than what appears on the surface.
In the opening pages we learn about Clarisse Rivière, who travels incognito to Bordeaux on the first Tuesday of each month to visit her mother Ladivine, but Clarisse isn’t actually Clarisse, she’s Malinka, and she’s ashamed of her past;
Where Malinka’s mother was born, a place Clarisse Rivière had never gone and never would go – though she had, furtive and uneasy, looked at pictures of it on the Internet – everyone had those same delicate features, harmoniously placed on their faces as if with an eye for coherence, and those same long arms, nearly as slender at the shoulder as at the wrist.
And the face that her mother had therefore inherited those traits from a long, extensive ancestry and then passed them on to her daughter (the features, the arms, the slender frame and, thank God, nothing more) once made Clarisse Rivière dizzy with anger, because how could you escape when you were marked in this way, how could you claim not to be what you did not want to be, what you nevertheless had every right not to want to be?
Whilst not explicit, Ladivine is dark skinned and Clarisse light skinned, Malika, becoming Clarisse and attempting to escape her heritage, is this a story of displacement, but one where our protagonist wants to be displaced?
A novel that is rich with emotion, here’s a few words taken from a single page – intelligence, ingenuity, strategy, stubborn, immovable, failure, resolute, evasive, fear, compassion. A roller-coaster of family manipulation, personal highs and lows and confused self-awareness.
As a reader you move through extremely touching sections, where you feel the daughter’s rejection of her mother, a woman who called her only child “my princess”, a single mother who worked as a servant and cleaner to raise her daughter, and then to be rejected!
A theme that runs throughout is rejection, whether it is of your own family, of your roots, of your culture, of your partner, and this theme isn’t only restricted to Clarisse and her rejection of her mother, she is also hiding behind a façade;
How she loved her face in the morning, powdered, serious and inanimate!
That was how Clarisse was meant to be in the eyes in the world, a wonderful girl whose good points were all you ever saw, because there were no bad ones. And how that Clarisse was loved!
Here I’ve really only touched on the opening sections, quite soon thereafter, her daughter has moved out, her husband has left and she cannot share the pain with her mother, as she keeps her mother a secret from her family, she keeps her family, and even her daughter, a secret from her mother. She cannot share her pain, and conversely she could not share the joy of having a daughter.
Her daughter Ladivine, who telephoned often, and her co-workers at the restaurant, and Richard Rivière himself, who dutifully called once a month and wired her money she never spent, they were all doing their best, discreetly, affectionately, sometimes with openly expressed concern, to rescue her from humiliation.
But she had never felt any such thing. Nor was she humiliated that people thought her humiliated, only vaguely surprised.
The novel doesn’t simply cover the mother Ladivine and the daughter Malika/Clarisse, it moves to the story of the daughter/grand-daughter Ladivine, and her relationship with her father and her husband and children. Although the main character women in this novel (the two Ladivine’s and Clarisse) are “storng women” I feel their nonchalant behaviour, accepting manner, working continually to simply fit in makes this novel “Three Benevolent Women” not “Three Strong Women”. The opening quote I used is one that does crop up a few times and it does define these women, they simply say nothing.
Ladivine had met him after two aimless years at the University of Bordeaux, which, on a whim and a friend of a friend’s vague promise of lodging, she’d left for Berlin, with no great enthusiasm, under the illusion that time and life would go by more quickly if she moved on, stupidly, because she had no plans, no hopes, because at twenty-one she felt tired and worn, and she saw Marko at the watch counter of the Hermannplatz Karstadt, where he’d recently found work, and realised that a young man like him, with his long hair, his big glasses, his delicate, kindly, clam, endlessly patient face would never feel the need to hurt anyone at all, that there was a kind of glory about him that he didn’t work at and didn’t believe in, that that word would have made him laugh, as he was a practical man, and this serene scepticism was an element of his grace, since he had no knowledge of that grace, since he had no access to it.
As per usual I would rather not give too much of the plot away here, so I am quite restricted in the amount of information I can share here, doing my best to stay within the boundaries of the book’s blurb and inner sleeve description. Although I will say I was wondering how the novel was going to sustain the story of Ladivine and Malika/Clarisse for 300+ pages when it was moving quite rapidly in the first 100!!!
This is a novel that has a blend of genres, a melting pot of styles, making it a difficult work to simply categorise, that is not a bad thing, fresh voices and young writers pushing the literary boundaries are more than welcome on my shelves. In fact I’ll review another recent release by a female writer in translation in the next couple of days that very much so pushes the boundaries.

A worthy inclusion on the Man Booker Prize Longlist, in my top few? Probably not, but it is still alive and kicking for the Shadow Jury’s main prize so we will know more in the coming weeks.

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Mend The Living – Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore) – Man Booker International Prize 2016

Today you’re going to come across something that happens very infrequently on this blog, a review of a book that I struggled to finish. Occasionally I come across a book I don’t like and more often than not I simply don’t review it. There are a number of reasons for this approach;

  • A writer has spent a significant amount of their life on bringing this work into being,
  • For the majority of books I read there is also the translator’s efforts to be taken into account, like the author they have dedicated a substantial amount of their time bringing this work to an English speaking audience,
  • Who am I to judge the relative merits of a book? What I may despise others may love! I’m a casual reader, not formally educated in “fine literature”, not officially qualified to be a stick in the mud, why does my opinion even matter? Then again, why would it matter for books I love too?
  • What value is there in caning a book? My insignificant view on the world stage will possibly impact the purchasing power by one or two copies.

As a Shadow Jury member for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize I am attempting to read and review all thirteen longlisted novels, and if I am being honest there is no way around giving my opinion on each of the books on the list.
Onto Maylis De Kerangal’s “Mend The Living”, a book that, although clunky in language style, actually starts out as an engaging and potentially compelling piece. The story opens with three mates, waking very early, unlike their usual teenage behaviour, so they can fulfil their insatiable surfing addiction. Amongst the three is Simon Limbeau, soon to be deceased.
It’s time. Beginning of the day when the shapeless takes shape: the elements gather, the sky separates from the sea, the horizon grows clear. The three boys get ready, methodical, following a precise order that is still a ritual: they wax their boards, check the leashes are attached, slip into thermal rash guards before pulling on their suits, contorting themselves in the parking lot – neoprene adheres to the skin, scrapes and even burns it sometimes – choreography of rubber puppets who ask each other for help, requiring that they touch and manipulate each other; and then the surf boots, the hood, the gloves, and they close the van. They walk down toward the ocean, surfboard under one arm, light, cross the beach in long strides, the beach where pebbles crash beneath their feet in an infernal racket, and once they’ve arrived at water’s edge, while everything grows clear before them, the chaos and the party, they each wrap a leash around an ankle, adjust their hoods, reduce the space of bare skin around their necks to nothing by grabbing the cords at their backs and pulling them up to the last notch of the zipper – it’s a matter of ensuring the best possible degree of waterproofness for their teenage-boy skin, skin that’s often studded with acne on the upper back, on the shoulder blades, where Simon Limbeau sports a Maori tattoo as a pauldron – and this movement, arm extended sharply, signifies that the session is starting, let’s go! And maybe now, hearts get worked up, maybe they shake themselves inside thoracic cages, maybe their mass and their volume augment and their kick intensifies, two distinct sequences in one same pulsing, two beats, always the same: terror and desire.
I’m not giving anything away by explaining that Simon dies soon after the novel commences, as a novel exploring the merits, pitfalls of organ transplants would require a character to die in order for their organs to be harvested.
Early on in the book, the post-accident helplessness, the grief of family members, the detachment of the hospital staff, is wonderfully rich and I was trusting that this theme would continue throughout:
She heads for the main door that opens slowly, far off; four figures cross the threshold and come toward her, figures that soon emerge from the blur cast by her myopic eyes: it’s the parents of the other two caballeros, Christophe and Johan, the four of them in a line, and again the winter coats that weigh shoulders down, the scarves rolled into neck braces to hold up falling heads, the gloves. They recognise her, slow down, and then one of the men quickens his step to break rank and when he reaches Marianne folds her in his arms, and then the other three hug her in turn. How is she? Chris’s father is the first to speak; the four of them look at her, she’s paralysed. Murmurs: he’s in a coma, we don’t know yet. She shrugs her shoulders and her mouth distorts: and you? the boys? Johan’s mother answers: Chris, fractured left hip and fibula; Johan, both wrists and clavicle fractured, also his ribcage, but none of his organs were pierced – she remains sober, of an outrageous sobriety, meant to show Marianne that the four of them are aware of how lucky they are, of their monster’s ball, because for them, it’s only breakage – their children were wearing seat belts, were protected from the shock, and if this woman minimises their anxiety to this extent, abstaining from any commentary, it’s also to show Marianne that they know about Simon, know that it’s serious, very serious even, a rumour that will have run from the I.CU. to the department of orthopaedic and trauma surgery where their sons are, and that she won’t have the indecency to add anything, and finally, there is this distress she feels, this guilt that holds her back, because the choice was between their two sons, for the seat belt – Chris had to drive, so it could just as easily have been Johan in the middle and then she would be the one in Marianne’s place at this instant, exactly in her place, swaying before the same terrible abyss, disfigured in just the same way, and she’s suddenly dizzy at the thought, her legs go weak and her eyes begin to roll back, and her husband moves closer, feeling her wavering, puts an arm under hers to steady her, and as Marianne sees this woman capsize, she, too, perceives the abyss between them, between herself and the rest of them, this chasm that separates them now, thank you, I have to go, we’ll keep you posted.
We have the same incident viewed though many lenses, as the characters begin to pile up, we have competing priorities, differing emotional reactions, different time pressures, then the self-interest starts to boil to the surface, as a reader who do we emotionally attach ourselves to? The mother, the father, the nurse, the surgeon….?
Sean and Marianne sit side by side on the couch, awkward, curious even though they’re shattered, and, on one of the vermilion chairs Thomas Remige sits down too, with Simon Limbeau’s medical folder in his hands. But even though these three share the same space, participate in the same time period, nothing on this planet could be further apart than these two beings in pain and this young man who sits before them with the goal – yes, the goal – of obtaining their consent to recover their child’s organs. On one side: a man and a woman caught in a wave of shock, at once swept off the ground and crashed down into a dislocated timeline – a continuity that Simon’s death had ruptured, but a continuity that, like a headless duck running in a farmyard, continued on – total madness – a timeline woven of pain, a man and a woman gathering all the sorrow of the world upon their two heads, and on the other side: this young man in a white lab coat – committed and cautious, prepared to conduct the meeting without skipping any steps, but who has set a timer in a corner of his brain, conscious that once brain death occurs, the body deteriorates rapidly, and that this has to be done quickly – caught in the same torsion.
However the further we get into the book, the more distracting the clunky language becomes, it is not only the melding of tenses, nor the rambling sentences, or the ridiculous word usage (more on that soon), but to me the never ending introduction of yet another bit player just became ridiculous, and adding some “fat” to their character was totally uncalled for (why have page after page describing France vs Italy in a soccer match? Oh that becomes slightly relevant once a new Italian surgeon is introduced, however Italy has NEVER beaten France 1-0 in Paris, and if you are going to have a fictitious football match then don’t name real players. Why a whole chapter dedicated to the purchase of a goldfinch? Is that just so there can be a corny reference to the rarity of its song? Why an imbalanced fiery actress lover? More pages? Who cares about the hovering nurse’s night before with an oft missing lover? More filler material?)
To explain the use of language, or more specifically word choice, here is a short quote about a (yet another) bit player who doesn’t not want to have dinner with her daughter:
…or maybe it’s the couple that frightens her, this couple that, in less than two years, has swallowed up her only daughter, disintegrated her into a sure, emollient conjugality, a balm after years of solitary nomadism: her spirited, polyglot daughter has become completely unrecognisable.
?????? And we have 100’s of examples of similar word choices throughout, not at all endearing, nor does this make for an enjoyable read when you need to stop each paragraph and decipher a word or two.
Here’s another example, this time, of unnecessary words, with the page references so you can see how often they are repeated (and I can assure you this is not an isolated example):
P 138 – One liver, two lungs, two kidneys. And a heart.
P 139 – Marthe Carrare enters all the medical data for Simon Limbeau’s heart, lungs, liver and kidneys into a web interface
P 142 – Responses for the liver, the kidney and the lungs come one after the other.
Given the majority of the story is given over to the “heart” wouldn’t “the other organs” suffice for “the liver, the kidney and the lungs”, given we then have a detailed explanation of who is going to receive each organ, further along page 142?
A book that has an interesting premise, this doesn’t lift beyond a poorly scripted version of an American television drama, with minor, irrelevant characters, clunky language, ridiculous word choices (wait until you get to the technical “harvesting” sections) and non-closure for so many of the “featured” players, this is an absolute mish-mash.
Sadly I was intrigued for about 70-80 pages and pushed through the language idiosyncrasies, I shouldn’t have bothered. One that left me completely flat, needless to say it won’t be featuring on my shortlist.

POSTSCRIPT – The Translator’s Note at the end of the novel, explains De Kerangal’s use of obscure words, she also explains the hidden references in the character’s names or the struggle with French language words having multiple meanings and not as easily translatable into similar English words. Whilst an insight into the struggle of the translator it doesn’t really change my mind as to the struggle I went through to finish this book. For people who have read this book, you may be interested in where I hit the wall, it was once Marthe Carrare the “short woman, around sixty, olive-skinned and round, auburn hair, voluminous breasts and abdomen stuffed inside a tight camel-coloured cardigan, spherical buttocks bobbing in brown wool trousers, and then a pair of rather skinny legs and tiny feet bulging inside flat loafers”, was introduced.

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Rochester Knockings (A novel of the Fox Sisters) – Hubert Haddad (translated by Jennifer Grotz)

Spiritualism, another subject I know nothing about. Like most I know of those people who claim to be able to contact spirits, but the huge following it achieved in the 1800’s, the role that the Fox sisters played in the movement and the sensation that the women caused by running public shows where they “communicated” with spirits was something I knew nothing about. Step up Algerian writer Hubert Haddad, who writes in French, to give me a learning of the spiritualism movement.
Our fictional account of the Fox sisters opens with vivid descriptions of the 1800’s in the United States;
We arrived in the village without knowing any of its dramas. But children are quick to reveal everything to you. Lilly told me of the unfortunate Joe-Charlie Joe, the son of a former slave of a Mansfield ranch, who was hung form a great oak in Grand Meadow for taking a walk in the valley with the beautiful Emily. Before committing their crime, the lynchers would have obtained her vow that he had kissed her. If every stolen kiss of the young warranted the rope, there’d be none of us left to marry. It’s true, not everyone is black. The beautiful Emily Mansfield was full of remorse. Because of her, a black man hardly twenty years old went to heaven with a kiss for his last rite of Viaticum.
The date March 31,1848 is often set as the beginning of the spiritualist movement, as on that date, Kate and Margaret Fox reported that they had made contact with a spirit, the spirit making loud rapping noises, witnessed by onlookers. Early on in the novel the young sisters, Maggie and Kate, move with their mother and father to Rochester, into a house that creaks and moans and is rumoured to be haunted.
We were alone with Mother last night when the knocks started up again. Katie, who was pretending to sleep, sat straight up as if spring-loaded. I am always just as terrified when she gets up and walks toward the window or staircase with her arms outstretched, eyes rolled upward. But this time it wasn’t a case of sleepwalking. In the darkness of the bedroom, I could easily see her crafty look, almost cruel when she smiled. Kate is adorable, all slim, with the pretty figure of a theatre actress, but there is a bit of a demonic look to her. It could be said that anywhere she finds herself – in the forest, in the village, in the house – she is looking for the secret behind things.
Written in the first person, from the view of the sister, and the third person, this is a well-researched work, with most chapters ending or containing an 1800’s nursery rhyme, indigenous song or poem. The language painting a very vivid picture of the times, and the style making you feel as though you are reading a work written in the 1800’s.
Besides raw opium or the chandoo imported in brass boxes, they also serve absinthe among other alcohols, and black tea.
This is a novel full of bit players, free pardoned slaves, two bit lawyers, coroners, this is a multi-populated picture of the USA in the late 19th century, something from a Tarantino movie, or an HBO TV series?
As Spiritualism is the main theme the novel also captures the religious fervour of the time, from numerous Christian faiths through to the “Celestial Free Spirit and Universal Love” cult, who of course practice free love (well free love for the men folk!).
A novel that exposes the uncertain times of a nation being forged, moving from slavery, a work peppered with religious and spiritual thought, the definition of freedom and a nation moving towards such times.
The two main Fox sisters (Maggie and Kate) have a much older sister, who had moved out prior to their youthful times and their discovery of their ability to talk to the spirit world. She returns to the fold and takes advantage of their skills, creating a sideshow to pacify to inquisitive masses. Shows in large theatres, wealthy folk wanting to connect with lost ones being most vulnerable and of course great targets to build up the Fox family wealth and renown.
Press correspondents gave considerable coverage to the event, though their reports contrasted wildly. Whereas the papers of the South and Midwest spoke of the shameful deception of abolitionist clans and women’s rights movements, the New-York Tribune, under the pen of a young follower of transcendentalism, in fashion with progressives in the North, announced it a fundamental discovery proving nothing less than the immortality of the soul. The article ended with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson; “There are persons, from whom we always expect fairy tokens; let us not cease to expect them.: The Quakers on their end were heavily engaged in the spiritualist path, in competition with the Mormons who had the aim to recall, by their lawful baptized name or with good reason, all the souls that ever lived on Earth since Adam and Eve, without neglecting anyone.

A thoroughly well researched novel, however I am sure there would be spiritualist coverts or followers today who would poo-poo this is trite and shallow, however to a person not well versed in the history of the movement it gives credence to the characters pivotal in the movement’s beginnings, it layers this with a wonderful depiction of the era and the colourful characters of that time as well as enlightening the reader about a world now forgotten, a world where industrial and personal advancement was taking place at such a rapid rate that the plausibility of now being able to contact the dead is not too farfetched. An interesting novel, considering it is set in the USA but written by an Algerian, a work that reads as though it could well have been written at that time.

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The Roving Shadows – Pascal Quignard (translated by Chris Turner) – Prix Goncourt Winner 2002

How do you review a book when you know the author is clearly, significantly more intelligent than yourself? How do you do justice to a work that elicits thought trains that dwindle on for days? What if there is no clear “plot”?
Apologies in advance if this is “review” clearly misses the point, or if it doesn’t even touch upon the core of Quignard’s premise.
Every shadow that envelopes our bodies is that of the scene that never comes into view, since it is the scene that is at our origins.
We could neither hear nor see those who made us, not what made us, not how it was done, before we were. It happens that human beings forget that they are not, before being.
But we lie: we always believe we heard something in the shadows, before being subject to the atmospheric air, before our eyes were opened to the light of the sun.
We were constructed in the shadows. Passively in the shadows. We are the fruits of the lidless ear of the shadows.
This is a totally fragmentary work, a collection of snippets, part fiction, part fact, researched in detail. A work that is described by the publisher as a “long meditation on reading and writing that strived to situate these otherwise innocuous activities in a profound relationship with sex and death.” The book starts out with a memory of being read to as a two-year-old. These early fragments referring to youth, to time passing, to reverting back to a childhood state, to “adoring time”, to “detest the now.”
As the title suggests, and the quote I have used above, this book consistently refers to the shadows, what lurks in the shadows? You cannot grasp a shadow?! You cannot jump a shadow! Just like the experience of reading this book, it is a work you cannot simply grasp, understand, you cannot jump over it and move on, it lingers. A book that is difficult to describe but it is a work you experience rather than simply read. Even though the art of writing and the subsequent action of reading is part of the thread linking the fragments, the physical connection of this book to your personal time and place is hard to deny.
Consisting of fifty-five chapters, it may, on the surface, appear to be a long book, but all of the chapters are short, here’s ‘Chapter 3”;
It is a property of the structure of language that it is its own tertium.
The writer, like the thinker, knows who is the real narrator within him: formulation.
This is what I do: the work of language weighing, thinking, inclining, expending itself.
Poetic in places, with Quignard listing the “the loss of shadows and darkness”, full of Historical references with 14 pages of translator notes where you are given details of the people and paces mentioned in the text, for example “The sixth book of the Chin P’ing Mei” or Jean-Baptiste Massillon “(1663-1742) a French Catholic bishop and a famous pulpit orator”. I found myself shuffling to the back of the book at regular intervals to discover these hidden gems in the text.
The past is built up in each wave of time that advances. The past available to contemporaries is not even the same each time it comes up from the realm of shadow. Mallarmé’s past isn’t Michelet’s and Rembrandt’s isn’t Vermeer’s. Chuang-Tzu’s isn’t Heraclitus’, nor Cervantes’ that of Shakespeare.
Not Emily Bronte’s that of Charlotte.
Generally whilst I read I occasionally find a pertinent quote that is short and sharp, a quote that I can tweet, with this work I found myself thinking “I should tweet that….I should tweet that… what about that?”, a book that has revelations on every single page. A work to mull over, as the publisher says “A meditation” on shadows on writing, on reading, on art, on human existence. A deep book, full of enlightening thoughts, but, again, a book that is impossible to describe. You need to read it yourself to understand what I am attempting to say here. Needless to say I will be purchasing more of Quignard’s works.
As regular readers of translated fiction would know, the preeminent French literary award is the Prix Goncourt, which is given to the author of “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”. “The Roving Shadows” (“Les Ombres errantes”) received the award in 2002 and was the first “non novel” to win in over 60 years. With a list of writers to win the award including Atiq Rahimi, MarieNDiaye, Michel Houellebecq, Mathias Énard (in recent years) and Marcel Proust and Simone de Beauvoir on the honour roll, it is an award that always throws up gems (having said that I wasn’t a huge fan of the 2006 winner “The Kindly Ones” by Johnathan Littell).
A note on the publisher, this book came from Seagull Books and is beautifully presented, bound and typeset, a publisher whose works to date I have thoroughly enjoyed, one to keep on your list of publishers of translated works as the quality is outstanding and the subject matter enlightening.

Source – personal copy.

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Arvida – Samuel Archibald (translated by Donald Winkler) – Best Translated Book Award 2016

Arvida is a small settlement of 12,000 people (2010) in Quebec, that is part of the City of Saguenay. Founded as an industrial city by the aluminium giant Alcoa in 1927, this is a settlement with dark secrets, ghosts, ritual body mutilations. For writer Samuel Archibald, Arvida “was a place of refuge wherealmost everything could be wiped away and forgotten Arvida was a town for second chances, undue hopes and also games.”
“Arvida has never been a town at the crux of history, but rather a place resolutely outside it.”, “a kind of working class mythology”, Arvida is like a photo, “a very beautiful photo from after the war, which was, like all beautiful photos, an empty picture, with practically nothing in it and everything outside it.”
Just like the town itself, our collection of stories live outside of the norm, they live on the fringes, and although a collection of short stories they form a cohesive whole, the dark corners of an industrial town, the secrets in families…
Samuel Archibald’s debut collection “Arvida” won the 2012 Prix Cuop de cœur Renaud-Bray in it’s original French language, and the English translation was shortlisted for the 20165 Scotiabank Giller Prize, one of the few writers writing in French to have made the shortlist with only four French language works since the prize began in 1994. Note: Not being an expert in French Language Canadian literature these figures may be slightly incorrect, I have included Pascale Quiviger for “The Perfect Circle”, Gaétan Coucy for “The Immaculate Conception” in 2006 and Daniel Poliquin “A Secret Between Us” in 2007.
The collection opens with the story of our narrator’s father, and all of his memories being associated with food, despite the fact that our narrator’s mother was an amazing cook, and his father loved food, he would sit and watch others eat their dinner, not partaking himself. A explained in the opening story, “My father and Proust, Arvida I”:
When I think about it now, the comedy darkens. The ore I age, the more something tragic makes its presence felt, the sense of a bitter nostalgia at the core of all things: the idea of wanting to do something magnanimous for people who ask for nothing and are in need of nothing; the idea of a sacrifice reduced to a risible and secret simulacrum; the idea that the object of desire has nothing to do with desire itself; the idea that fulfilment of the desire never satisfies it, nor does it make it disappear, and that in the midst of all the things longed for desire survives in us, dwindling into remorse and regret.
Our collection includes stories of hunting and large mythical cats, people with the profession of making others redundant, mixed with nature, the idea that it is larger than mankind itself. A tale of a botched illegal immigration from Canada into Detroit with a Costa Rican girl, a story that involved goons, cocaine, alcohol and not a lot of planning or money – it is the story of América.
Antigonish is a story of ceaseless travel and the pursuit of nowhere, somewhere:
America’s a bad idea that’s come a long way. I’ve always thought that, but it doesn’t paint a very good picture.
I should have said: America’s a bad idea that has gone every which way. An idea that’s spawned endless roads leading nowhere, roads paved in asphalt or pounded into the earth or laid out with gravel and sand, and you can cruise them for hours to find pretty much zilch at the other end, a pile of wood, metal, bricks, and an old guy on his feet in the middle of the road, asking:
“Will you goddam well tell me what the hell you’re doing around here?”
America is full of lost roads and places that really don’t want anyone to get there. It took fools to make these roads and fools to live at the end of them, and there’s no end of fools, but me, I’m another kind of fool, one of those who tries to reinvent history, pushing on to the very last road, and the very last god-forsaken destination.
I’m sure they’ve made a much more welcoming road not, with scenic walks and lookouts and all that stuff, but in those days, driving the Cabot Trail at night in the middle of a storm was a crazy idea. The guy at the Cape North gas bar had been polite enough not to say anything. He’d only said, “Drive fifteen, twenty miles an hour, no more, and God willing, you’ll get to the other end.”
With hints of the two Davids; Cronenberg, Lynch but with a distinctive small town voice that allows the tales to dribble unknown into your consciousness, this is a haunting collection, one that will slowly infiltrate your memory, just like living in a settlement on the fringes, these tales float on the fringes of your mind.
The story “A mirror in the mirror” tells the moving and haunting tale of a woman living in her deceased parent’s home, her husband away in Montreal, she lingers in the home and surrounds, not seeking an outside connection through to the tale “Jigai” the story of a woman who “came from the ends of the earth with pebbles in her pockets” and practices ritual body mutilation on the women of the surrounding areas, all with their permission of course.
Later in the collection there becomes a shift to the very personal “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness, Arvida II” a further account of the writer’s upbringing, family, his memories of Arvida; “there was nothing more Arvidian that to forget Arvida itself.” Which clearly our writer has not done! The continuing meta-fiction ends the collection with “Madeleines, Arvida III” a wonderfully personal story of how Archibald became a writer, how to tell stories (or not tellstories) and a circular reference to the beginning of the collection, and the opening lines.

The publisher Biblioasis says they are “committed to the idea that translations must come from the margins of linguistics cultures as well as from the power centres” and this is a collection for the margins, a brilliant travel into small town Canada. A work that will linger with me for quite sometime and one that I believe will be among the discussions when the Best Translated Book Award judges sit down to formulate their longlist.

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