Category Archives: Literature in Translation

The School for Misfit Children: Such Fine Boys by Patrick Modiano

The Modiano titles that I’ve read so far, Little Jewel, Suspended Sentences, and this latest novel published by Yale University Press, all have a mysterious yet emotionally languid quality to them.  It is both odd and compelling to mix these tones in a narrative but the author does it, quite successfully, in all three of these books.

Such Fine Boys describes a French boarding school for boys in the mid-twentieth century.  Modiano’s description of The Valvert School in the first few pages of the book is strange and even a bit dark:

The Valvert School For Boys occupied the former property of a certain Valvert, who had been an intimate of the comte d’Artois and accompanied him into exile under the Revolution.  Later, as an officer in the Russian army, he fell at the Battle of Austerlitz, fighting against his own countrymen in the uniform of the Izmailovsky Regiment.  All that remained of him was his name and a pink marble colonnade, now half ruined, at the back of the park.  My schoolmates and I were raised under that man’s morose tutelage, and perhaps some of us, without realizing it, still bear the traces.

The fourteen chapters in Such Fine Boys each contain a different story about a boy who attended the school.  The young men that attend Valvert come from wealthy, aloof families who don’t have very much time to spend with their children and as a result they become melancholy, feckless adults.   Most of the stories are told from the first person point-of-view by a man who is a former student at the school named Patrick.  The author shares more than a name with his protagonist since Modiano also spent most of his young life in a French boarding school and saw very little of his parents.  Another oddity of the novel is that two of the stories are told by a different narrator, another former student named Edmond who becomes a minor actor in a traveling theater troupe.

The narrator’s interaction with each of the boys at Valvert is overshadowed by a mysterious set of circumstances.  A boy named Michel Karve, for example, is described as having a cold and formal relationship with his parents who don’t visit very often.  Even though Michel’s parents are wealthy, the boy wears badly fitting clothes and is fed simple meals while his parents dine out with friends.  Michel sends the narrator to his parent’s apartment to retrieve his few belongings and never wants to have anything to do with his parents again.  As is typical in all fourteen vignettes in the book, the narrative raises many questions about Michel’s circumstances that are never fully explained.

The chapter that best illustrates the languid tone of Modiano’s stories is the one which describes an old schoolmate named Alain Charell. When the narrator meets Alain by chance at the Gare du Nord he reminisces about the boy he knew at school: “What had become of his parents? His father, with his saffron-yellow hair and mustache, looked like a major in the Indian Colonial forces.  Had they disappeared, like their lawn and their Trianon?  I didn’t dare ask.”  Alain and his wife, Suzanne, have a bizarre open marriage and have sex with random strangers while the other spouse listens in the next room.  They both seem to take quite a few drugs and one night, in particular, Suzanne suffers from the affects of whatever substance they are ingesting as she must be held up and taken to the restroom by her husband.

One night while the narrator is sleeping he receives a startling phone call from Alain who insists that he and his wife must see him. Alain says on the phone, “Come right away.  It’s urgent.”   When the narrator arrives at a brassiere, no details about the importance of such a sudden meeting are given; they sit for a while in the crowded restaurant and they eventually take a walk around the deserted city.  The only word I could think of to describe these bizarre events and the tone with which they are conveyed is languid, unexpectedly languid:

After a while, Suzanne rested her head on my shoulder.  They surely didn’t want me to leave, and I suddenly thought we might spend the entire night on this bench.  On the other side of the empty street, from a tarpaulin-covered truck with its lights out, two men in black leather jackets were unloading sacks of coal with rapid, furtive movements, as if on the sly.

What was so urgent that the narrator was suddenly woken out of a sound sleep?  Why didn’t he ask his friends these questions immediately?  Perhaps, once again, it is something he didn’t dare ask.

Trevor at “The Mookse and the Gripes” has also reviewed this title as well as Modiano’s other latest release, Sundays in Augusthttp://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/30/patrick-modiano-such-fine-boys/

 

 

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Filed under Literature in Translation, France, French Literature

To Capture Someone’s Heart: North Station by Bae Suah

Korean author Bae Suah’s latest writing, although a collection of short stories, is equally as experimental, cutting-edge, and captivating as her novels. Each story in this volume, brilliantly translated by Deborah Smith, is laden with her poetic images and philosophical meditations. One theme that she returns to throughout the writing is that of reconnection after a long period of separation that involves both distance and time.  As in her previous novels her characters are consumed by wanderlust.

In the title story “North Station,” a man and a woman stand silently on a train platform in an unnamed city. As they wait for the train to arrive the gentleman has a strong desire to kiss this woman but the reason for their awkwardness is hinted at later in the narrative: “Young women of a certain type were both recurring characters in his life and predators who preyed on him, and even now he remembers them well.” As is typical with Suah’s writing, one must pay very careful attention to every detail on the page in order not to miss the most interesting parts and striking images of the story.  Daniel Green has written an insightful series of essays at The Reading Experience about innovative female authors and I would include Suah as one of the writers whom he describes as experimenting with the “Movement of Language.”  His description of the writings of Noy Holland as “using an alternative mode of composition through which ‘character’ and ‘story’ are not abandoned but emerge as the afterthought of the movement of language, the characters and plots subordinated to the autonomy of that movement” is also apt for characterizing the language of Suah’s stories in this collection and her novels.

While the narrator in “North Station” is waiting for the train, his lover’s presence causes a series of memories to invade his mind.  During his short time on the train platform, the man recalls a collection of writings by a suicidal, exiled author with whom he greatly identifies; he remembers a woman he met in a different city whose address is the only tangible thing he knows about her anymore; he reflects on the attic room he stayed at during his university days in which he reads passionate poetry.  One of my favorite passages is one in which he reflects on relationships and the metaphor of lover as hunter:

Who would have first used the expression “to capture someone’s heart?” A hunter, perhaps, who would know deeply how it feels to capture a beating heart, a living thing, how the one doing the capturing finds himself captivated, in thrall to the sense of his own omnipotence?  Like capturing a fawn or kit still warm from its mother’s heat.  Someone who, like the hunter, introduces himself into his victim’s eyes at such an early stage.  Who deploys his imagination to render in his mind’s eye that state of utter despair to which the lack of any exit, the terrible clarity of this fact, gives a paradoxical sweetness.  Who reproduces this state through what we call a verbal expression.  In such a way, the expression would have been born not through those who are captured, but through those who do the capturing.  Since the victim has no time for song.

Suah’s greatest strength as a writer lies in her ability to take what at first appears to be disjointed images and scenes and weave them together into a singularly beautiful story. The attic room, the poetry, the woman on the platform he longs to kiss are all connected in her character’s mind with a meditation on time and space: “When was it that he had last kissed a woman so ardently, his lips as passionate as when they pronounced poetry? In that city or this, at the house of his acquaintance or on the platform in the north station, while waiting for the train.”

The entire collection is as riveting and poetic as the title story: an author recalls several visits to her mentor, a young man is reconnected with a former lover while struggling with questions about his sexuality, a playwright experiments with how to portray time on the stage. These stories are a great place to start for those looking to get a taste of Suah’s innovative style of writing. For those of us already familiar with her previous novels, it is exciting to once again encounter more of the author’s intriguing and thought-provoking prose.

Photo credit:  Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Cupid, armed with a bow and arrow, flies in through the window to a room where two naked lovers lie asleep on a couch. Etching.

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Short Stories

How Do You Write About Mediocre Books?

There are three books I read over the summer that didn’t inspire me to write complete reviews or posts.  If a book is really not resonating with me then I will abandon it, and I really don’t have the time or energy to waste on negative reviews.  These three titles kept my attention until the end but I would call them mediocre and could not muster enough enthusiasm or words for a full post.  I am very curious to see how other bloggers handle such middle-of-the-road books.

Adua, written by the Somali, Italian author Igiaba Scego and translated by Jamie Richards, moves among three different time periods and two different settings.  The main character, Adua, emigrates from Somalia to Italy and her own story is a mix of her current, unhappy life and flashbacks to her childhood in Somalia.  The third thread in the book deals with the protagonist’s father and his time spent as a servant for a rich Italian who is part of the Italian attempt at colonialism in East Africa just before World War II.  My issue with the book is that I wanted more details about Adua and her father but the plot was too brief to provide the depth of plot and characterization that I craved.  The author could have easily turned this story into three large volumes about Adua’s childhood, her father, and her adult life as an immigrant in Italy.  Adua did prompt me to research and learn more about Italian colonialism in the 20th century but other than that I didn’t have strong feelings about the title after I finished it.

Late Fame, written by Arthur Schnitzler and translated by Alexander Starritt, involves an episode in the life of an older man named Eduard Saxberger who is suddenly reminded of a collection of poetry entitled Wanderings that he had written thirty years earlier and has long forgotten.  A group of Viennese aspiring writers stumble upon Saxberger’s volume in a second hand bookshop and invite him to join their literary discussions at a local café.  Saxberger, although he never married or had a family,  considers his life as a civil servant very successful.  The young poets, whom Schnitzler satirizes as bombastic and overly self-important, stage an evening of poetry readings and drama at which event Saxberger is invited to participate. Saxberger learns that although it is nice to get a little bit of late fame and recognition from this ridiculous group of writers, he made the correct decision in pursuring a different career.  Trevor at Mookse and The Gripes has written a much better review of this book than I could have done and I highly encourage everyone to read his thoughts: http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/08/arthur-schnitzler-late-fame/

Party Going by Henry Green describes exactly what the title suggests: a group of British upper class men and women are attempting to get to a house party in France but are stuck at the train station in London because of thick fog.  Green’s narrative starts out on a rather humorous note as he describes these ridiculously fussy, British youth.  They panic with what Green calls “train fever” every time they think they are in danger of missing their train.  They fret over their clothes, their accessories, their luggage, their tea and their baths.  As the story progresses they become increasingly mean and petty towards one another which made me especially uncomfortable.  The men are portrayed as idiots and dolts who are easily manipulated by the vain and churlish women.  In the end I found Green’s characters so unpleasant that I couldn’t write an entire post about them.  I’ve read and written some words about his novels Back and Blindness both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I still intend to read all of the reissues of his books from the NYRB Classics selections even though I wasn’t thrilled with Party Going.

So which titles have my fellow readers found mediocre?  Do you bother to write anything about the ones that are just okay?

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, German Literature, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Novella

I’m Heroically Free: Água Viva by Clarice Lispector

I brought along a copy of Clarice Lispector’s  Água Viva with me on my beach vacation last week thinking that a book whose title can be translated as “living water” or “jellyfish” would be quite fitting.  I quickly realized that Lispector’s book, although a mere 86 pages, would take me some time to read and fully absorb.  I had to approach this text as I would a dense, meditative, philosophical volume of poetry, something to be digested slowly, one small piece at a time.

This book is nearly impossible to critique, but on a the most basic level it can be described as an unnamed narrator attempting to capture her thoughts about intense, philosophical topics such as time, life and death.  She tells us that up until this point she was engaged in painting but has put down her paint brush and taken up her pen and typewriter instead.  Throughout the text she is acutely aware of her process and oftentimes returns to discussions of painting and music and the similarities among all of these art forms.  She is also very fond of describing things in nature—flowers, a turtle, cats, a cave, oysters, the sea are all beautifully described as she experiences them.  The narrator seems to be addressing a lover but so much of the text reads like a personal meditation that the text could very well have been written as a meditation to the author herself.  But, as so often happens with this book, just when we think we grasp her meaning, she reaches for another topic which may or may not be connected.

I noticed during my first time reading through the text that the words free and freedom appeared quite a few times.  I kept this in mind as I read Água Viva  through a second time and had a very different experience than my first encounter.  I actually went back and counted and found she uses the words free or freedom sixty times in this short narrative. The title of her book, which evokes images of the ocean, is especially fitting because of the freedom and weightlessness we feel when swimming in the open sea.  In addition, the narrator’s unstructured writing frees her from the constraints of a traditional narrative and she often returns to a discussion of her process throughout her text:

A new era, this my own, and it announces me right away.  Am I brave enough? For now I am because I come from the suffering afar. I come from the hell of love but now I am free of you.  I come from afar—from a weighty ancestry.  I who come from the pain of living. And I no longer want it.  I want the vibration of happiness  I want the impartiality of Mozart.  But I also want inconsistency.  Freedom? it’s my final refuge.  I forced myself to freedom and I bear it not like a talent but with heroism: I’m heroically free.  And I want the flow.

But her interest in freedom goes much deeper than the form, or lack of form, that her writing takes.  The narrator’s existential crisis is being worked out on the pages before us in an attempt at self-knowledge that will make her free.  As I read through her text I was also reminded of the many factors in our lives that make us feel chained down, not free—clearly defined gender roles, time, space, love.  Love, in particular, seems to threaten her freedom on more than one occasion.  But she  always writes her way out of her restraints and embraces her freedom.  I will end with a few of the passages in which she contemplates this freedom:

To remake myself and remake you I return to my state of garden and shadow, cool reality, I barely exist and if I exist it’s with delicate caution.  Around the shadow is a heat of abundant sweat.  I’m alive.  But I feel that I have yet to reach my limits, borders with what? without borders, the adventure of dangerous freedome.  But I take risks, I live taking risks.

Yes, this is life seen by life.  But suddenly I forget how to capture whatever is happening, I don’t know how to capture whatever exists except by living here each thing that arises and no matter what it is: I am almost free of my errors.  I let the free horse run fiery.  I, who trot nervously and only reality delimits me.

And suddenly I feel that we shall soon part.  My frightened truth is that I was always yours alone and didn’t know it.  Now I know; I’m alone.  I and my freedom that I don’t know how to use.  Great responsibility of solitude.  Whoever isn’t lost doesn’t know freedom and love it.

 

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Portugese Literature

Ernesto: The Unfinished Novella of Umberto Saba

Umberto Saba’s unfinished novella Ernesto, published this year in a new English translation by The New York Review of Books, is part of an ever-growing body of recent literature that explores the idea that human sexuality is more pliable and fluid than the rigid labels to which we assign it. The latest novels by Bae Suah (A Greater Music), Andre Aciman (Enigma Variations), and Anne Garreta (Sphinx and Not One Day) have also opened up important conversations about experimentation with sexuality. But what sets Ernesto apart and makes it stand out among the works of these other authors is that it was written in 1953, a time in which many considered homosexuality scandalous, or often illegal.

Born in 1883, in the Mediterranean port of Trieste, Italy, Umberto Saba is best known for his deeply personal and honest poetry. Written at the age of seventy when, after suffering one of his many nervous breakdowns, and confined to a sanatorium in Rome, Ernesto tells a loosely autobiographical coming-of-age tale about a boy’s burgeoning sexuality. Estelle Gilson, the translator, writes in her introduction to the NYRB edition, “What he was writing was for himself alone—his adolescent experiences in Trieste as they suddenly welled up within him and demanded release.”

Like his teenage protagonist in Ernesto, Saba was abandoned by his father, raised in Trieste by an aunt and a single mother, worked in a flour factory at the age of sixteen, and had serious questions about his sexuality. Because of the autobiographical and sexual content of Ernesto, Saba showed his drafts to a few carefully chosen confidants. In addition to his doctor at the sanatorium, one of the only other people to read Ernesto was Saba’s daughter, Linuccia, to whom he would send parts of the manuscript with very strict instructions about keeping his writings secret. In his letters to Linuccia, Saba requests that his daughter keep his drafts in a locked container and that she send his writing back to him immediately after reading it. Linuccia took her father’s instructions seriously and didn’t publish Saba’s novella until 1975, nearly twenty years after the author’s death.

Composed in five “Episodes” with an additional section entitled “Almost a Conclusion,” the strength of Saba’s writing lies in the bold and, at times, brutally honest language that he employs throughout his text. Set in Trieste, in the last few years of the nineteenth century, the sixteen-year-old protagonist is raised by his single mother and his elderly aunt. Ernesto’s world reflects the diversity of Trieste which, because of its location in northeastern Italy between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia, was influenced by Italian, Slavic and German cultures. During this period of time, Trieste is an Imperial Free City within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and had been under Hapsburg rule since the fourteenth century. Although most of its citizens were Italian and loyal to an Italian Republic, Germans controlled the bustling business and commerce of the city and held positions of power.

Ernesto works as an apprentice in a German flour factory where he meets a laborer, a lower-class Triestine, identified as “the man” with whom he has his first sexual encounter. Ernesto’s erotic exploits with the man leave him bewildered, ashamed and confused not only because of the illicit nature of his experiences, but also because he is still sexually attracted to women.  Ernesto’s sexual encounters with the man take place in the first Episode but the emotional consequences linger with Ernesto throughout the narrative. The language of Saba’s Ernesto is candid, especially when describing the titillating and erotic first sexual encounter between Ernesto and the man. The two negotiate the intimate details of what the sex will be like as Ernesto is both excited and scared about this new experience:

“There’s a lot of things you can do in an hour,” the man said urgently.

“And what do you want to do?”

“Don’t you remember what we were talking about yesterday? That you almost promised to do. Don’t you know what I’d like to do with you?”

“Yeah, put it up my ass,” Ernesto replied with quiet innocence.

In an essay entitled “What Remains for Poets to do,” Saba argues that “It remains for poets to write honest poetry.” Saba applies this pursuit of literary honesty to his prose as well when he inserts his own commentary into the text to explain and justify Ernesto’s explicit language. Saba’s interjection of his own voice into the narrative are some of the most beautiful and enlightening pieces of writing in the novella:

With that brief, precise utterance, the boy unwittingly revealed what many years later, after many experiences and much suffering would become his “style;” his going to the heart of things; to the red-hot center of life, overriding resistance and inhibitions, foregoing circumlocutions and useless word twistings. He dealt with matters considered coarse, vulgar (even forbidden) and those considered “exalted” just as Nature does—placing them all on the same level. Of course, he wasn’t thinking of any of that now. He had blurted the sentence (which practically had a laborer blushing) because the circumstance warranted it.

The episode ends with an act that deftly mixes emotions of both tenderness and shame: the man kindly turns over the stained sack of flour at Ernesto’s request so that no one will be suspicious of what happened between them.

Shame is a theme that Saba returns to repeatedly in his narrative as Ernesto attempts to find fulfillment, pleasure and love with a man and a woman. The fact that the man is never given a name is perhaps significant because Saba, likely through his own sense of shame at recalling these events, can’t bring himself to give Ernesto’s seducer a true identity. After two months, Ernesto decides that he can no longer keep having these sexual encounters with the man because they make him feel dirty and keeping such a secret from his mother feels shameful and wrong. After his trysts with the man, Ernesto has the overwhelming desire to prove himself a man and is impatient to have sex, for the first time, with a woman. He is ashamed because all of his friends have bragged about sleeping with women and the only sex he has had is with a man. Shame is what motivates him to seek out sex with a prostitute which erotic scene in the book is equally as tender and explicit as the one with the man. This time, however, he gives the prostitute a name because sex with a woman, even though it is a prostitute, is not as shameful as having sex with a man.   Once Tanda undresses Ernesto, she finds the best position that will give Ernesto the most pleasure for his first time. And after he climaxes she washes him with a disinfectant and his sense of shame and embarrassment cause him to excessively overpay her and leave suddenly.

Themes of loneliness, alienation and sadness—demons with which Saba himself wrestled throughout his life—also pervade Saba’s coming-of-age narrative. Ernesto is initially drawn to the man who propositions him with sex because the man loves the boy. Because of the absence of a father in his life, Ernesto wants to please the man who shows him affection and adoration. He likes the prostitute because she is warm and tender with him and this causes him to eagerly anticipate his next visit with her. Ernesto’s mother is stern with him and shows him little affection although affection is something he craves more than anything. Like many young people inexperienced with matters of intimacy and sex he mistakenly equates physical attention with emotional connection and love.

Some of Ernesto’s sadness, alienation and even shame is relieved by the unlikeliest of characters, his dour mother. Ernesto’s mother is a presence that lingers throughout the entire story and even when the man is trying to seduce him, Ernesto mentions his mother and the guilt he feels over keeping a secret from her. The woman, who was abandoned by Ernesto’s father before the boy was born, is overbearing and overprotective of her only child. Yet, she believes that she must be harsh in her rearing of the boy and must not show him very much affection. When Ernesto no longer wants sex with the man, he gets himself fired from the factory so he never has to see him again. The loss of his job devastates Ernesto’s mother and he feels compelled to confess his true reasons for not wanting to return to the factory. When Ernesto tells his mother in great detail about the whole affair with the man, the full force of the emotional connection between mother and son is fully revealed. Saba writes a touching scene that is sympathetic to both the character of Ernesto and his mother:

With his mother’s kiss and the sense that he would be forgiven, Ernesto felt himself reborn. It was one of the few kisses she had ever given him. (The poor woman wanted so much to be, and even more to be seen as, a “Spartan mother.”)

The narrative structure of the novella centers around a triangulation of people—the man, the prostitute and Ernesto’s mother—who provide the boy with affection and comfort.

We can’t help but wonder if Saba’s own sense of shame and loneliness haunted him for the rest of his life and was the reason, at least partially, for his many depressive and nervous episodes for which he was hospitalized. He was married for many years, and although they remained married, the couple’s relationship was troubled and they spent quite a bit of time living apart. It is fitting that Saba writes Ernesto in the last few years in his life as part of his therapy in the sanatorium. But it appears that so many years of shame and hiding who he truly was became too exhausting for the author because he can’t gather enough strength to finish writing Ernesto. Saba writes about his decision to leave his novella unfinished: “Add to those pages Ernesto’s breakthrough to his true calling, and you would, in fact, have the complete story of his adolescence. Unfortunately, the author is too old, too weary and embittered to summon the strength to write all that.”

Even though Saba’s text is incomplete, he gives us enough of a glimpse into pivotal events in the life of Ernesto to make his novella an important, historical piece of gay and bisexual literature. It also helps us better understand Saba’s poetry which writing is equally as personal and intense as Ernesto. To this end, I include a particularly apt final poem of Saba’s called “To the Reader” filled with all the conflict and terror that Saba perhaps felt in composing Ernesto:

This book, Good Reader, though a balm to you,
shames its creator and should go unread.
Although he spoke as a living man, he was
(or should have been, for decency’s sake) dead.

 

(This review first appeared in the July issue of Numero Cinq.)

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Filed under Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation