Reading highlights of 2022: A baker’s dozen and then some…

It seems to me that last year I resisted the annual “best of” round-up right through December and then opened the new year with a post about some of my favourite reads of 2021 anyhow. This year I will give in, look back at some of my favourite reading experiences out of a year in which I had a wealth to choose from and aim to get some kind of list posted before friends start hanging up their 2023 calendars around the globe. In a year with war, floods, famine, storms and still no end in sight to Covid infections, books seemed more important than ever, as a respite, a record and a reminder that we, as human beings, have been here before and must learn from the past to face the increasing challenges of the future.

As ever, it is difficult to narrow down twelve months of reading to a few favourites. One’s choices are always personal and subjective, and many excellent books invariably get left out. This year especially—2022 was a productive and satisfying year for me as a reader and as a blogger. Not much for other writing, I’m afraid, but that’s okay.

This year I’m taking a thematic approach to my wrap-up, so here we go.

The most entertaining reading experiences I had this year:

Tomas Espedal’s The Year (translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson) was one of the first books I read in 2022. A novel in verse, it is wise, funny and, nearing the end, surprisingly tense as Espedal’s potentially auto-fictional protagonist careens toward what could be a very reckless act.

International Booker Prize-winning Tomb of Sand  by Geetanjali Shree (translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell) looks like a weighty tome, but blessed with humour, magic and drama—plus a healthy amount of white space—it flies by. An absolute delight and worthy award winner!

Postcard from London, a collection of short stories by Hungarian writer Iván Mándy (translated by John Batki) was a complete surprise for me. In what turned out to be a year in which I read a number of terrific collections of short fiction, I was a little uncertain about this large hardcover volume some 330 pages long, but by the end of the first page I was hooked by the author’s distinct narrative voice and I would have happily read many more pages.

The most absorbing book I read this year (and its companions):

City of Torment – Daniela Hodrová’s monumental trilogy (translated from the Czech by Elena Sokol and others) is a complex, multi-faceted, experimental work that explores a Prague formed and deformed by literary, historical and political forces, haunted by ghosts and the author’s own personal past. After finishing the book, I sensed that I was missing much of the foundational structure—not that it effects the reading in itself—but I wanted to understand more. I read Hodrová’s own companion piece, Prague, I See a City… (translated by David Short) and more recently Karel Hanek Mácha’s epic poem May (translated by Marcela Malek Sulak), but I would love to have access to more of the related literary material, much of which is not yet available in English. I suspect that City of Torment is a text that will keep fueling my own reading for some time.

This year’s poetic treasures:

This is the most challenging category to narrow down. I read many wonderful collections, each so different, but three are particularly special.

Translator John Taylor has introduced me to a number of excellent poets over the years and in 2022, it was his translation of French-language Swiss poet José-Flore Tappy’s Trás-os-Montes. I read this gorgeous book in August and it is still on my bedside table. It’s not likely to leave that space for a long time yet, and that’s all I need to say.  

I first came to know of Alexander Booth as a translator (and read a number of his translations this year) but his collection, Triptych, stands out not only for the delicate beauty of his poetry, but for the care and attention he put into this self-published volume. A joy to look at, to hold and to read.

Finally, My Jewel Box by Danish poet Ursual Andkjær Olsen is the conclusion of an organically evolving trilogy that began with one of my all-time favourite poetry books, Third-Millennium Heart. Not only is this a powerful work on its own, but I had the great pleasure to speak over Zoom with Olsen and her translator, Katrine Øgaard Jensen, for Brazos Bookstore in May. The perfect way to celebrate a reading experience that has meant so much to me.

Books that defied my expectations this year:

Prague-based writer Róbert Gál has produced books of philosophy, experimental fiction and aphorisms—each one taking a fresh and fluid approach to the realm of ideas and experience. His latest, Tractatus (translated from the Slovak by David Short) takes its inspiration from Wittgenstein’s famous tract to explore a series of epistemological and existential questions in a manner that is engaging, entertaining and provocative.

A Certain Logic of Expectations (you see the back cover here) by Mexican photographer and writer Arturo Soto is a look at the Oxford (yes, that Oxford) that exists a world apart from the grounds of the hallowed educational institution. Soto’s outsider’s perspective and appreciation of the ordinary offers a sharp contrast to the famed structures one associates with the city (and where he was a student himself) and what one typically expects from a photobook.

The third unexpected treat this year was The Tomb Guardians by Paul Griffiths. This short novel about the soldiers sent to guard the tomb where Jesus was buried is an inventive work that explores questions of faith, religion, and art history. Truly one of those boundary-defying works to use a term that seems to get used a little too often these days.

The best books I read in 2022:

Again, an entirely personal assessment.

I loved Esther Kinsky’s River, but Grove (translated from the German by Caroline Schmidt), confirmed for me that she is capable of doing something that other writers whose work skirts the territory occupied by memoir and autofiction rarely achieve, and that is to write from the depth of personal experience while maintaining a degree of opaqueness, if that’s the right word. One is not inundated with detail about the life or relationships of her narrators. Rather, she zeros in on select moments and memories, allowing landscape to carry the larger themes she is exploring. So inspiring to the writer in me.

Monsters Like Us, the debut novel by Ulrike Almut Sandig (translated from the German by Karen Leeder) deals with an extraordinarily difficult topic—childhood sexual abuse. It does not shy away from the very real damage inflicted by predatory family members, nor does it offer a magical happy ending, but it does hint at the possibility of rising above a traumatic past. As in her poetry where Sandig often draws on the darkness of traditional European fairy tales, she infuses this novel with elements and characters that embody the innocence, evil and heroic qualities of folktales within an entirely and vividly contemporary story. So much to think about here.

Hanne Ørstavik’s The Pastor (translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken) was my introduction to the work of a Norwegian writer I had a lot about over the years. This slow, melancholy novel set in the far north regions of Norway, beyond the Arctic Circle in the dead of winter, was a perfect fit for me as a reader, in style and subject matter. The story of a female pastor who takes a position in a remote village following a personal loss that she does not fully understand, explores emotional, historical and spiritual questions through a character who is literally stumbling in the dark.

So, what might lie ahead? This past year I embarked on two self-directed reading projects—one to focus on Norwegian literature for two months, the other to read and write about twenty Seagull Books to honour their fortieth anniversary. I found this very rewarding experience. Both projects were flexible enough to allow me freedom, varietyand plenthy of room for off-theme reading, but in each case I encountered authors and read books I might not have prioritized otherwise. For 2023 I would like to turn my attention to another publisher I really admire whose books are steadily piling up in my TBR stack—Archipelago. As with Seagull, they publish a wide range of translated and international literature that meshes well with my own tastes and interests. I don’t have a specific goal in mind, but already have a growing list of Archipelago titles I’d like to read. Other personal projects—public or private—may arise, perhaps more focused toward the personal writing I always promise to get back to, but time will tell. If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that it’s a long uncertain road from January 1st to December 31st and it’s best not to try to outguess what the road might hold. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst once more.

Best wishes for the New Year and thank you for reading!

“You weren’t made for this life” Marina Tsvetaeva: To Die in Yelabuga by Vénus Khoury-Ghata

It begins as it ends. With a beam, a rope, a chair and a window looking out on a hill, a cypress tree and a potato field. With a heart turned to stone through so many trials.

In her stark, poetic elegy The Last Days of Mandelstam, Lebanese-French poet and writer, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, aimed to bear witness to the final days and hours of Osip Mandelstam’s life that had passed unrecorded in a transit camp near Vladivostok, alternating between the dying poet’s feverish thoughts and delusions and delicately sketched moments from his past. With Marina Tsvetaeva: To Die in Yelabuga, she again begins with the final hours of another great Russian poet whose work was supressed during her lifetime, but her approach here is more direct. Woman to woman, poet to poet, Khoury-Ghata wants to trace the long, troubled journey that led Tsvetaeva to take her own life in 1941 at the age of forty-eight:

Hunched over your huge 750-page journal for months, I try to assemble the scattered pieces of your life, understand the reasons for your infatuations and your disappointments, especially your frantic desire to connect with men, women (some loved with words, others with hands) before you ended up alone, destroyed, bitter, unrepentant, ready to begin again.

Addressing her subject directly, Khoury-Ghata paints a spare, unsentimental portrait of a complicated, gifted woman whose creative intensity and constant need to be loved not only attracted but suffocated those around her. It is an effort to understand her demons and her pain.

Born into privilege, the daughter of a friend of the tsar who founded the Moscow Fine Arts Museum, Marina Tsvetaeva was a prodigy, studying music and French as a child, and publishing her first collection of poetry at age seventeen. She was soon drawn into literary circles where, through critic Max Voloshin, she met Sergei Efron whom she would marry in early 1912. Later that year, she gave birth to her first child, Ariandna (called Alya) just before her twentieth birthday. Her fame as a poet grew over the following years with the publication of further collections. Then, with the October Revolution, her fortunes rapidly began to unravel.

You had to learn how to live humbly, become invisible, not attract attention, expect at any moment to be denounced, arrested, deported shot.

As her late father’s connections become a liability and her husband joins the counter-revolutionary White Army, Tsvetaeva is reduced to begging from friends and struggling to get by, now with two children to support. She finds creative expression through writing plays and physical expression with lovers, but she allows her youngest daughter Irina to die of starvation at an orphanage where she had taken her girls in the hope that they would be fed. Her death is one of the many ill-fated decisions and situations that will haunt her.

Khoury-Ghata follows Tsvetaeva’s escape from the USSR to Berlin in 1922 where she plans to meet up with her husband whom she has learned is alive and studying in Prague. She falls in love while waiting, as is her nature, an act that never seems immoral to her, simply an outlet for the many passions that course through her being. When she and Alya, finally reunited with Sergei, settle near Prague, a new lover, her husband’s friend Konstantin Rodzevich, occupies her day, while writing commands the nighttime hours:

In the evening after supper, only the scratching of your pen on paper can be heard. Your fierce writing coupled with the desire to destroy what you have just written. Alya and Sergei, powerless spectators of your self-destruction. They watch you racing to the abyss but do nothing to stop you. The involuntary tear that you believe you wiped from the corner of your eye dilutes a word in passing. No tenderness for yourself. The horror is behind you.

In 1925, her son Gregory (known as Mur), in Tsvetaeva’s imagination the product of three men—her husband, her lover, and her great, impossible love Boris Pasternak—is born. Later that year the family leaves for France where she will live for more than thirteen years before finally returning to the USSR in 1939. New loves, including an passionate correspondence with Rilke, follow along with important literary output, but, over the years, continued economic strife will drive the Efron family into increasingly desperate situations. When she is unable to find a market for her poetry, Tsvetaeva reluctantly turns her hand to prose. Sergei, and ultimately Alya, who is often treated little better than a servant by her mercurial mother, become more politically engaged. It is impossible to feel safe and settled. The poet, so highly lauded in her teens, so desired by countless friends and lovers, finds herself alone and unloved. Most painfully, her long time supporter, yet elusive love object, Pasternak, is now lost in a new life as father and husband and no longer has time for her letters:

Pasternak has taken back the only gift he ever gave you: exaltation.

You blame your despair on everything around you.

The mirror above the sink is responsible for your wrinkles.

Too narrow, the worktable is guilty of drying up your inspiration.

Too noisy, your neighbours prevent you from concentrating.

Volatile, dynamic and passionate, the woman who comes to light in these pages is hopelessly dependent on the praise of others. She knows that she is not well liked among her fellow ex-pats, she has no qualms about engaging in romantic activities outside her marriage but is shocked and unsettled when she learns Sergei is contemplating divorce. Both her children come to lose patience with her; over time others learn to either humour or avoid her. Yet as with similar human emotional whirlpools, the one she ends up hurting the most is herself.

Khoury-Ghata’s Marina Tsvetaeva is not a strictly chronological account. Although she traces the general course of the journey that leads to the chair, rope and attic window in Yelabuga, because she is addressing her subject intimately, like a respected correspondent, a friend even, time is porous. Thus, a circle of Tsvetaeva’s friends, lovers, fellow poets and their assorted, often tragic, fates are recurring ghosts, living and dead, that delight, distract and trouble her throughout her life right up to that key final moment that is always present in the interrogatory second person narrative. Pasternak, Mandelstam, Mayahovsky, Biely, Akhmatova and more. Fragments of poems, letters and diary entries offer brief insight into the heart and mind of a woman who would come to be known as one of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth century, whose life sadly coincided with a dramatically turbulent time that was not made for her.

Marina Tsvetaeva: To Die in Yelabuga by Vénus Khoury-Ghata is translated from the French by Teresa Lavender-Fagan and published by Seagull Books.

Twenty Seagull books to mark forty years of publishing magic: A 2022 reading project wrap up

Long-time followers of roughghosts will know that I have a particular fondness for Seagull Books. They continually publish a wide range of interesting international and Indian authors, bring many to English language audiences for the first time and, oh, those covers! Senior Editor and Designer Sunandini Banerjee’s work is instantly recognizable, yet always original. And not only have I amassed a healthy collection of their publications, but I have also visited Calcutta twice, taught classes at their School of Publishing and treasured their friendship and encouragement over the years. I admire the work they produce, their dedication to supporting fellow independent publishers in India and abroad, and their work to further understanding and education through the Seagull Foundation for the Arts. So to mark their fortieth anniversary this year I decided, somewhat late in the game, to embark on a personal reading project. I promised myself that I would read and write about twenty Seagull books by year’s end. Twenty for forty.

And here we are.

To date, I have reviewed all but one of these books—the remaining review of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s Marina Tsvetaeva will follow in the next few days—but I wanted to stop and celebrate twenty excellent reading experiences before the holiday busyness begins. My reading naturally overlapped with my other 2022 self-directed projected, a focus on Norwegian literature, and the annual months devoted to Women in Translation and German Literature that I try to contribute to each year. Within and beyond that there was still plenty of room for variety. Two of the books I read were English originals—both from India—and the rest were translated: six German, four Norwegian, three French (two of which were by African writers, the third Lebanese-French), two Arabic, one Hungarian, one Dutch and one Bengali. I read five works of poetry/prose poetry, nine novels, three collections of short fiction, one long form essay, one play, and one graphic novel. Had I planned this project a little earlier I might have read more nonfiction, but as the year was rushing to a close book length became a deciding factor—December’s four books were necessarily shorter and that influenced choice!

Among this stack of handsome books are some authors I had already come to know and love through Seagull—Tomas Espedal, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Franz Fühmann, Ulrike Almut Sandig and Friedrike Mayröcker, plus one writer I have long wanted to read: Mahasweta Devi. But, as usual, there were some unexpected surprises among the authors I encountered for the first time, most notably German Jürgen Becker and Hungarian Iván Mándy.

Happy fortieth anniversary, Seagull! Here’s to an ever brighter future.

Books read:
in field latin by Lutz Seiler, (German) translated by Alexander Booth
Requiem for Ernst Jandl by Friedrike Mayröcker (German) translated by Roslyn Theobald
Shadow of Things to Come by Kossi Efoui (Togo/French) translated by Chris Turner
Mother of 1084 by Mahasweta Devi (India/Bengali) translated by Samik Bandyopadhyay
The Beloved of the Dawn by Franz Fühmann (German) translated by Isabelle Fargo Cole
Winter Stories by Ingvild Rishøi (Norwegian) translated by Diane Oakley
Love and Reparation by Danish Sheikh (India)
Ever Since I Did Not Die by Ramy Al-Asheq (Arabic) translated by Isis Nusair
The Second Wave by Rustom Bharucha (India)
Marina Tsvetaeva by Vénus Khoury-Ghata (Lebanese-French) translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan
Leaving by Cees Nooteboom, w/ drawings by Max Neumann (Dutch) translated by David Colmer
Love by Tomas Espedal (Norwegian) translated by James Anderson
Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Khal Torabully (Mauritis/French) translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson
The Sea in the Radio by Jürgen Becker (German) translated by Alexander Booth
The Dance of the Deep Blue Scorpion by Akram Musallam (Arabic) translated by Sawad Hussain
Monsters Like Us by Ulrike Almut Sandig (German) translated by Karen Leeder
Postcard from London by Iván Mándy (Hungarian) translated by John Batki
The White Bathing Hut by Thorvald Steen (Norwegian) translated by James Anderson
The Year by Tomas Espedal (Norwegian) translated by James Anderson
Ulysses by Nicolas Mahler, after James Joyce (German) translated by Alexander Booth

Absence is the only distance felt by the heart: Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Khal Torabully

Without a spurious memory,
the sole true blood, like salt
flowed around
every white seashell
wrenched from the belly of languages.

Speak so as not to forget—
isn’t this the true gift of tongues?  (p. 62)

The island nation of Mauritius, located in the Indian Ocean about 800 kilometres east of Madagascar, was uninhabited until the Dutch took possession of it in 1598. They named it after governor Maurice of Nassau, but despite two attempts to settle the island, they abandoned it to pirates. Mauritius was then occupied by the French East India Company in 1721 and renamed Ile de France. Over the next forty years settlement proceeded until the French Crown assumed control and established a thriving sugar cane industry, bring in African slaves to work the plantations. In 1810, the British captured the island. Four years later, their sovereignty was confirmed and the name Mauritius was restored but, in contrast to other British colonies, French customs, laws and language remained in place.

When abolition brought an end to slavery in Britain, pressure extended to the colonies and the replacement of slaves with indentured servants, primarily from India, began. Between 1849 and 1923, millions of men and women were brought to the island and beyond to other European colonies. Today, Mauritius, an independent Republic with administrative control of several nearby islands (including a still-disputed claim over the Chagos Archipelago), has a population reflecting its short history. Approximately two-thirds are of Indo-Pakistani origin, one-third Creole (French-African) and a small percentage of mixed Chinese heritage.[i]  A rich blend of cultures, traditions and religions have contributed to a diverse and growing economy in this small African country, but the wounds of a history of slavery and indentured servitude cannot be ignored. Countless people were torn from their homelands and transported in unsafe, sometimes deadly conditions to work in a harsh environment with little hope of ever seeing home again. Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Mauritian poet, essayist and filmmaker, Khal Torabully, is a poetic tribute to his own ancestors, and an attempt to give voice to those who made that fateful voyage, human cargo in the hold of ships, to the shores of Mauritius so many years ago.

I want to go to the grand bazaar
to seek at last the saffron of shadows
o refrain from your refrain
the hoist of spices clears the remains
o refrain from your refrain
for your bodies heaped on the wind:
cries of cumin: cries my journey’s route
cries of thyme: cries my future
cries of coriander corpses awaiting return.
And the bids of roots chased away
my terrified dreams all the way to hell.   (p. 37)

This collection moves backward, from the blended community of peoples forced into labour who not only held on to traditions carried in their memories, but, with the blending of cultures created a stronger community, through the horrors of the seabound journey, back to the point of departure from their distant motherland. Torabully’s mission is reflected in his reclamation and empowering of the word “coolie,” the pejorative term for primarily Indian and Chinese indentured workers once common throughout the colonies. Echoing Aimé Césaire’s term “Negritude,” he coins the idea of “Coolitude” to recognize the resilience, dignity and cultural and linguistic endurance of these forgotten men and women. By taking up their voices, he is at once giving them back their unique histories and setting them free:

Coolitude: because all humans have the right to a memory, all are entitled to know their first odyssey’s port. Not that this port is a refuge, but because in this place, forever unnameable, they raise those anchors that sometimes bind to their truth.

Yes indeed, all humans have the right to know the flames that ignite their dreams and silences. Even to be their own history’s moth.

By coolitude I mean that peculiar clashing of tongues which cracks the heart of hearts of millions of men for a history of crystals and spices, fabric and parcels of land.

Unsuspected music at the threshold of words from different horizons.

Within myself an encounter with those who invert the course of boats.

In a cargo hold of stars.  (p. 18)

Given the cultural diversity inherent among the population of the workers who were brought to Mauritius, honouring their experiences demands a language of its own. As translator Nancy Naomi Carlson explains in her Foreword, Torabully developed a “poetics of coolitude” by creating “a new French, peppered with Mauritian Creole, Old Scandinavian, old French, mariners’ language, Hindi, Bhojpuri, Urdu and neologisms.” The playfulness and musicality of his verse serves to accentuate the serious, even tragic themes that recur throughout this work, but provided a unique challenge for Carlson, whose wonderful translation of this work has been awarded the 2022 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. She employed a “sound mapping” technique, identifying “salient patterns of assonance, alliteration and rhyme in the original, using a colour-coded system to help keep track within each poem, then tried to infuse this music into [her] translation without sacrificing the original meaning.” The results invite reading aloud—the resulting poems read like a cycle of songs—verses recited in the fields, on the ship, around the home fire. Songs of longing, songs of loss, songs of hope.

Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Khal Torabully is translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson and published by Seagull Books.

[i] Historical and population data from Britannica.com. https://www.britannica.com/place/Mauritius

No one’s immune from miracles: Shadow of Things to Come by Kossi Efoui

The destiny that now draws me far away from here is still called life, but I have to admit it’s like a leap into the void. They say that before he hits the ground a man falling from a great height sees all the moments of his existence come together and drain from him in batches of images.

And for me, it’s in batches of mingled words—that the life that brought me here is melting away.

In what unfolds as one final personal war of words, echoing against the darkness that surrounds him, the speaker at the heart of Shadow of Things to Come explains what has brought him to the edge of an uncertain future. Piece by piece he pulls together the memories that comprise his twenty-one years of life, essentially setting down the details of his past and readying himself to let go of all he has ever been and known. As he recounts his story, he chooses his words carefully, holding onto them in the shifting moonlight, for his is a society in which language has been reduced to meaningless nicknames and slogans. Through a spare and cautious narrative, the image of an Orwellian nightmare slowly takes shape.

This novella by Togolese author and playwright, Kossi Efoui, is set in an unnamed African nation which has fallen under some kind of dictatorial rule in which, during the first stage—the “Time of Annexation”—people are disappeared and forced to work at a place known as the Plantation until relieved by death or madness. Once the “commodity” (oil) is discovered, everything shifts. The disappearances stop and a new future is imagined. Now, in the service of “Mother Rebirth,” an aggressive campaign begins to bring tribal forest dwelling peoples into the “modern” world—for their own good and to secure pipeline passage for the precious resource. Although Efoui has lived in self-imposed exile in France in opposition to the Gnassingbé regime, since 1992, it would be misleading to read this dystopic work as any kind of direct analogy for his homeland or any specific historical or political condition. The origin of the society his characters live in is never explored. As a result, this tale has an  amorphous quality that makes it widely applicable in space and time. And all the more disquieting for it.

The speaker, from the room in which he is hiding, recalls that he was five years old when his father, a saxophonist, was spirited away by two shadowy figures. The removals appeared random. Agents would arrive with the common incantation: On account of the circumstances, prepare yourself to be temporarily removed from your nearest and dearest, and forcibly take their chosen target or targets away. But before they left, they would take all photographic evidence of the human forms they had come to retrieve. At the time it was unknown where all these unfortunate souls had been taken, only that “temporary,” like so much of the language employed, was devoid of meaning. Appropriate language was but another regulated item in a society in which compliance to an ever changing set of rules and guidelines was inforced:

Words themselves seemed to suffer the same restrictions as the circulation of approved commodities. The word ‘annexation,’ for example, was not to be heard anywhere. The way things were in my childhood, we kept silent a lot.

That degradation…says the speaker.

The loss of the speaker’s father drove his mother mad, she was soon committed to an institution and he was left in the care of Mama Maize, an eccentric woman who cared for a large group of abandoned or orphaned children, supporting herself by whatever means possible. Her goal was to pass on to them the tools, practical and emotional, that they would need to survive. Her moto was: No one’s immune from miracles.

And one day a miracle does occur. The speaker’s father returns, one of a minority of those who managed to survive removal. The speaker is nine years old by this point, The End of the Times of Annexation has been marked by celebrations of Independence and Rebirth, and when he has long given up hope of a reunion, out of the dust and shadows a man emerges still holding a saxophone case, “barely a skeleton, almost membraneless, wholly incapable of embracing—and voiceless.” The occasion is immediately recorded by a photographer.

The condition of the speaker’s father affords him a pension and a place to live in this new world order. Father and son move into this unit along with Ikko, an abandoned boy from Mama Maize’s home who is mistakenly added to the family group and becomes the speaker’s “administrative brother.” Our hero is a bright boy and this leads to his acceptance into the Spearhead Institute several years later. He is on his way to a promising future within the country’s societal structure but the confrontational atmosphere of the school puts him off. In time he finds himself skipping classes to hang out at Antique Editions, a bookstore run by Axil Kemal, a man who becomes a big brother or surrogate father, and offers an introduction to a world that runs against the norms of the rigid dictates of the state. It will be a mind opening relationship:

That’s what he was for me, the guide for my curiosity. At an age when you learn to believe in ‘thinking masters’, Axis Kemal was my laughing master and, sheltered beneath that laughter, my mind was kept safe from the diseases of truth, he said—that acne of the soul, he said.

It will also be a vital connection when the speaker has to make a decision about his own commitment to the future that is being laid out for him in a duplicitous society where what is said cannot be trusted and what is not being said cannot be fully imagined.

Shadow of Things to Come is, above all, a story about language and communication. The narrative itself is one step removed from a straight first person account—the protagonist’s reflections are being reported by an unknown third person narrator, who is listening to him, occasionally referring to him as “the speaker.” This undefined relationship, given the circumstances, adds a layer of uncertainty and potential threat. Whether he aware of his audience or not, the speaker is attentive to the power of words. To their use and misuse. He regularly comments on his ability, learned at an early age, to read the hidden intentions of others by the slightest creases in their faces. This is a skill that allows him to decipher the truths behind words, those spoken and left unsaid. But lack of communication, as with his mute and damaged father, troubles him deeply, as do the strange markings his adopted brother Ikko makes after returning from his conscripted service in the so-called “Frontier Challenge.” The tendency of people to fall back on slogans and stock phrases undermines communication and blurs the truth, but, of course, that is the point. When you can no longer trust what anyone says, one either goes with the program or looks for a way out. And to escape you may have to leave even your words behind.

Shadow of Things to Come by Kossi Efoui is translated from the French by Chris Turner and published by Seagull Books.

At the back of the west wind: Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution by Eric Dupont

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance  in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

These words of Marx occur twice in course of Eric Dupont’s Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution: early on, underlined in the book lying open on the lap of the protagonist’s recently deceased mother, and again as the story nears an end. But between the two occurrences it’s pure farce—even the tragic bits.

One has to wonder what goes on in the imagination of Dupont, the Quebec writer whose works have won awards and garnered impressive nominations in both the original French and in English translation. With his latest release from QC Fiction, he has defied the odds of conventional storytelling to pull folktale magic, Marxist idealism, sex work, the politics of language and culture, and a curse reaching back through the centuries into one oddly contemporary tale. From the outset it is probably best allow yourself plenty of rational wiggle room, accept the premise of the proposed wild goose chase or fool’s errand at the heart of Rosa’s grand adventure, assured that however unlikely, the novel’s internal logic will be disclosed before the last page is turned. And ten to one you won’t see it coming!

Our heroine here is Rosa, named after the famous revolutionary socialist, raised by her trade unionist mother, Terese Ost, and Aunt Zenaida, an anachronistic old woman, one hundred years behind the times, who literally emerged from a large block of ice Terese and her daughter found on the shore near their village and dragged back home to thaw before the stove. Home is Notre-Dame-de-Cachelot, a tiny hamlet “forgotten by God and all of humankind” out on the Gaspé Peninsula “where the wind can be a crutch to lean on.” Until it’s not. Little Rosa is raised on a healthy diet of Marxist ideology and regular rounds of Scrabble, but things are not good in Notre-Dame-de-Cachelot. The paper mill has closed down, and the local economy has been forced to rely on a mysterious gas called Boredom which is tapped and sold to foreign interests.

And then, one day, the wind suddenly stops just as a leak occurs in one of the pipes accessing the source of the precious, albeit poisonous, gaseous commodity. Soon, people start dying of Boredom, beginning with Rosa’s mother. Without the wind to disperse the fumes, the village is doomed. Rosa tries to find solace in her socialist texts but to no avail. Instead, the potential solution comes to her when she finds a giant winkle shell on the shore, places the massive mollusc to her ear, and hears her mother’s voice advise her that the wind comes from the west—from Montreal. Immediately Rosa, who is now twenty, knows what she must do.

So off she goes. Waiting for the bus to take her into the city she meets an international troop of strippers (as one does), and much to their collective surprise, a woman pulls up in a minivan and offers to give them all a lift. This savoir is Jeanne Joyal and it just so happens that she runs a boarding house for young women where Rosa is welcome to stay. All too perfect? All too perfectly weird, I’d say. Naive and trusting, Rosa arrives in Montreal dressed like someone from a distant era and immediately finds a job in a pay-by-the-hour motel, across from a club where her new friends perform Communist infused lurid acts for an audience containing more than a few national political figures . Of course, she has no idea what she has just walked into, but her simplicity and openly accepting character inspires the strippers and hookers in her work environment to look out for her and gently educate her about the less savoury aspects of the world.

What makes this most unlikely scenario work is the central character, the fabulously innocent Rosa Ost. She evolves and hardens as time goes on, but her trust and dedication to her seemingly impossible task is endearing. At her lodgings, she learns that her landlady is tough, set in her ways and determined to educate her young charges, Rosa and three others, in the intricacies of Quebec history whether they want it or not. Our protagonist is often the one to take a risk and stand up in defense of her roommates. Like a good socialist.

There is romance, there is betrayal and there is mystery against a backdrop of political realities true to the timing of the narrative—late 2000, following the death of Pierre Elliot Trudeau—and still valid today. Language and cultural tensions are growing, the climate is an increasing concern and attitudes toward women, especially those in the sex trade, are marked by double standards that still prevail. The weakest link in this wild tale is a running gag about dialects that doesn’t necessarily translate smoothly. For it to work one has to read the Gaspé and Acadian seasoned dialogue with the correct accent. In English it risks falling flat. But it’s not a huge element within the narrative overall. Playful and irreverent this improbable farce is a fun read with a strangely satisfying, if bizarre, ending that ties up the loose ends in the wildest of knots.

Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution by Eric Dupont in translated by Peter McCambridge and published by QC Fiction.

Somewhere between night and day: Trás-os-Montes by José-Flore Tappy

Dark, endless,
lampless
behind the windowpanes

the night

Yet even it
ends up famished
can be heard fidgeting,
shrinking to better flee,
suddenly escaping
over the roofs

Spare, essential in its spirit, the voice of Swiss poet José-Flore Tappy strikes a distinctive note  from the first lines of “The Corridor,” the poem that opens Before the Night, the first part of her book Trás-os-Montes—a note that continues to rise off all the pages that follow. Born in Lausanne in 1954, Tappy is a highly respected writer, researcher and translator. The present collection of poetry, her seventh, was awarded the prestigious Swiss Prize for Literature in 2019 and is now available in a dual language French / English edition in John Taylor’s translation. (Her first six books were released in a single volume as Sheds / Hangars in 2014, again in Taylor’s translation, available from Bitter Oleander Press.)

In his Preface, Taylor provides an overview of the key poetic elements at play in the poems, linking them, where appropriate, to a continuation or development of approaches emerging in Tappy’s earlier poetry. His long association with the poet and her work allows him to contextualize the themes that arise, but a conversation between poet and translator recorded and published in translation in The Fortnightly Review, offers a valuable opportunity to hear Tappy discuss her poetic philosophy and this work in particular. In speaking about her own poetic evolution, she notes that Spanish and Latin American poets have had an abiding presence in her life and writing. Taylor wonders how this influence is reflected and she responds:

Surely natural elements in all their intensity: the Mediterranean, the arid lands, the most deserted landscapes, or the poorest landscapes. This is where my imagination goes and where I recover my roots. I have spent many moments of my life on one of the Balearic islands, and I came of age in the midst of an environment that was at once solar and maritime — and very harsh, where sunlight can be hostile, the vegetation overgrown and inhospitable, where the violence of nature demands a strong existential response from a human being. The southern European landscapes and their inhabitants, the harshness of their daily lives, have always accompanied me: Spain, but also Sicily, Greece, and Portugal.

This sensitivity to the human-natural interplay of intense landscapes is directly evident in Trás-os-Montes which is set in Portugal and Spain, along with an extended poetic epigram set in Greece. The first series of poems, Before the Night, feature a village woman, Maria, as she tends to the tasks of her daily life in “Trás-os-Montes” (which means “on the other side of the mountains”), an impoverished, isolated region of northern Portugal with an aging population clustered in small villages, almost forgotten by the rest of the country, bound to this austere lifestyle by deep ancestral roots.

Tiny and bent over
the sink, so far from us
in her blue apron, lost
in her rain boots, she’s sorting
the black cherries, setting the ripest
off to the side, separating them
from the rotten ones

She seems to be measuring
an old dream from a distance,
visiting it with her fingertips

behind the bare windowpane
the clouds
leave stains

We see her tending her garden, cleaning her home, straightening a fence, heading off to market, engaging in communal activities. But this is more than a quotidian cataloguing of chores or portrayal of a life shaped by the forces of nature and defined by time. The precise, economical language carries its own emotional and existential weight. Through the speaker’s observations of this woman who is at once a real person and someone who stands for a kind of “universal humanity,” Tappy is exercising a form of distanced depiction to ask questions about what life means. She says:

This book does not draw her portrait, nor address her (she will obviously never read me!). It’s actually the opposite that happens. . . Without her knowing so, this discreet hardworking woman holds out a mirror to me, and in this mirror I look at myself. This woman is a lamp for me. She illumines me and helps me to think, to think about myself.

This sequence of poems, then, lays the groundwork for those of the second section, The Blank Hour. Here the tone is more personal, while landscape—natural and man-made—becomes an even stronger feature, as trails and roads lead the speaker into an encounter with an intimate past.  Although in neither section is a location explicitly stated, these poems are ostensibly set in the Balearic Islands of Spain where Tappy has spent much time during her life. The imagery is bleak and beautiful, coloured with an atmosphere of memory and loss that grows deeper as the sequence proceeds.

But for those who go afar
with neither lamp nor landmark
under a sky of black snow,
the earth with its lighthouses,
its bits of bone, its rockets,
the earth so noisy during the day,
every evening closes up
like a wooden chest
over hope

There is, again, a real person at the centre of The Blank Hour, someone Tappy once loved who has passed away. Her speaker, the lyric “I” which she understands as “an ‘augmented I,’ as it were, composed of personal experiences but also of projections of my imagination,” addresses this individual and encounters his absence in the places they once knew together. Her language, so evocative, illuminates the experience of sorrow and grief so perfectly. Our losses always seem magnified, not only by specific locations but by the vastness of the universe itself.

Today the tamarisks
covered with dust from the trucks,
pink stars become gray
that you’ll never see again,
persist,
and the enamel-bright houses
bunch together. In silence
they stand, staving off
absence

A single fault line suffices, however,
and that look from the past returns,
slipping by mistake
into the heart, reopening
what had been locked up so well

a nearby star twinkling
and ripping

In reading Trás-os-Montes, one has a sense of journeying alongside the speaker, yet at the end we are each, poet and reader alike, left alone to understand the destinations we have reached. Tappy’s poetic process is openly existential in a way that prescribes no specific conclusion. The story she is telling, she claims, is not her own but rather a means to self-understanding: “By writing, I get myself going on a path, towards a deeper, renewed self.” As such, the story we read, is, at least to some degree, our own, shaped and coloured by our lives and experiences. And that is the true beauty and power of poetry.

Trás-os-Montes by José-Flore Tappy is translated from the French by John Taylor and published by MadHat Press.

Reading Women in Translation: Looking back over the past twelve months

For myself at least, as Women in Translation Month rolls around each August, there is, along with the intention to focus all or part of my reading to this project, a curiosity to look back and see just how many female authors in translation I’ve read since the previous year’s edition. I’ve just gone through my archives and am pleasantly surprised to find twenty titles, the majority read in 2022. Within this number are several authors I’ve read and loved before and a number of new favourites that have inspired me to seek out more of their work.

First among these is Lebanese-French writer Vénus Khoury-Ghata, whose The Last Days of Mandelstam (translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan) so thrilled me with its precision and economy that I bought another of her novellas and a collection of poetry, Alphabet of Sand (translated by Marilyn Hacker). I’ve just learned that another of her Russian poet inspired novels, Marina Tsvetaeva: To Die in Yelabuga, will be released by Seagull Books this fall. I can’t wait!

 

The advent of the war in Ukraine instantly drew my attention to a tiny book I had received from isolarii books. The name Yevgenia Belorusets became suddenly and tragically familiar as her daily diary entries from Kiev were published online. I read that small volume, Modern Animals (translated by Bela Shayevich), drawn from interviews with people she met in the Donbas region and as soon as it became available I bought and read her story collection Lucky Breaks (translated by Eugene Ostashevsky). Although both of these books reflect the impact of war in the east of the country, they could not be read without the context of the full scale invasion underway and still ongoing in her homeland.

Another author I encountered for the first time that inspired me to read more of her work was Czech writer Daniela Hodrová whose monumental City of Torment (translated by Elena Sokol and others) is likely the most profoundly challenging work I’ve read in along time. Upon finishing this trilogy I turned to her Prague, I See A City… (translated by David Short and reviewed with the above) which I happened to have buried on my kindle. A perfect, possibly even necessary, companion.

My personal Norwegian project introduced me to Hanne Örstavik, whom I had always meant to read. I loved her slow moving introspective novel, The Pastor (translated by Martin Aitken) and have since bought, but not read, her acclaimed novella, Love. However, lined up to read this month, I have her forthcoming release in translation, Ti Amo, a much more recent work based on her experience caring for her husband as he was dying of cancer. The only other female author I brought into this project was Ingvild H. Rishøi whose collection Winter Stories (translated by Diane Oatley) was a pure delight. I have been making note of other female Norwegian writers to fill in this imbalance in the future.

The past year also brought new work by two of my favourite poets: a book of prose pieces by Italian poet Franca Mancinelli, The Butterfly Cemetery (translated by John Taylor), and the conclusion to Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s epic experimental trilogy, My Jewel Box (translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen). In May I had the honour of speaking with Olsen and Jensen over Zoom for a special event—it was a fantastic opportunity I won’t soon forget. I also became acquainted with a new-to-me Austrian poet, Maja Haderlap, through her excellent collection distant transit (translated by Tess Lewis) and have since added her novel Angel of Oblivion to my shelves.

Among the many other wonderful women in translation I read over the past year, Geetanjali Shree’s International Booker winning Tomb of Sand (translated by Daisy Rockwell) needs no introduction—it is an exuberant, intelligent and wildly entertaining read. On an entirely different note, Rachel Careau’s brilliant new translation of Colette’s classic Cheri and the End of Cheri completely surprised me. I had no idea what a sharp and observant writer she was, in fact I didn’t know much about her at all and I discovered that she was quite the exceptional woman. Changing direction again, In the Eye of the Wild, French anthropologist Nastassja Martin’s account of her terrifying encounter with a bear in a remote region of Siberia (translated by Sophie R. Lewis) approaches the experience in an unexpected manner that I really appreciated.

Keeping with nonfiction for a moment, Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country by Cristina Rivera Garza (translated by Sarah Booker), a collection of essays about contemporary Mexico, was a difficult, necessary read. Annmarie Schwarzenbach’s account of her overland journey to Afghanistan with Ella Maillart in 1939, All the Roads Are Open (translated by Isabel Fargo Cole) was another book I had long wanted to read that did not disappoint but which carries much more weight given the more recent history of that region. Finally, My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi (translated from Tamil dictation by Nandini Murali) offers vital insight into the lives of hijra and trans women and trans men in India from a widely respected activist. Tilted Axis in the UK will be releasing this book to an international audience later this year.

Rounding out the year, were three fine novels. First, I after owning it for years, I finally read Seeing Red by Chilean writer Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell) and was very impressed. Last, but by no means least, I read two new releases from Istros Books who have an excellent selection of women writers in their catalogue. Special Needs by Lada Vukić (translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić) captures the slightly magical voice of child narrator with an undisclosed disability in a remarkably effective way, while Canzone di Guerra by the inimitable Daša Drndić (translated from the Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth) offers a fictionalized account of her years in Canada as a young single mother that was most enlightening for this Canadian reader.

I have, at this point, seven books selected for this year’s Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth) and we’ll see how I manage—and now I also have a goal to exceed for the eleven months before August 2023! I would, by the way, recommend any of the titles listed above if you are looking for something to read this month.

You who have loved me: Chéri and The End of Chéri by Colette (A new translation by Rachel Careau)

“My poor Chéri . . . It’s strange to think that in our loss—for you of your spent old mistress, for me of my scandalous young lover—we have lost the most honorable thing that we possessed on earth . . .”

It might surprise many English speaking readers to learn that writer, journalist and actress Colette was one of the most important literary figures in twentieth-century France, second only to Proust. Beautiful, resourceful, and sexually liberated, known for her liaisons with women and younger men, her persona may seem to overshadow her talent even though her better known contemporaries held her in very high esteem. And, of course, there is the matter of her gender and the name she ultimately chose to use which, contrary to expectation is not a diminutive but rather her last name. She was born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in 1873, would be the first woman elected president of the Académie Goncourt and, upon her death in 1954, she was given a state funeral. Yet if, as Lydia Davis suggests in her Foreword to the recently released edition of Chéri and The End of Chéri, Colette has not generally been afforded the respect she enjoyed in her native country, that may begin to change thanks to Rachel Careau’s brilliant new translation of two of her best loved works.

In her extensive and informative Translator’s Note, Careau discusses the unique qualities of Colette’s language and exposes the challenges of preserving the taut beauty of her prose:

what becomes most apparent to the reader of her work in the original French is its extreme and seemingly effortless economy: it contains no excess, no ornament, nothing beyond the essential. Her sentences can feel skeletal, the flesh carved away to convey their meaning with the fewest possible words. A master of concision, subtraction, condensation, renunciation, she is always trying to do more with less: “You become a great writer,” she states, “as much through what you refuse your pen as through what you grant it.”

This economy is difficult to capture without the temptation to fluff the pillows a little, correct her punctuation, fill in missing conjunctions, relative pronouns and even invent adjectives so as to keep her language from appearing too stiff—a tendency that marred earlier translations. But then one risks losing the spirit that animates her work. At once ornate and lean, her sentences flow unhindered by unnecessary clutter. Fond of ellipses, she paints small details with carefully selected words, side glances and intimations allowed to just drift unfinished into the air. Her ear for dialogue, both spoken and unspoken, is finely tuned, sharp and sharpened with complex emotion and barbed intensity. Chéri and its companion novel, The End of Chéri offer, in Careau’s crystalline translation, a welcome opportunity to fully appreciate the power of Colette’s literary talent.

Chéri, originally published in 1920, famously revolves around the affair of an aging courtesan, Léa, and her lover, affectionately called Chéri, a vain and spoiled young man nearly twenty-five years her junior. Set in the final years of the Belle Epoque, amidst the acquired (and sometimes feigned) luxury of the leisured class—not the uppermost layer of society but the strata composed of courtesans, former prostitutes and dancers—hers is not a work of social commentary. Colette’s tapestry features the intricacy and dynamics of human interaction: affection, obsession, deception, hostility, even tedium. She was a keen observer, not only of people, but of plants and animals. Small dramas play out on the page, but the magic lies not so much in what is happening as in how it is depicted in her precise, spare elegant prose.

Chéri has a languid pace, despite the inevitable romantic dissolution that lies at its core. It opens with the petulant, self-absorbed Chéri, playfully donning Léa’s pearls while she observes him from the depths of her bed. They have, at this point, been together for six years although she has known him since he was a small boy as he is the son of a long-time friend and fellow courtesan. He is twenty-five, while she is nearing her fiftieth birthday. The dynamics of their relationship are dissected, dramatized in intimate detail. Colette zooms in on the hint of a smile, the arch of a brow, the subtle movement of a limb. Repeated images—the cast of light, mirrored reflections, passing aromas—serve to heighten the tensions simmering beneath the surface of every thought or interaction. Chéri is aware of his beauty, terrified of losing it, suspecting perhaps that little lies beneath the surface. Léa is also conscious of the creeping ravages of time but her confidence and security runs deep after a lifetime of carefully leveraging her charms:

She stood up, wrapped herself in a dressing gown, and opened the curtains. The midday sun entered the cheerful, overly decorated pink room whose luxury was dated, double lace panels at the windows, rosebud-pink faille on the walls, gilded woodwork, electric lights veiled in pink and white, and antiques upholstered in modern silks. Léa would not relinquish either this cozy room or her bed, a considerable, indestructible masterpiece of copper and wrought iron, severe to the eye and cruel to the shins.

It has always been inevitable that Chéri would one day be expected to take a suitable bride, but when that day arrives suddenly and sooner than either he or Léa anticipated, neither one is prepared for how it unsettles their personal and emotional  equilibrium.

The End of Chéri, conceived of separately and published six years later in 1926, is essentially a companion piece and completion of what can be understood as one work. It is now 1919, six years after the setting of Chéri, and war has changed everything and everyone except, tragically, Chéri himself in spite of his time in the trenches. Still beautiful, his beauty will no longer suffice. His young wife, Edmeé, to whom he was needlessly cruel, is now more than capable of holding her ground. The only character who insists on calling Chéri by his proper name, Fred, she is managing a hospital for wounded soldiers, clearly in love with the head doctor, and together with Chéri’s mother, managing the family fortune. Unable or unwilling to take up any meaningful labour, Chéri drifts through the days, looking for an anchor in past connections and spiraling deeper into depression.

The End of Chéri has a darker, even tighter tone. Physical descriptions can be brutal, grotesque—and often wryly funny—filtered through the thoughts of the characters, revealing more about the viewer than the viewed. Chéri is at once the central and increasingly isolated figure. New power dynamics are revealed, playing out between the many female characters who are strong, independent, even eccentric. Likewise, the fabrics, the colours, the floral displays, the household routines evoke an atmosphere that drives Chéri to become more bitter and defiant. Léa, in their shocking reunion, quickly diagnoses him:

 “You have altogether the look of someone who suffers from the sickness of the times. Let me speak! . . . You’re like all your fellow soldiers, you’re looking for paradise, eh, the paradise that’s owed to you, after the war? Your victory, your youth, your beautiful women . . . You’re owed everything, you were promised everything, well, it’s only fair . . . And you find what? A nice ordinary life. So you become nostalgic, spiritless, disappointed, depressed . . . Am I wrong?”

“No,” Chéri said.

Because he thought he would have given a finger off his hand to make her shut up.

The impact of the war is present throughout this novel, but always beneath the surface, a tribute to Colette’s impeccable restraint. The characters, their appearances, conversations and mannerisms hint at how great a shift has occurred. The world will never be the same, and, sadly, some of the most profoundly wounded victims are those who were untouched in battle.

Chéri and The End of Chéri is my first introduction to the work of Colette and I am grateful to have made my acquaintance with her through this attentive and astute translation. I came to know of Rachel Careau through her translations of another very different and yet very distinct French author, Roger Lewinter. With this release, English language readers finally have the opportunity to appreciate the economical beauty of Colette’s prose, her strong, independent female characters and her ability to expose the timeless vulnerabilities and strengths of the human condition.

Chéri and The End of Chéri  by Colette is translated by Rachel Careau with a Foreword by Lydia Davis and published by W. W. Norton.

Seven (slightly vain) exercises in style: Rabelais’s Doughnuts by Pierre Senges

French writer and playwright, Pierre Senges, is a most subtle conjuror who casts a sidelong glance and exercises a sharp pencil to bring literary, historical, and contemporary notions together in unexpected intermixtures of fact, fiction and philosophy. An erudite alchemist, he spins extravagant, satirical, richly intertextual essays and imaginings that exploit that hallowed ground between the actual, the probable and the impossible. He may be dancing in the footsteps of Borges and Calvino, but Senges is the choreographer of his own inimitable style.

I have read and reviewed several of Senges’ works—the brilliant The Major Refutation, a conspiracy theory for the ages, the collaborative Geometry of Dust, and the chapbook Falstaff: Apotheosis—but on the menu today is an assortment of his idiosyncratic musings, half a dozen plus one tasty treats gathered together for the first time as Rabelais’s Doughnuts. Translated, like the other works, by Jacob Siefring, a veritable Senges evangelist, this slender volume is published by Seattle-based Sublunary Editions, their third contribution to the mission to bring more of the prolific French writer’s oeuvre into English. Six of the seven titles included in Rabelais’s Doughnuts were previously published in a variety of online and print journals over the past decade, but Siefring’s translations have been revised for this collection.

It tends to be difficult to succinctly summarize a Senges story/essay without tripping over one’s words. The most straightforward pieces here are two that involve Michelangelo’s famed painting Last Judgement. The first, “Last Judgment (detail),” is one of my favourites, revolving around a real person and situation that I was unaware of and would have thought to be entirely fanciful were it not for our friend Google. (One of the great joys of reading a writer like Senges is that he inspires a reader to look up an individual or a circumstance to find out what he is referencing—for those more cultured than myself that might be unnecessary, for those to impatient to seek out the subtext it could be frustrating, but in my mind it is a bonus.) This first Michelangelo piece considers the fate of Daniele Ricciarelli (called Daniele da Volterra or “il Braghettone”) who was commissioned to add tasteful coverings to several of the unsuitably exposed figures in the great artist’s masterpiece. With a certain empathy, Senges considers the task, the betrayal of his master, to which Daniele Da Volterra is committed:

When he draws, he draws, when he paints, he paints: depending on the point of view, the veils of the Braghettone benefit from his skill as the author of a Descent from the Cross, which has since become famous (famous as a reference, not as a celebrity). Or rather, it’s quite the opposite, one hundred and fifty veils fastened like so many pairs of underwear on the men and women of Judgement Day, all stretching towards their salvation or damnation, and disregarding as they would disregard a prune a nakedness that is more or less suited to the gravity of the occasion, one hundred and fifty veils are a valuable exercise for a painter.

The other Michelangelo related piece, “Measure of All Things,” imagines its way into the mind of the influential and critical writer Pierre Aretino who wrote an open letter to the artist offering his opinion on The Last Judgment.

Other works sing the dubious praises of the six hundred page novel, riff on one of Heinrich von Kleist’s prescient anecdotes about possible long distance communication, dragging it piecemeal into our modern world of the internet and Amazon, muse about writing exercises, and take on the character of a counterfeiter baring his sorry soul, such as it is, to a client. Figures from history and literature appear throughout, sometimes even providing a framework for Senges’ wide-ranging reflections. “Many Ways to Stuff a Watermelon” is a perfect example. He wanders through the libraries of a host of real and fictional characters, from the scant collections Russian writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky granted his impoverished characters, to the actual library an aging Giacomo Casanova found refuge in, this tribute to libraries great and small will resonate with anyone who collects more books than they can ever hope to live long enough to read. In this, one English writer’s despair at the incalculable extent of available material speaks volumes (so to speak):

The reader’s tininess signifies the brevity of our lives: it follows that the impossibility of reading everything takes the measure of our mortality, provoking frustration and vertigo at the same time—to Thomas De Quincey, in any case, one hundred thousand forever unknown volumes brought forth tears which he compared to those of Xerxes countenancing the death of his soldiers: not some “fanciful case of misery”, but “as real a case of suffering as ever can have existed.”

Senges’ elaborate language and dry wit allow him to take a small idea and expand it into an intelligent, extravagant exercise, one that takes chances but always steers close to the truth, or a truth, digging freely into the past to make astute observations about the here and now. If you are new to his work (or well acquainted), this short collection is a an ideal way to meet (or spend more time with) this witty, intelligent writer.

Rabelais’s Doughnuts by Pierre Senges is translated from the French by Jacob Siefring and published by Sublunary Editions.