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!

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

“That’s how I remember it.” Postcard from London and Other Stories by Iván Mándy

Making the acquaintance of Iván Mándy, one of the most popular Hungarian writers of the post-war period, is one of the unexpected highlights of my reading year. Postcard from London and Other Stories, which gathers twenty-three stories and two novella excerpts, is the first comprehensive collection of his work to be published in English and, as with such larger volumes, there is always the risk of a certain sameness setting in. Yet, with Mándy, the appearance of the same characters and variations or extensions on related themes, is part of the appeal. His stories tend to tread the murky internal waters of his protagonists’ minds, so even when covering the same ground, one never really steps in the same stream twice.

Born in Budapest in 1918, Mándy’s parents divorced when he was young, leaving him in the care of his unconventional journalist father. He moved from school to school, but did not complete his formal education. Much of his writing draws on these early years of his life, channeled through his rather hapless alter ego János Zsámboky. He published his first work during the Second World War and, within a few years he was recognized with the Baumgarten Award. However, the advent of Communist rule in 1948 supressed his literary and editorial career until things started to loosen up in the mid-fifties. Through the sixties and seventies, his popularity grew as he published many novels and stories, often producing as much as a book a year. He died in 1995.

As a writer, Mándy focused his attention on life in the poorer communities of Budapest, on the eccentrics, the lonely and the misfits of society. But his stories often depend less on plot than on an ability to evoke mood, character and scene with a handful of words. Here, a room:

All around, the barren summer wasteland of the parquet floor. The carpets rolled up on the top shelf of the closet. Like defeated political dignitaries. Ousted statesmen.
“The Morning of the Journey” (1989)

This becomes especially apparent in his work from the 1970s onward. By employing techniques borrowed from radio plays and cinema, his narratives begin to explore the shifting textures of the narrator’s mindscape, as memories, desires and anxieties rise and fall away, carrying the voices of strange and familiar figures encountered in the past and present, sometimes leaving his protagonist treading an uneven border between daydreaming and waking states. Thus it is often less any question of getting from point A to B, than the uncertain effort of getting nowhere at all along a pathway strewn with ghosts and sly objects, as well as those surrounding individuals who are still negotiating the “real” world.

The stories collected in Postcard from London are drawn from Mándy’s writings published between 1972 and 1992, translated by John Batki. Along with a variety of assorted pieces, there are two main series of connected or related stories involving Mándy’s alter ego, János Zsámboky. The first set, mostly but not exclusively from the early 1970s, involve his parents—primarily his engagement with his memories of his erratic, unreliable father and his quieter mother. Their ghosts haunt him. In the opening story, “A Visit with Father,” as János is reluctantly preparing to visit his father in the hospital, he recalls his parents’ seemingly abrupt separation, his father’s second marriage, and more recently, his aging father’s decline into the delusional and suicidal behaviour that ultimately forced him to have the old man hospitalized. The second tale, “A Visit with Mother,” sees János once again preparing for a trip to the hospital, this time with a dress and stockings, for his final encounter with his proud and resilient mother who is lying in the morgue. These two stories are the perfect introduction to János’ somewhat anxious character, his parents, and the basic outline of their lives. Together they set the stage for “What Was Left,” the wonderful 50-page story that follows. Here our hero is sorting through documents, receipts, photographs and diary entries in an empty apartment, attempting to piece together gaps in his knowledge of his parents’ lives while Father and Mother engage him (and each other) from the beyond. Seamlessly slipping between, past and present, first and third person, Mándy weaves a portrait of a fractured family that is funny and bittersweet. This familial cast which also includes Olga, the second wife and her family, and Mother’s Aunt Vali (“with the balcony-sized bosom”) appears in a number of stories, but it is always Father who looms larger than life, determined to claim his space in his son’s imagination forever:

In my dreams, he still comes and goes, expostulates, protests. He lives his own life. Somehow, he gets wind of everything. Some old, netherworldly newspaperman must have told him that I got married after he died. In the corridor of dreams, he accosts me with a gentle reproach. ‘You didn’t even introduce me to your bride, kiddo . . .’ And he still stubbornly insists that I arrange for him to return home. ‘I’m fed up with prowling around.’
“The Original” (1974)

János’ wife Zsuzsi first appears, in this collection, in a story from 1974, “A Chapel, Afternoon” but it is in a later sequence of stories chronicling a trip to London (1989 and 1992) that Mándy’s alter ego reveals himself to have become an aging, distracted writer, unwilling traveller and obstinate companion to his sensible, patient partner. His mind is now even more prone to wandering. His dreams are fantastic, even horrific, channelling his waking fears; figures from his past—real or imagined—interrupt his conversations; and when left to his own devices he is inclined to turn the action of strangers into potential scenarios for future stories. He even encounters possible characters in his own visage as in this scene from “An Afternoon Sleeper” where he waits in a cold changing room in London:

Four mirrors around me, four mirrors and four faces. On one side, a sharp diplomat’s face. Not exactly glowing with confidence. And that deep, dark under the eyes. This diplomat is about to be relieved of his duties. Something is not quite right about him. His services are no longer needed. He’s being recalled. And God only knows what awaits him back home. . .

Facing me is a sly old greybeard. Winking. A dirty old man. Never did a stroke of work in his life. He chased little girls instead.

A superannuated actor. Face fallen apart. Eyes glazed. Forget about ever getting another part. Not even as an extra.

A haggard, leaden face. A night waiter. Not exactly seedy, but somehow unreliable. He has no steady customers. A very few strays, at the most.

The door of the booth opens.

A heather green jacket appears. Behind it, Zsuzsi and the silver-haired salesman.

Other protagonists make their way through various stories, but János continues to appear regularly, through to the end. As the above quote illustrates, Mándy can call a character into being with few brush strokes and create a situation within which he or she must respond to the everyday strangeness of life.

Finally, I would be remiss not to call attention to the way Mándy, influenced by his fondness for Buster Keaton, blurs the lines between material and human existence. Suitcases, articles of clothing and other objects are often animated, in passing, through the use of verbs or descriptions not typically applied to things. This is one of the many ways in which his prose echoes poetry, but in an excerpt from the novella “Furniture” he playfully takes this tendency one step further. Through a series of vignettes, with or without human co-stars, furniture—chairs, tables, living room suites—take centre stage. Unusual, perhaps, but not unexpected or out of place, in the literary universe Iván Mándy imagines into being. This welcome collection offers an excellent opportunity to explore that idiosyncratic space.

Postcard from London and Other Stories by Iván Mándy is translated from the Hungarian by John Batki and published by Seagull Books.

The heartbreak of a parent’s love: Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi

“How children suffer for their parents, and parents for their children.”

The setting is Sárszeg, a fictional Hungarian town at the turn of the twentieth century, a nondescript dusty community with one black topped road and its own illusions of class and society aspirations – a fine restaurant, a theatre and a gentleman’s club – but for anyone with eyes on true cosmopolitan existence it is but a provincial backwater. To the Vajkays, Ákos, his wife, and his daughter Skylark, it is home. They live quietly, increasingly keeping to themselves over the years. Father has taken an early retirement for health reasons and spends his days pouring over historical volumes, tracing out family trees and studying heraldry. Mother tends house with the assistance, or perhaps under the direction, of her daughter, who, at age 35, can safely be considered a spinster beyond the faintest chance of any marriage prospects.skylark

Unfolding with the feeling, at least on the surface, of a gentle fable, this short novel by Hungarian author Dezső Kosztolányi (1885-1936) covers the span of one week in the lives of the Vajkay family. At the outset Mother and Father (and that is what they are most frequently called) are diligently cramming everything their beloved daughter may reasonably require into an old suitcase in preparation for her visit to her aunt and uncle in the country. The week that she will be away is the longest that they have ever been parted.

As the train carries Skylark away, her parents stand on the platform, rather numb and bereft. How will they make it through the long days ahead? They have always been a unit though, truth be told, fate, not choice has rendered the situation thus. The couple had long since discarded the serious hope that their homely daughter would secure a suitor. Only the vaguest flickers remained and they did not burn bright. And that fact bound them to her ever more closely with each passing year:

“Skylark was a good girl, Ákos would often say, to himself as much as anyone else. A very good girl, his only pride and joy.

He knew she was not pretty, poor thing, and for a long time this had cut him to the quick. Later he began to see her less clearly, her image gradually blurring in a dull and numbing fog. Without really thinking any more, he loved her as she was, loved her boundlessly.”

Skylark’s absence in their home is felt acutely at first. The hollowness weighs in on her parents. Having decided to eat out while their primary cook is away, the couple (referred to as “elderly” though they are only in their late 50s) reluctantly take themselves off to the King of Hungary, the restaurant their daughter has assured them is passable if less than desirable on all counts. It was the best option. Cultivating condescending opinions of almost any aspect of community life was a popular Vajkay family pastime – a practice that achieved little more than to assure their social isolation. Yet, away from Skylark’s influence, Father is soon delighting in the restaurant’s gastronomic offerings, reconnecting with his circle of old friends, and even enjoying a little alcohol and a cigar after a lengthy period of health related abstinence. Their resurfacing in public does not go by unnoticed:

“Strangers turned to look at them as they passed. Not that there was anything unusual about their appearance. People simply weren’t accustomed to seeing them there in the street, like old couches that belong in the living room and look so strange when, once or twice a year, they’re put outside to air.”

Soon the couple is invited to the theatre, Mother buys a crocodile handbag for the occasion and together they are warmly welcomed back into the life of the town. The flurry of excitement they experience, freed from the strict influence of their daughter, surprises them both. But when Ákos returns from his triumphant re-appearance at the local gentlemen’s club’s regular Thursday night dinner obnoxiously intoxicated, Mother and Father are forced to confront an ugly suspicion that both have harboured but neither has dared to speak: Do they still love their daughter? Or has pity has matured into hate? The tension that builds from that point forward takes a sharp twist the following evening when Skylark’s train is greatly delayed.

Filled with a cast of eccentric secondary characters, and fueled by a mildly sarcastic humour, Skylark is tale is told in a highly entertaining, direct manner that moves at a strong, steady pace to a simple yet heartrending conclusion. This is a fundamentally human story. At its core is a poignant truth that each member of this small family carries in his or her own way – a deep sadness that holds them together and defines them in their world.

kosztolanyi2Published in 1924, Skylark was Kosztolányi’s third novel. He started out as a journalist before turning to poetry and then fiction. He was also an important critic and translator and, in 1931, he served as the first president of the Hungarian PEN Club.

1924-ClubThis NYRB edition features an extensive introduction by Hungarian writer Péter Esterházy which not only details the author’s life but examines the significant impact he had on the Hungarian language itself. The translator of the text and introduction is Richard Aczel.