Everything about everybody is nothing but diversion from death: Yes by Thomas Bernard

One would never accuse Thomas Bernhard of being a cheerful, optimistic writer—his fiction tends to themes of isolation, human misery and the deterioration of modern society. But that’s not to say he isn’t funny. His characters are typically wildly eccentric, usually scientists or scholars of some kind, with musical and/or philosophical inclinations. Yes, his fifth novel, originally published in 1978 and translated into English in 1991 by Ewald Osers, is a shorter work that ticks all these boxes and, for my money, is crafted with just the right balance of idiosyncratic energy and narrative tension.

Many of Bernhard’s novels and stories are presented through a secondary narrator, a friend or acquaintance who records the protagonist’s account, a style that can, at times, necessitate backtracking through a particularly serpentine sentence to determine whose words are actually being described. Yes features a direct first person narrator, a scientist living alone in a rural area in a ramshackle dwelling he retreated to many years earlier to dedicate himself to his studies on antibodies. Beyond science, his passions are the  music Schumann and the philosophy of Schopenhauer, most specifically The World as Will and Idea. The story he wants to impart, one which now lies at some distance, concerns the impact that the arrival of a Swiss engineer and his long-time companion, a Persian woman, had on his life and well-being at a point when he had reached the absolute depths of depression and despair. It is naturally, a roundabout exposition, beginning with the sudden arrival of the so-called Swiss couple at the home and office of his friend the realtor Moritz upon whom he has just unloaded the full and horrible truths of his mental sickness and self-loathing. He immediately recognizes in the Persian woman a certain kinship and a release from the suffocating conditions of his own mind and the stifling community he lives in. Over the course of the novel, he seeks to learn more about this man who had purchased a most undesirable piece of land with intent to build on it, and to further his association with his life-partner:

While the Swiss was busy, in the small towns nearby, looking for door and window fittings, for bolts and grilles, screws and nails and for insulation material and marine paint for the concrete house which, as I learned from him at our first meeting, he had himself designed and which was already going up behind the cemetery, and in consequence was almost never to be found at the inn (the Swiss couple’s quarters for the duration of the construction), I myself, quite suddenly and probably at the life-saving moment snatched by the couple from my depressed state, or in truth from a by then life-threatening depression, suddenly found in the woman friend of the Swiss, who soon turned out to be a Persian born in Shiraz, an utterly regenerating person, that is an utterly regenerating walking and thinking and talking and philosophizing partner such as I had not for years and would have least expected to find in a woman.

What unfolds is a relatively straightforward, well-paced, focused and affecting novel. There is humour, carried primarily in the narrator’s self-obsessed paranoias and blunt opinions, but the classic Bernhard absurdity and circuitous storytelling is contained within a serious, sombre atmosphere which, at least for me, grants the work a mood reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s Nephew in contrast to the relentlessly cynical tone that can weigh down some of his longer more convoluted narratives if one is not quite in the mood to surrender. Of course, the unnamed narrator is, as usual, suitably misanthropic and miserable about the rural environment his lung disease has forced him to retire to, the tedious characters who dwell there, and the current state of political decay in his nation and continent. But in spite of himself, he seems remarkably cognizant of his own role in the isolated circumstances in which he is trapped and in social settings often finds himself balancing his distaste for others with an equal level of attraction, fully aware that he is likely seen no better by anyone else.

Throughout the text, the narrator eludes to his friendship with the Persian woman and their frequent walks in the larch-woods, but it is clear that, despite the momentary release they both find in the company of the other, darkness lies ahead. Then, in the final twenty pages, the narrator draws his account together with increasingly disturbing revelations building to a final sentence that he has been leading to from the very first words he committed to the page. I may have a new favourite Bernhard book and I definitely have another suggestion to offer whenever anyone asks where to start with his work.

Yes by Thomas Bernhard is translated by Ewald Osers and published by The University of Chicago Press.

A Viennese Odyssey: Ulysses by Nicolas Mahler after James Joyce

James Joyce’s Ulysses is a monumental work of Modernist literature, dense with detail and interior narrative,  so when an illustrator and author known for a characteristically minimalist style of graphic storytelling decides to reimagine this classic what could possibly go wrong? Nothing if it’s Austrian illustrator and author Nicolas Mahler holding the pen.

This ambitious volume is my second encounter with Mahler’s ebullient art and wit. The first was his delightful take on fellow Austrian Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters, a work that didn’t have to break with location or language in its reincarnation. However, this time he is transporting another equally idiosyncratic writer from Dublin to Vienna and from English to German (translated back into English in this edition by Alexander Booth). This is a retelling “after Joyce” as liberally inventive as the original. As one can imagine, the medium necessitates some streamlining of the story, so Stephen Dedalus is left out (although there is a nod to his tower abode) and some key scenes in which he appears are reimagined in a wild exposition of our German Bloom, Leopold Wurmb’s sexually frustrated, guilt-ridden fears and obsessions. But the parallels with Joyce’s masterpiece are wonderfully realized; after all, the visual medium can reproduce the overlay of experience and internal monologue in a remarkably efficient manner. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

So we find ourselves tailing along after Wurmb (who unfortunately resembles his implied namesake  Wurm” or worm) as he makes his way around Vienna on June 16, 1904. While Bloom was an advertising canvasser with the Freeman’s Journal in Dublin, Wurmb is similarly employed by the Viennese Neuigkeits-Welt-Blatt. Headlines, excerpts and image offsets from the June 16, 1904 edition of this paper are used to great effect in the chapter where our hero goes to the office. Mahler also draws on images and advertisements from some other Vienna publications from the same day and finds German names for key characters from the same archival sources. But he also adds a really special touch to his Ulysses. Joyce’s novel was first published in 1922, at a high point in the history of newspaper comics, so we find in the pages of this graphic variation many of the cartoon characters who were popular at the same time. Most notably, Olive Oyl stars as his secret romantic pen pal, while Popeye takes on the role of the garrulous sailor W. B. Murphy who regales Wurmb with unlikely tales of adventure in the bar.

If some of the fun of reading Joyce’s novel is looking for the echoes of Odysseus’ journey in the narrative, some of the fun here is marveling at how cleverly Mahler manages to echo key features of Bloom’s journey in his Austrian themed tribute. Wurmb, like Bloom, is trying to avoid going home, knowing that his wife Molly, a singer, will be having sex with her manager Berlyak that afternoon. The impresario’s posters haunt him on his wanderings and reminding him he’s a cuckold, while recurring thoughts of sexual frustration, bitterness and depression mark his day. He mourns his infant son, dead now eleven years, attends a friend’s funeral, takes care of bodily functions and finally, after a day of work, social engagements and some wild, guilt driven fantasy, returns home without his key and is forced to break into his own home. From her bed Molly then takes the stage, so to speak, with a version of her infamous soliloquy which, if necessarily abbreviated, is not devoid of much of the key imagery and sentiment.

Of course, Ulysses is a novel famous for the use of stream of consciousness. Bloom’s inner thoughts are injected into the events of the day (or vice versa). One might wonder if a graphic novel, and one that leans toward a relatively spare open form, can reproduce this effect. Mahler’s solution is to project Wurmb’s thoughts in large, bold letters, across sparsely illustrated pages and over cartoon-strip style interactions when his thoughts wander. Obsessions are illustrated boldly. Thus his inner world takes precedence, as it should, if you want to do justice to Joyce’s masterpiece. Mahler’s variation on this classic is inventive and funny without undermining the sadness and ordinariness of the Everyman at its heart and might even inspire a few readers who have not yet read (or, ahem, finished) the Irish original to pick it up.

Ulysses by Nicolas Mahler, after James Joyce, is translated from the German by Alexander Booth and published by Seagull Books.

“Quiet the evening through till dawn.” The Sea in the Radio: Journal Sentences by Jürgen Becker

Whenever a story began, he never quite understood where it was supposed to go.

After my father died I found, in his office, a journal he kept for the last full year of his life. He recorded each day’s trips, chores and purchases with occasional comments about my mother’s health, the quality of a restaurant meal, or some other personal detail like a book he was reading. He also tracked the weather and key stock market statistics. It demonstrates just how unwilling he was to let a day pass without a set of accomplishments, but captures none of his opinions, worries or hopes. However, it is one of my most precious possessions, a diary I read as a man in his eighty-eighth year trying to hold on to the passage of time.

There is an element of this kind of reporting the mundane ordinariness of the everyday in Jürgen Becker’s The Sea in the Radio: Journal Sentences, a fragmentary novel stripped to its most essential elements. Within the series of isolated sentences, phrases and brief passages that comprise this work, a regular report of the day to day flow of weeks, seasonal tasks, and observations of nature not only contribute to an atmosphere of place but speak to the desire to believe that some things stay the same, hoping that as long as this flow continues, the story will not end and one can defy death a little longer. But this novel does not recreate a diary as such, rather it constructs a picture of a village or community, past and present, as its residents age and face the end of life, as memories and images surface from a dark history that has left its mark on a generation that spent their childhood and youth during the war.

A train station appears in the course of everyone’s life.

Poet, writer and radio dramatist, Becker was born in Cologne but spent the war years in Thuringia. He was a participant in Gruppe 47, a collection of important German writers, from 1960 until their dissolution in 1967 and has long been involved with PEN Centre Germany and the German Academy for Language and Poetry. He is known for an open form of experimental literature set in opposition to narrative conventions. The Sea in the Radio (2009), perhaps the first of his prose works to be translated into English, reflects the importance of landscape seen in his later works as well as the tendency to cast side-long glances at the experience of growing up during the Second World War that drives so much of his prolific literary output.

This spare, evocative novel speaks, without a direct narrative voice, from the shadows and the corners of a world drawn with sharp, poetic precision. Unnamed characters, recurring motifs and locations and wisdoms build a tale that captures the ordinary business of every day against the long shadows history casts. It begins with bucolic imagery—snow in the winter woods, owls that call at night, the glow of the light—but an ominous tone appears early: the trains off behind the woods that one never saw, the off-road vehicle that is always moving from place to place, photographs showing people or houses that are gone, allusions to secrets lurking. Grammatical tense can be misleading. Is this a statement about the present or the past? Outside the odd quoted statement there is no “I,”, the closest one gets is with the indefinite, gender neutral pronoun “one,” otherwise we move between second, third, and first-person plural perspectives. Wordplay and aphoristic observations also appear, contributing to the overall poetic feel of the text. As we move through the three parts—three orchestral movements that each end with the acknowledgement of the relevant conductor—the story that emerges is dramatic and vivid, despite the fact that so much of it lurks in the silences and spaces between the sentences.

Fine, if you know everything already.

When it is hot and dry, you don’t see any snails in the garden.

What should one do? One does what one can. One does what one can’t.

Motorcycles whining through the village. It’s Sunday.

Watching TV for hours. And then what?

After the storm the sun, immediately humid again, the next storm.

A hissing. Gravel sliding of the loading bed.

He says, Night’s shorter when you can sleep.

The pace is not slow, but charged with a kind of quiet restlessness. This is a novel that invites you to listen closely. An acute awareness of the passage of time and circumstances permeates the work, seeding it not with nostalgia but melancholy. Motifs recur and sentences play off one another, often contradicting what has recently been said, small themes build across a page or two then fade into the background, and there is a knowing humour to some of the observations: “In the waiting room there are magazines that one would never read otherwise.” There is, decades after the years that haunt the aging children that people this landscape, no closure, only increasing decline, illness and loss. And a little wisdom.

When you are old yourself, you treat the old people who are already dead in a friendlier fashion.

Translated by Alexander Booth with an ear to maintaining the rhythm and flow of this fragmentary work, The Sea in the Radio is presented with a design of subtle beauty that features detail from Hokusai’s iconic print The Great Wave off Kanagawa and a pattern simulating water that runs across the lower edge of every page.

The Sea in the Radio: Journal Sentences by Jürgen Becker is translated by Alexander Booth and published by Seagull Books.

The disquieting terrain of loss: Grove by Esther Kinsky

I arrived in Olevano in January, two months and a day after M.’s funeral. The journey was long and led through dingy winter landscapes, which clung indecisively to grey vestiges of snow. In the Bohemian Forest, freshly fallen, wet snow dripped from the trees, clouding the view through the Stifteresque underbrush to the young Vltava River, which not had even a thin border of jagged ice.

As the landscape past the cliffs stretched into the Friulian plains, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had forgotten what it is like to encounter the light that lies behind the Alps and understood, suddenly, the distant euphoria my father experienced every time we descended the Alps.

The unnamed narrator of Grove arrives in Italy, fresh from the loss of her long-time partner, planning to spend three months contemplating the possibility of forcing her life “into a new order that would let me survive the unexpected unknown.” As she travels down from Germany, she stops in Ferrara, a town she had and M. had planned to visit on the Italian trip they would never manage to take together. But the literary landscape of Georgio Bassani will have to wait, at this time her destination is further south, a small village south-east of Rome. There she will walk the streets and roadways of the rolling landscape, orienting herself in relation to the house where she rents an apartment, the nearby cemetery and grove of trees. An anchor for an unanchored time.

German author and translator Esther Kinsky’s books cannot be rushed. They unfold slowly and linger in the imagination. Like her acclaimed novel, River, this meditation on grief offers an intimation of autofiction but I prefer to see her work as fiction bound to real-life experience and location that conceals as much as it reveals. Intimate yet not overtly confessional in nature. The focus is on immediate response to encounters, observations and memories, while autobiographical details tend to be limited, leaving both the author and her protagonist in the shadows. The narrator has recently lost her husband after a serious illness; Kinsky’s husband, Scottish-born German translator Martin Chalmers, died in October, 2014. The grief, the loss, is palpable, yet still too recent to be fully articulated, not only in the first section chronicling those early months alone, but in the third part set exactly one year later. M.’s memory haunts the narrator’s dreams, her attachment to an article of his clothing, his image. However, we learn very little of anything about him or their life together. Likewise, what the narrator is looking for and what she finds is unclear—as in River, it is the journey, or rather journeys, not the destination that guides the narrative.

In the first part of Grove, “Olevano,” one has the sense that the narrator is attempting to find herself in the landscape of a place where death is never far away. Cemeteries, the sellers of fresh and plastic flowers to mark graves, the sight of a body being removed from a house, memories of the Etruscan tombs her father loved, even trees being felled to combat the spread of disease all summon thoughts of morti, followed by sounds of vii—bird song, children’s voices, the daily ordinary routines of life. It’s a slow unfolding, gradual emergence from winter to the early signs of spring, that accompany the narrator’s wandering through the village, the countryside, to Rome, to the sea and back to her temporary refuge on the hillside. She is learning how to live again, awaking in an alien place, a stranger to each new day:

When after sweeping the landscape my gaze fell to my hands on the window ledge, I thought I saw M.’s hands beneath them, in the space between my fingers – white and delicate and long, his dying hands, which were so different from his living hands, and they lay beneath mine as if on a double exposed photograph. Then the coffee maker hissed, and the coffee boiled over, and my living hands had to break away from M.’s white hands in order to turn off the stove and remove the pot, but I inevitably burned myself, and this pain made me aware that I hadn’t relearned anything yet.

The flowing language, poetic, careful and observant, traces a slow burning existential pilgrimage. Kinsky paints a rich portrait, not only of the landscape and urban areas, but of the people—from the reticent village population to the groups of African migrants who cluster around marketplaces and bus stations, barely surviving on the outskirts of society, unable to leave, with no home to return to. As in River, a novel set on the edge of London along the Lea River, her narrator here similarly is attentive to the character and quality of place; she does not simply see, she feels her way through the misty months of early disorienting grief and necessary solitude.

I became dizzy looking at this unfurled country which was laid so bare yet remained so incomprehensible to me. A rugged terrain with a restless appearance – it presented itself differently from each side. On each side the routes drew a different script, the mountains cast different shadows, and the plains, foregrounds, midgrounds, and backgrounds shifted. A terrain that left traces in me, without a recognizable trace of myself remaining in it. Something about the relationship between seeing and being seen – between  the significance of seeing and being or becoming seen, as a comforting conformation of your existence – suddenly appeared to me as a burning question, which defied all names and acts of naming. If on that hillside some had told me that I might die from the inability to answer or simply even phrase this question, I would have believed them.

It is clear from the beginning that she is no stranger to Italy. Her father spoke Italian, was fascinated with the history of the Etruscans, and year after year family holidays were spent exploring the country. The second section of Grove begins with her father’s death, then revisits memories of trips taken over the years. Grief, through the lens of time and distance becomes an attempt to understand a somewhat elusive man against the backdrop of his knowledge of architectural sites, landscapes and bird calls, his tendency to disappear for hours and his penchant for outings that often led to the family getting lost. In the end though, this fascinating and recognizable account of lengthy family car trips reminds anyone with a similarly enigmatic parent that we can ever fully know them when so much of our experience rests deeply in childhood. Loss and mourning is perhaps always incomplete.

So we come to the third and final part of the novel which finds our narrator returning to Italy exactly one year after her stay in Olevano. Again it is January when a certain colourlessness and frosty otherness mutes the land. She travels first to Ferrara, orienting herself by the landmarks of the life and characters of Georgio Bassani, haunted more by the fictional environs of the Finzi Continis. From there she moves to Comacchio, on the Adriatic, where she spends her days walking through the stark salt pans, observing flamingos and other shore birds, and seeking out the site of a fabled necropolis. It’s a sad and lonely time to be wandering this place devoid as it is of tourist activity, but she seems to be approaching a new, peaceful meditative relationship with loss. If she set out to consider how she might force her life into a new order one year earlier, the apparent bleakness of this last stop in Italy carries the quiet promise of moving forward anew even if where she is heading and what she has learned is not clear, or not for sharing.

Grove by Esther Kinsky is translated from the German by Caroline Schmidt and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and as Grove: A Field Novel by Transit Books in North America.

Is he really gone: Requiem for Ernst Jandl by Friederike Mayröcker

The loss, he says, the loss of someone so
close, the loss of a HAND and HEART
PARTNER is something so completely and
utterly devastating, yet it may be, we may be
able to keep right on speaking with this HEART and
LOVE PARTNER continue conversing and may
even expect a response from this person.

I’ve long had an interest in literary expressions of immediate grief, a much more elusive task than one might imagine until actually faced with the intensity of loss and the longing to express that experience at its most raw. Then it seems almost impossible, yet Friederike Mayröcker’s Requiem for Ernst Jandl may be one of the most successful unmediated responses to the loss of a loved one that I have encountered.

Paperback edition, German List

Mayröcker met fellow Austrian poet and writer Ernst Jandl in 1954. They both left marriages to be together, but did not marry or share a home. Theirs was a deeply creative lifelong partnership, they supported one another’s work and collaborated on radio plays and other projects over the next forty-six years. When Jandl died on June 9, 2000, she was devastated by the loss yet miraculously she was able to channel it into a series of poems composed within the first months after his death. The rawness and confusion of grief is evident. Her characteristic, experimental style which employs capitalization, italics and numerals, and often incorporates fragments of private conversations and excerpts from letters and diaries, serves to heighten the anxiety, confusion and emotion of this period of early grief. Also woven into the series of poems that comprise this requiem is an earlier piece that captures the nature of the interplay of the their creative energies.

There is a sense throughout this slender collection of words and emotion spilling out on the page, gathered up and coming loose again. The great love, the completeness of the loss, and the exhaustion of caring for a weak and dying man all have to be released, repeatedly, in the tumult of grief and guilt that colours these early months. Each poem approaches these conflicts, but the final long piece in the book, the prose poem “’the days of wine and roses’, for Ernst Jandl,” reflects this emotional urgency with particular power. Here Mayröcker seems to be sorting out a flux of memories, thoughts and feelings as expressed to a friend, Leo N.

And what about the pencil, I say to B., why
on the morning of his death did he draw a
pencil on a piece of note paper, I say to B.,
why did he ask for a pencil, there were
plenty of pens on the little table next to his
bed, the quill of the Holy Ghost lingered
longer on Job’s sorrows than it did on the
delights of Solomon, B. says, I tell Leo N.,
is he really gone, is he really in heaven now,
a heaven you yourself believe in, the
passageway into the other world, says Leo
N., is described as stepping through a
waterfall, and the vulture flies through the
sun, I went up to his room, up to a bed that is
empty and say to him I feel better today, but
I am thinking: I NO LONGER have any hope
for this life, at 3 o’clock in the morning…

In the crush of the weeks and months following Jandl’s death the voices of some friends and phone calls from others rise and fall. This is a loss both deeply personal and shared with a community of artists, and at times a tension is evident, one senses that the poet both welcomes the company and wants to be alone. Needs the comfort and doesn’t know what to do with it.

Of course, the death of her companion and creative partner did not silence Mayröcker. She continued to write startling, challenging and innovative poetry and prose right up until her death last year at the age of ninety-six. Jandl continues to appear and inspire along the way but never in such an open, unabashed lament as in this Requiem—one that fittingly closes with one of his best known poems, the humorous sound poem ottos mops complete with Mayröcker’s original reflection on the composition written in 1976, long ago she admits, adding that if she could have one single year from that now distant time back, “how intensively I would live it, how tenderly and how happily.”

Requiem for Ernst Jandl by Friederike Mayröcker is translated from the German by Roslyn Theobald and published by Seagull Books.

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.

Among the immortals: The Beloved of the Dawn by Franz Fühmann

Franz Fühmann was a prolific and important East German poet and writer whose own life was fascinating. Born in 1922, in the predominantly German Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, he was the son of an apothecary who fostered the development of an ardent German nationalism. After the annexation of Sudetenland in 1938, he volunteered for the Wehrmacht but was deemed to be too young so he joined the Reich Labour Service which performed construction work for the military. He saw little direct action until the end of the war when, between 1941 and 1943, he was deployed to various areas of Ukraine. Then, as Germany’s final retreat began, he was transferred to Greece, an experience that would later have a significant influence on his writing. In the closing days of the war he was captured by Soviet forces and would spend the next four years in a POW camp in the Caucasus.

Fühmann emerged from captivity passionately converted to the tenets of Soviet Socialism; he had rejected the Nazi ideology on which he had been raised and was dedicated to the vision of a new world view. He chose to settle in the GDR where his mother and sister were living. He would remain there for the rest of his life, working solely as a freelance writer from the early 1950s until his death in 1984, but his conviction to the realist approach to poetry and literature favoured by the government soon wavered, as his writings grew increasingly confrontational and, to the Stasi, suspect. He would, however, go on to produce work in a wide variety of genres, for both adults and children, and became an important advocate for the translation and publication of authors previously banned in East Germany and a mentor for younger non-conforming writers like Wolfgang Hilbig and Uwe Kolbe.

I have previously reviewed Fühmann’s story cycle The Jew Car, which offers a fictionalized account of his childhood and war years, and his magnificent final major work At the Burning Abyss, a meditation on poetry—in particular that of Georg Trakl—and its power to speak to what is fundamentally human. In this essay he reflects on the way Trakl’s poetry triggered a crisis of literary faith, so to speak, allowing him to heal and understand himself in a way no rigid doctrine could ever manage to do. Both books are translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Seagull Books, as is the very different Fühmann title I am looking at here, The Beloved of the Dawn, a slender volume comprised of four retellings of Greek legends, beautifully presented alongside vivid digital collages by Sunandini Banerjee.

As mentioned, Fühmann spent time in Greece toward the end of the war. As translator Isabel Cole indicates in her note at the end of The Jew Car, this opportunity to spend time in the country was especially valuable: “Since childhood Greek mythology had fascinated him, and the confrontation with Greek reality, the juxtaposition of myth and war, would inspire much of his literary work.” This awareness charges his personal take on these stories—drawn from a collection originally published in 1978—with a certain tension that gives them a contemporary energy. Despite its colourful presentation, this is not a book for young children, rather he is speaking to young adult and adult readers, fleshing out well known incidents with a very human, somewhat subversive tone.

The first of the four legends to which Fühmann turns his imagination in this collection is Homer’s Hymn to Aphrodite (219-239) which chronicles the love of Eos, the goddess of the dawn, for the mortal Tithonus. She begs Zeus to grant him immortality so they can spend eternity together, but forgets to ask for eternal youth. The reality of life with an immortal mortal is vividly evoked. The second tale focuses on Hera’s magic-enabled seduction of her wandering husband as depicted in Homer’s Iliad, chapter XIV, portraying the great king of the gods, he of enormous appetites, in his moment of weakness and subsequent bitter revenge:

That night, three hundred years, he’d sworn fidelity: one night, but what a night!—He was Zeus, and he was who he was.—Then he’d deceived her ten thousand times: with her sister, with the Wanton One and her retinue, with all the nymphs, all the Muses, all the Horae, all the Charities, with all the wives of all the gods and all the daughters of all of the goddesses,  even with his own, not to mention countless mortals: she-humans, she-beasts, and even plants, and with boys, too, with monsters, with ghosts.—He was who he was, and now he was one who desired Hera and none other.

The third story—dedicated to Heinrich Boll— recounts the silenus Marsyas’ reckless challenge of Apollo to a musical duel with melodious pipe cursed by Athena. In its graphic depiction of agony, this version makes the hideously aging Tithonus’ fate seem mild. Marsyas’ grisly destiny is hinted at throughout, but he ignores the warnings of dreams and even fails to believe his opponent is serious in exercising his reward for winning as the blade slips beneath his hide. Fühmann makes visceral what no marble statue and few paintings can aspire to.

The final tale similarly breathes depth and life into another of the less fortunate characters in the Greek pantheon of major and minor deities, in this case Hephaistos the physically disabled god of fire, the eternal guardian of blacksmiths, craftsmen and artisans who was, in this role, worshipped and yet required to serve in Olympus. Fühmann portrays this conflicting position, its balance of strength and weakness clearly in his hero. The story at hand is, of course, the famous account of Hephaistos’ response to the news that his wife, Aphrodite, is having an affair with Ares, the god of war. The crafting of an invisible, infinitely strong web to capture a theoretically invincible foe is depicted with poetic, elemental detail:

He laid his hand on the pristine metal.

The beauty of its coldness and resiliency, and the force of the fire that conquers them both.

He melted off a handful of the material and once it had cooled began to rub it between the fingertips of his right hand while stretching it out with his left. When the hot metal had a ductility, when a cool hardness such as he had never encountered, such as could arise only here, as the solar plexus of all metal veins between the heart of the earth and its diaphragm.—Soul of matter: his medium.—What he need now was the finest of eyelets: a flake from a diamond, shot through by a sunbeam.

The net he weaves and the trap he sets succeeds, but only so far. Hephaistos is too bold, and too stigmatized to not be mocked even in his triumph. The resulting story is one of a bittersweet and complicated relationship between a gifted genius and his fellow gods and goddesses, even his beautiful wife.

The strength of each of the tales collected in The Beloved of the Dawn lies not in the overall arc of events which have been illustrated and revisited countless times, but in Fühmann’s ability to tell them anew. His distinctive prose style which employs poetic fragments and a frequent use of em-dashes, often to open new sentences, allows him to add colour, shadow and character to these archetypal figures and convey a relatable, recognizable agency to his portrayals of these familiar legends. His narrative acknowledges that many poems and artworks have come before, and openly claims to be more interested in some of the lesser known backstory, but he never abandons the mythic form. Witty and sharp, he is having fun with these timeless tales of Gods behaving badly.

The Beloved of the Dawn by Franz Fühmann is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Seagull Books with full colour illustrations by Sunandini Banerjee.

“a translation of myself”: distant transit by Maja Haderlap

is there a zone of darkness between all languages,
a black river that swallows words
and stories and transforms them?
here sentences must disrobe,
begin to roam, learn to swim,
not lose the memory that nests in
their bodies, a secret nucleus.

(from “translation”)

Maja Haderlap was born Carinthia, the southern-most province of Austria, into the Slovenian-speaking minority community that served in the resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War. As a result, they suffered repression during the war and ongoing persecution in the decades that followed. Haderlap was raised in this hostile borderland environment and educated in both Slovenian and German, two languages burdened with conflicting histories and dynamics in the region. She first established herself as a poet with several Slovenian-language collections before releasing, at the age of fifty, her acclaimed German-language novel, Angel of Oblivion. According to her translator, Tess Lewis, her decision to write about her family and community history in German, was controversial, but guided by a desire to reach as wide an audience as possible with a story that was largely ignored or unknown. Now, with distant transit, she has returned to poetry, but, for the first time, through the medium of her second language.

The fact that these poems were composed and published in German adds an extra layer to the themes Haderlap explores. Language and the translation of identity and self-understanding inform the poet’s reflections on home, relationships, and belonging—experiences grounded in her Slovenian culture and heritage, but examined through German and all that that language has afforded her beyond her rural roots. The tension between the two forms of expression comes through in Lewis’ perceptive translation, heightening the emotional impact of this work.

Haderlap’s poetic diction and simple, lowercase form, reward careful engagement. I found that the style encourages a close reading to follow the rhythm and the division of thoughts or sentences. Her imagery is rich, inspired by the natural beauty of her native countryside, yet filled with longing and questioning. Language is an ever present element—what does it contain, preserve and lose as one grows and moves between vocabularies and grammars? And what does it mean to be at home in any one place or community?

                                 language opens
rotted doors, thrusts the dusty boards
from their brackets, reveals the buried stone.
it flies at my face like a flock of startled
swallows, confronts me as the smell of mold,
drops from the jagged armor and
hulls of kids’ stuff like silt shed from all that was.
as soon as its bird heart beats calmly,
it shows its skin, appears unscathed and
hardly used. keep me safe, language,
wall me off against time.

(from “home”)

This collection is steeped in the landscape and mythologies of Haderlap’s Slovenian youth, carrying that foundation into adulthood in an evolving relationship with language—hoping and trusting words to carry memories forth into another time and tongue. It is an uncertain faith. Yet her poetry so vividly captures the possibilities and limitations of translation, that I would suggest that one does not need to likewise live between two languages to recognize the nature of the dilemma. Any one of us who trusts our own memories, emotions and experiences to the vagaries of words—even if in our sole language—worries those same words onto the page. The writer is always recognizing the permeability of the borders and boundaries within their own experiences, translating and transcribing themselves into being, seeking to find preservation and refuge in words. Haderlap speaks to this so acutely.

the shore path is now built up, shifted,
torn out of the meadow and discarded.
i, too, have emerged repeatedly
as a translation of myself,
transferred and rewritten
i appear in a new transcription
although in similar form.

(from “on the shore path in the evening light”)

The poems that comprise distant transit speak to a personal political reality in intimate, yet recognizable terms, echoing the transitions we all experience as we grow into adulthood, away from home and search to find ourselves in the world. More specifically and powerfully though, Haderlap animates the mystery, power and baggage that a language can carry with it, how words and sentences are laden with implications for understanding the past and the present, to articulate one’s identity as an individual torn between two tongues.

distant transit by Maja Haderlap is translated from the German by Tess Lewis and published by Archipelago Books.

you still don’t know / that you exist, & yet: in field latin by Lutz Seiler

i have said
something, sung without
my hands: i have

smoked up all the shadows.
lungward i took these shafts to where
the empty space begins the rustling
      out along the paling
towards the railway cars—seventeen years

before the text.

(from “sentry duty”)

Poet and novelist Lutz Seiler was born in 1963, in Gera, in the state of Thuringia in the GDR and, like many writers from the former East Germany, the arts, as a career, were not on his radar when he was growing up. He was expected to acquire a solid, practical trade and complete his mandatory military service—that was the accepted foundation required to be a productive member of society. And so he did, training as a mason and a carpenter, but during his period of service he began to read poetry, kindling an interest in reading and writing that would ultimately shape his future. He went on to study literature and is now widely recognized for his poetry and prose. German nature poet Peter Huchel (1903–1981) was an early influence on his own writing and, fittingly, in time he would become the custodian of the Peter Huchel Museum in Wilhelmshorst, thus carrying his distinct variation on the same literary tradition into the twenty-first century.

Natural themes and a strong sense of place mark Seiler’s work. This can be seen clearly in his collection in field latin, Alexander Booth’s thoughtful translation of his 2010 publication, im felderlatein. Rooted in the bucolic landscapes of his home state which, prior to reunification, was situated in the southwest corner of the GDR, many of his poems elicit the shifting moods of the borderlands, adding a certain layer of ambiguity to his precise, attentive lyric poetry.

within the fields’ rippling script the glimmer
of a few bricks, some tufts of grass & the small
      rests of bones: how

it all lies together in the end.
arise, ascent & so there was
a lot of signalling, radioing, failure
about my feet, step after step.

(from “what I possessed”)

The poems and sequences in this volume tend to draw inspiration from memories of childhood, family and the peculiarities of rural life. Seiler’s poetic form is spare, stripped down, details carefully selected and characteristically written with ampersands and without capitalization. This style is particularly affecting in German where nouns are typically capitalized, but in both languages the appearance on the page adds a hush to the sound and feel of his poems.

the shadows, aged early, but we
remember: homeward, lonely
simply walking
step by step recording
the silent outline. for

the shadows, at the beginning,
were the small, black units of pay
a currency for which
the creator interrupted his
.        work.

(from “the very first affection”)

Although Seiler’s poetic vision is clearly informed by his own unique political and literary inheritance—as much as any writer’s inevitably is—the deeply personal energy that animates his sparse, well-framed images invites recognition. It speaks to the universality of human experience. We are at once acutely aware of, and haunted by, the world around us. Every environment harbours its own ghosts. One of my favourite poems, “do you see the redbrick moon” evokes the image of an electrical lane. I once saw these parades of pylons marching across the landscape as an invasive species, but have learned to see them as a necessary presence, another creature that one might as well embrace as I do the line that runs between my apartment and the forest:

do you see the redbrick moon
above the eiffel towers? below that
the quacking, magnetic garbling & time
within the frogs’ legs humming?

this is the old high-voltage lane. it
holds the moistness to the poles, holds
the fog & supports it. soft
blue shadows envelop all, a spider

hands always its threads & floats
as if electrified. dreams unearthed.

Alexander Booth’s excellent translation allows Seiler’s poems room to breathe, preserving his unusual syntax and fine-boned imagery and emotion. As a result, in field latin offers a vital introduction for English language readers to the work of this important contemporary German poet.

in field latin by Lutz Seiler is translated by Alexander Booth and published by Seagull Books.

Saying farewell to 2021 with some of the books I loved and best wishes for the future

If 2020 was the year that my ability to read and write felt the numbing impact of a medicated mind, 2021 was the year I had to decide what was really important. My mind is still medicated, but with a drug that does not leave me mentally spongy like the one that I lived on for more than a year. There are pros and cons with any maintenance drug, but I realized that, all things considered, I was better off with the devil I know than the one that was pulling me under. So, by mid-September I began to feel a welcoming release from the haze I’d been struggling against and it became easier to engage fully with literature once again. My reading never stopped, of course, it only slowed, and as I gather my thoughts on my favourite books of 2021, I can see that half of the works I remember most fondly were read in the first two-thirds of the year. But I will admit that every review I wrote during that time was painful, as if pulling my own words together to talk about the words of others was a huge task. In the end, reading only feels like a complete activity if I can articulate a response to each book, regardless of whether it comes out in a “review” of some sort. It is only now that my capacity to read has been restored do I realize how truly impaired it was.

With 2021 and all its global and personal challenges slipping into the rear view mirror, I wanted to take a moment to consider my favourites of the books I read this year. I skipped this readerly ritual last year and, as ever, I am troubled by the fact that each such list necessarily leaves out so many excellent works because, quite honestly, if I am not enjoying a book I rarely feel inclined to finish it, let alone write about it here. So with that in mind, but sticking to a strict ten titles, here’s my contribution to the discussion.

First, my top three. One will be no surprise to anyone who follows my blog: The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghatta (tr. by Teresa Lavendar-Fagan). Probably the last book I read before transitioning off the troublesome medication, this imagining of the final moments of Osip Mandelstam against a tight, poetic flight back through his life thrilled me with its confident sense that sometimes less truly is more. In the reading I would regularly stop to think: How did she say so much with so few words? This is the work of an accomplished, mature writer. Apart from singing this book’s praises at every opportunity on Twitter, I spoke about it about on this video and recommended it in the December issue of The Bangalore Review.

The Book of Sleep by Haytham El Wardany (tr. by Robin Moger) is one of those books that defies classification—standing somewhere between fiction and nonfiction, it can best be considered an imaginative meditation on sleep and the sleeper that leans toward the philosophical in its grounding, but is unbound in its scope. Thoughtful, intelligent, inspiring.

Finally, I read some amazing poetry this year and as usual I found my limited formal understanding of the literary form a barrier to confident articulation of a response, but with Lost, Hurt, and in Transit Beautiful by Nepali-Indian Anglophone poet, Rohan Chhetri, I just wanted to scream READ THIS BOOK! It has disappointed me to see that this collection seems to have been under-appreciated in its US release (it was published simultaneously in India) because it is not only accessible, but gorgeous, and shockingly violent. Stunning.

The balance of my top ten (in the order that stacked best for the sake of a photograph) are:

If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani (tr. by Elizabeth Harris), is the story of a young Italian man who travels to Romania to attend to the affairs of his deceased mother from whom he has been long estranged. It presents a simmering, spare narrative—the kind of read that I responded to especially well with reduced focus and concentration—that resists the need for any tight resolution.

Outgoing Vessel by experimental Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen (tr. Katrine Ogaard Jensen) is perhaps a little more brittle and restrained than Third-Millenium Heart but once again her work takes you on an operatic post-human, yet humane, adventure. Excellent.

Slipping by Mohamed Kheir (tr. by Robin Moger) offers a different kind of adventure into an otherworldly Egypt that is very much informed by a fragmented post-Arab Spring reality. Hard to follow at first, yet fun to read, with much uncertain resolution.

The Desert of Lop by Raoul Schrott (tr. by Karen Leeder). I had been saving this dreamy little volume, knowing that little of this Austrian poet’s work is available in English. The tale of one man’s relationships with three women, it is also a meditation on deserts and the search for home. Exactly the kind of undefinable book I treasure.

Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Interim (tr. by Isabel Fargo Cole) was an unexpected surprise. I’ve read almost all of his work available in translation, and was a little apprehensive about this novel, knowing that he is perhaps at his best in his meandering, surreal shorter works. But this much more conventional narrative featuring another iteration of the classic Hilbig protagonist felt somehow closer to the man himself—a hard drinking, socially awkward, reluctant literary “star” who cannot find a home on either side of the Wall.

With The Promise, South African writer Damon Galgut has finally won the Booker Prize after three nominations and somehow I fear that certain readers might eschew this book because he won this prize (yes we literary folk are a fickle lot). I have long been a fan, and although this book will never replace some of his smaller, quieter efforts in my heart, The Promise is a sweeping portrait of four decades of South African history through the lens of a mischievous high modernist narrator who is by turns, funny, caustic and clever.

And last, but not least, I was offered an opportunity to read a couple of fascinating MIT Press titles by virtue of ending up on a publicist list, and without that I would never have stumbled across Sandfuture by Justin Beal. This is one of those unlikely hybrid essays—a biography of Minoru Yamasaki, the Japanese-American architect who designed the World Trade Centre that is also a reflection on art, illness, urban planning and more—and it works remarkably well. I had so much fun reading and writing about this book that I can only hope that it comes to the attention of the audience it deserves.

For the New Year, I have no specific reading intentions, aside from a small winter project to read some Norwegian literature—no particular reason, I just have a few things piling up and it seems a suitable goal for the cold, dark  months ahead. I’m also hoping to ease back into writing again after a dry spell. Ideas are starting to trickle to the surface, I’ll see if they lead me anywhere. And otherwise I will probably continue my idiosyncratic literary meanderings and savour the ability to read at a faster, yet deeper pace than I was at this time last year.

Oh yeah, and if travel feels feasible again, I hope I might be able to pack my bags and catch up with distant friends by the time this old earth makes its way around the sun once more.  May you be warm, well, and have plenty of light to read by.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber