Everything is fine: Monsters Like Us by Ulrike Almut Sandig

Tolstoy’s famous adage about unhappy families might well apply to dysfunctional families, but as Ulrike Almut Sandig demonstrates in her starkly disarming debut novel, a harsh sameness can run through seemingly dissimilar families with equally tragic consequences. Sandig, a poet and writer born in Saxony in 1979, famously began her writing career as guerilla poet, posting poems on lampposts and handing them out on flyers. She has published four volumes of poetry and two collections of short stories and engaged in collaborative projects with composers, musicians and visual artists. Her poetry is at once politically charged and playful, as evidenced in her collection released in English translation in 2020, I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other, which examines such subjects as the fate of migrants, the nature of modern warfare and the rise of nationalism through the revisiting of themes drawn from European folklore, in particular the tales of the Brothers Grimm which, in their unvarnished form provide ideal instruments to explore the barbarity of human nature. One could say that with Monsters Like Us, she is fashioning an elaborate, contemporary fairy tale that revolves around one of the most brutal realities haunting too many families. And like the original Brothers Grimm, the darkness runs deep.

So, off the top, let it be known that this is a story about families and it is a story about childhood sexual abuse. There is humour, there is affection and there is horror. The family as a microcosm of the world at its best and its worst, reimagined through a narrative that simmers with poetic intensity and suppressed rage.

Monsters Like Us is a coming of age story set in a rural village in East Germany during the final years of Communist rule. Ruth, like Sandig herself, is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a chemist’s assistant. She has an older brother called Fly, a reference to his love of being in the air whenever and however possible, and their lives revolve around their father’s profession, which, given the political context, makes him a bit of a reactionary. But their home contains a degree of tension, a feature not unknown in other homes in the community where a certain measure of negative physical interaction commonly marked the relationships of spouses, and parents and children. Ruth narrates the opening and closing sections of the novel, addressing a Voitto—a future lover, it turns out—with a matter-of-fact tone that increasingly appears to mask her emotion. Early on she describes overhearing a confrontation between her parents that ends with a slap:

That is the first slap in the story, Voitto. No idea whether it was Mother or Pap who delivered it and whether it was Pap or Mother on the receiving end. But after a few times round this haematoma of the sun, I can tell you this for one: it all starts with believing a slap can be the natural conclusion to a conversation. Fly and I turned over onto our sides and rolled in under our duvets. Then Fly turned off the light.

Soldiers on maneuvers were a frequent sight in the area due to the fact that barracks were located nearby. One day a new boy appears in Ruth’s kindergarten class, tall with white blond hair and a face that wrinkles when he smiles. Viktor’s father was a non-commissioned officer in the barracks of the People’s Army of the Republic, located next to the Soviet barracks, and his family had moved into a newly developed part of town. This all set him apart, earning a frequent “that Russian boy” epithet. Although he was not Russian, his mother spoke Ukrainian to him at home, a background she endeavoured to hide. Ruth is drawn to this strange new boy and they soon become fast friends. Unknown to one another at the time, it will turn out that they each harbour terrible secrets: Ruth’s maternal grandfather touches her inappropriately every chance he gets, a behaviour she does not understand but fuels a fascination with and fear of vampires; Viktor’s brother-in-law, his half-sister’s husband, enters his room whenever they visit or are invited to babysit, and forces him to engage in sex acts.

Neither family suspects a thing—after all, are these not trusted people in the children’s lives? And the children themselves? “If you don’t talk about it, then it hasn’t really happened,” Ruth says. “That’s right, isn’t it, Voitto? That’s how we learned it.” As the years pass, Ruth seeks to find escape in music. Naturally gifted she spends hours with her violin. It allows her to forget everything. She is aware that her playing seems to have an emotional affect on anyone else listening, even if she feels nothing. And that is fine. Viktor pours his energy into his body, building his muscles, protecting himself with a veneer of power, while at school he works his way into the local gang of tough kids, a group that will become small scale neo-Nazi styled punks as they get older.

The second half of Monsters Like Us, takes an unexpected turn. Unable to find work in the now united Germany and eager to put distance between himself and both his extended family and his rough riding friends, Viktor heads west to France where he has applied for a position as an au pair, feminizing his name on the application to aid his ability to secure an placement. As he gets off the train at the station in a town near Marseilles:

These were the last few metres during which the boy felt completely himself. That didn’t occur to him particularly at the time. But by the time he had left the platform, he was just another exhausted passenger arriving. Later he would be a salaud de Nazi. The stubborn boy with the inadequate vocabulary, the East German colossus in combat boots, Germanic giant-child, a case, a traumatized hobgoblin and other things besides. For his parents, he would simply be our successful son travelling abroad.

For the wealthy family in the expensive villa, he is an unwelcome surprise. But as he is the sixth au pair to be with the family, they have little leverage with the agency and have to give him at least a week or two. He will stay for months, gradually improving his French, preparing complicated recipes, ironing their laundry and walking the children to and from school. It is a most unlikely outcome. Yet behind the fancy façade, a very damaged family drama is playing out, one that daughter Maud is too young to understand, and Madame is either too naïve or too proud to acknowledge. Viktor recognizes his own agony magnified in the son, Lionel, who refuses to meet his eyes for the boy’s circumstances are an order of magnitude more terrifying than his own troubled history. As he keeps telling himself “everything is fine” he knows that it is not.

It may be hard to imagine, given this very rough outline, but this is a brave novel charged with a brutal beauty. The underlying subject matter is exceptionally difficult, but is dealt with with great care—openly as needed, but more often alluded to indirectly, echoing that unspoken awareness no one wants to address. The effect is all the more powerful for it allows the tension build within the reader. Where Ruth suppresses her pain, channelling her energy into her music, quiet, sensitive Viktor is potentially a ticking timebomb. Sandig’s lyric prose, captured brilliantly by translator Karen Leeder who has translated two volumes of her poetry, is tight and spare, directed into carefully crafted scenes that often end on an open note. Her narrative sensibility is well played. Ruth’s first person account, directed to an otherwise unknown adult contemporary captures a child’s spirit through a more mature perspective. Viktor’s time in France is a third person narration, from his perspective, with the regular insertion of Maud’s child’s eye observations and commentary. Although young, she is perhaps the most sensible member of her family, but one can only worry about the ultimate fate awaiting both of the unfortunate children of the wealthy Madame and Monsieur.

As her poetry clearly shows, Sandig does not resist shining a light on the darkness in our world. With Monsters Like Us she turns over another stone that many try to ignore, and shows that it would be easy to point to a troubled state that is falling apart to explain a level of domestic discontent and even violence, but this is far more than a fairy tale set in a crumbling landscape, it is a horror story that can just as easily unfold in the most ostensibly desirable settings of wealth and privilege. And if the “monsters” of the title refers, as it does, to those who have been hurt by time or circumstance, the true monsters too often go unnoticed and unpunished. This vital book is one of the most intense and moving works I have encountered in a long time.

Monsters Like Us by Ulrike Almut Sandig is translated by Karen Leeder 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.

A storyteller from Gujarat arrives: The Shehnai Virtuoso by Dhumketu

The short story is that which, like a flash of lightning, pierces right through while establishing a viewpoint; without any other machinations, simply gestures with a finger to awaken dormant emotions; creates an entirely new imaginary world around the reader. The novel says whatever it wants. The short story, by rousing the imagination and emotions, only alludes to or provides a spark of what it wants to say. That is why the writer of the short story needs a reader who is impressionable, emotional, swift and intelligent; to such a reader, he will be forever in debt.

– Dhumketu, Introduction to his collection, Tankha I

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the South Asian literature that commands the most immediate attention outside the sub-continent is that which is written in English—even within India, English-language authors occupy a considerable amount of shelf space. Yet, the Indian Constitution recognizes 22 official languages and there are hundreds of other spoken languages and dialects, including English. So one might imagine that we are only able to access the tip of a rich literary iceberg. However, with the recent International Booker win for Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand (Ret Samadhi), the first ever Hindi winner, a heightened awareness of the riches of translated and yet-to-be translated literature from across South Asia is spreading near and far.

How fortuitous then, that in this increasingly welcoming environment, a magical Guajarati storyteller has arrived on North American shores to share a broad selection of his well-loved tales with a wider contemporary audience, a journey made possible by an attentive and gifted translator. Writing under the pen name Dhumketu, Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi (1892 1965) was one of the most prominent and prolific Gujarati writers of the first half of the twentieth century. He produced work across a broad range of genres, but was especially notable as a master of the short-story, publishing twenty-four volumes during his lifetime. When one enters this newly-released collection, The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories, it is best to prepare to settle in and be carried away—it is difficult to resist the temptation to “read just one more…”

In her helpful Introduction, translator Jenny Bhatt traces the evolution of the Gujarati short story and the influence of European, Russian and American literature on the form. However, Dhumketu (whose chosen name means “comet”) distinguished himself from his contemporaries in a number of important ways. Firstly, he invited the reader into the inner worlds of his characters through skillful use of plot, theme, action, setting and dialogue. A second critical feature was his “focus on people from all walks of life—rural to royal, young to old.” He also set many stories among the poor and lower classes and castes, characters often either overlooked or caricatured by other writers. Finally, his stories often depict strong-willed, independent women and sensitive men, granting them varied roles and circumstances within his work in a manner that was progressive for his time and, as a result, relevant for ours.

The Shehnai Virtuoso gathers twenty-six stories that span Dhumketu’s career, opening with his best-known work, “The Post Office”—the melancholy tale of a man who waits in vain for a letter from his daughter. This piece sets the tone for a varied collection that touches on a wide range of deeply human themes. Although the majority of the tales are set in rural Gujarat, a few are set elsewhere, like Darjeeling, Karnataka, and an ancient kingdom in what is now Bihar.

Throughout, Dhumketu demonstrates an uncanny ability to pull a reader right into a story with little fuss, a skill that seems to become even tighter and more focused over the course of his career, and thus over the course of this volume. And even though there are definitely some themes that recur, the perspective, approach and atmosphere shifts from story to story, keeping his tales fresh and engaging. Nonetheless, he knows the innate value of timeless themes—jealousy, greed, heartbreak, loss—exploring them through the adventures of devious, manipulative personalities, ill-fated lovers, tragic heroes and quiet, isolated souls who express themselves most fully through music.

Not openly active in the political struggle for Independence that marked his time, Dhumketu did not shy away from allowing his characters, narrators and plots illustrate and express important ideas of freedom and matters of social injustice, recognizing perhaps that literature provides room for more complex and nuanced presentations to emerge, even in short form. The play of power and status, born of wealth, class and caste, is an intrinsic element of many of his stories—the vulnerability of the simple soul and the tragedy of the combination of beauty and poverty held a particular appeal—but he resists proselytizing. Rather, wonderfully wise and pertinent observations are regularly woven into his narratives that he trusts his readers to understand.

Another striking quality that emerges in some of the most powerful tales in this collection is Dhumketu’s capacity for an exceptional evocation of the depths of sorrow and loss.  The title story, for example, is one of several tales featuring gifted, yet mentally damaged musicians who suffer a loss that impacts and colours their ability to play and the soul wrenching effect of the notes their instruments produce. “The Shehnai Virtuoso” is a simple account of traveller who happens to stop in an unremarkable village on what happens to be a most fortuitous night—the death anniversary of the son of a talented shehnai (an oboe-like instrument constructed of reed and wood or metal) player, the only time when the devastated father picks up his instrument. No one in the village misses this annual moonlit performance. Our cynical narrator expects little when suddenly:

Through the air, such despairing, lamenting harmonies emanated from the sad tunes of the shehnai player that just single note of his falling on the ear felt like a language only the soul understands! As if today, having the opportunity to hear that language, the soul had rendered the entire body and all the senses and had overtaken the mind.

Oh to be present on that forested night! But for my money, one of the most moving stories from this rich and varied collection, is “The Prisoner of Andaman.” This is the tale of a man who returns to his native village after serving twenty years in prison for murder. Visaji, eager to see his home and friends again is met by the harsh realization that he has been forgotten, only his crime remains to distinguish him. The love that is “brimming over in his own heart” after so many years of penance and exile, is met with hostile indifference. Dhumketu portrays his growing anguish so acutely—“it felt as if his legs had broken. His heart was wounded”—that it is impossible not to share his pain, no matter his past.

In selecting the stories that comprise this collection, translator Bhatt wanted to showcase the range of Dhumketu’s work and encourage an appreciation of his chronological progression as a writer, so she chose one story from each of his published collections, plus two. As such she has created an excellent and entertaining introduction to this important Gujarati author—not an easy task over a longer volume like this. Her keen translation incorporates common expressions  and terms, explained in footnotes and a brief glossary only if necessary, thus preserving the flavour of the culture and the communities of Dhumketu’s fictional world.

The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu is translated by Jenny Bhatt and published by Deep Vellum. An earlier edit of this collection was published in India in 2020 as Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu (Harper Perennial).

What are we going to do now? The Tomb Guardians by Paul Griffiths

Four was a good number.
So now we’re three. What difference does it make?
We knew where we were, then.
And now we don’t?

It’s an unusual premise. Three Roman soldiers, charged to guard the tomb of a “local rebel,” have awoken from their unintentional slumber to find one of their number missing and the heavy stone rolled away from the mouth of the cave where the body had been laid. Panicked, they try to assess their situation. How had they allowed themselves to fall asleep on the job? Where has their fellow guard gone? And how are they going to find a way out of this predicament without even fully understanding what is at stake?

Their debate in its own right might offer material for a light comedy of errors, but our three guardians simultaneously exist, sound asleep, in individual portraits painted by sixteenth-century German master Bernhard Strigel and currently housed in Munich. Meanwhile, in the present day, an anxious lecturer is afraid that his pending presentation about these paintings, and their relationship to a fourth portrait, now in the UK, that somehow became separated from them, is falling apart at the seams. As he and a friend review his arguments about the artistic and theological questions raised by the images—included as four full colour plates—the subjects of the paintings try to imagine a way to get themselves out of an awkward situation, as uninformed bit players at a profound moment in Christian history. As the text weaves its way back and forth between these two conversations, further questions about history, truth and faith arise in clever, unexpected ways.

And it all works like a charm.

The Tomb Guardians, the latest novel from the prolific music critic, writer and librettist, Paul Griffiths, is inventive, witty and wise. This short novel, so simple in its conception and yet so extraordinary in its execution, should be read, on its own, in one or two sessions, rather than slipped in among other reads. It is not difficult, but is best met without distraction so as to appreciate the full effect of the two interlaced dialogues that drive this singular text.

The lecturer works his way through his presentation, responding to his friend’s interruptions and encouragements, beginning with the artist’s depiction of ordinary sleeping figures—unique in his oeuvre and the art of his time—and moving on to consider the possible inspiration to illustrate guardians at all. Most widely known official accounts beyond the Gospel of Matthew make no mention of any watch being set. At the same time, the soldiers, their conversation set apart in italics, have very little understanding of the circumstances that led to this assignment. They try to sort out what they do know and craft potential explanations, from the mundane to the supernatural, to offer their superiors should they be discovered in dereliction of duty or decide to report to their camp. Not surprisingly, consensus is hard to come by:

Whoa, can we please discuss this a bit?

“As to the –”

Yes, we should be very careful what we say here.

“As to the soldiers sent to stand guard, Matthew indicates that they didn’t just drift off but were shocked into sleep by the appearance of the angel.”

We can’t just say we fell asleep. Anyone would say we should’ve been taking it in turns. Anyone would say that.

“Now how does Strigel deal with this? Observe this fellow here, seated on the ground, resting his head on his left palm, while his right arm dangles.”

Did we try taking it in turns? Did any of us suggest that?
Wait.

“Look at him with his half-open mouth.”

We have to be very careful here, even in what we say just to each other, because you say something, and somebody else’ll remember it, and then little by little it becomes the truth, you know, it becomes the story, it becomes what we all of us remember, even if it never happened that way at all.

As the novel proceeds, the guardians’ musings range wider while the lecturer’s concerns begin to focus more on the likely intention behind the paintings’ commission, how they fit into the shifting religious politics of the Reformation and how one portrait came to be separated. The quoted passages from his presentation are framed within the comments and inquiries of his friend. Against the academic tone of his developing thesis, the guardians’ debate offers a critical and entertaining counterpoint. Speaking in anything but Biblical tones, they are as delightfully anachronistic as their Renaissance dress and weaponry. Together this dual-strand narrative forms a work that richly rewards return visits.

The Tomb Guardians by Paul Griffiths is published by Henningham Family Press.

At the threshold: City of Torment (and Prague, I See a City…) by Daniela Hodrová

Founded, according to legend, with the prophetic proclamation of the mythical Princess Libuše, Prague rose from a hilltop settlement to become the political and economic hub of Central Europe. Forged in stone, blood and bone over a thousand years it is a place dense with history, a city that cannot escape itself, often depicted as a labyrinthine maze of magic, madness and despair. City of Torment, a loose trilogy by Czech author and theorist Daniela Hodrová, falls into the literary tradition of writers like Karel Hynek Mácha, Gustav Meyrink and Franz Kafka in its portrayal of the city as a distorted space within which the individual can become lost or disoriented. Her Prague is a layered, cyclical place in which spatial and temporal dimensions shift, trapping its living and the ghostly inhabitants in a grand circle game, one that plays out again and again in a number of distinctive settings or “stages” throughout the city centre. As such, the narrative that runs through the course of the three novels that comprise City of TormentIn Both Kinds, Puppets and Theta—is fragmented, kaleidoscopic and cumulative, peopled by characters that defy boundaries between life and death, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate.

There is no succinct way to provide an outline of City of Torment as a cohesive work of fiction; it is akin to an organic, evolving entity that gradually takes on a life that even seems to confound its own author by the time we reach the third part. It was not conceived as a trilogy. Hodrová began the first novel, In Both Kinds, in December 1977 and finished it the following year, but, like the two novels that would follow, it could not be published until after the fall of the Communist government. This work, narrated by an omniscient third person narrator that occasionally takes on the direct voice of a character or an object, is centred around an apartment block across from the famed Olšany Cemetery, and those who reside in or pass through in the building and the graveyard. It opens near the end of the Second World War, as young Alice Davidovich throws herself from the window of the building’s fifth floor flat to avoid being taken away to the gas chambers, thus making a direct transit from the building to the cemetery. Alice, who will spend much of her after-life repeating a fruitless rush to meet her beloved Pavel, is the central female protagonist in this first book, and provides a critical yet curious continuity linking the women at the heart of each of the following texts.

A wide cast of eccentric characters populate the pages of In Both Kinds. The living, the dead (recently and long dead), and the few who have found themselves charmed (or cursed) with the ability to negotiate a space in between the two states, exist alongside one another. Souls trapped inside inanimate objects, or transformed into birds interact on both sides (with both kinds) and, naturally, many characters will make the passage from the world of the living to the community of the dead over the course of the novel. Their personalities and the events or activities marking their lived existences follow them to their graves. Clothing and objects—a sweater, a coat, a mother of pearl button, a Persian lamb muff—become talismans, symbols (but of what?). And woven into all of this are historical personages and events that appear or are referenced, exaggerated or confined by the mythology that has grown around them over time. It is a strange and wonderful ensemble piece, but hanging over it all is a disquieting sense of directionlessness.

This sensation becomes more pronounced in the second novel, Puppets (Living Pictures), composed between 1981 and 1983. Composed of one hundred and twenty-six “living pictures” or vignettes, this novel focuses closely on Sophie Souslik, a seamstress at the Realm of Puppets, and her parents and grandparents. Prague with its warren of streets and public squares forms a wider backdrop against which the action—much of it imagined, remembered and echoed—is staged. And staged is the appropriate word, Prague has become a city of marionettes. But something darker lurks here. Specific spaces and objects, like the courtyard with its rug beating rack or Sophie’s father’s office with its heavy black furniture and spinning chair, hold special powers and seem to become portals to painful personal and historical pasts, hidden or forgotten. There is a significant and welcome crossover of characters from In Both Kinds as well as new characters that sometimes act as alternate versions of previous actors. For example, Sophie is sometimes mistaken, at least briefly, for Alice Davidovich, and she also has a boyfriend named Pavel. Identities are frequently confused, experiences are repeated merging the familiar with the strange, and characters increasingly begin to change—humans metamorphize into insects and birds, while statues and household objects fall in love with people and long for release from their solid states. Still, an atmosphere of detachment colours the text.

With the third and final novel, Theta, composed between December 1987 and January 1990, the project that will become City of Torment begins to take form (the books will ultimately be published individually before being gathered together into a single volume). It opens with a variation on the first lines of Dante’s Inferno. Prague is now clearly depicted as its own special version of hell, a city of torment. The title, Theta, has a double meaning—it’s association with death, Thanatos, and its use, θ, as a proofreader’s symbol for “delete”—and as soon becomes apparent, “this novel” now exists an entity within itself. Here, the solitary, curious female protagonist, Alice and Sophie’s heir/doppelgänger, is Eliška Beránková (Lamb). But, not only is she less satisfied to stay within the confines of the text, Daniela Hodrová continually allows the boundary between herself and her creation to blur, even disappear. In a full metafictional turn, the author enters her own novel, and, at one point, Eliška steps out and tries to become a living being. Fiction and fact clash. Some new characters that initially appear to be entirely the product of the text grow more transparent. Others openly straddle the line between fact and fiction. For example, Hodorva introduces her real life husband, trying and failing to keep to the fictional name she assigns him. She grants Eliška imitations of her own life, consciously negotiating her two identities as the manuscript on her desk grows. Through her alter ego, Hodrová, the author, merges with the central figure who is descending into the city of torment in search of her own past.

If this all sounds like an overload—and these are densely packed works—Hodrová writes with a style that constantly refers back on itself, without being repetitive, so the reader does not lose track of who is who. Her narrative second guesses itself constantly (questioning meaning in parentheses) implying that nothing is certain, nothing is written in stone. There is, however, much more going on beneath the surface—historical, literary and place references that would likely be less of a mystery to those familiar with Prague—but for a visitor stumbling into her City of Torment with less background, the Appendix that closes out the work might not quite suffice. So I turned to Hodrová’s Prague, I See A City…, written after the completion of the trilogy, first as an alternative guidebook, but then released as a kind prologue/companion piece to her major work. A short, engaging, magical exploration of her hometown, this book is a perfect follow-up read, not only because it will fill in some of the biographic, geographic and historical details behind the novel, but because, written in 1990, in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution it looks forward, however cynically, to new possibility, with hope of shedding the weight that had oppressed the previous decades.

As noted earlier, the first two novels of City of Torment are characterized by a certain flattened affect and sense of detachment. Composed during the restrictive Normalization period under the Communist government of the 1970s and 1980s, Hodrová was writing without knowing if, or when, it might be possible to release her fiction. It must have felt akin to writing into a void in a world where the dead seemed more alive than the living. The final novel was composed at the end of this period, a time of turmoil, and, when the government fell she stopped writing it, not knowing how a dynamic text informed by a city (or a city formed by a text) might now be altered. In Prague, I See a City… she says of this time:

A revolution of words, an almost fairground battle of words really did take place last year, though its tumult now reaches us only dimly. The city is once more slipping back into its sleep, its unconsciousness, its oblivion.

In those November days, something fundamental happened to the life of this city, to my life. I finished writing Theta at the very moment the battle broke out, for at that moment the city ceased, at least briefly, to be a city of torment.

Far from a conventional travel guide, Prague, I See a City… serves as an immediate refocusing of Prague after the fall of Communist Czechoslovakia and as an introduction to Hodrová’s world-view. As she wanders her city, as if in a dream, the boundaries between the real and the imagined blur. The city she sees is perhaps on the cusp of a new beginning, but the weight of the past, historical and literary will not pass lightly. She reflects on her own childhood, comments on the novels of her trilogy, and visits museums, St Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle and other sites, evoking the lives of long dead kings and more recent political environments along the way. Published before the recent complete translation of the trilogy, this book could easily be read first, and for its own merits alone, but it is just as effective (if not more so) read as an extended (and exceptionally entertaining) epilogue that offers a fuller understanding of both Hodrová’s literary vision and her idiosyncratic relationship with Prague.

In Both Kinds is a revised translation by Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol (an earlier English translation by Tatiana Firkusny and Véronique Firkusny was published in 2015 as Kingdom of Souls). Puppets is translated by Elena Sokol and Véronique Firkusny, and Theta is translated by Elena Sokol. Prague, I See a City… is translated by David Short.

Daniela Hodrová’s City of Torment, Prague, I See a City… and Kingdom of Souls are all published by Jantar Publishing.

 

 

 

And Usman keeps singing: Another Gulmohar Tree by Aamer Hussein

Aamer Hussein is a gifted storyteller. His clean, spare, emotionally sensitive tales explore, with just the right amount of detail, journeys, experiences and relationships that cross borders and cultures. His prose leaves his reader space to breathe in, room to recognize the sense of displacement, disorientation and disappointment his characters often encounter. This is especially true of Another Gulmohar Tree, a moving parable of love and marriage.

This novella begins, rather unexpectedly, with a series of short, fragmented fables. In one tale young man sits in the shade of a gulmohar tree to eat the midday meal his aunt has packed—stale bread and rancid buttermilk—which he shares with a strange talking frog. Tired after eating, he falls asleep, only to awake beside a pile of gold coins. In another, a farmer’s daughter is married to a crocodile king, soon her parents and a brother join her in his river kingdom. Much later, the providence of these tales will be made clear, but in the meantime, the narrative shifts to London in 1950. Here, a Pakistani man, a journalist on a year’s secondment, meets a British woman who is working as an illustrator. They are drawn to one another and begin to spend time together, Lydia showing Usman the sights of the city and keeping him company on his days off. Both are divorced after brief, unhappy marriages, both are lonely and ungrounded, but despite Lydia’s hopes, their friendship remains just that. Usman is forty-one, eleven years older than she is, London’s bleak winters and endless summer days bring him down and, in these early years following Partition, he feels an obligation to return to the newly independent country he has determined to make his own. Yet an uncertainty haunts him. In Lydia’s company he is at peace, but:

at work, or waiting at the bus stop to Oxford Circus or walking home from Marylebone Station, alone in the vanilla evenings that refused to shade into night, with his mind fixed on his return to Karachi, he’d ask himself questions to which he had no answer. What awaited him in the seaside city he had chosen as his home, he, a man who had no home because he’d lost his birthplace long ago and never learnt to belong anywhere else, what would he do with his life in that open city teeming with strangers like himself?

Two years after his return to Pakistan, Lydia follows on her own initiative, holding on to a few faint hints in Usman’s letters. She has prepared—even to the point of learning to speak  Urdu—intent on winning his love, which she already had won even if he hadn’t acknowledged it. They marry and set up home in a growing suburb of Karachi. Over the coming years she settles into the community with remarkable ease and good cheer, turning their humble little house into a home as they welcome three children into their family. Lydia who now prefers to be called Rokeya, fully embraces life in her adopted country while maintaining an ability to connect with other foreign-born (or foreign-focused) women when she wishes to. Over time, her husband begins to question himself, his career, his life.  He had once been a promising writer, but his dreams have faltered. He resents others who have found success (even plagiarizing his work to do so), and envies his wife who is devoted to their children, yet expanding her own creative and professional pursuits. Ten years into marriage, silence and unease starts to work its way into their relationship. Will Usman be able to see the beauty he has become blind to as bitterness and malaise has set in?

The outline of this tale is simple, but as ever, Aamer Hussein excels in the depiction of the attractions, affections and tensions that draw people together or threaten to push them apart. With Another Gulmohar Tree, he employs careful observation combined with literary restraint to create an unusual, intelligent, slyly romantic story, short enough to read in a day. And sometimes that is just perfect in itself.

Another Gulmohar Tree by Aamer Hussein is published by Telegram.

Pride Reading—Two: This Body I Wore by Diana Goetsch

The second trans-themed nonfiction book I chose to read this month is, in contrast to my first (My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi), a literary memoir, but the transgender journey it details differs from the one that is commonly told because the details of the author’s actual transition are minimal and confined to the closing chapters. It is, rather, the story of one woman’s fifty-year-long odyssey to finally come to acknowledge what she had sensed from a very early age—that despite being born male, she was, and always had been female. So why did it take so long to acknowledge the truth? This Body I Wore is Diana Goetsch’s answer to that question, an eloquent chronicle of life that conspired to cloud the reality haunting her relationships and filling her closets for so long.

Goetsch’s account opens with her early unsuccessful attempts to form romantic or sexual relationships and her first forays out into the culture inhabited by cross-dressers. She is in 1980s New York City. The push-pull of her attraction to women and women’s clothing is exciting and confusing. She graduates college, lands a teaching position at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School and soon finds herself juggling secrets, while trying to build friendships and find a girlfriend.  By her early thirties she seems to be dropping all or most of the balls. That leads her back into her past to begin to trace the roots of her predicament.

The childhood described in This Body I Wore is one marked by little affection and an unhealthy measure of abuse. The youngest of two boys, Diana—or rather Doug (and briefly I am using male pronouns, this book spans decades of evolving and context specific usage)—is told by his mother that he was an “accident,” that is, unintended and unwanted. He grows up on Long Island, an athletic, sports-minded young man who seems to become increasingly and inexplicably unpopular. Although he is determined to keep his secret fascination with girl’s shoes and dresses and feminine undergarments to himself, it’s almost as if others sense a difference. Friends fall away. Doug cannot understand why; by the end of high school, unable to secure a college placement he feels left behind. I wonder how many trans people have experienced similar sensations of being out of step? I know I did.

The bulk of this memoir follows Diana’s efforts to build relationships with a series of women, most of whom she comes out to as a cross-dresser and with whom she explores social outings as female, but again and again her own male body becomes a barrier to full sexual expression. A trail of broken hearts and extended periods of loneliness carry her into middle age. Professionally, she spends a number of years teaching in a youth correctional facility, begins writing and publishing poetry, and tries to build a career as a writing teacher. Meanwhile, she increasingly dedicates her weary spirit to Buddhism, attending retreats and developing her practice to a point where she finally finds a way into her deepest self. Throughout the course of more than two decades she moves in and out a female identity that can be outfitted and carefully applied, then washed away and returned to the drawer. The decision to move forward is liberating, and increasingly magic as it gradually becomes her normal, everyday existence.

I enjoyed this book very much, it is a poetic and finely crafted tale. I will confess that I was reluctant to take it on. I have an uncomfortable reaction to memoirs, especially those with recreated dialogue and the inclusion of the stories that belong in equal part to those who come in and out of the story. Goetsch handles this well, with respect, but I did at times wonder about the women whose lives were exposed along the way. However, my greater concern was, as I mentioned in my previous Pride post, a general anxiety about trans stories, fiction or nonfiction, which I can never entertain as an impartial reader. As a transitioned man it’s impossible not to read myself into and against the stories of others and very often I find it an alienating and depressing adventure. Yet, This Body I Wore was a pleasant surprise.

Trans women and trans men typically have rather different trajectories, in both the coming to a decision to transition and in the treatment available. At least twenty or more years ago, the accepted norm for a “transsexual” man was a childhood as a tomboy, attraction to women, and commonly, for lack of any other place to seek an understanding of oneself, questioning sexuality or living as a lesbian. By contrast, my early reaction to the feeling that there was “a boy inside me” was not a desire to be male but the fear that my body carried signs of my wrongness, something I hoped I could learn to overcome. Although I could not believe it, I was pretty and reasonably feminine, not athletic or a tomboy or attracted to girls, but the gender insecurity was deep and increased as I grew older. I married and eventually had children, pushing to the back any careers or opportunities that I feared might reveal the truth about me. In the absence of any notion that trans men existed or what testosterone could accomplish, it would take thirty-eight years and an incredible emotional and mental toll before I knew I was not alone. Within two years of realizing the male feeling I’d fought against was me I was starting to transition. But my extended confusion, the searching for clues, the fear of revealing or even exploring what was happening, mirrors in a way the cross-dresser to trans woman scenario much more closely than the tomboy to butch to trans man route. In truth of course, transgender people are as diverse as any other people with unique social, cultural and emotional journeys to finally come home, but it is not uncommon for us to wonder, and debate, what it means to be “trans enough”.

It also struck me after finishing this book how flat Goetsch’s depiction of Doug seemed through the mid-section—the long adult years of exile. When Diana finally comes out to herself an entirely fresh energy enters the narrative, her excitement and growing confidence is palpable. Not surprising when I reflected on my own early years post transition. Once I was passing consistently and had established a new career and identity, I was forced to live stealth in my professional life so as to be able to keep a job and support my children—that is, I came out only to disappear into a closet. Still, the daily validation as a man and the thrill of no longer having to try to feel female, cast an unreal light on the past. It’s as if that life belonged to someone else as it drifted into the distance. No matter how lyrical the language, how vulnerable the account, I sensed a similar estrangement permeating the text. It makes sense and at the same time it’s refreshing because transgender memoirs can sometimes be combative and defensive. Goetsch avoids a tendency to overwrite her former existence; I imagine her maturity and her Buddhist grounding are at play. Transitioning later in life brings up such a sense of lost time, a mourning for what might have been, and that comes up here too, but briefly and with empathy and grace. In my own experience, transition is an ongoing adjustment and reframing for oneself in relation to a life lived across time and gender lines that leads to an understanding that those years “before” are not lost but a fundamental part of the person we become that a compatible sex/gender history could never afford.

This Body I Wore by Diana Goetsch is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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.

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.