A ghost from Calcutta revived: Herbert (or Harbart) by Naburan Bhattacharya

With an opening not for overly delicate sensibilities, Harbart (or Herbert depending on the edition) takes you down into the darkened streets of Calcutta where a group of intoxicated men vomit and piss their way home, and a “rag-clad mumble-mad woman” washes herself at the neighbourhood water tap. They’ve spent the evening partying at the home office of “Conversations with the dead” with the proprietor, the title of the character of the book, who has by now, unknown to them, slit his wrist and lies bleeding to death while a blue fairy frantically presses at the window unable to alter his fate.

Recently released in a brilliant new translation by Sunandini Banerjee[1], this beloved cult classic is a spirited—and spirit-filled—story of a man who never quite manages to fit himself into a world that is in upheaval, through a time of shifting social and political uncertainties. If our hapless hero exercises a certain practical and historical indifference and finds himself caught up in a number of currents he does not understand, his creator was anything but complacent. Writer and poet Naburan Bhattacharya was a dedicated humanitarian, passionate about the lives of all members of society—a man who was, as his daughter-in-law remembers him, keen to explore “the unknown, the unearthly, the underbelly of Indian society, where he dared to immerse himself with wild abandon, unapologetically.” This inclination shines through warmly and vibrantly in this, his first novel, originally published in 1994.

From its ominous, dramatic beginning, the narrative slips back in time to fill in the gaps, and make its way forward to close the circle of Harbart’s short, unfortunate life. From the start, tragedy marks him. Orphaned before the age of two after his father is killed in an automobile accident, and his mother accidentally electrocuted while hanging laundry on a wire, Harbartt ends up deposited at his father’s family home in Calcutta where he “proceeded, through indifference and neglect, toward adulthood.” His aunt Jyathaima will be, throughout his life, the sole family member to show him kindness. His cousins, especially the greedy Dhanna-da, resent his presence, abusing him whenever the opportunity arises, while his uncle whose unrestrained fondness for whores leaves mentally incapacitated as the result of venereal disease, spends his time circulating from room to veranda with the regularity of a cuckoo clock, screaming “Peeyu kahaan, peeyu kahaan!” This Hindi version of the brain-fever bird call, meaning “Where is my love?” becomes a running gag in the book—just one small indication of the humour and character that runs through the story.

Although Harbart spends a few years in school, he finds it not to his liking and drops out, preferring to read on his own and even, for a brief time, dabble in some, less than elegant poetry. Had his father not been obsessed with movies and squandered his share of the family fortune on film projects before his untimely death, this entire tale might have been quite different. But, instead, what he and the boy’s beautiful fair-skinned mother leave their son is a handsome profile, a Hollywood-ish, Leslie Howard-ish air, and a notably shahebi name—Harbart (or Herbert).

Early on, Harbart develops an interest in the dead when he find a human skull and a few bones in a trunk in the house. He eventually takes them to cleanse and release them into the waters of the Hooghly River, but from that point on he starts to immerse himself in two tattered books on the occult that had once belonged to his grandfather. This is not, however, the beginning of his career as a communicator with the deceased. His cousin Binu, a young man with connections the Communist Party had come to the city just as political tensions were rising in the early 1970s and is killed by the police. Despite his attention to Binu as he lays dying in the hospital, the incident slips from Harbart’s memory until, many years later, he recalls his cousin’s long forgotten last words in a dream and, before long, his fortunes take an unexpected turn:

Herbert could sense it. He would have to charge-barrage now. Binu had had his time. It was Herbert’s time now. He would have to produce panic-pandemonium. Rip apart everything, torment-turmoil everything until the entire universe whirled in the dance of devastation.

All of a sudden, Harbart is in business. At the same time, a chain of events is set in motion that catches the naturally anxious proprietor unaware. It seems that there are forces intent on cashing in on his talents and others determined to shut him down.

Harbart’s business may be a sham, but it is not conducted with an entirely mercenary intention. On the one hand, he is too inept to concoct an illusion worthy of the mediums of the past, like the personalities who populate the reference books he clings to, on the other, the painful stories of those who seek his services tug at his heart. It is exactly this weakness that allows him to fall into the trap set by those intent on discrediting him. But is he really hurting anyone? He is accused of playing on the desires of the bereaved to believe ghosts exist. And yet, in truth, Harbart’s own ghostly ancestors are never far away. His deceased parents huddle close by whenever their son is in trouble, his progenitors confront him in a terrifying god-like vision, and they all will cluster around at his unforgettable cremation.

This slender novella moves with a force and energy of its own—stretched out in places, sliding sidelong in others—and packs an entirely unanticipated punch at the end. By turns funny and tragic, it sings with the spirit and energy of the Calcutta streets and neighbourhoods, which are slowly changing, where modernization—like the satellite dishes sprouting on roof tops—is leading to more isolation and less compassion. It’s a world where a lonely misfit like Harbart, clinging to illusions (like that afforded by the moth-eaten Ulster great coat he walks around in, or his infatuations with a lady doctor he happens to see in passing or a stone fairy in a store window) hardly stands a chance.

Finally, I have to add a few words about the two editions of this book. I bought and read the New Directions edition first and thoroughly enjoyed it. The language is vibrant, coarse, and playful. Calcutta as I’ve experienced it comes alive on the pages. But I was curious about the different spellings of the title character’s name. It is not unusual for a book published in North America by one publisher and in the UK and the rest of the world by another to have two different titles, or small variations in the edits, but the name is rather obvious. Harbart is the Bengali rendition of “Herbert,” the name the Seagull edition uses which, depending on how you choose to look at it, given that this is an English translation, the protagonist was given an English name and he likes to imagine that others might detect in him a whiff of “white blood,” there is a fair cause for an English spelling but it’s not a major concern for me. In this review, I decided to hold to the US edit. However, the quote above is from the Seagull version, and for some reason that I can’t quite fathom, the delightful hyphenated rhyming or alliterative verbs and nouns that litter the text in this edition have been, largely diluted, sometimes even replaced in the New Directions edit. Same with some of the vernacular. Given that the translator is the senior editor at Seagull who are themselves based in the heart of Calcutta, this noticeable difference begs the question: Was the translation deemed too lively for American audiences?

Both Seagull Books and New Directions are publishers I greatly respect and I don’t want to belabour the differences. This is an exceptional, moving and important book—not to be missed, no matter the edition!

 

[1] This new translation has been published by New Directions in North America as Harbart, and by Seagull Books in the rest of the world as Herbert.

A few thoughts about language and reading in translation

I am presently reading Herbert, the Seagull edition of the Bengali cult classic by Nabarun Bhattacharya. I just finished reading in the New Directions American edition, published as Harbart. I will write a review after this second reading, not as point of comparison because both are publishers I greatly admire and strongly support. However, it is impossible to read both and not wonder what, if any, small changes are made in making a text more, shall we say palatable, for a particular English language audience. Don’t worry, the ribald, piercing vibrancy of Sunandini Banerjee’s translation shines through in both editions celebrating a work that is gritty, funny and tragic in equal measure. That’s not the issue, but so often when one sees a critical assessment of a translation by someone familiar with the original, the translator is the larger and obvious target of an attack, one often illustrated with specific examples that are seen as muting or distorting the original. Invisible in the equation is editorial input. Translations, like any literary work, are subject to editing before they are published.

The differences here are, so far as I can tell, primarily language choices—what do you leave in a vernacular, what do you edit for the ease of an American or a British audience (as relevant)? This is a frustration I have long had with translation, something that  bothered me, for example, with South African books edited for audiences outside South Africa, especially translations from Afrikaans. With my favourite writers I have tried to obtain the original South African translation if possible. One that hasn’t been sanitized for an “average” English language reader (whatever the editor  feels “average” is).

Why is so hard to imagine a readership unable to guess at the meaning of a word from context? For the purist there is always Google, but that is ultimately as fallible as trusting any one editor’s word preference. Even in our native languages we often encounter words whose meaning we are at best vague, if not entirely off course with as to the exact definition. With learning a second language this disorientation is increased, but it should not necessarily be a barrier, students are encouraged to try to fill in the gaps from what they do know about vocabulary and grammar as their fluency improves. Is it an extension of some skewed political correctness that we should never meet a word we don’t recognize?

This is why I love Michel Leiris. I am currently working on a critical essay about his work. He loved language, delighted in meanings. And misunderstandings. In the way an assumed meaning is sometimes more magical than the actual one. Or how a door is opened when we take it upon ourselves to become enlightened as to the nuances of a word or expression’s meaning. Or it’s relation to root forms or variations in other languages.

In a translation there is a place for a glossary, but it ought to be a carefully mediated tool. Broader political references or identification of figures of importance mentioned in the text are one thing, especially in a novel as socially and politically charged as Bhattacharya’s. However, deciding  which idiosyncratic word or expression must be defined or replaced is a question of balance. Less is more, I’d argue. If you read literature from foreign cultures, don’t you want your equilibrium challenged a little along the way? I suppose it is, in the end, a question of what kind of traveller one is—of how one wants to experience the world. You can pop in, hire a car and see the main tourist attractions then fly off to the next stop. Or you can find a path or two and navigate it until it feels, even for a few days, familiar. I am of the latter sort.

My first few days in Calcutta in February of 2018—my very first days in India ever—were ones of complete and total culture shock. I was aware of nothing but the mangy dogs, the tired poor, the crumbling footpaths, the incessant noise. It took a few days of making my way through the city on foot to begin to see it. To begin to open my heart to it. I spent a full two weeks there and didn’t go anywhere else. I took the Metro, rode ferries and yellow cabs. Met up with friends, sat in restaurants, coffee shops and parks.

I returned to the city again this year fresh from my first encounters with a wider range of Indian cities—Bangalore, Bombay and Kochi—and saw Calcutta from a new angle once again. Everything is relative. The traffic that had horrified me on my first visit now seemed remarkably—or almost—orderly (albeit still incredibly loud).

Granted, I read books from many countries I have never visited, translated from languages I have not even a passing acquaintances with, so I rely on the wisdom of translators and their editors. It’s a tricky thing, I know. I was once faced with editing an excerpt from the translation of an Arabic novel, a situation in which I respected both the original author and the translator very much. But I was afraid to question anything, for fear of showing my ignorance. Surely the process leading to a final published book would ideally be one that engages the editor, translator, and if possible, the author (or those who knew him or her well). Should I be tasked with taking on that entire manuscript—one of the most startling and discomforting I have ever read—I would have to overcome that fear.

Herbert or Harbart is a very special little book, one that is inextricably bound to the city in which it was birthed; its power is not lost in either edition for the very minor differences. It is also a book that benefits from a re-read, beginning as it does with the end of the story some of the magical elements can be lost on a first encounter.

Why read both editions? Why not?

So that is where I am at the moment. I’ll be back to write more about this wonderful book soon.

Forty-nine days of the spirit: Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon

The attempt to voice to the experience of reading Korean poet Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death echoes the challenge she found as the project began to take form for her. Death, as much as we may wish to avoid thinking about it, is a fundamental and natural part of life. But sometimes death arrives in unnecessary, violent, and horrifyingly tragic forms. Or simply when it is unexpected, or worse, unwarranted. The forty-nine poems that comprise the core of this work—one for each day during which the spirit wanders before re-entering the cycle of reincarnation—were written in response to those moments when Hyesoon felt the presence of death in some way. Although her intense reaction to the catastrophic collapse of a ferry carrying high school students bound for an island field trip—an event in which the crew escaped in lifeboats while the youth, ordered to their cabins, drowned—was a trigger, Korea’s recent history is rife with unjust deaths. How to reconcile all this? As an assembly of poems began to take form, she came to understand that her existence begins with death, not birth, and that we live our lives within the structure of death:

I thought to myself that I needed to sing to death, perform a rite for death, write death, then bid farewell to it. The way to send death away was to sing with my own death all the death in the sky and on the ground.

In essence, to sing to death, she had to allow her own death to take the poetic voice. To let it tell its story. How then are we to hear the songs gathered here? Quite simply, to read this book, is to listen.

As one might imagine, the language and imagery is not always easy to encounter.  Heartbreaking, often disturbing, death does not necessarily come gently, and the spirit does not effortlessly shed its fleshy anchor. Verses infused with sad and tender tones mix with horror-filled prose poems and gruesome nursery rhymes, while songs of mournful remembrance turn strange and surreal. To move through this post-death journey is an odd and deeply compelling experience. At moments it is even exquisite:

Like the failing frail twilight and
the rising frail dawn
certain light caves in, certain light soars and embraces

Something like the silvery alligator in your throat
Something like the silvery mosquito on your face

Something like the abrupt opening of the windows of the sea after waking
.                 up from a lifetime of sleep

You’ll see the mornings of the world all at once

– from “Naked Body” (Day Sixteen)

Death is a bodied, intensely physical presence in this sequence of poems. Visceral and graphic at times. Certain images reappear throughout including water, dolls, winged beings—birds, insects and angels—mothers and children, coffins and burial. The space between death and rebirth is an icy, wintery one. Hyesoon shifts and builds on this imagery as the body is slowly and, seemingly reluctantly shed, transforming and decaying as the spirit is increasingly cut off from the world. The poetic perspective invites an intimate engagement with death:

The shape of a woman appears in the mirror. Now you’ve become toeless feet. Now you’ve become fingerless hands. You’ve become a noseless, mouthless face. Your insides that are so far away yet close, the forest in your hair, light enters the rocky moon, and the sea wavers in your shoes. Birds fly up your sleeves and a horse weeps in your pants.

– from “A Face” (Day Forty-Three)

As the forty-nine day passage draws toward a close, faces lose their distinction. Death erases names and identities. “You” lose the ability to recognize yourself or your place in the world. But who exactly is this “you”? In the conversation with her long time translator, Korean-American poet Don Mee Choi, that closes out the book, Hyesoon explains that she could not call her own death “I”, thus her death became “you”, but not as in a simple second person narrative. It is an intrinsically poetic space, such that “you” was “not I or you or he/she.” She goes on to describe how she began to wonder if the narrator might be a sixth or seventh-person narrator, and the “you” who is being addressed is “my death”—“I” has been killed. This she insists, is in keeping with what she sees as the only way to ethically practice poetry, by practicing the death of “I”. Of course, in reading, “you” also feels like “my” or “our” death. At times, especially with the poems that have a sing-song or nursery rhyme feel, it is not unlikely that one might be inclined to want to sing along.

The collection ends with an extended poem “Face of Rhythm,” a piece born out of meditation during a period of pain and illness. Filled with an aching intensity, it is a fitting follow-up to the forty-nine day sequence of Death, a laborious rebirth, release from facelessness and  namelessness. But renewal is hard won, a slow hallucinatory passage through sickness:

That feeling of my soul getting yanked
I wonder where my soul hides when I’m sick
My heart feels as if it’s getting beat up
Is it because the restless ocean is clumping up?
My heart beats regardless of the pain
It beats spewing out red thread like a red spider
A sinkful of red thread gets submerged in water
My heart beats like a girl marathon runner who only had ramen to eat

Autobiography of Death is a collection that leaves one alternately drained and exhilarated. I find it hard to imagine anyone would emerge indifferent. Translator Don Mee Choi’s strong affection and sensitivity for  Kim Hyesoon’s poetry is invaluable, while the playfully strange illustrations by the her daughter Fi Jae Lee contribute to the power and magic of this new work from one of Korea’s most important poets.

Autobiography of Death is published by New Directions.

The truth has no ornaments: SS Proleterka by Fleur Jaeggy

You don’t tell the story of your own life, there’s no time. Life began the moment in which we got on board. The beginning is the Proleterka.

SS Proleterka was the last of Fleur Jaeggy’s currently available translated works that I had left to read and I did not want it to end. I used to think Sweet Days of Discipline was my favourite but this novel is far more subtle, real, and painful. And with none of the gothic overtones that creep into so much of her other work. A most dispassionate and restrained coming of age story, it is cold, calculated, yet charged with a deep, sorrowful beauty.

Central to this novella is the account of a cruise to Greece that the unnamed narrator and her father take when she is fifteen years old. It will turn out to be the last opportunity they have to get to know each other. Her parents separated when she was young, and she was deposited with her maternal grandmother, leaving her father effectively exiled from her life, forced to request time with his daughter—applications that were frequently denied or strictly curtailed. To have two weeks together over the Easter holidays is unprecedented, and precious, but unlikely to resolve the existing distance between parent and child. They are too much alike, too accustomed to emotional self-preservation. But, with almost surgical precision, Jaeggy’s crystalline prose exposes the currents of repressed affection that run deep beneath the surface of their relationship.

Our protagonist is looking back from mid-life, at her childhood and youth. She offers an unsentimental, clinical assessment of her own experiences, emotions, and interactions. It is a learned response to the world. Occasionally she speaks of “my father”, but most commonly she refers to him by his first name, Johannes. With respect to herself, she alternates between first person and third, talking of “Johannes’ daughter,” “she” or “the girl”—at times employing all three in the same paragraph. She is thus able to step back and place herself within the regard (or lack thereof) of others. Detachment is her means of coping.

As a young girl, she tells us, she lived with Orsola, her mistress or “the mother of my mother, of her who had been Johannes’ wife.” After her own parents’ divorce, her father’s parents who had moved south for the health of their other son, an invalid, lost the textile factory that had been in the family for generations. Johannes lost his inheritance and his wealth. For the narrator, her father’s family hold a tragic fascination. She does not know them beyond their photographic images. But then she hardly knows her father any better. It is her mother’s family who control her destiny, which will ultimately be boarding school. She is disposable and knows it early on. Still, she describes her “quasi-glacial” relationship with her maternal grandmother as the most intense she ever had, even if she is at a loss to know if she felt affection for the woman:

Orsola treats me like an adult. Like a peer. Obedience does not mean subordination. I close all the shutters. I do not open them in the mornings. A continuous closing. I close the day. Closing is order. It is a form of detachment. An ephemeral preparation for death. An exercise. It was entirely natural that that woman and the garden corresponded to the vision of a happy land. How much time did I still have at my disposal? The curtains at the window are fragile, almost dust. And she, the mistress, looks like a white plaster bust.

If her relationship with Orsola is formal and defined by expectation, her mother exists almost entirely in absentia. She is “Johannes’ wife.” By the time the protagonist is recounting her tale, she too is dead. Her daughter has only her jewels and her piano to remember her by. It is the Steinway, purchased in New York and carried across the ocean to Europe, that is the narrator’s closest connection to her mother. As an object resting in a specially prepared room, she endows it with personality, demonstrating an intimacy she could never find with the pianist who once played it:

You do not want me to touch your keys yet. My fingers are unfamiliar to you. That slight hint of carnality. But I am sitting beside you. I watch over you. In the first years I always kept the door closed. I wanted to be sure that no one came in. You alone, locked in. Now no longer. Now I allow you more freedom. And at the same time I allow myself more freedom too. I have become wiser. Before, if I felt resentment, it seeped into my veins, my eyes, my thoughts. An insomniac resentment.

Aboard the SS Proleterka, the connection between father and daughter is marked by a formality that neither can seem to breach. They have, she has told us, always been able to “perceive the exceedingly fine line between equilibrium and desperation.” By the time they are on this shared voyage, the daughter on the cusp of womanhood and the father aging quickly, they can no longer negotiate that line. The ship has been chartered by the Guild to which Johannes has belonged since he was a student. Having fallen into poverty, he is treated by his peers with a measure of pity. He is awkward, out of step. His daughter, meanwhile, is looking to test other waters while they are out to sea. As the voyage progresses, she engages in a number of rather abrupt sexual encounters with several of the officers. She is being used and she knows it, but she wants the experience. She likes and dislikes it at once. Having been raised by a family who could not show love, she seems unable to accept more than brute affection. Yet there is also the sense that she wants to evoke a reaction in Johannes, protective, angry, disappointed—anything—but if he registers her absences from their cabin he refuses to show it.

Day by day, their extended visit slips away. Trips ashore to visit ruins and others sites, exhaust Johannes and confuse his daughter. At Knossos, for example, his sadness weighs on her and distracts her:

I should pay attention to the woman’s explanations, says Johannes; I continue to look at her white gloves, the seams of her stockings. Her calves. “Höre, höre zu,” says Johannes, listen. I cannot catch her words. Only in my mind’s eye can I grasp what I see. The words are too much. And the light is extremely bright. The journey is important for Johannes. The journey to Greece, father and daughter. The last and first chance to be together. But we do not know this. Or perhaps he does.

There will be no magic breakthrough on this voyage, nor in any of the remaining visits the narrator makes to have dinner with her father in the hotel where he lives. There is an emotional stasis that defines their relationship and in a strange way it suits them. The narrator’s father will be long dead before she really confronts the importance of their bond. And even then it is stretched taut and unarticulated.

Perfectly paced and tightly controlled, the devastating power of SS Proleterka lies in the way Jaeggy manages to capture the complicated and unexpressed affection that underlie even the most strained parent-child relationships, while demonstrating the lengths to which a child who knows they have been disposed of will go to maintain a sense of identity. Self-preservation requires distance. If the narrator seems dispassionate at times, she is also resilient and real.

SS Proleterka is translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen who maintains a remarkably clean, even tone throughout, seamlessly incorporating the German dialogue, and allowing the stark beauty of Jeaggy’s prose to shine. Highly recommended. Available from New Directions.

Ancient sorrows, modern woes: The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories by Osama Alomar

Don’t let the current fashionable popularity of flash fiction deceive you—it is a form with a long history in Arab literature, an allegorical tradition to which Syrian writer and poet Osama Alomar proudly belongs. But, as an immigrant living in exile in the United States, his tightly crafted parables and short fictions have a quality that is both timeless and timely. We cannot but recognize ourselves and the world we live in today.

Free Elections
When the slaves reelected their executioner entirely of their own accord and without any pressure from anyone, I understood that it was still very early to be talking about democracy and human dignity.

In his most recent collection,  The Teeth of the Comb & And Other Stories, Alomar employs this traditional manner of storytelling to craft pieces that range from a single sentence to a page or more. Animals and objects—man-made and natural—are often animated to take centre stage, offering philosophical reflections on life, humanity, or wondering at strangeness of the universe. His narrators and protagonists, human or otherwise, speak to sadness, loneliness, and injustice while the shadow of his troubled homeland hangs over their tales. It cannot be ignored. The futility and violence of war is a frequent theme. These pieces may read like age-old wisdoms, but their message is immediate. If they sound timeless, it is because, at the end of the day, little changes.

The Dark Side
The moon wished to punish humans for the many transgressions and frightful crimes they commit against each other and against nature. She decided to hide her lighted side so that they would curb their behavior and return to reason. And so the eclipse took place. But great was the surprise of the moon when she saw millions of people coming out of their houses to enjoy the view of her dark side.

His style is spare and unsentimental. The shortest entries have a sharp aphoristic tone, whereas the longer ones, with a wider stage on which to play out contemporary themes, are painfully heart-wrenching. “Love Letter” is a long message addressed to a woman with whom the narrator was involved. It speaks to intimacy against a backdrop of war and revolution, an intimacy that deepened even after he left the conflict zone. When her letters and emails stop he fears the worst but holds to faint hope. “The Shining Idea,” one of my favourite pieces, is a dialogue between an unconceived child and the man he hopes will give him life. The would-be child sees only the beauty and joy in the world beyond the transparent boundary that contains him. The father he beseeches knows only suffering and poverty and cannot be convinced that his is a world worth bringing another life into.

Time and again, knowledge, compassion and understanding are the ingredients most at risk, or missing altogether in the world Alomar presents us with. His weary narrators and anthropomorphic characters know this well. But, in keeping with the tradition from which he emerges (Kahlil Gibran is one of his heroes), his messages are never forced or dogmatic. They are simply laid bare for the reader to encounter:

 Never Been Touched
A book sitting on the shelf with torn covers and pages filled with comments and notes in the margins said to his colleague who stood behind him, “I envy so much your freshness and your eternal youth!”
But his colleague answered him dejectedly, “I never been touched!”

With over 160 stories spreading across no more than 95 pages, one might be tempted to consume the accessible, entertaining short fictions that comprise this collection in quick succession, swallowing one after another. However, these fables, wisdoms and cautionary tales are best digested slowly, over a few days perhaps. At once beautiful and urgent, they deserve a little extra attention. The chorus of their voices deserves to be heard.

The Teeth of the Comb & And Other Stories by Osama Alomar is translated from Arabic by C J Collins with the author, and published by New Directions.

“Childhood is ancient”: Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

The bell rings, we get up. The bell rings again, we go to bed. We retire to our rooms; we saw life pass beneath our windows, observed it in books and on our walks, watched the seasons change. It was always a reflection, a reflection that seemed to freeze on our windowsills. And perhaps now we saw a tall marbly figure stand out before us: it is Frédérique passing through our lives and maybe we’d like to go back, but we don’t need anything, anymore. We imagined the world. What else can we imagine now if not our own deaths? The bell rings and it’s all over.

Switzerland, the Appenzell: the area where Robert Walser took his walks, including his final snowy outing, and the location of the boarding school where the narrator of Fleur Jaeggy’s hauntingly pristine first novel is living, at the age of fourteen. She regrets that they didn’t know of the writer’s existence at the time, but the perfection of his death, and the season, set the tone for the story that she is about to share—a chilling winter tone that persists even as the months and years pass and the harsh, spare beauty of Sweet Days of Discipline works its way right through to the bone.

sweetdaysThis novella is marked by a tightly controlled narrative voice. It is a tale of obsession. There is little action, it is the narrator’s emotional intensity that drives the story forward. Looking back on the years she spent in a series of boarding schools, from the age of eight to seventeen, she zeroes in on this one particular year, at the Bausler Institut, where Frédérique—beautiful, remote, and obedient—first entered her life. She sets out to conquer this newcomer who, only a few months older, has come from the outside with a certain detached worldliness that instantly sets her apart from the other girls.

The narrator, whose education is directed, long distance, by her mother in Brazil, is a seasoned veteran of boarding schools where, as she puts it, “a sort of senile childhood was protracted almost to insanity.” She knows the game, and how to play it, which she does with a healthy measure of cynicism:

Part of your education is learning how to thank with a smile. An awful smile. There is a mortuary look somehow to the faces of the boarders, a faint mortuary smell to even the youngest and most attractive girls. A double image, anatomical and antique. In the one the girl runs about and laughs, in the other she lies on a bed covered in a lace shroud. It’s her own skin has embroidered it.

She is, however, only an average student—a fact that does not trouble her at all. At one point she admits that all she remembers from her school years is Baudelaire. No surprise. She seems to have almost absorbed his dark poetic soul. Her narrative is liberally strewn with metaphorical references to graves, coffins, corpses, and death.

She befriends Frédérique, in good part because the others find the new girl too distant, and keep their distance in return. They take walks together, and she listens with sometimes exhausted attention, as Frédérique talks of literature, philosophy, and travel. Her own obsession borders, she supposes, on love. But it is a chaste, almost brittle affection.

Spring thawThere is a simmering violence that runs beneath the surface of the narrative. The narrator, long neglected by her own family, harbours a bitterness that colours her detailed, frequently nasty, appraisals of the appearance and idiosyncrasies of others—the headmistress and her husband, her German roommate, the little black girl, and more. When Micheline, a gregarious new student arrives, she suddenly turns her back on her precious Frédérique, more it seems, out of a sadistic streak than affection for the newcomer. She registers no remorse until Frédérique’s father dies, causing her to leave the school for good.

This novella is filled with conflicted, often dark, emotion. The tension lies not so much in what happens, as in the sombre frostiness of the prose. Frédérique, it turns out, is deeply troubled; however, the nameless narrator, is perhaps more unsettling and tragic. Either way, the result is a tale—captured so deftly in this translation by Tim Parks—of stark, poetic beauty:

I persevered in the pleasure of taking my sadness to the limit, the way one does with some practical joke. The pleasure of disappointment. It wasn’t new to me. I had been relishing it ever since I was eight years old, a boarder in my first, religious, school. And perhaps they were the best years, I thought. Those years of discipline. There was a kind of elation, faint but constant throughout all those days of discipline, the sweet days of discipline.

Fleur Jaeggy is an Italian speaking, Swiss-born writer. Sweet Days of Discipline is published by New Directions. Two newly translated works will be coming out, July 2017, from New Directions in North America and And Other Stories in the UK. (Sweet Days of Discipline is now available outside North America from And Other Stories)

 

The enigmatic fiction of Roger Lewinter: Story of Love in Solitude and The Attraction of Things

It is unusual to come to the end of a book and be completely at a loss as to how to write about the reading experience one has just had, and yet feel compelled to make some sort of attempt, however indirect or uncertain that might be. And that is exactly how I find myself now, having just finished Roger Lewinter’s novella The Attraction of Things. Together with Story of Love in Solitude, a very brief collection of three short stories, these two recent releases from New Directions (translated by Rachel Careau) serve as an English language introduction to the French writer and translator’s beguiling, meditative, and sometimes simply perplexing, fiction.

lovesolitudeThe latter volume, originally published in 1989, is one of the most unusual and strangely captivating books I read all year. The stories are focused and contained, reading almost like prose poetry, but they offer a taste of Lewinter’s idiosyncratic unspooling sentences that can wind around seemingly unrelated clauses before finding their way, from beginning to end, by such a circuitous route that one often feels inclined to retrace the pattern back to its source. It is an experience akin to untangling a long garden hose, or, more appropriately, following the designs of a richly decorated tapestry such as the Kashmir shawls that Lewinter’s narrator—whose writing and translating projects mirror the author’s so directly that the line between fiction and memoir appear to blur—obsesses over in the story “Passion” and throughout the course of the longer novella. Even attempting to write about Lewinter’s prose invites a tendency to add divertive notes, set off with dashes, not entirely unlike the style he employs.

See? Already it feels as if I am spinning my wheels. The reward though, especially in the shorter pieces, lies in the attention to detail and emotion, often of a detached or self-reflective nature, that is granted the events, objects or individuals with whom the narrator is engaged. The simplest story, the opening titular piece of Story of Love in Solitude, lasts for less than three pages and concerns the persistent presence of a spider. It captures so acutely the type of everyday irritation that quickly turns to a sense of loss when the routine is broken and an odd affection is realized after the fact.

athingsThe other two stories are more complex in the attractions and obsessions they entail and introduce characteristics that are present—and I want to say, more inclined to cause a measure of frustration—throughout the novella: Lewinter’s tendency to use explicit dates and translation projects to track time while he dismantles and reconstructs the chronological (in)consistencies in his stories—one which involves an epic battle against insect infestation and fate to save two camellias, and the other, which traces the protagonist’s drawn out and ultimately fruitless obsession with a young man he observes in the market. What makes these set-pieces work is the way that, for all his musing and meandering, Lewinter writes with an almost symphonic intensity, building tension into his narratives, and bringing each one to a charged conclusion. These small discursive journeys relate ordinary events that are oddly familiar, sensitive, and moving.

The same forces are at play in The Attraction of Things, which is the earlier of the two works, originally published in 1985, and, again, the overlap of characteristics between the narrator of the novella and, at the very least, the literary career of the author, create the sense that this is one voice, an alter-ego or fictionalized version of Lewinter himself. As he states, Attraction is:

…the story of a being who lets himself go toward what attracts him—beings, works, things—and who, through successive encounters, finds the way out of the labyrinth, to the heart, where passion strikes. This is the story of a letting go toward that passion.

The path that this being follows is one that appears to be characterized by an attempt to avoid deep emotional engagement with people by allowing objects—78 RPM records, Kashmir shawls, porcelain collectibles—to distract him. Against this pursuit of things, his mother and father become ill and eventually die, he allows a relationship with a woman to drift away, and lets a man take advantage of him. His passivity approaches denial of mortality, commitment, and sexuality. The flea market and the lure of things is a refuge. So too, is his work, which primarily involves immersing himself in the words of others.

Lewinter, the author and his narrator alike, has translated Karl Kraus, Elias Canetti, Robert Walser, and Rilke among others. But of special significance perhaps, is his deep association with the work of Georg Groddeck (1866-1934), the German physician widely regarded as a pioneer of psychosomatic medicine. If nothing else, this presents a possible context for understanding the manner in which the protagonist and his parents each face, and deal with, illness and physical ailments. There is a strong self-determination and stubbornness shared by the three family members that is, at the same time, a source of frustration to the son in his own distracted state. It is also interesting that Lewinter—separating him from his narrator is becoming redundant in this context—mentions writing about the connection between Bosch and Groddeck in an essay on paradise in psychoanalysis (Groddeck et Le Royaume millénaire de Jérôme Bosch—1974). Immediately this adds a new dimension to the obsession with Kashmir shawls—the colours and designs integrating cardinal points, black hearts, and angels—that runs throughout the novella and resurfaces in the later story “Passion.” To what extent are the textiles collected, cherished and hung on the walls an attempt to reflect a dream of paradise? But, most critically, when winding one’s way through the elliptical sentences that stretch on and on, often for a page or more, the narrator’s absorption with the work of a man who envied Freud’s discovery of psychoanalysis offers a way to “read” Lewinter’s distinct style of writing.

Any quotation from either book that captures a fragment of one of the gloriously nested sentences, would fail to do justice to the effect, or serve as a necessary sample for discussion, so permit me one longer, complete quote (by happy coincidence, this passage, which I selected as I was reading, happens to end a longer excerpt that was reproduced on Lit Hub):

The health of my father, since the previous September, had been deteriorating, the drugs having less and less control over the tremor that was now paralyzing him in spurts, disjointing his day with gaps to which, not wanting to hear of another hospitalization, he reconciled himself, and which I likewise trivialized; while, returning after the three months’ interruption occasioned by Antigone to Le chercheur, I finished the word-for-word translation in June, to find myself confronted with the difficulty unresolved, since I still didn’t know how to convey in French what showed through in the German, in my version rendering, as I was aware, only a state of amazement, not, in its magnetization, the torrent  of a life; and, the more I advanced, the more I was losing my way, when, on August 13, I had to have my father admitted, despite his refusal—“because you die there”—, to Thônex so that they could try, by gradually changing his medication, to stabilize his condition; but it was the balance found upon the death of my mother, three years earlier, that was undoubtedly slipping away.

Lewinter’s narrative clearly fits into the broad category of stream of consciousness writing. It is not as loosely unformed as some variations; the insertion of exact dates and concurrent writing and translation projects provides a structural formality and logic to the account. Not being well acquainted (yet) with the pioneers of the nouveau roman, I am not as well equipped as another reviewer (see John Trefry here) might be to draw refernces from that direction—my reading is necessarily instinctual and informed by the spaces where I related with particular poignancy to the larger story. The way the narrator’s mind wanders is reminiscent of the way we talk to ourselves and allows him to capture something somewhere between unarticulated thoughts and formal discourse. This is the private debate, the ongoing perseveration, the way we justify our obsessions with objects or people, our impatience with others—especially with those closest who invariably raise the most complex emotions—and any other shortcomings we care to catalogue and excuse as we structure our own internal narratives. As we articulate ourselves into being.

As the narrator’s equilibrium is slowly undone, that is, as his father’s deteriorating health challenges him to break down his own defenses, he is forced to finally open himself up and truly embrace the man he must admit he has never really understood. Father and son, mirrors in more ways than either wishes to recognize, are drawn, both resisting the pull, into a full acknowledgement of their affection for one another. And what is the first thing our narrator does to mark this breakthrough? He looks for an object to commemorate the occasion. There is constant interplay between emotional exhilaration and exhaustion that drives The Attraction of Things, at the level of the sentence and across the text as a whole, that to no small degree, contributes to the state in which a reader emerges at the end. In the span of 79 small pages one has experienced something at once fantastic and draining.

Not unlike a session on the analyst’s couch. And very much like the experience of trying to untangle and make sense of our own lives.

Lewinter is not going to be for everyone. If I was uncertain in the early chapters of Things after loving the smaller pieces in Story of Love, I became increasingly engaged as the father’s health deteriorated, in part because there were echoes of my own father’s decline and death over the first six months of this year. At times I almost had to laugh out loud at the older man’s stubborn resolve and refusal to give in to a weakening, crumbling body—my father was exactly the same. Now, having taken the time to write about this novella, I have come to respect and marvel at what it demonstrates about how an essentially ordinary, even mundane story can be told—no, orchestrated—and granted an operatic arc that creates an experience a reader will have a hard time shaking. There is a lot in this slender volume.

In the end, I am not certain I have articulated or elucidated anything especially profound about these two small books. To date, there is one more piece of fiction in Lewinter’s oeuvre and, as I understand it, Rachel Careau is still dedicated to translating his works. I know I will be watching for more.

Story of Love in Solitude and The Attraction of Things are published by New Directions. Each book is bilingual, with the complete French text following the English.