"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

A Rare Case of a French Translation Being Better than the English Origianl

Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls is one of the rare books that I think is better in French translation than in the English original. One of my library groups--a francophone one--chose it for the schedule this year, and we'll be discussing it in early September. I'd read it before in English (or so I thought) but that was long so I decided to start the translation--Pour qui sonne le glas--well in advance, since I read more slowly in French than in English.

The story, if you've forgotten, tells of Robert Jordan, an American member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting fascist Loyalist forces in the 1930s. He's a Spanish professor from Montana, so he's fluent in the language and somewhere he's picked up knowledge about how to make bombs. His task is to blow up a bridge during an attack by Republican forces, so the Loyalist ones will be trapped and wiped out.

Easier said than done: he works with a group of guerilla fighters, who have various talents and experiences. A beautiful 19 year old girl who'd been raped repeatedly by the Loyalist is among them. She's been traumatized but nevertheless they fall in love and have three days together before almost everything ends badly.

Hemingway writes powerfully and very clearly about what this sort of war is like: I was reminded of Tim O'Brien's masterful fictions from the Vietnam War. Much ugliness is there, with few heroes and a great deal of lies. Anyone who knows Hemingway's own story can also read many hints of exactly how his own drama will end.

But Hemingway has chosen to directly "translate" the Spanish spoken by Jordan and his partisans into English, particularly at the beginning. When the friends or lovers address each other they frequently use the "Thou," the second person singular form which hasn't been used in English for a couple of hundred years. The result is either comic, awkward, or read from this distance, a shocking case of condescending appropriation of voice. A reader of the original in 2019 might well be tempted to throw the book aside after a few chapters.

However in French, the second person singular is used all the time among friends, family and lovers, so that infelicity falls away because addressing someone as "tu" is commonplace. The story shines through, and it is worth reading.

My advice to readers of the original: grit your (proper second person plural, you'll notice) and carry on. Although I must note that apparently when I'd read the novel at about age 19 I only read the steamy love scenes: there was much that was new to me.

Friday, August 2, 2019

When Fiction Nails It Better Than Non-Fiction

Just finished Anna Burn's devastating Milkman. The Mann Booker prize winning novel takes place in an un-named city (obviously Belfast) in the 1970s when violence and inter-community hate was pathologically universal.

After reading it, how could anyone want a Brexit without a "soft border" with Northern Ireland? (Or any sort of Brexit, in fact.) But maybe there is hope because the Bojo's Conservatives' majority is now reduced to one.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Man Booker Longlist with Comments from The Guardian

The long list with reviews from one of my favourite newspapers, The Guardian


The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (Vintage, Chatto & Windus)

The plot: Under lock and key until publication day on 10 September, The Testaments is set 15 years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale and follows the lives of three women in Gilead.
What we said: Nothing yet! But it is set to be one of the biggest books of the year.

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry (Canongate)

The plot: Late at night in the Spanish port of Algeciras, two ageing Irish gangsters, Charlie and Maurice, are waiting on the boat from Tangier so they can continue their search for Charlie’s daughter. Banter ensues.
What we said: “What distinguishes this book beyond its humour, terror and beauty of description is its moral perception. For this is no liberal forgiveness tract for naughty boys: it is a plunging spiritual immersion into the parlous souls of wrongful men.” Read the full review.

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Atlantic Books)

The plot: A Nigerian woman is forced to clean up after her younger sister when she develops a taste for killing her boyfriends.
What we said: “It all adds up to a distinctive but uneasy mix of morbid humour, love story, slashfest, family saga and grave meditation on how abusive behaviour is passed down through the generations.” Read the full review.

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann (Galley Beggar Press)

The plot: The 1,000-page monologue of an angst-ridden homemaker in Ohio, in which she frets about love, loss and the state of the nation – which unfolds almost entirely in a single sentence.
What we said: “Readers who have been exposed to the work of, say, Sarah Manguso and Rachel Cusk, or even Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, will recognise Ellmann’s dauntless cataloguing of desires and hopes and fears, and her refusal to be anything other than endlessly curious and utterly self-directed.” Read the full review.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton)

The plot: The novel follows 12 characters, most of them black British women, some living in different decades while others overlap. There’s Amma, a lesbian socialist playwright; non-binary Morgan, who uses the internet to navigate gender identity; and Winsome, an unhappily married migrant from Barbados. There is no overarching story, but the book is more widely about the connections that can be made between disparate humans.
What we said: “Girl, Woman, Other is about struggle, but it is also about love, joy and imagination … For many readers, it’s not a familiar world – this is a Britain less often depicted in fiction. But that certainly doesn’t mean it’s not a world that is possible, and worth celebrating.” Read the full review.

The Wall by John Lanchester (Faber & Faber)

The plot: Set in Britain in the not-too-distant future after a climatic event known as “the Change”, movement between countries is outlawed. A young conscript patrols the Wall, a barrier built along the British coastline, looking for “Others” who might appear at any moment from the sea.
What we said: “It’s a clever, clairvoyant concept. Lanchester reveals with slow, steady control the cruelties of his strange new world and then socks you with their philosophical implications.” Read the full review.

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton)

The plot: Two versions of the same story are interwoven – in 1989, Saul is hit by a car on the Abbey Road crossing, but gets up and goes to see his girlfriend, travels to East Germany and buries his father. And in 2016, Saul is hit by a car on the Abbey Road crossing and is rushed to the hospital, spending the following days in and out of consciousness as his father sits by his bedside.
What we said: Nothing yet - it’s published on 29 August.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (4th Estate)

The plot: As a young family leaves New York to go on a road trip to the southern border, several Mexican children start their journey to attempt to cross into the US.
What we said: “In a virtuoso piece of writing, as the children, delirious with heat and fear, trudge through the desert, Luiselli unleashes a sentence that unfurls over 20 pages, swooping easily from one stream of consciousness to another, and somehow carrying the reader with it. But for all its cleverness, this is also a warm and funny novel, equally droll in its treatment of the precocious, anxious children and its mockery of the solipsistic adults who are so careless of them.” Read the full review.

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma (Little, Brown)

The plot: Narrated by a chi, a guardian spirit in Igbo myth, this novel follows Nonso, an ambitious Nigerian graduate who becomes trapped in Cyprus after falling for an education scam.
What we said: “Where his Booker-shortlisted debut, The Fishermen, felt like the work of a born storyteller, his new book – a mystical star-crossed romance – is more polished … Obioma’s absorbing tragicomedy painfully probes the perils of victimhood.” Read the full review.

Lanny by Max Porter (Faber & Faber)

The plot: Set around the disappearance of a small boy after he summons a strange presence to his commuter village, Lanny experiments with voices and typography and taps into the strangeness of English folklore.
What we said: “Lanny is simultaneously a fable, a collage, a dramatic chorus, a joyously stirred cauldron of words, and remarkable for its simultaneous spareness and extravagance.” Read the full review.

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape)

The plot: A modern-day reimagining of Don Quixote that follows a travelling salesman across the United States.
What we said: No reviews yet – it’s out on 29 August.
Rushdie is speaking at a Guardian Live event in Oxford on 27 August – book your tickets now.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak (Viking)

The plot: On the outskirts of Istanbul, a sex worker is murdered and her body dumped in a rubbish bin. As her brain shuts down – over 10 minutes, 38 seconds – key moments and memories from her life play out over the page.
What we said: “Shafak takes a piercing, unflinching look at the trauma women’s minds and bodies are subjected to in a social system defined by patriarchal codes. It’s a brutal book, bleak and relentless in its portrayal of violence, heartbreak and grief, but ultimately life-affirming.” Read the full review.

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson (Jonathan Cape)

The plot: Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor who self-describes as a “hybrid”, meets Victor Stein, a celebrated professor who sees transhuman possibilities in Ry’s body. “You aligned your physical reality with your mental impression of yourself,” he tells Ry. “Wouldn’t it be a good thing if we could all do that?”
What we said: “Frankissstein is a fragmented, at times dazzlingly intelligent meditation on the responsibilities of creation, the possibilities of artificial intelligence and the implications of both transsexuality and transhumanism.” Read the full review.