Annie Ernaux’s Shame

A powerful little book that begins with an analysis of a single episode from the writer’s past, an incident that happened when she was twelve. This book breaks so many writerly rules — in such a satisfying, rewarding way. The translation is by Tanya Leslie.

The quote is from the end of the first section.

Naturally I shall not opt for narrative, which would mean inventing reality instead of searching for it. Neither shall I content myself with merely picking out and transcribing the images I remember; I shall process them  like documents, examining them from different angles to give them meaning. In other words, I shall carry out an ethnological study of myself.

(It may not be necessary to commit such observations to paper, but I won’t be able to start writing properly until I have some idea of the shape this writing will take.)

I may have chosen to be impartial because I thought the indescribable events I witness in my twelfth year would fate away, lost in the universal context of laws and language. Or maybe I succumbed  to a mad and deadly impulse suggested by the words of a missal which I now find impossible to read, a ritual which my mind associates with some Voodoo ceremony–take this, all of you, and read it, this is my body, this is the cup of my blood, it will be shed for you and for all men.

Karolina Ramqvist’s The White City

I heard this author read during Litquake and bought the book. Part heist novel, part a novel about becoming a mother, it blends the genres so effortlessly that, having finished the book, I’m convinced that motherhood is a kind of a heist. Translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel. A beautiful edition by the Black Cat imprint of Grove Atlantic.

The baby’s named Dream. (What a cool name!)

 She put one arm over the baby, who had gone back to nursing, and rested her head on the other, trying to unwind and sink into the sofa. She focused on her body, one part at a time; she noticed her teeth clenching and opened her mouth all the way. Opening and shutting it and working her jaw from side to side to relieve the tension.  …

Dream downed the milk, swallowing while nuzzled into her white breast. Round as the baby’s cheeks and head, round as the areola that peeked out because Dream hadn’t gotten a proper grip on her nipple again. Round and round, rounds and rounds. The milk dribbled out of the baby’s mouth and ran down her breast, leaving a sticky trail on her skin and a wet stain on her robe.

Does the body keep producing breast milk after death? If something were to happen to her, if she choked or a blood vessel burst in her brain or if someone were to break in and take her out for good, it would probably be a while before anyone would miss her. But if she had enough milk in her breasts, then Dream might have a chance of surviving until someone showed up.

She tried to concentrate on the softness.


Strange Weather in Tokyo

From Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo, translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell,

He was my Japanese teacher at secondary school. He wasn’t my form teacher, and Japanese didn’t interest me much, so I didn’t really remember him. Since I finished school, I hadn’t seen him for quite a while.

Several years ago, we sat beside each other at a crowded bar near the train station, and after that, our paths would cross every now and then. that night, he was sitting at the counter, his back so straight it was almost concave.

Taking my seat at the counter, I ordered “Tuna with fermented soybeans, fried lotus root, and salted shallots,” while the old man next to me requested “Salted shallots, lotus root fries, and tuna with fermented soybeans” almost simultaneously. when I glanced over, I saw he was staring straight back at me.

This delightful book can be found through the publisher’s website.

Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, translated by Charlotte Collins

This novel is set in a remote Austrian mountain valley. Andreas Egger, the pr9780374289867otagonist, arrives here as a boy of four. A farmer adopts him and treats him cruelly. Egger, nevertheless, builds a life, marries, goes to war, returns, watches the world change around him as he becomes a stalwart of his valley and earns his living by leading groups of tourists through the mountains. I’m reading this novel as a meditation about stewardship of the land, an exercise of imagination about how to live lightly. It takes a certain set of experiences, good and bad luck, to get there. Here’s a sign that Egger paints to advertise his business:

I (with practically a lifetime’s experiences in and of Nature) offer:
Hiking with or without baggage
Excursions (half or full day)
Climbing trips
Walks in the mountains (for senior citizens, disabled people and children)
Guided tours in all seasons (weather permitting)
Guaranteed sunrise for early birds
Guaranteed sunset (in the valley only, as too dangerous on the mountain)
No danger to life and limb!

I’m working on a full-length review of a novel by an author from Iceland, Oddný Eir, “Land of Love and Ruins,” translated by Philip Roughton, and I find in it, what I think is a similar idea, expressed in the following terms:

It’s good to replace the idea of “love of one’s native land” with “love of one’s foster land,” to clarify your relationship to the country you tied your umbilical cord to. . . . I think that care for the foster mother is inseparable from care for all its sons and daughters, whether they’re related by blood or not. . . . perhaps we can come up with a new way to connect with nature and justice. Come up with a new collective form, a new form of shared responsibility.  . . .  I’m thinking about loyalty. Isn’t loyalty to the fosterland different than loyalty to the fatherland? I’m not thinking about loyalty for loyalty’s sake, like that claimed by sweaty, self-assertive SS hot dogs. . . . Loyalty to the fosterland can’t be separated from connections to the totality of all things.

Eir develops her thoughts on this idea of fosterland at length and through very interesting history. I find it all very appealing. Unfortunately her language, rendered by Roughton, does get a little muddled. Seethaler’s words, rendered by Charlotte Collins, read like poetry. Here it is, again, that line: “I (with practically a lifetime’s experiences in and of Nature) offer: Hiking with or without baggage.”

I want to put a smiley face at the end of that sentence.

An extended excerpt from Seethaler’s novel is available on the publisher’s website.

You can buy the book here.