Beside the Sea

I am not sure where to begin or what to actually say. I’m afraid this will be a short entry despite all the thoughts the book provoked and inspired. Or maybe precisely because of that.

Days after, the mud and the gray skies are with me, and I am still thinking about the three of them, about her in particular – how difficult the life must be when you constantly have to fight your own destructive, straying thoughts, how endlessly exhausting..

Susan Sontag’s words come to mind and I had to search for the quote:

A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world.

The thought does not belong only to her, of course. Many said and thought the same, and I myself am of a strong opinion that literature is a first-hand experience. Beside the Sea is a perfect example.

Yes, Olmi’s writing is extraordinary – the mother is real, the boys are real, it is all happening, it’s devastating and hopeless. The mother’s voice is masterfully brought, and Stan, though presented through the first person narrator, through his mother’s point of view, feels independent of it. So much is managed in hints only. The weather and colors unmistakably testify of a kind of life this woman has been living, and there’s that petrifying strength of the last paragraph..

Still, all the mastery aside (a part of me opposes this), it is a book that stands out most for it’s subject, for the insight it gives into a state of mind that is hard to apprehend.

The more I think about this little jewel the more I appreciate it.

George Sand’s pastoral trilogy

I stayed up late reading La Petite Fadette, which is something that lately does not happen very often. The story is simple and straightforward, one might even say naive, showing somewhat idealized characters, still it held my interest. Having finished it I eagerly continued to other two novels that count into Sand’s pastoral trilogy, namely The Country Waif (François Le Crampi) and The Devil’s Pool.

La Petite Fadette and François Le Crampi are fairly similar. Both Fadette and François are young people whose hard life was made more difficult by the prejudiced and unsympathetic people in their villages. Both are orphans, grown into highly moral and intelligent persons. Both go through a sort of metamorphosis and both find themselves in possession of a fortune.

The Devil’s Pool is different, although not in its tone and atmosphere. It does share a doze of folklore and superstition with La Petite Fadette (maybe I’ve lost it in François Le Crampi?).

All three are very comforting type of narratives – Sand was of an opinion that these kind of stories were just what was needed in those times of war and shattered values. All three are love stories, each with a different matching in relation to the lovers’ age, which is interesting.

Before reading these novels I knew nothing about George Sand except that she was a French writer. Searching the internet I learned (among other things, of course) that Dostoevsky held her in high regard, that Turgenev was an admirer, as were Balzac, Flaubert, Proust, Malraux, Willa Cather… On the other hand, Baudelaire for instance was not the least impressed.

One would have to read more than three pastoral novels to form one’s own opinion of Sand considering she was such a prolific writer. I do not feel compelled to read other Sand’s work, but I can see myself rereading these three novels in time to come.

Chasing the King of Hearts

She offers an author in Poland a nice honorarium. The woman writes a book but it does not meet Izolda’s expectations. Not enough feeling. Not enough love, loneliness and tears. Not enough heart. Not enough words. Not enough of everything, simply not enough.

Auto-reference. Chasing the King of Hearts is very much the book these lines describe – no excessive feelings, no unnecessary words. 101 short chapters written in dry sentences tell a story of a woman committed to saving her husband’s life – getting him out of Warsaw ghetto, then from Auschwitz and finally from Mauthausen. She’s changing her identity as she finds suitable, she sells tobacco and bacon (also cyanide) so she can send food packages to her beloved, she goes through tortures and work camps to get to him. There’s nothing she won’t do because he is all that matters. (Him… For him… He…) It’s Second World War but it’s just something that is happening, a thing that’s standing between her and her husband. She is not the one to live the life that’s constantly being imposed upon her. She acts.

Her husband, on the other hand, is passive. Their first meeting actually foreshadows it:

A young man is standing by the stove, warming his hands on the tiles. He’s tall and slender, with straight, golden hair. His hands have a golden tinge. When he sits down he spreads his legs and drops his arms – non-chalantly, almost absent-mindedly. His hands just hang there, helpless, and even more beautiful.

I found the “Armchair” chapters particularly strong. Ten of them in total, they are older Izolda’s commentaries, remembrances and thoughts. The war is long over, she’s recollecting, questioning, wondering what if.. What’s in these chapters is heavier than anything she’s been through during the war, and these chapters communicate directly with the last chapter in the book, The Party, that is so masterfully realized.

In one of her interviews, Hanna Krall said she is not a writer. Writers are those who create worlds and populate them. She is a reporter. Chasing the King of Hearts is not fiction, it’s the world created by someone else. She listened and wrote it down…

Well, I do beg to differ with Hanna – a writer is also someone who knows how to write a story somebody else told and she definitely is one such writer.

Women In Translation Month

For anyone growing up and getting hers or his education in Bosnia and Herzegovina, translation is a matter of fact. Throughout our primary and secondary school we all receive our share of major European writers (mostly English, German, French and Russian). One could even argue that we read more foreign literature than our own. Maybe it’s a bit different now, I am not sure… In any case, thus was the principle: first one learns about Romanticism in Europe for instance, it’s historical background, themes, motives and so on, then one reads Goethe, Byron, Pushkin, to name a few, and after that one’s being informed about the influence Romanticism had on Yugoslav literature which is then topped with reading some of the representative authors (whole texts or just excerpts from different works of epic poetry).

In a way, (and in hindsight) some people take pride in making acquaintance with such a wide scope of literature even if years or decades later they cannot remember anything of it. On the other hand, maybe the scope was too wide – I finished high school with what I consider to be embarrassingly poor command of Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian literature which I’ve managed to improve only slightly.

Women authors in our curriculum were scarce – mostly children’s literature authors, couple of poets – and the only four women in translation were Astrid Lindgren, Johanna Spyri (if memory serves me right), Anne Frank (primary) and Virginia Woolf (secondary school).

Curricula aside, during those formative years I’ve read a fair amount of translated fiction written by women. It was mostly by British and American authors though – George Eliot, Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Pearl Buck.. Later, when I started feeling English as my second language I began avoiding reading translations from it.

Female writers of other nationalities were (still are, save for Swedish) seldom on my nightstand. It is prime time to do something about it.

August is (for the third year in a row now) the Women In Translation Month so I resolved to take part in this celebration by reading literature originally written in any of the world languages except English and Swedish. Literature by women, of course..

Going through my bookshelves I found out that, out of roughly 550 books I own, only 86 were written by women. If I count out those written in and translated from English as well as those written in Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian I am left with 31 book. Further on, when I count out books in Swedish I get to a number of 20 – three from German, two from Japanese, one from Finnish, six from French, one from Danish, three from Norwegian and four from Swedish. Twenty books by women in translation in a library of 550 books. I thought I had more, to be honest..

I can only comfort myself with the fact that I’ve read more than I own.

Next, going through my current Kindle content I found the situation more satisfactory. Out of total 145 titles 99 are British or American (I am well aware of my Anglophilia), 75 titles belong to women authors in general, while 23 titles are women in translation, 17 of which is Tove Jansson!, which leaves me with the number of 6.. Somehow I thought I would find much more to suit this particular event.

Statistics aside, here’s a Women In Translation list I came up with:

  1. The Mussel Feast. Birgit Vanderbeke13942586_1785490451710629_551854688_n
  2. Chasing the King of Hearts. Hanna Krall
  3. Beside the Sea. Véronique Olmi
  4. Mr Darwin’s Gardner. Kristina Carlson
  5. The Pillow Book. Sei Shōnagon
  6. The Tale of Genji. Murasaki Shikibu
  7. La Petite Fadette. Georges Sand
  8. Cassandra. Christa Wolf
  9. Death in Spring. Mercè Rodoreda
  10. The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Muriel Barbery

Its obvious Eurocentricity annoys me – no authors from Africa or South America, South Asia. Another thing I have to work on..

 

Bookstan, Sarajevo

Where is East, where is West? Where do you cross from one to another? Can you understand one without the other? Can you be or have both? The easiest thing to do is keep them separated, imagine or build a wall between them. But what if you can’t have one without the other? What if you don’t have to choose? What if the distinction matters only in the field of basic geography? What if there is a literary festival with guests who create spaces where there is neither East nor West, but just humans and their stories?

Aleksandar Hemon

 

 

 

Bosnia and Herzegovina got its first literature festival – an international one at that.

It was about time I say! Congratulations to Buybook for having the courage, for being so decided, so passionate and professional. The significance of the festival is indisputable – the current state of affairs in Bosnia (in the world for that matter) make these kind of events of utmost importance and necessity.

I feel the need to express my gratitude to Aleksandar Hemon (even if it’s only by sending it into the air) for curating the festival and bringing Rabih Alameddine, Kamila Shamsie, Rawi Hage, John Freeman and Mona Eltahawy to Sarajevo – all of them wonderful people.

During these four, holiday-like days there were book launches (both regional and international writers), conversations with publishers (Susan Curtis Kojaković from Istros Books, London, Ivan Bevc from Booka, Serbia and Seid Serdarević from Fraktura, Croatia) and exhibitions. In an attempt to rejuvenate Bosnian literary criticism scene Buybook organized workshops for aspiring literary critics. More than twenty students and graduates from all over Bosnia and Herzegovina got an opportunity to learn from authors, editors, journalists and professors (Freeman, Hemon and Eltahawy included) and the best three of the reviews written during the workshops were rewarded.

The festival aims to have a different country in focus each year. This year the spot was reserved for Turkey. Ece Temelkuran and Mario Levi were invited, but Levi was unable to come due to recent happenings – academics being banned from travelling.

IMG_20160729_104453John Freeman acted as a moderator, leading conversations with Hage, Alameddine, Shamsie and of course Hemon. (Certain people here could learn a lot about the art of interviewing from him.) Conversations were delightful and insightful (particularly the opening night talk with Hemon of which there’s a transcript). They were recorded and can be found on Bookstan’s Facebook page.

Freeman also presented his literary journal – Freeman’s – which, I am happy to say, found it’s way into my Bookstan tote bag. It’s deliciousness on the subject of arrival was impossible to resist.

A week before the festival I decided I should prepare so I set myself to reading a novel of each of the international guest writers. I knew Alameddine and Hage by name but never read anything they wrote. Of Kamila Shamsie, I admit, I was completely ignorant. It happened that, of the three of them, she left the deepest impression on me. Reading A God in Every Stone left me breathless, wanting an embrace, a quiet spot to curl up in. I loved Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman as well. Both of these books I am going to reread and both of these writers I want to get to know better. Hage’s De Niro’s Game was the most demanding – in terms of content (rough, very heavy) – but very, very well written. I will have to read his Cockroach and Carnival eventually.

Mona Eltahawy was an author who drew a lot of attention. The room was crowded – people eager to hear her talk, giving rounds of rapturous applauses and she elated, on fire. Amazing.

The festival was a real success. Truly beautiful, exhilarating. It felt like home and I already miss it. In fact, I started missing it the minute it was over. The organization was impeccable – everybody agreed, the atmosphere bursting with positive energy.

Looking very much forward to next year, hoping Buybook will manage to make it if not even better then just as good as this one was.

Correspondence: Ariadna Efron and Boris Pasternak, 1948-1957

13618143_1771661399760201_1799471366_nIt should be noted that this collection consists of Ariadna’s letters mostly. (52 of them to be precise, while only 13 are from Boris – it seems he was always either very busy, immersed in translation and writing, or unwell).

Some of the letters were written during the period when she lived and worked in Ryazan (she taught at an art school there) while others attest the hardships of her six years of exile in Turuchansk, Siberia. These letters in particular are wonderful testimonials of Ariadna’s literary talent and personality. There’s also several letters written after her rehabilitation in which she mostly writes about her work on tracing and publishing her mother’s (Marina Cvetaeva) manuscripts.

Three themes caught my attention. First, she regularly complained about and apologized for the style and the content of her letters. She writes about the lack of time, the work that is never done, the tiredness and, consequently, about degradation of her capacity of reflection and inability to express herself properly.

I am afraid I flounder a great deal now – will you be able to understand all of this that I cannot express?*

Here as well:

I have become so savage that expressing my thoughts gives me a lot of anguish – they transformed themselves into indistinct emotions which only I – my sole interlocutor – can understand.

Or here:

Dear Boris, you are annoyed by my unavoidable comments at the end of every letter – by my appeals to forgive all the mess and nonsense. I cannot do differently because I am very tired and it’s hard to gather my thoughts. I will finish in the same manner again because it’s the absolute truth. I am incapable of including in my letters not even the hundredth part of what I’d wish to, and I don’t write the way I should, nor do I use the proper tone or write about what is important because in my head there’s noise and in my ears there’s humming.

This is what Boris had to say on the subject:

Once again you astonishingly described your life and the far removed North and the frosts. It would be a prattle of the most ordinary kind if I would mention this only to laud you. Here’s a practical conclusion. A person who sees the way you do, who reflects and talks the way you do can absolutely, in all the life circumstances, rely on herself. No matter the life’s currents, it’s tortures or fears, such a person can lightheartedly follow her, already in childhood found, perceived and loved path, listening only to herself, trusting only herself. Rejoice, Alja, that you are such a person. What are all your misfortunes compared to such wealth!

And I completely agree. In spite of how brute or inept she might have had felt, she still managed to write poetically, demonstrating her subtle observational skills, strong mind and even a great sense of humor just where one would least expect it.

Which brings me to the second theme of interest – Siberia. She writes:

If I could be in charge of my life, I would live and work far away from Moscow, right at the North, even norther than here. I would live and work truly, not in this way I have to work now. I would write books about things most people don’t have the opportunity to see and, I give you my word of honor, I would write beautifully! The utmost North is a real treasure for a writer, the undiscovered land, and so far nobody wrote about it truly well.

And one believes her. If she wrote so beautifully while living, or should I say surviving in such difficult circumstances one could only imagine what her writing would have been like if she had had time, if she had had her freedom and means to live where and how she wished to live. Her descriptions of cold, of masses of ice floating down the river, of Siberian wind and skies are enchanting. Here’s how she writes about stars:

But the stars here are enchanting. I was coming home late from work yesterday. It was relatively warm and very quiet – the marvelous starry night engulfed me whole, dissolved me into itself, shut out everything but my ability to experience it, to feel it. It seemed to me that I quietly entered into the great movement of the stars and that the universe became comprehensible; not only from the outside, as for instance the human body is to a surgeon, but as an entire organism, do you understand? And the murk was not gone because the light showed itself, no, it’s just that the darkness revealed itself to be made of uncountable amount of light speckles and their quantity gave my earthly field of view the illusion of darkness.

The third thing I wanted to mention is Ariadna’s writing about literature. In almost every letter there is a sentence or two about what she was reading at the moment – mostly Pasternak’s songs and translations (of Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, of Goethe’s Faust), but there’s also Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Balzac. One whole letter, four page long, was written as a comment on the first draft of Doctor Zhivago that Boris sent to her. She argued it was too short (150 typed pages), too tight, that he has to stop constraining and hurrying his characters and let them develop at their own pace. Her opinions and impressions were all well explained and one could easily discern that she was a great reader.

So, that was Ariadna.. I don’t doubt I will be reading these letters again, alongside Pasternak’s poetry maybe.

 

*If the excerpts are not quite beautiful, if the translation is poor the fault is all mine. I do apologize.

Check In

Summer is difficult. The heat is unbearable, it melts my body and numbs my mind. I rarely go out during the day. If there are some errands or some work to be done outside the house I strive to get it all finished by ten or eleven in the morning, to get back inside before the sun is at it’s height.

Some weeks ago however, encouraged by gathering clouds, I set myself on a way to a used book market.

I came home with three books and immediately started reading one of them because it was thin, had a cat and a tree on the cover and an interesting title – it was Naipaul’s Mr Stone and the Knights Companion. Couple of days later I was back at the marketsecuring all the other Naipaul titles I’ve seen at a particular stall for my own shelves.

13624830_1771661396426868_1329191919_nHere are four of them, being very pretty.

  • A Bend In the River
  • In a Free State
  • Guerrillas
  • Mr Stone and the Knights Companion

 

 

13595967_1771661339760207_1716577471_nAlso here’s one that’s not as pretty:

  • The Mystic Masseur

I am eager to read them all and would also like to get my hands on some of his travel books..

Which just reminded me of Christoph Ransmayr’s Atlas of an Anxious Man and it’s promotion that happened last June. Stories he read that evening were mesmerizing, lyrical – it was travel writing such as I’ve never read before. Must have it!

 

Back to my new books though. I also got:

  • 13599476_1771683539757987_711023497_nThe Tale of Genji. Murasaki Shikibu
  • Breathing Lessons. Anne Tyler
  • The Gentlemen of Verona/The Merry Wives of Windsor/Measure For Measure. William Shakespeare
  • Put Out More Flags. Evelyn Waugh
  • Virgin Soil Upturned. Mikhail Sholokhov
  • Konji pa jahači. (Horses Than Horsemen) Nenad Ešpek
  • Correspondence (1948-1957). Ariadna Efron, Boris Pasternak
  • The Case of Sargeant Grischa. Arnold Zweig

 

The Tale of Genji was a delightful find. It’s truly amazing to think how diverse and magnificent the publishing was in late Yugoslavia. Amazing.

Anne Tyler I bought because of many good things I’ve read about her writing.

Shakespeare, naturally..

Waugh I haven’t read yet, but I’ve seen Brideshead Revisited (1981) and I feel certain that he is one of the authors whose style and wit I will appreciate. (One could discuss the author’s persona vs. his literature – just as Naipaul’s really – but one won’t.)

Sholokhov I haven’t read either but I thought I shouldn’t miss getting these tomes so cheap (the price of each of these thirteen books was 1BAM, which equals 55 cents/45p); besides, I know he is great.

Next, another short story collection by Nenad Ešpek – I thought his Sea of Silence pretty good so taking this one home with me was a proper thing to do.

13618143_1771661399760201_1799471366_n13625352_1771661406426867_1607123607_nBy far the favorite book of this howl is a collection of letters that Ariadna Efron and Boris Pasternak wrote to each other. Wonderful. I will have to write about it soon.

And the last one, The Case of Sargeant Grischa – First and Second World War themed literature is something that I am getting more interested in as years go by. And the cover was too beautiful to be left lying in that dusty box.