reading projects · women in translation month

Women in Translation Month

Drafts are piling up. At the moment, there are six of them, all in different stages of writing/editing. One of them is just a sentence long…

I’ve been away from the blog and the community for more than ten weeks now, and it’s harder than ever to come back to it. The plans and schedules for regular posting and reading/commenting on other people’s posts fell short. They started wilting as soon as I put them on paper.

I will obviously need more time before properly returning to blogging, but, in the meantime, since it’s August, I would like to try my best and take part in reading women writers in translation. I picked four books off of the shelf:

Mr Darwin’s Gardener. Kristina Carlson

Berlin lies in the East. Nellja Veremej

The Ant Heap. Margit Kaffka

The Vagabond. Colette


To manage at least two of these would be an achievement!

Birgit Vanderbeke · women in translation month

The Mussel Feast

What fascinated me the most was the absolute brilliance of gradation with which the story was narrated. From understatements to hints to cautious and finally uninhibited confessions, it primarily reveals a man that is everything but a man of reason he regards himself to be, but also the family, his family he tyrannized into being “proper”.

Our family used different expressions now; for example, when we burned our mouths on potatoes that were too hot we no longer shouted, Christ that’s hot; sometimes we still said it by accident, because we hadn’t switched modes, but my father would say, potatoes have a high heat capacity, that’s the more accurate way of putting it.

Terrific details, the minutiae of their everyday life that Vanderbeke chose to communicate give an extremely vivid and horrifying picture. I was in a constant state of awe and eventually got the feeling one seems to get with similarly accomplished stories – that it is real.

Véronique Olmi · women in translation month

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, from 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 its 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 · women in translation month

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 dose of folklore and superstition with La Petite Fadette (maybe I’ve lost it in François Le Crampi?).

All three are a sort of 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.

Hanna Krall · women in translation month

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

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, its 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 an 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, a 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 books. 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…

Dewey's 24hour readathon · Robert Francis Kilvert


Just for the record – it was the shortest Readathon so far. As it happened, I barely had any time for reading. That is why Kilvert’s Diaries were a very good choice – short, (for the most part) self-containing and therefore highly accessible.

The first entry already was a treat. Kilvert is describing an amusing event starring an owl.

Tuesday, 8 February

From Wye Cliff to Pont Faen. Miss Child in great force. She showed me her clever drawings of horses and told me the adventures of the brown wood owl ‘Ruth’ which she took home from here last year. She wanted to call the owl ‘Eve’ but Mrs. Bridge said it should be called ‘Ruth’. She and her sister stranded in London at night went to London Bridge hotel (having missed the last train) with little money and no luggage except the owl in a basket. The owl hooted all night in spite of their putting it up the chimney, before the looking glass, under the bedclothes, and in a circle of lighted candles which they hoped it would mistake for the sun. The owl went on hooting, upset the basket, got out and flew about the room. The chambermaid almost frightened to death dared not come inside the door. Miss Child asked the waiter to get some mice for ‘Ruth’ but none could be got.

The use of the condense, matter-of-fact sentence only enhances the humor this entry contains.

The way the subtleties of the relationship between (if I assumed correctly) two sisters are presented is simply delightful: She wanted to call the owl ‘Eve’ but Mrs. Bridge said it should be called ‘Ruth’. And it seems like he used Miss Child’s words as she told them, changing only ‘I’ for ‘she’, thus enabling us to hear her voice without using direct speech. He did this again few sentences later: in a circle of lighted candles which they (instead of ‘we’) hoped it would mistake for the sun. Not only can we hear an echo of Miss Child’s voice but we are treated with a little peak into their reasoning/ problem solving and imagination. Highly amusing!