#WITMonth is coming – some suggestions of books by women in translation

As in previous years, Meytal at the Biblibio blog will be hosting Women in Translation (#WITMonth) throughout the month of August. It’s a celebration of translated literature by women writers – you can find out more about it here. I’ve reviewed quite a few books in this category over the years; so, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read next month, here are a few of my favourites.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

A quintessential summer read, Bonjour Tristesse is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions, all set against the blistering heat of the French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another player arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father. An utterly compelling novel – I’ll be reading Sagan again this year, this time in an Irene Ash translation.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

This engaging novel revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at a Berlin hotel in the 1920s. There are moments of lightness and significant darkness here as Baum weaves her story together, moving from one player to another with consummate ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these individuals as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. All in all, this is a delightfully entertaining read.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was just twenty-three when her debut novel, Nada, was published. It’s an excellent book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. Here we see the portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. This is a wonderfully evocative novel, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting. Truly deserving of its status as a Spanish classic.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

A novel inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee fleeing from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940, Transit gives an insight into the bureaucratic maze and red tape involved in securing a safe passage from Marseille. It’s a haunting and unforgettable story with questions of shifting identity and destiny at its heart. This was a standout read for me.

Subtly Worded by Teffi (tr. Anne Marie Jackson)

By turns satirical, insightful, artful and poignant, this is a fascinating collection of short stories and sketches, notable for the sheer variety in tone. What makes these stories particularly intriguing is their connection to various aspects of Teffi’s own life and experience, from her time in Russia prior the Revolution to the years she spent as an émigré in Paris. Her first-hand account of Rasputin – a highly perceptive piece – is worth the entry price alone.

La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

When Elisa realises her husband, Gilles, has become entangled with Victorine, her attractive younger sister, she is devastated. Beautifully written in a sensual, intimate style, this is a very compelling novel with a powerful ending. The writing is spare but very emotive – Bourdouxhe holds the reader close to Elisa’s point of view giving us near-complete access to her inner thoughts and feelings. Highly recommended, particularly for fans of writers like Simenon and Jean Rhys.

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the stories in this volume of forty-two stories drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of her pieces point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. An unusual and poetic collection of stories that blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. A good one for dipping into, especially if you’re in the mood for something different.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)

More short fiction, this time from Japan, Revenge comprises eleven interlinked short stories, elegantly connected via a set of recurring images and motifs threaded through the individual narratives. Characters flow from one story to the next; we revisit specific locations and scenes from earlier tales, only to see things from a different viewpoint as our perspective changes. It’s all very cleverly constructed. In Revenge, we meet characters who seem isolated or detached from society in some way; many live alone, their lives infused with sadness and loneliness. Ogawa has a real talent for exploring some of the disquieting parts of the human psyche, the acts of darkness that can lurk just beneath the surface of the everyday. An excellent collection of unsettling stories.

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

To be honest, highly autobiographical books aren’t my usual my cup of tea, but NHBtN is so good that it warrants inclusion here. Virtually impossible to summarise in a couple of sentences, this remarkable story focuses on a woman’s quest to gain a deeper understanding of her mother following the latter’s death by suicide. A genuinely absorbing and compelling book, beautifully written in a sensitive style – de Vigan’s prose is simply luminous.

And finally, a special mention for a fairly recent read:

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal (tr. Jessica Moore)

In this highly unusual, utterly compelling novel, we follow Simon Limbeau’s heart for twenty-four hours – from the young man’s death in a freak accident one morning, to the delicate discussions on organ donation with his parents, to the transfer of his heart to an anxious recipient in another city later that evening. De Kerangel explores the clinical, ethical and the emotional issues at play with great sensitivity. Superbly written in a fluid, lyrical style, this is a novel that will stay with you long after the final page has been turned. (A cliché, I know – but in this case, it’s actually very apt.)

This book has already been widely reviewed across the blogosphere, so I’m not planning to cover it in more detail here. Instead, I can point you towards a couple of thoughtful posts that I recall seeing – this one by Grant at 1streading and this one by Marina Sofia. It’s definitely worth considering.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading one or two of them next month. Maybe you have plans of your own – if so, what do you have in mind? Or perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? Please feel free to mention it here.

43 thoughts on “#WITMonth is coming – some suggestions of books by women in translation

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s interesting about Mend the Living – what didn’t you like about it? I haven’t been reading much contemporary fiction of late, but this one really stood out for me. I guess it was the combination of the clinical and the emotional issues that pulled me in. Plus the quality of writing, of course – always an important factor in these things.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Sounds good. You could see see how things go at the time – there’s nothing worse than pushing yourself to read something if you’re not in the right mood for it. :)

          Reply
  1. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Oh I love this, thank you for doing this, it’s just what I needed, I loved Bonjour Tristesse and NADA and those interlinked stories of Revenge by Yoko Ogawa are a collection like no other.

    My favourite translation last year was the NYRB classic The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz Bart and this year I’m planning to read The Complete Claudine by Colette and Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo. I read so many off my shelf last year I need a top up!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you’re very welcome, Claire. I remember your review of Nada – I’m pretty sure it was the one that persuaded me to read the book!

      Colette sounds like a great choice – she’s such a delight to read, especially in the summer. I hope you find a few other things to tempt you during the month – there are bound to be several recommendations flying around.

      Reply
  2. Col

    Until I read your post and that at Biblio I’d not realised what a gender imbalance there is in my reading or in what’s available. Just to check I had quick look at Waterstones recommended ‘translated fiction’ -on the first page there are 22 recommended books and only one ( by Han Kang) is written by a woman! I thought I’d join in by picking one from the stack of books I’ve got waiting – but to my shame while there are several translated books, none are written by a woman! So will at least rectify my pile and will get ‘Birth Of A Bridge’ by Maylis de Kerangal ( as read positive review of that just last week) and The Nikano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami ( as been eyeing that for weeks!)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Blimey, that’s a worry about the recommendations on the Waterstones’ website! I’m a bit shocked to hear that only one of their selection was written by a woman. I kind of expected the balance to be skewed towards male authors but not to that great an extent. Maybe they have a bit more scope in some of the bigger shops to put more of a mix of books on display? I’m pretty sure that women in translation are better represented there – the London Piccadilly branch has a couple of tables of translated fiction (maybe more if you include the displays devoted to small independent presses), including a fair spread of titles by women.

      Having enjoyed Mend the Living so much, I’ll be very interested to hear how you get on with Birth of a Bridge. I don’t think I’ve seen any reviews of it at all, other than a few soundbites from the blurb that accompanied her latest one. The Kawakami should be a great choice too – I very much enjoyed her other one, Strange Weather in Tokyo, when I read it a few years ago.

      Reply
  3. gertloveday

    Could I suggest a couple of favourites that have been translated from German? ‘The City of Angels:or The Overcoat of Dr Freud’ by Christa Wolf. It is described as a novel, but it is very much about the author’s life, and particularly the shocking accusations of co-operation with East
    German Intelligence in the 1960’s, that were levelled at her in 1989. As well as exploring these accusations the book mingles accounts of her intellectual life and some quite serious wining and dining she enjoyed in the US. A fascinating and disturbing book. Also another favourite translated from German, ‘Who is Martha,’ by Marjana Gaponenko. And from Hungarian of course there is the wonderful Magda Szabo. We have reviewed The Door and Iza’s Ballad.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, of course – it’s always good to hear of new recommendations. Christa Wolf has been on my radar for a few years (largely as a result of reviews by other bloggers), so I really ought to give her a try at some point. The one you’ve mentioned is completely new to me. It does indeed sound both fascinating and disturbing – I’ll look it up.

      Who is Martha? I have on my kindle, but it always gets forgotten about when it comes to selecting something new to read! Somehow the physical books on the shelves are so much more visible and accessible as they tend to catch my eye on a regular basis. Maybe I could read it for German Lit Month later in the year? Thank you for your suggestions, they are most welcome.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks. Nada’s terrific, and right up your street. There is a touch of the Gothic about the atmosphere Laforet creates in this book, especially towards the beginning. I think you would enjoy it a great deal.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, why not? She’s uber-reliable, like a welcoming port in a storm. The perfect antidote to the craziness of our modern world. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the ending comes as quite a shock, doesn’t it? But then again, in hindsight, it all feels so painfully inevitable. A very accomplished little book.

      Reply
  4. BookerTalk

    I have Mend the Living but not yet got around to reading it. From this years reading I can highly recommend The Vegetarian by Han Kang and Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto.

    Reply
  5. heavenali

    I am hoping to get some #WITmonth reading done, I have several contenders including some Vicki Baum novels. Trouble is in August I do All Virago all August with the LT virago group.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, of course! I keep forgetting about the Virago thing in August – hopefully I’ll be able to squeeze something in before the end of the month. Thanks for the reminder. I’ll be very interested to hear more about those Vicki Baum novels on your list as you know how much I loved her Grand Hotel when I read it last year. :)

      Reply
  6. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock

    What a lovely list of books. With War and Peace in Progress and books lined up for ll Virago All August I may not be able to find time for many Women in Translation this year, but I have ‘Grand Hotel’, ‘A Broken Mirror’ by Merce Rodoreda and a few other possibilities lined up. I’m not sure if you’ve read Rodoreda, but I can definitely recommend ‘In Diamond Square’, which was quietly reissued by Virago a few years ago.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I haven’t read Merce Rodorerda, but I’d like to at some point in the future. She’s been on the periphery of my radar for a little while, so it’s great to have a clear recommendation of one of her books. Thank you – I’ll definitely look it up. Grand Hotel is absolutely wonderful – you have a real treat to look forward to there, irrespective of whether you’re able to fit it into August or not. :)

      Reply
  7. Lady Fancifull

    Ooh, some great books here, many for re-read. I think you are right, the Sagan would be an excellent August peruse. Not quite so summery is Marlen Haushofer’s, The Wall. Austrian writer this Was Published in 1968 but republished due to a wonderful film made of it, Die Wand, In 2013. A Brilliant performance by Martine Gedeck,it uses the text of the book, which is an journal kept by The character/narrator. I Reviewed both. Its One of the few occasions For me Where Book And Film Enhance Each Other. I Read The book First and Approached The Film With Needless Trepidation. Apologies For The Rash Of Capitalising First Letters. i Have No Idea Why Periodically The tablet decides To Do This. It Becomes Tiring To Go Back And CHange Every Capital, once I notice what it’s doing. Then, just as mysteriously, as now, it stops!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! No worries about the capital letters. How annoying for you – as you say, it’s a pain to have to backtrack and change everything, just for the whim of a piece of software…

      The Wall is a great suggestion, a book I’ve been aware of for a while but have yet to get around to acquiring. I didn’t realise that it had been made into a film, not too long ago either by the sound of things. I shall have to look it up. Thank you for that.

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    Some great suggestions. I’ve read four of them – Subtly Worded, Nada and Revenge as well as Mend the Living – all well worth reading. There’s also a couple on your list that I rewoally need to get round to!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you would enjoy Ocampo’s stories. They’re unusual and intriguing, a little like some of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. La Femme de Gilles is well worth reading too – it’s another book that might well appeal to you.

      Reply
  9. Emma

    I’ve already read three of them and have Nada on the shelf.
    From France, I’d recommend Fred Vargas and Virginie Despentes. Both excellent.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Nada’s great. I really hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Thank you for those suggestions, Fred Vargas in particular definitely appeals…

      Reply
  10. Naomi

    It’s nice to see lists of bloggers’ favourite Women in Translation books. I’m not officially taking part in the event (summer blogging is really sporadic for me), but I have recently read two books translated from French to English: Boundary: “The Last Summer” by Andree Michaud and Pelagie: A Return to Acadie” by Antonine Maillet. Very different from each other, but both good reads!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s impossible to participate in everything, isn’t it? Better to pick and choose the themes that fit with your own interests and availability. Thanks for your suggestions, both of which are new to me. I shall have to take a closer look, especially as I seem to do so well with French literature…

      Reply
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