Tag Archives: Edith Grossman

#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.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was twenty-three years old when Nada, her first novel, won the prestigious Premio Nadal literary award in 1944. The book, which caused a bit of a sensation on its release, heralded the birth of an exciting new voice in Spanish Literature. My edition of Nada is eloquently translated by Edith Grossman and comes with a useful introduction by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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As the story opens, we join Andrea, an eighteen-year-old girl, as she arrives in Barcelona. Filled with all the hopes and expectations of a new life in the city and the prospect of studying literature at the University, she makes her way to her grandmother’s apartment where she is to live. It’s the middle of the night, and as she approaches the flat in the Calle de Aribau, a sudden fear overtakes her emotions. As Andrea enters her family’s home, a strange collection of ghoulish figures emerge from the shadows – in addition to her grandmother, Andrea is confronted by her aunt Angustias, her uncle Juan and his wife, Gloria, and the maid, Antonia. Faced with her uncle Juan, Andrea sees a man with a face ‘full of hollows, like a skull in the light of the single bulb in the lamp.’ (pg. 6, Vintage Books)

The flat itself is filthy and decrepit. Cobwebs hang from the ceilings; the rooms are bathed in an eerie greenish light; the stained walls of the bathroom show ‘traces of hook-shaped hands, of screams of despair.’ (pg. 8)

It’s a brilliant, but disturbing, opening to the story, and we feel for Andrea as she tries to reconcile this harrowing picture with her dreams of the city:

I don’t know how I managed to sleep that night. In the room they gave me was a grand piano, its keys uncovered. A number of gilt mirrors with candelabra attached – some of them very valuable – on the walls. A Chinese desk, paintings, ill-assorted furniture. It looked like the attic of an abandoned palace; it was, I later found out, the living room.

In the centre, like a grave mound surrounded by mourners – that double row of disembowelled easy chairs – a divan covered by a black blanket, where I was to sleep. They had placed a candle on the piano because there were no light bulbs in the large chandelier. (pgs. 8-9)

And a few lines later:

Three stars were trembling in the soft blackness overhead, and when I saw them I felt a sudden desire to cry, as if I were seeing old friends, encountered unexpectedly.

That illuminated twinkling of the stars brought back in a rush all my hopes regarding Barcelona until the moment I’d encountered this atmosphere of perverse people and furniture. (pg.9)

We follow Andrea as she tries to survive in this nightmarish environment in which feuds and arguments erupt from nowhere – this is a family damaged by secrets, suspicions and prejudices. She longs to break free from the ever-watchful eye of her authoritarian aunt Angustias, and yet Andrea realises that her aunt might be trying to offer some form of protection from the ensuing chaos:

When I was completely awake, sitting on the edge of the bed, I found myself in one of my moments of rebellion against Angustias, the strongest I’d had. Suddenly I realised I wouldn’t put up with her any more. That I wouldn’t obey her any more after the days of complete freedom I’d enjoyed in her absence. The disturbances of the night had put my nerves on edge and I felt hysterical too, weepy and desperate. I realised I could endure everything: the cold that penetrated my worn clothes, the sadness of my absolute poverty, the dull horror of the filthy house. Everything except her control over me. That was what had suffocated me when I arrived in Barcelona, what had made me fall into ennui, what had killed off my initiative: that look from Angustias. That hand that quashed my movements, my curiosity about a new life…Yet Angustias, in her way, was an upright, good person among those crazy people. (pg 75)

Andrea finds brightness through her friendship with Ena, a sophisticated and intelligent girl from her university class, and the days and weekends she spends with Ena and her boyfriend, Jaime, offer a stark contrast to life on the Calle de Aribau:

Ena never resembled on weekdays the rash girl, almost childish in her high spirits, that she turned into on Sundays. As for me – and I came from the countryside – she made me see a new meaning in nature I’d never thought of before. She made me understand the pulsing of damp mud heavy with vital juices, the mysterious emotion of buds that were still closed, the melancholy charm of algae listless on the sand, the potency, the ardour, the splendid appeal of the sea (pg. 110)

But on weekdays, Andrea’s mood descends as she’s driven to distraction with hunger, and she quarrels with Ena. When Ena visits Andrea’s home to make up with her friend, Andrea is absent, and Ena spends the evening with the enigmatic Roman, another of Andrea’s uncles who also resides in the flat. Andrea, who has become increasingly disturbed and repulsed by Roman’s predatory behaviour, is puzzled by Ena’s fascination with Roman, and there are hints of a deeper mystery behind this development.         

Nada portrays a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, a loose collective torn apart and struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Whilst the war itself is rarely mentioned, we sense its recent presence in the background. It’s there in the suffocating and decaying environment of Andrea’s family’s home, in the fractured lives of her family, and in the poverty and hunger of her day-to-day life. We follow Andrea as she tries to navigate a path for herself, longing for her to escape.

In his introduction, Mario Vargas Llosa describes Nada (which means ‘nothing’) as a ‘beautiful, terrible novel’, and this reflects the Andrea’s experiences of postwar life in Barcelona. It’s a wonderfully evocative book, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting. I’m very glad to have discovered Nada by way of Claire at Word by Word and Elena at Books & Reviews. Stu at WinstonsDad’s and Richard at Caravana de recuerdos have also reviewed it – just click on the links if you’d like to read their thoughts on this book.

I chose this novel to link in with Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit month, which is running throughout July, and I’ll be reviewing another two or three books between now and the end of the month.

Nada is published in the UK by Vintage Books. Source: personal copy.