Tag Archives: Literature in Translation

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó (tr. George Szirtes)

The Hungarian writer Magda Szabó is perhaps best known for her 1987 novel The Door, a poignant story of the relationship between two women – a writer and her housekeeper. (It’s been on my radar for a while, although I’ve yet to read it.)  Iza’s Ballad (an earlier novel) also features a complex relationship between two women at its heart – in this instance, the frustrations and heartbreak of a distant mother-daughter relationship. More specifically, the book digs deep into the damage we inflict on those closest to us – often unintentionally but inhumanely nonetheless. It is a story of many contrasts; the differences between the generations; the traditional vs the new; the rural vs the urban; and the generous vs the self-centred.

Seventy-five-year-old Ettie and her husband Vince have lived a traditional life in the Hungarian countryside since their marriage some fifty years before. They have one daughter, the progressive, idealistic Iza, a brilliant doctor who now works in Pest (eastern Budapest), where she is well respected and successful. While Iza is a dutiful daughter, paying monthly visits to her elderly parents, she rarely shows any emotion, devoting herself instead to a demanding job in rheumatology.

Everything changes for both women when Vince dies of cancer. At first, Ettie fears being left alone in the old house, the long empty days stretching out ahead of her with no husband to talk to or care for. But Iza – a direct, controlling person at heart – decides that Ettie must come and live with her in the apartment in Pest as it’s clearly the right thing to do. There is no consultation with Ettie at this point, simply a unilateral decision that Iza makes with no attempt to establish Ettie’s wishes. Nevertheless, in her relief at not being abandoned, Ettie defers to Iza’s better judgement – clearly her capable daughter knows best – and she goes along with the plan.

Straight after Vince’s funeral, Iza bundles Ettie off for a week at a sanatorium, effectively as a way of getting ‘the old woman’ out of the way while she arranges the move. The former family home is sold to Iza’s ex-husband, Antal, a kind, considerate man who retains a fondness for Ettie despite his broken relationship with her daughter. Meanwhile, Ettie must contend with a maelstrom of emotions on her own – grief at the loss of her beloved husband, relief at the prospect of a new life with Iza, and concern over the packing up of the house. Her major consolation is the prospect of being surrounded by Vince’s possessions once she arrives in Pest.

It was an enormous relief to her [Ettie] that she wouldn’t have to live by herself in a house bereft of Vince, but it was terrifying not be present while Iza packed up ready for the removal men. ‘You’d only torture yourself,’ retorted Iza, ‘you have spent enough time crying. I know my flat, know where I am taking you, I know where things will fit and what will look best. I want you to be happy from now on.’ (p. 56)

What follows when Iza brings her mother to the city is truly heartbreaking to observe. Very few of the couple’s treasured possessions have survived the move, and those that have are barely recognisable from their former selves. Vince’s favourite chair has been reupholstered, transforming it from a comfortable, careworn reminder to an alien object, erasing its emotional value for Ettie as a result. Naturally, Ettie is devastated by this casting aside of her former life. Virtually everything familiar has been discarded or left behind, accentuating Ettie’s crushing sense of loss.

She felt as if some elemental blow had destroyed everything around her and that only now did she really know what it was to be a widow, someone absolutely abandoned.

She didn’t cry while Iza was in the room, just looked pale and was more quiet than usual, but she tried to say something nice, however awkward, about the practicality of the arrangement and Iza’s helpfulness and kindness. (p. 89)

Everything required for comfort was present and correct but she still felt as though she had been robbed. (p. 92)

As the days and weeks slip by, Ettie continues to struggle with her new life in the city. Every time she tries to do something to please Iza, such as cooking a favourite meal from the girl’s childhood or brewing traditional Turkish coffee, the gesture backfires, aggravating Iza on her return from work. While Ettie has been used to a life of housework and cleaning, Iza’s housekeeper Teréz takes care of everything in Pest – an arrangement that Iza is determined to maintain. Unsurprisingly, this leads to tension between Ettie and Teréz, prompting Iza to intervene…

The old woman listened. She felt silly and unable to mount an argument; she was so cowed by the accusation that she got on Teréz’s nerves that she dared not say a word. Should she say that she’d like to be the one who looked after her [Iza], and that she’d enjoy taking care of things and finding out what she liked? Or that she [Ettie] had worked all her life, that she liked working and would like to find a way of showing how grateful she was for not being left alone? She kept quiet. (p. 98)

One of the great tragedies here – and there are many – is Iza’s lack of appreciation of her mother’s needs and emotions. On her return from work, Iza simply wants some peace and quiet, so she soon becomes irritated by Ettie’s questions and constant presence in the flat.

Her [Ettie’s] constant presence, the way she kept opening doors, always wanting something to happen at precisely the times Iza was exhausted and wanted rest and quiet, a space where nothing happened, saddened her and forced her to spend ever less time at home, only as much as was absolutely necessary. (pp. 131–132)

With Iza out at work all day, there are precious few opportunities for Ettie to spend time with her daughter or to share how she is feeling. Ettie knows she should be grateful to Iza for bringing her to Budapest, but the loneliness she is experiencing is destroying her, and with no one to talk to, these emotions remain locked in. As the novel unfolds, we can almost see Ettie wasting away before our eyes. In effect, she is retreating into herself as much as possible for fear of doing anything that will aggravate either Iza or Teréz. For Ettie, large chunks of the day are spent riding the tram routes across the city to steer clear of Teréz or whittled away alone at the flat.   

While the reader’s sympathies will almost certainly be weighted towards Ettie, Szabó is mindful of portraying each of her characters as complex, rounded individuals, complete with their shortcomings and failings. Like all of us, Ettie has her faults, from her jealousy of Lidia, the gracious nurse who holds Vince’s hand as he is dying, to her resentment of Teréz for robbing her of the chance to cook Iza’s meals. Similarly, while Iza has many faults ranging from selfishness and a lack of emotional intelligence to brusqueness and insensitivity, the situation is not entirely black and white. Her dedicated approach to work is undeniable, an asset widely recognised by colleagues and patients alike. Nevertheless, Iza’s lack of understanding towards her mother is horrifying to observe – while every physical comfort is provided for Ettie, the requisite emotional support is sorely missing from Iza’s approach. (Interestingly, this lack of emotional involvement is mirrored in Iza’s relationships with men – both her ex-husband Antal, who left Iza for fear of being destroyed by her, and Iza’s current lover, Domokos, who suddenly realises he might be destined for a similar fate.)

As this heartbreakingly poignant novel approaches its inexorable conclusion, Ettie returns to her old country home for the instalment of Vince’s headstone – a visit that prompts a reunion with Antal and a touching reminder of her former life. Despite the undeniable sadness in this story, this was a knockout read for me – a richly textured portrait of two very different women, unable to reach out to one another despite their familial bond.

Iza’s Ballad is published by NYRB Classics (US) and Vintage (UK); personal copy.

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)

Every now and again, a book comes along that catches the reader off-guard with its impact and memorability. Elena Knows – the third novel from the award-winning writer and activist Claudia Piñeiro – seems set to be that kind of book, for this reader at least. Even though it’s only a week or so since I read it, I strongly suspect that the issues raised by this novel (and the skill with which Piñeiro conveys them) will likely resonate with me for some time. In short, the book is a powerful exploration of various facets of control over women’s bodies. More specifically, the extent to which women are in control (or not) of their own bodies in a predominantly Catholic society; how religious dogma and doctrines exert pressure on women to relinquish that control to others, often against their will; and what happens when the body fails us due to illness and/or disability.

Central to the novel is Elena, a woman in her mid-sixties who has severe Parkinson’s Disease, a condition that places significant restrictions on her mobility, which fluctuates throughout the day.

When Elena’s daughter, Rita, is found dead, her body hanging from the bell in the church belfry, the official investigations deliver a verdict of suicide, and the case is promptly closed by the police. Elena, however, refuses to believe the authorities’ ruling based on her knowledge of Rita’s beliefs. Elena knows – or thinks she knows – that Rita would never have entered the church on a rainy day due to a deep-seated fear of lightning. The cross on the church roof would have acted as a powerful lightning conductor, making the building a precarious place to take shelter on the afternoon in question.  

No one knows as much about her daughter as she does, she thinks, because she’s her mother, or was her mother. Motherhood, Elena thinks, comes with certain things, a mother knows her child, a mother knows, a mother loves… (p. 49)

Consequently, Elena is determined to conduct her own investigation into Rita’s death. The trouble is, she can only move around for a couple of hours at a time once each dose of her Parkinson’s medication kicks in. So, with no other viable options at her disposal, Elena embarks on a tortuous journey across the city of Buenos Aires in the hope of calling in a favour from an acquaintance named Isabel. While Elena hasn’t seen Isabel for twenty years, she believes the latter owes her a debt of gratitude for a past kindness – significant enough to call on Isabel to act on her behalf.

The narrative is very cleverly structured as it mirrors the times when Elena takes her tablets: morning (second pill), midday (third pill) and afternoon (fourth pill). Once each tablet takes effect, Elena can move for just an hour or two before her body stops responding, effectively immobilising her until it’s time for the next dose, and the cycle can begin again.

By holding the reader close to Elena as she makes her way across the city, Piñeiro enables us to see just how difficult it is for someone with severe Parkinson’s to complete simple actions that others take for granted e.g. walking the five blocks from her home to the train station, buying a ticket, boarding the train, timing her journey to ensure she’ll get a seat, and getting off the train at her destination – each of these tasks feels like a Herculean challenge for Elena. Moreover, the sheer difficulty of this journey creates a genuine sense of tension as her body could seize up at any point, leaving Elena in limbo until it’s time for her next pill.

As Elena marks out the journey in manageable stages, we learn more about her relationship with Rita and various events from the past. While Elena clearly loved Rita very deeply, their relationship was stormy with both parties experiencing significant anger and frustration, typically driven by the limitations imposed by Elena’s Parkinson’s. There were times when Rita felt disgusted by her mother’s condition, especially the lack of control Elena had (and still has) over certain bodily functions, such as her constant tendency to drool. In effect, Rita was fast becoming her mother’s carer as Elena’s condition worsened. The endless bureaucracy around medical insurance proved another source of frustration for Rita, highlighting the system’s dehumanising effect and lack of sensitivity to the urgency of patients’ needs.

As the narrative unfolds, we see how the teachings of the Catholic Church have contributed to the lack of control women have over their own bodies. Certain actions, such as abortion, are condemned by the Church, imposing severe restrictions on the options open to women should they become pregnant.

…we, as Christians, know that our bodies do not belong to us, that our bodies belong to God, and so we cannot go against Him […] The Church condemns suicide just as it condemns any murder, any wrongful use of the body that does not belong to us, whatever name you want to give the action, suicide, abortion, euthanasia. Parkinson’s, she says, but he ignores her. (p. 53)

Moreover, Piñeiro sets up various juxtapositions in the novel, highlighting the complexity of the moral issues at play. For instance, while Elena must relinquish control of her bodily movements to Parkinson’s (the terrible ‘whore’ illness she refers to as ‘Herself’), she is quite prepared to ask another woman for the ‘use’ of her body to act as a surrogate investigator on her behalf. There are other examples here too, most notably how some pregnant women seeking abortions are prevented from gaining access to the appropriate support due to extreme pressure from others – such as women with opposing views.

By exploring the specific demands placed on each of the two central characters – Elena and Rita – together with the demands and controls they seek to place on others, Piñeiro successfully highlights some of the injustices in this society. (The final section of the story is exceptionally powerful and compelling, delivering a cruel twist of fate that I did not anticipate beforehand. It’s a development that lends a crushing note of irony to the novel’s title, prompting us to us to question how well we know ourselves and others when faced with a terrible dilemma.)

For a novel first published in Argentina in 2007 (and subsequently translated into English in 2021), Elena Knows still feels incredibly timely, especially given recent political developments around women’s rights. It’s a powerful and urgent read full of depth and complexity – as Max commented in his 2021 reading highlights, this is an excellent example of how the investigation into a potential crime can be used as a vehicle in fiction to explore pressing societal issues. There are so many layers to unpack here, not only around agency and bodily autonomy but in other areas such as motherhood and identity. I’ll finish with a final quote that taps into some of these themes, just to give a more rounded view of the novel’s concerns.

What name does she [Elena] have now that she’s childless? Has Rita’s death erased everything she was? Her illness didn’t erase it. Being a mother, Elena knows, isn’t changed by any illness even if it keeps you from being able to put on a jacket, or freezes your feet so that you can’t move, or forces you to live with your head down, but could Rita’s death have taken not only her daughter’s body but also the word that names what she, Elena, is? (p. 49)

Elena Knows is published by Charco Press; personal copy.

The Trouble with Happiness by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Back at the beginning of June, I wrote about Tove Ditlevsen’s 1952 short story collection, The Umbrella, which forms the first part of the recent Penguin reissue, The Trouble with Happiness. The book as a whole takes its name from the second collection included here – a volume of eleven stories, published in Danish in 1963. Ditlevsen experienced severe depression, addiction to drugs and alcohol, and several broken marriages during her life – she divorced four times. As such, many of these influences, alongside those of her austere childhood in working-class Copenhagen, have made their way into her books, these stories included.

The titular piece feels particularly autobiographical in nature, a quality augmented by its personal, almost confessional style. Here we see a talented, seventeen-year-old girl on the cusp of womanhood, desperate to spread her wings and escape the constraints of her family. The girl’s mother is severe and judgemental, while the father remains largely absent or asleep, adding to the fractured nature of life in the family’s cramped apartment. As an account, it’s shot through with a palpable sense of sadness – a melancholy mood that resurfaces now and again in the protagonist’s thoughts several years down the line.

But sometimes – when someone has left me, or I discover inadvertently in the eyes of my children a glimpse of cold observation, of merciless, unsurmountable distance, I take out my brother’s pretty little sewing case and slowly open the mother-of-pearl inlaid lid. Fight for all you hold dear, plays the worn old music maker, and an unnamed sadness swells inside my mind, because they are all dead or disappeared, and my brother and I no longer communicate. (p. 184)

Ditlevsen has an innate ability to convey the devastating effects of loneliness and isolation that women sometimes feel, especially when their marriages break down. In Perpetuation, one of my favourites in the collection, Edith finds that history is repeating itself when her husband, an academic in his mid-forties, has an affair with a much younger woman. Consequently, Edith cannot help but reflect on her father’s earlier desertion of his family under similar circumstances. Will Edith’s children blame her for the collapse of the marriage? How long will it be before their father forgets them?

What if she told her children the truth? The truth about a father whose love for a woman and tenderness for three children was diminished to a little prick in his conscience when once in a while – because it had to happen – on a street, in a trolley, or on a train, he saw a child who resembled one of them? A little pain that diminished with every embrace, every passionate night, and which in the end disappeared completely in the terrible power radiating from the body of a young, beautiful woman. (pp. 168–169)

The danger posed by youth is also a factor in The Little Shoes, another brilliantly-observed piece in this piercing collection of stories. When Helene employs Hanne, a rather self-important, insolent twenty-two-year-old girl, as a housekeeper, she begins to regret her decision, especially when the family’s stability is put at risk. With her air of working-class resentment and self-righteousness, Hanne might just be fooling around with Helene’s fifteen-year-old son, adding to a pattern of behaviour that Helene finds infuriating.

Helene had to fight back the impulse to fire her on the spot. She stood there until the girl slowly got up, wearing a shameless smile that radiated the consciousness of the sexual superior superiority of idiotic youth.

Helene took it as the kind of smile you give to an older, discarded fellow female, and she was infuriated. (p. 144–145)

Ditlevsen spares little in her withering depiction of men in these stories, many of whom are at best absent or neglectful and at worst cruel or deceitful.

In A Fine Business, a young couple, imminently expecting a child, are looking for a new house which they plan to buy with a recent inheritance. After several fruitless viewings, their estate agent alights on an ideal property, armed with the knowledge that the owner – a vulnerable mother – needs to sell quickly following the breakdown of her marriage. It’s a situation the male buyer is all too keen to exploit, working in partnership with the estate agent to secure a reduced price – an action that reveals a mercenary side to the buyer’s character. Only his heavily pregnant wife, Grete, can see the injustice of this scenario, empathising with the downtrodden seller, particularly given her own condition.

There is such a sad, hopeless atmosphere in this house, bereft as it is of much of its former furniture. And yet, this excellent story reveals so much about the characters, particularly through Ditlevsen’s insights into Grete’s private thoughts.

Why has he looked that way at the little stain on the ceiling? It was the same way he looked at the woman and a little girl, almost as if there were two defects in the house that could drive down the price. He probably wasn’t going to buy this house either. And when they got home, he would act as if he had made the most ingenious deal in his life. (p. 128)

Also rather troubling is the father’s behaviour in The Knife, an arresting story in which a mentally disturbed man feels constrained by his wife and son.

They existed like shadows inside him, thought foetuses he couldn’t get rid of, products of a weakness in him which he tried with all his might to overcome. (p. 96)

Other highlights include Anxiety, a terrifying tale of a woman cowed into submission by her intolerant husband – a newspaper copy editor who works nights and hates having his sleep disturbed during the day. Consequently, this woman is afraid to move around in her own home in case she makes a noise. Moreover, any occasional visits to her sister also come with their own problems, especially if she stays out for too long – who knows what her husband might need while she is away…

Two Women is also worthy of a mention – a beautifully observed story of a restless, depressed woman who fails to empathise with her hairdresser, despite experiencing similar anxieties and concerns. In truth, Britta has come to the beauty parlour for an escape from her own troubles, not to be dragged down by those of another.

So, in summary, a superb collection of stories, beautifully expressed in a spare, emotionally truthful style, perfectly capturing the underlying sadness and loneliness therein. Here we have stories of fractured minds, lonely, isolated women, marginalised or abandoned in their marriages by careless or cruel men. Supportive friends or family members seem few and far between, adding to the unhappiness that surrounds these protagonists. But as ever with Ditlevsen, the writing is brilliant, a factor that helps balance some of the heartbreak we find within. Very highly recommended indeed, especially for lovers of interiority in fiction.

Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich (tr. Howard Curtis) 

The publication history of this terrific novella by the Italian novelist and screenwriter Gianfranco Calligarich is almost as fascinating as the book itself. Written when Calligarich was in his twenties, the book struggled to find a publisher until it dropped into the hands of the renowned novelist and essayist Natalia Ginzburg – a writer currently enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity due to the recent reissues from Daunt Books and NRYB Classics. Ginzburg was so enthused by Calligarich’s novella that she persuaded an Italian publishing house to issue it in 1973, resulting in both critical and commercial success.

However, not long after, the book slipped out of print, taking on the status of a cult classic amongst those in the know. Following a couple of revivals in the 2010s, Last Summer in the City is now available to read in English for the first time, courtesy of the translator Howard Curtis and Picador Books. It’s a wonderfully evocative read – intense, melancholic and richly cinematic, like a cross between Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and the novels of Alfred Hayes, tinged with despair.

Last Summer is narrated by Leo Gazzara, a thirty-year-old man from Milan who has come to Rome as a correspondent for a medical-literary magazine. When the publication folds, he finds himself drifting around the city, shuttling from one cheap hotel to another, picking up a little freelance work here and there when he needs money to get by. Having eschewed the usual trappings of respectability revered by his older sisters, Leo often relies on the generosity of others, feeding on their ‘leftovers’ in more ways than one. So when two relatively wealthy friends move to Mexico City for a year or two, Leo agrees to house-sit their apartment, providing him with a comfortable place to live as he meanders around Rome.

His life is a somewhat shallow, disorganised one as he drifts from one woman to another, one bar to another, one gathering to another, frequently hosted by his glamorous, generous friends. Alongside lassitude, alcohol is another demon for Leo, blurring his senses as he tries to kick the habit. Interestingly, Calligarich often depicts Leo in the morning after the night before, a leisurely time of day that our protagonist enjoys – after all, he has long been a magnet for women.

I slept until late morning, when I woke up to an empty apartment. I found coffee already made, along with a note. Stay as long as you like. I thought about it, as I lay in a bathtub filled with warm water, I thought about whether to stay or not, until I realised that the only thing I could do now was leave and never come back. And so, like so many other times, for the last time I got out of her bath, dried myself, finished the coffee, and left, firmly closing the door behind me. (p. 98)

One evening, at a party hosted by friends, Leo meets Arianna, a beautiful, unpredictable, impulsive young woman who catches his eye. After the soiree breaks up, Leo and Arianne drive through the city, flirting with one another, stopping for warm brioche at a bakery and driving to the sea before dawn. It’s the start of an intense yet episodic love affair that waxes and wanes over the summer and beyond. 

It was the hour when anyone who’s been on his feet all night demands something hot in his stomach, the hour when hands search for each other under the sheets as dreams become more vivid, the hour when the newspapers smell of ink and the first sounds of day start to creep out like an advanced guard. It was dawn, and all that reminded of the night were two shadows under the eyes of this strange girl by my side. (pp. 36–37)

Right from the very start, there is a sense of fatalism about this story, a feeling that Leo and Arianna’s relationship is doomed almost as soon as it gets underway. Here we see two disaffected, damaged souls, unmoored and adrift, never quite connecting with one another as they blow hot and cold. For instance, when Leo thinks he is falling in love with Arianna, she refuses to hear it, silencing his declarations of emotion and affection. Similarly, there are times when Leo rejects Arianna, preferring instead to retreat into his loneliness and anger.

This capricious, volatile quality also applies to their other relationships, particularly the one between Arianna and her rather jealous sister, Eva – a bond characterised by frequent quarrels and overly dramatic flounces, particularly from Arianna. 

Rome is almost a character in itself here – the city is home to the transient, the people that pass through, often searching for something new or different, even if they cannot define what that ‘something’ might be. Calligarich’s depictions of Rome are seductive and glamorous at times, especially at night. And yet, there’s something brittle and all-consuming about the capital, too – a darkness or destructive note that must be respected and borne in mind. Rome is a place that feeds a person’s needs and disaffections – by turns, charming, tolerating and spurning its inhabitants in response to the prevailing mood.  

…Rome by her very nature has a particular intoxication that wipes out memory. She’s not so much a city as a wild beast hidden in some secret part of you. There can be no half measures with her, either she’s the love of your life or you have to leave her, because that’s what the tender beast demands, to be loved. […] If she’s loved, she’ll give herself to you whichever way you want her, all you need to do is go with the flow and you’ll be within reach of the happiness you deserve. You’ll have summer evenings glittering with lights, vibrant spring mornings, café tablecloths ruffled by the wind like girls’ skirts, keen winters, and endless autumns, when she’ll seem vulnerable, sick, weary, swollen with shredded leaves that are silent underfoot. […] In this way you too, waiting day after day, will become part of her. You too will nourish the city. Until one sunny day, sniffing the wind from the sea and looking up at the sky, you’ll realize there’s nothing left to wait for. (pp. 7–8)

Calligarich’s prose is gorgeous and evocative, adding a sense of beauty to Leo’s loneliness and despair. There are times when the novella is infused with a sense of yearning for the past, a nostalgia for something that was lost or never fully attained. Calligarich’s portrayal of Leo’s father is especially poignant – a silent, orderly man who returned shattered from the War.

In summary, Last Summer in the City is a beautiful, melancholic story of a man lost and adrift in Rome. Here we have a piercing depiction of a doomed love affair, of two flawed, damaged individuals unable to connect – ultimately failing to realise what they could have had together until that chance has gone, frittered away like a night on the tiles. This intense, expresso-shot of a novella will likely resonate with those who have loved and lost.

All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Angus Davidson)

While I’ve enjoyed several reissues of Natalia Ginzburg’s work in recent years, All Our Yesterdays feels like the one I’ve been waiting to read – a rich, multilayered evocation of Italian family life spanning the duration of the Second World War.

Through Sally Rooney’s excellent introduction to the novel, we learn how Natalia and her first husband, the Jewish anti-fascist activist Leone Ginzburg, were sent to Southern Italy during the war as a form of internal exile. In 1944, Leone was imprisoned, tortured and killed by the incumbent regime for his covert work on an anti-fascist newspaper. By the war’s end, Natalia was in her late twenties, a widow with three young children and a debut novella under her belt. As such, she channelled her experiences into her work, publishing All Our Yesterdays in 1952. It’s a brilliant novel, full of warmth, intelligence and humanity, punctuated by wry observations on the tangled business of life.

The book focuses on two Italian families living opposite one another in a small Northern Italian town, with the story opening in the late 1930s during the run-up to war. While one family derives its wealth from the town’s soap factory, the other is middle-class and relatively short of money, contrasting the fortunes of these neighbouring households. As the novel unfolds, Anna – the youngest daughter in the middle-class family – gradually emerges as the main protagonist, an ordinary, impressionable teenager alert to developments around her. With his wife no longer alive, Anna’s father (a former lawyer) devotes his time to writing his memoirs, a long, sprawling series of anti-fascist declarations that will fail to see the light of day.

While Anna’s older sister Concettina – an attractive girl who bemoans her flat chest – works her way through a sequence of fiancés, her brother, Ippolito, helps their father by typing up his memoirs late into the night. Completing the family are younger brother, Giustino, and an eccentric old maid, Signora Maria, a former companion to the children’s deceased grandmother.

With Mussolini in power and fascism on the rise, Ippolito becomes increasingly interested in politics, debating the issues of the day with Emanuele – the eldest son from the wealthy family opposite – and their principled friend, Danilo, one of Concettina’s many fiancés. Full of the exuberance of youth, the trio pore over newspapers and dream of revolution, drawing up plans that Anna begins to glean…

She seemed to understand about the sitting room, and the sentences in German, and Ippolito stroking his face, and his restless eyes that were always looking for something. They were talking politics in the sitting room, they were once again doing a dangerous, secret thing, as the book of memoirs had been. They wanted to overthrow the fascists, to begin a revolution. (p. 47)

Over time, a friendship develops between Anna and Emanuele’s younger brother, Giuma, a rather arrogant, insensitive boy who seems more interested in himself than anyone around him. At sixteen, Anna finds herself pregnant by Giuma, who subsequently abandons her with a 1000-lire note, sufficient money to cover an underground abortion.

She was alone, she was alone and no one said anything to her, she was alone in her room with her grass-stained, crumpled dress and her violently trembling hands. She was alone with Giuma’s face that gave her a stab of pain at her heart, and every day she would be going back with Giuma amongst the bushes on the river bank, every day she would see again that face with the rumpled forelock and the tightly closed eyelids, that face that had lost all trace both of words and of thoughts for her. (pp. 152–153)

As personal relationships in these families are forged and fragmented, the Germans continue their irrepressible march across Europe, advancing into Belgium and Holland – and then France. The boys are particularly aware of these developments, knowing full well that Italy will likely align itself with Nazi Germany. But while Emanuele remains relatively calm in the face of events, Ippolito is deeply unsettled, pacing his room at night and avoiding contact with others. Through their contrasting responses to the encroaching war, Ginzburg is showing us how the political seeps into the personal, highlighting the devastating impact on young, impressionable minds.

Concettina, too, is disturbed by the situation in Europe. Recently married to Emilio, the father of her baby boy, she fears for the family’s safety – consequently, her nights are haunted by dreams of fleeing should the Germans advance further. Ginzburg is particularly adept at highlighting how everyday life appears meaningless and futile in the face of war, especially when external factors feel uncertain and threatening.

But Concettina had not forgotten the war, and she looked incredulously at the cradle and the coverlet with the mushrooms on it that Signora Maria was embroidering, and she wondered how much longer the baby would sleep in that big cradle of blue taffeta, she already saw herself running away with the baby in her arms amongst tanks and the whistling of sirens, and she hated Signora Maria with her mushrooms and her futile chatter. (pp. 160–161)

Meanwhile, as Anna decides to seek an abortion, an unexpected lifeline appears in the shape of Cenzo Rena, a family friend who suddenly proposes marriage while agreeing to take on the baby. At forty-seven, Cenzo Rena seems like an unlikely match for Anna, but he is kind, thoughtful and generous – qualities to be admired irrespective of his appearance.

They looked like two people who had been flung against each other by chance in a sinking ship. For them there had been no fanfare of trumpets, he said. And that was a good thing, because when fate announced itself with a loud fanfare of trumpets you always had to be a little on your guard. (p. 210)

Despite her family’s objections, Anna marries Cenzo Rena and moves to his house in the South, a strange collection of large, sparsely-furnished rooms adorned by the myriad of useless objects he has amassed from his travels abroad.

Cenzo Rena is an influential figure in the area, with several contadini calling on him for sound advice. And it’s here in the village of Borgo San Costanzo – an impoverished, insular community with multiple health problems – that the presence of war really makes itself felt. Jews from some Italian Northern cities are sent to the South, shunting them off to villages where they cannot ‘harm the war’. San Costanzo receives four Jewish internees under this initiative – three old women and a Turkish Jew, who ultimately becomes Cenzo Rena’s friend. A Polish Jew named Franz, a friend of Emanuele’s father, also makes his way to San Costanzo, further complicating the situation. In true Italian fashion, Franz is married to Emanuele’s sister, Amalia, having been involved with the siblings’ mother, Mammina, some years before. (The novel’s network of romantic entanglements is suitably complex but relatable – a delight to observe!)

Once again, the juxtaposition between the micro-level tensions of family life and the broader drama of world events is highly compelling, underscoring the radical sociopolitical changes unfolding across the country at the time.

He [Cenzo Rena] looked out of the window at the refugees from Naples who were now going hither and thither about the lanes of the village, carrying mattresses and babies, he looked and said how sad it was to see all these mattresses carried about here and there all over Italy, Italy was now pouring mattresses out of her ravaged houses. And perhaps they too might soon be forced to run away, with their mattresses and the little girl and La Maschiona and the dog and the deckchairs, to run away to goodness knows where through the burning dust of the roads… (pp. 328–329)

Unsurprisingly, there is an eccentric cook/housekeeper here too, a rather foolish woman referred to as La Maschiona, whose devastating actions drive the novel’s denouement.

As the novel draws to a close, Anna is happy to be reunited with Emanuele and Giustino, reflecting on those who died during the war, a time of immense fear, confusion and uncertainty. However, she also understands that the future comes with its own challenges – a ‘long, difficult life’ full of all the things they don’t know how to do.

Ginzburg has written a truly remarkable novel here, a story of ordinary people living through extraordinary times, beautifully told with a warmth and generosity of spirit that reflects the Italian character. There are some lovely touches of dry humour throughout, as the author maintains a wry sense of detachment from life’s absurdities, despite the gravity of events. It’s also clearly a novel informed by personal experiences and memories, written by a woman who lived through the turmoil of a country at war – a point that adds a genuine sense of poignancy and authenticity to the story as it unfolds.

All Our Yesterdays is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)

The Pachinko Parlour by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

A couple of years ago, I read and loved Winter in Sokcho, a beautiful, dreamlike novella that touched on themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to societal norms. Set against the backdrop of a rundown guest house in Sokcho, the book centred on an intriguing relationship between a young French-Korean woman and a Frenchman staying at the hotel. Now Elisa Shua Dusapin is back with her second book, The Pachinko Parlour, another wonderfully enigmatic novella that shares many qualities with its predecessor.

As in her previous work, Dusapin draws on her French-Korean heritage for Pachinko, crafting an elegantly expressed story of family, displacement, fractured identity and the search for belonging. Here we see people caught in the hinterland between different countries, complete with their respective cultures and preferred languages. It’s a novel that exists in the liminal spaces between states, the borders or crossover points from one community to the next and from one family unit to another.

At first sight, the story being conveyed here seems relatively straightforward – a young woman travels to Japan to take her Korean grandparents on a trip to their homeland, a place they haven’t seen in fifty years. Dig a little deeper, however, and the narrative soon reveals itself to be wonderfully slippery – cool and clear on the surface yet harbouring fascinating layers of depth, a combination that gives the book a haunting or spectral quality, cutting deep into the soul. 

The novella is narrated by Claire, a young woman on the cusp of turning thirty, brought up in Switzerland, where she now lives with her boyfriend, Mathieu. It is summer, and Claire has travelled to Japan to stay with her Korean grandparents in the Nippori area of the city, home to the sizeable Zainichi community of exiled Koreans. But despite having lived in Japan for the past fifty years, Claire’s grandparents have not fully integrated into the Japanese community and culture, almost certainly because their move was prompted by the Korean Civil War in the early 1950s. A displacement process that forced Koreans to choose between the North and the South of the country, should they wish to keep their Korean identity while living in Japan.

The transition proved particularly challenging for Claire’s grandmother, who resisted assimilation into her adopted country by not speaking Japanese. Now in her nineties, she is showing signs of dementia, regressing into childhood as she plays with her dolls. Meanwhile, Claire’s grandfather must work till he drops, managing the faded Pachinko parlour (a legal, low-stakes gambling emporium) opposite the couple’s house. Aside from the Pachinko parlour – ironically named Shiny as it is anything but – the grandparents have virtually no social contact with other people, existing largely within their own limited, claustrophobic world.

With the proposed trip to Korea merely weeks away, Claire is struggling with the situation in Japan. Her grandparents are showing little enthusiasm for the trip, avoiding any discussions or preparations for the journey, despite their longstanding ties to the country. Communication seems to be a significant barrier for the trio, particularly as Claire is more fluent in Japanese than Korean, having studied the former at a Swiss university. Consequently, she spends much of her time lying on the ground floor in the suffocating heat, playing games on her phone or looking up Korea on the net. The atmosphere in the house is dizzying and oppressive as the noise from the nearby Pachinko parlours proves impossible to shut out…

The only respite for Claire is the time she spends with Mieko, a ten-year-old girl who lives with her mother – the rather cold and judgmental Mrs Ogawa – in an abandoned hotel. Mrs Ogawa – a French literature tutor by profession – has employed Claire to teach Mieko French during the school holidays, a task the mother shows little interest in helping with herself.

As the days slip by, a tentative friendship develops between Claire and Mieko – a slightly awkward yet touching bond born out of a shared sense of loneliness and loss. (Of significance here is Mieko’s father – no longer on the scene, having abandoned his family several years before.) The dialogue between this unlikely duo is beautifully expressed, perfectly capturing the awkwardness of the age gap between Claire and Mieko. Moreover, the young girl’s curiosity is also a factor, indicating a growing awareness of the mysteries of the adult world.  

Dusapin’s style is wonderfully pared back and minimalist, almost like a prose poem at times, leaving plenty of space for the reader to fill the gaps. Thematically and stylistically, the book is somewhat reminiscent of Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow, another haunting exploration of isolation and loss through a distanced family relationship. And yet, there is something unsettling here as well, echoing the signs of tension that run through Winter in Sokcho. In Pachinko, we find passing mentions of disturbing elements, from dying species and the presence of toxins in the earth to the shocking death of one of Mieko’s classmates. The story is punctuated with unnerving motifs, hinting at a troubled world where humanity must learn to coexist – both with itself and with the natural environment.

In Claire’s grandparents, we see people buffeted by history and events outside their control, wounded by the longstanding pain of Korean-Japanese history and the conflict of Civil War. Meanwhile, Claire is grappling with questions of identity and belonging herself, having grown up in Switzerland following her mother’s flight from the Zainichi community in Japan, largely for the opportunities that Europe could provide. As such, Claire too is caught between cultures, struggling to communicate across the societal and linguistic divides, prompting a sense of separation from her elderly grandparents. If anything, it is Mathieu – Claire’s absent boyfriend, busily working on his thesis in Switzerland – who seems to have the stronger relationship with the elderly couple, having bonded with them relatively easily during a previous trip.

As the novella draws to a close, there is a gradual increase in tension as the family’s departure draws near. Interestingly, just as in Sokcho, Dusapin ends Pachinko on an enigmatic note, prompting the reader to question the true meaning of the book. Whose journey are we witnessing here? Is it Claire’s grandparents’ pilgrimage – possibly the last chance to return to their homeland before illness or death intervenes – or is it Claire’s, a quest for attachment and belonging in a fractured, multicultural world?

I’ll leave you to figure that out for yourself – ideally by reading the book, which I highly recommend. This is a beautifully judged novella, a layered exploration of displacement, belonging and unspoken tragedies from times past. A beguiling read for #WITMonth and beyond.

The Pachinko Parlour will be published by Daunt Books on 18th August. My thanks to the publisher and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a proof copy.

Space Invaders by Nona Fernández (tr. Natasha Wimmer)

The publishing arm of Daunt Books has been on quite a roll over the past few years, issuing books by some of my favourite women writers in translation – Natalia Ginzburg, Madeleine Bourdouxhe and Elisa Shua Dusapin, to name but a few. Now I can add Nona Fernández to that list, courtesy of her remarkably powerful novella Space Invaders, recently released in this stylish new edition. (My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.)

First published in Chile in 2013, this dazzling, shapeshifting novella paints a haunting portrait of a generation of children exposed to the horrors of Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 1980s, a time of deep unease and oppression for the country’s citizens – several of whom were kidnapped, tortured and murdered for resisting the regime. The book focuses on a close-knit group of young adults who were at school together during the ‘80s and are now haunted by a jumble of disturbing dreams interspersed with shards of unsettling memories – suppressed during childhood but crying out to be dealt with now. Collectively, these striking fragments form a kind of literary collage, a powerful collective memory of the group’s absent classmate, Estrella González, whose father was a leading figure in the State Police.

Right from the very start, Fernández injects her narrative with a chilling sense of oppression, creating an ominous atmosphere that pulses through the book. Memories of the protagonists lining up in a regimented grid-like fashion at school – or later as adults marshalled together in the street – recur throughout the narrative, the context subtly shifting each time the passage appears.

Displaying clean fingernails, ringless hands, bright faces, hair brushed into submission. Singing the national anthem every Monday first thing, each according to their ability, in piercing off-key voices, loud and almost bellowing voices enthusiastically repeating the chorus, as up front one of us raises the Chilean flag from where it rests in somebody else’s arms. The little star of white cloth rising up, up, up till it touches the sky, the flag finally at the top of the staff, rippling over our heads in time to our singing as we stare up at it from the shelter of its dark shadow. (pp. 9–10)

Fernandez adopts a fascinating combination of form and structure for her book, using the popular Space Invaders game as both a framework and a metaphor for conveying the story. As such, the text is divided into four sections, each one focusing on a different time in the 1980s, with the title reflecting one of the lives assigned to a Space Invaders player during the game (e.g. ‘First Life’, ‘Second Life’ and ‘Game Over’). Moreover, the children’s situation can be likened to that of the targets in the Invaders game, their lives literally being shattered – both physically and psychologically – by the horrors of the Pinochet regime.

We’re pieces in a game, but we don’t know what it’s called,’ cites one of the protagonists as they recall those dictatorial line-ups at school – a statement that changes to ‘we’re pieces in a game that we don’t know how to stop playing,’ when it reappears towards the end of the book. As such, it implies that the battle seems never-ending, indicating a scenario where everyone feels trapped.

And when the last one died, when the screen was blank, another alien army appeared from the sky, ready to keep fighting. They gave up one life to combat, then another, and another, in a cycle of endless slaughter. (p. 16)

As the book unfolds, mostly through the sequence of dreams, partial recollections and letters between Estrella and her best friend, Maldonado, a composite picture of the missing girl emerges – a typical schoolgirl, alive to the wonders of life, despite her vulnerable situation. Each classmate sees Estrella slightly differently, viewing her from their own unique perspective; nevertheless, common threads are visible amongst the various voices, images and words.

One thing Fernández does brilliantly here is to draw on some remarkably striking imagery – often from the Space Invaders game itself – to convey the nightmarish world these children were exposed to. For instance, one of the group, a boy named Riquelme, is haunted by dreams of an army of prosthetic hands – an image prompted by the sinister wooden hand worn by Estrella’s father following his accident with a bomb.

Now Riquelme dreams about that never-seen cabinet full of prostheses and about a boy playing with them, a boy he never met. The boy opens the doors of the cabinet and shows him the prosthetic hands lined up one after the other, orderly as an arsenal. They’re glow-in-the-dark green, like the Space Invaders bullets. The boy gives a command and the hands obey him like trained beasts.

Riquelme feels them exit the cabinet and come after him. They menace him. They chase him. They advance like an army of earthlings on the hunt for some alien. (p. 19)

In some instances, dreams can provide an escape from the brutality of life, a safe space to retreat when seeking liberation or solace. However, in the scenario reflected here, any glimpses of freedom and joy are swiftly replaced by more frightening imagery, signalling grave danger as the threats close in.

The sand is swirling. Everything is draining. There’s a hole in the bottom of the pool and it’s beginning to swallow up my classmates. It swallows Bustamante. It’s swallows Fuenzalida. It swallows Maldonado. And I hear screams and the dream turns dangerous and I’m scared. I knew I shouldn’t have jumped into the water… (p. 67)

As the narrative continues, the story becomes progressively darker. More sinister signs and imagery appear. The relative familiarity of school assemblies, lessons and plays gives way to horrific events. Two active dissidents – young men barely out of school – are shot and killed by the State Police. Suspected militants are kidnapped, killed and dumped, their throats slit for all to see. Other individuals are abducted, arrested or beaten up; homes are searched; threatening phone calls are received. In short, the situation becomes increasingly gruesome. Suddenly, the signs of death prove impossible for the children to ignore as their understanding of the reality around them grows – a force they are powerless to tackle.

No one is exactly sure when it happened, but we all remember that coffins and funerals and wreaths were suddenly everywhere and there was no escaping them, because it had all become something like a bad dream. Maybe it had always been that way and we were only just realising it. Maybe Maldonado was right and we were too young. Maybe we were distracted by all that history homework, all those maths tests, all those enactments of battles against the Peruvians. Suddenly things sprang to life in a new way. The classroom opened out to the street, and, desperate and naive, we leaped onto the deck of the enemy ship in the first and final attempt doomed to failure. (p. 57)

It would be unfair of me to reveal what happened to Estrella during this time; you’ll have to read the book to discover it yourself. Suffice it to say we learn enough from the narrative to piece her story together (including the reasons for her disappearance) – a story inspired by actual events from the author’s childhood.

Fernández’s style is visual, engaging and stylishly poetic. While the world portrayed here is brutal, there is wonderful lightness of touch to the author’s approach – an exquisite layering of details for the reader to assemble. Despite its brevity, this is a novella with hidden depths, a highly memorable narrative for such a delicately-etched text. In particular, Fernández skilfully illustrates how in childhood we suppress thoughts and images of traumatic events, only for them to resurface later, often unexpectedly, to be filtered, aggregated and processed in the context of adult life. In short, this is a fractured narrative reflecting fractured lives. A stunning achievement by a remarkable writer – definitely someone to watch.

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (tr. by Sam Bett and David Boyd)

Recently shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, Heaven was first published in Japan in 2009 – it’s my first experience of Mieko Kawakami’s work, but I definitely plan to read more in the future. The novel tackles a very difficult subject – that of adolescent bullying – but does so in such a thoughtful and thought-provoking way that the reader cannot help but be drawn in.

Set in Japan in 1991, Heaven is narrated by a fourteen-year-old boy who is only known to us by his nickname ‘Eyes’. The boy is systematically bullied – both mentally and physically – by a group of boys in his class, an action he puts down to his lazy eye. Kawakami is particularly insightful on the rush of thoughts swimming around in the narrator’s head as he thinks about the situation at school, from the reasons for the bullying to catastrophising about the future with all its underlying anxieties.  

I could finish school and change my surroundings, but as long as my eye was lazy, I couldn’t rightfully expect any substantial change. It was more likely that things would get much worse, or maybe they already were, and I hadn’t yet realized the extent of it. Maybe I would kill myself like that kid from TV, or maybe someone else would kill me first. Maybe I was already dead. These ideas flooded my mind to the point where I wasn’t sure what I was thinking. I was numb with a mix of fear and nausea. (p. 50)

Early in the novel, a tentative friendship develops between the narrator and a girl in his class, Kojima, who also finds herself on the receiving end of bullying. The other girls perceive Kojima as poor and dirty, referring to her as ‘Hazmat’ due to her scruffy appearance and lack of personal hygiene. In reality though, Kojima is making a personal choice to look this way as a form of solidarity with her impoverished father (now separated from the family) – a sign of kinship, so to speak, despite her mother’s newly-acquired wealth.

At first, the friendship between the narrator and Kojima develops through the notes they leave for one another inside their desks, but in time they begin to meet in a safe place on a fortnightly basis. Kawakami portrays this relationship in such a touching and tender way that feels entirely believable – in essence, both are seen as outsiders by their peers, singled out as ‘different’ due to their physical appearances. It’s also clear that Kojima’s friendship and secret notes – some of which are presented in the text – are the only things that give the narrator a sense of solace as he struggles to get through the days.

On one level, Heaven offers an acute insight into the narrator’s emotions as he tries to process his responses to the bullying. But on another level, the book can also be viewed as an exploration of some of the broader philosophical issues at play. The psychology of bullying, for instance – what prompts people to act the way they do, and how important (or not) are moral codes and social norms in shaping their actions? It also considers different strategies for counteracting the bullies, spanning the spectrum from passive submission to active defiance. Perhaps most importantly, Kawakami explores whether there is a kind of strength to be gained by experiencing suffering and pain, a sense of meaning or moral reward for getting through it.

As the discussions between Kojima and the narrator evolve, it becomes clear that the two teenagers see the bullying somewhat differently from one another, particularly in terms of context. While the narrator remains passive when being attacked, trying to distract himself as a means of getting through it, Kojima attaches a deeper meaning to the experience, viewing her endurance of the abuse as a kind of strength, almost as if she’s making a moral stand by suffering in this way. There’s also a sense that Kawakami is making a broader societal point here, drawing attention to the complicity of bystanders who turn the other cheek. By ignoring these acts of cruelty, are we effectively condoning the bullies’ actions by not speaking out? 

[Kojima:] “…We know what’s important, and we know what’s wrong. That’s just not true for anyone else in class. They pretend they don’t know what’s going on. They act nice to the ones who step all over us just to stay on their good side, and to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to them. They act like their hands are clean, but they aren’t. They don’t get it, not at all. They’re no different from the ones who hurt us…” (p. 92)

Kawakami adds another viewpoint to the mix through the character of Momose, the ordinarily silent sidekick to the bullies’ ringleader, Ninomiya. In a chance meeting after the novel’s most harrowing instance of bullying, the narrator encounters Momose in a hospital waiting room, and a discussion between the pair ensues. In short, Momose presents the view that everything in life is random, nothing happens for a reason, and there is no such thing as right or wrong. Rather, people do what they feel like doing – moral codes or reasoning simply don’t come into it.

“…Sometimes you just want to do something. You get these, like, urges. Like you want to punch someone, or kick someone, whoever happens to be there. The only reason those things happened to you is that you were around when someone was looking for someone to punch. That’s all.” (p. 114)

“…It couldn’t be any simpler. People do what they can get away with.” […]

As the narrator tries to counteract Momose’s argument, the discussion touches on wider societal issues, highlighting once again various contraindications and inconsistencies in our behaviours. In particular, Kawakami raises questions about the dual standards in certain aspects of society – how in some instances, people are willing to do things to others (such as paying a young woman for sex) that they would not wish to happen to members of their family.

By expressing these different viewpoints through her characters, Kawakami does an excellent job of raising some of the issues related to abuse in quite an open, non-leading way, making the novel a fascinating choice for book groups. There’s certainly plenty to discuss.

Inevitably, for a story like this to feel truthful and authentic, there must be a certain degree of detail in the descriptions of the bullying itself – and it’s fair to say that Kawakami doesn’t hold back on this front, expressing the physical and mental aspects of the abuse in all its heartbreaking cruelty. An extended incident in a gymnasium – where the narrator is basically used as a human football – is particularly vicious.

Ensconced in a darkness whose color I could not define, and unable to allow myself to stand, I spun and writhed, searching for a defense. I had no clue what my body was doing. A tepid lava, black and leaden, rose over my ankles and climbed my legs. It probed my mouth and pumped into my lungs. In no time, it was melting me, working from the inside. I moved my legs, trying to escape, but lost my balance and fell flat. (p. 83)

Nevertheless, the story ends on a hopeful note, a welcome ray of optimism that may give the narrator a route out. A beautifully written novel about a tough, uncompromising subject that deserves to be widely read. Highly recommended, as long as you’re prepared for some uncomfortable scenes.  

Heaven is published by Picador; personal copy.

The Umbrella by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Like many readers, I was gripped by Tove Ditlevsen’s arresting Copenhagen Trilogy when Penguin reissued it in 2019. Beautifully written in a candid, piercingly stark style, this autofictional series touches on key experiences from the author’s life, encompassing depression, troubled relationships, pregnancies (both wanted and unwanted) and drug addiction. During her career, Ditlevsen found an outlet in creative expression, producing some thirty books, spanning poetry, autofiction, novels and short stories – two volumes of which have been brought together here in this beautiful Penguin edition, The Trouble with Happiness.

In this post, I’m covering the stories in the first part of the book – originally published in Danish as Paraplyen (‘The Umbrella’) in 1952. These ten stories – many of which are superb – explore the suffocating nature of family life predominantly from the female perspective, the overwhelming sense of loneliness and anxiety that many women (and children) feel due to various constraints. Here we have stories of petty jealousies, unfulfilled desires, deliberate cruelty and the sudden realisation of deceit, brilliantly conveyed by the author with insight and sensitivity.

While some of the women in Ditlevsen’s stories are actively seeking an escape from their abusive husbands or the mundanity of a domestic existence, others have cause to question their sense of happiness, suddenly realising that they have been living a lie. In My Wife Doesn’t Dance, one of my favourites in this collection, a woman has been lulled into a false sense of security by her husband’s apparent acceptance of a physical limitation – a childhood paralysis that left her with a limp. It is only when she overhears him talking to someone on the phone that she realises the true nature of his duplicity – it’s as if someone has opened a door, exposing her to ‘an invisible, […] icy cold wind’ of betrayal.

He has no idea, she told herself. He doesn’t have any idea what I’m going through. And suddenly she perceived him as a complete stranger, a person she just happened coincidentally to be in the room with, and she was able to feel disconnected from him, from her love for him, her solidarity with him, and she decided again from her profound loneliness to ask who had called… (p. 32)

There is deceit of another kind in His Mother, a particularly creepy story in which Asger, a young man in his late twenties, pays a visit to his elderly mother with his new girlfriend in tow. As the mother shows the girlfriend some old family photographs, a striking resemblance is revealed, calling into question the true nature of Asger’s relationship to his Aunt Agnes – a woman who experienced a complete mental breakdown and suffered terribly during her life.

The writing is terrific here, fill of vivid imagery that adds to the unsettling feel. Asger’s mother is a morose, sardonic woman, someone who actively sniffs out others’ misfortunes and nurses them as her own; and as Asger’s girlfriend acclimatises herself to this oppressive environment, something of the mother’s aura seems to penetrate her soul.

A reflection from the eyes across from her, so filled with misery, reached her own open and questioning gaze, and a speck of invisible dust settled on her features, as if for a moment she had merged with the silent horde of photographs which spent their shadowy lives here on the furniture and the windowsills, where no flowers seemed to thrive. (p. 39)

Ditlevsen writes brilliantly from a child’s point of view, showing us how children often understand more than we realise, especially where family relationships and tensions are involved. In A Nice Boy, a seven-year-old has to adjust to a change in family dynamics when his adoptive parents have a baby of their own. This is an excellent story – very sad but exquisitely observed, especially in its depiction of the boy’s evident anxieties.

In Evening, a young girl finds herself caught between her biological parents, both of whom have remarried following the breakdown of their relationship. In truth, the girl wishes they could get back together, a desire that becomes apparent as we access her inner world.

Children are a focus too in One Morning…, a very affecting story of the break-up of a household, a family split in two by the wife’s affair with her lover. Consequently, the couple’s children are separated from one another – the girl moving out with her father while the boy stays behind with his mother. How does a five-year-old see this? asks Ditlevsen at one point. How long before she feels betrayed? By focusing on the fractured lives of one family, Ditlevsen encourages us to see the wider societal implications of broken relationships, highlighting the universal in the personal as she mines her characters’ lives.  

And beyond him [the father]: millions of miserable children, tons of loyal housekeepers and an incurable army of lovers, abandoned husbands, disloyal husbands, betrayed and flighty women, all kinds of people, all kinds of lives, and all equally lonely. (p. 57)

It’s a point she also makes very capably in Life’s Persistence, a story of a young woman seeking an illegal abortion. There are resonances with Annie Ernaux’s Happening in this one, highlighting the societal shame of unwanted pregnancy (and the challenges of securing a termination), particularly when the woman must deal with the risks alone.

Behind each of these women was the shadow of a man: a tired husband who toiled for a throng of children, and whose income couldn’t bear the strain of another child; a disloyal chap with pomaded hair who was already a thing of the past, an ephemeral, hasty tryst that had little to do with love; a student who was loved but too young, who was now pacing outside on the sidewalk, teetering between hope and fear; a carefree superficial guy who had ‘found an address‘ and bought a way out of the predicament he had gotten himself into; or one who had moved away from the city and left his difficult burden here like a piece of forgotten furniture; at any rate a man, a trap, a careless costly experience, maybe the first one – (pp. 68–69)

What Ditlevsen does so well in this collection is to convey the anxieties, sadness and pain that many women and children experience at the hands of their families. Her characters have rich inner lives, irrespective of the restrictions placed on them by society and those closer to home. The writing is superb throughout, demonstrating the author’s skills with language and a flair for one-liners with a cutting, melancholy note.

Suddenly his mother was on her like a cold draft. (p. 37)

They share children between them as if they were furniture, she thought… (p. 53)

She had placed her life’s great despair outside the door, and only when she left home did the sorrowful black cape wind back around her. (p. 29)

This is a tremendous collection of stories to read and revisit, one of the very best I’ve read in recent years. (I’m also planning to cover Book 2, The Trouble with Happiness in the future, maybe in a week or two.)

The Umbrella forms the first part of The Trouble with Happiness, published by Penguin Classics in 2022; personal copy.

The Road to the City by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Frances Frenaye)

The more I read the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, the more I like her – especially her short novellas such as Valentino and Sagittarius, recently reissued by NYRB Classics.

The Road to the City was Ginzburg’s debut, originally published under the pseudonym ‘Alessandra Tornimparte’ in the early 1940s. Ostensibly a story of a young woman’s desire to escape her village for a life in the city, the novella has much to say about various socioeconomic factors – how our destinies can be shaped by gender, social class, opportunities and education. It’s a simple, relatable story, told in Ginzburg’s characteristically unvarnished style.

The novella is narrated by seventeen-year-old Delia, who lives with her parents and three younger siblings in an unnamed Italian village an hour’s walk from the nearest city. There are multiple problems in the household – money is tight, affection is lacking, and life in general is mundane, a situation compounded by Delia’s father who is frequently tired and short-tempered. Consequently, Delia longs to escape her dreary surroundings by moving to the city, just as her elder sister, Azalea, decided to do at the roughly same age.  

They say that big families are happy, but I could never see anything particularly happy about ours. Azalea had married and gone away when she was seventeen, and my one ambition was to do likewise. (p. 3)

(Possibly a nod to the opening passage of Anna Karenina there, with its reference to happy – or should that be unhappy? – families.)

As a respite from this unhappy home life, Delia spends her days hanging out in the city, visiting Azalea and roaming the streets until it’s time to go home. Accompanying her on these trips are her younger brother, Giovanni, and their cousin, Nini – a sweet-natured boy who lives with Delia’s family, his own parents having died some years earlier.

Despite acting as a kind of role model for Delia, Azalea it seems is far from happy in her marriage. She has a lover (as does her older husband), and with a maid to take care of the children, there is little left to occupy her days. Nevertheless, Delia dreams of a similar life of leisure and luxury – glamorous clothes and a comfortable home befitting a city lifestyle.

While Nini seeks to better himself through reading and an apprenticeship at a local factory, Delia shuns the prospect of work, looking to marriage as her preferred route out of poverty. With this in mind, she courts Giulio, a stout, unattractive medical student from a higher social class who could be her ticket to a better life. But when Delia falls pregnant, tensions between the two families abound, especially when Giulio’s father tries to pay off Delia’s parents – an offer the latter firmly turn down.

A wedding is hastily agreed for a future date, allowing Giulio to complete his current round of studies. Meanwhile, Delia is packed off to a no-nonsense aunt who lives up in the mountains, hopefully avoiding the sort of scandal that a teenage pregnancy tends to attract.

As the novella unfolds, we follow Delia throughout her pregnancy, complete with the various romantic entanglements that ensue. In truth, Delia cares little for Giulio as a person; it is his social class and status she finds appealing, primarily as a gateway to a more exciting life in the city. Nevertheless, while marriage to Giulio represents a convenient escape route for Delia, there are potential downsides too. The last thing she wants to happen is to end up like Giulio’s mother, tied to the home all day while her looks fade and wither.

…and as I undressed for bed I thought of how Giulio was always kissing me there in the woods, but he hadn’t yet asked me to marry him. I was in a hurry to get married, but I wanted to enjoy myself afterward too. And perhaps with Giulio I shouldn’t be so free. He might treat me the way his father treated his mother, shutting her up on the pretext that a woman’s place was in the home, until she had turned into an old hag who sat all day long by the window, waiting for someone to go by. (p. 16)

Nini, on the other hand, is a more natural fit as a partner, declaring his love for Delia despite her selfish character. With time on her hands to reflect and ponder the future, Delia misses the carefree days she used to idle away in the city, a realisation that taps into some recurring themes in Ginzburg’s work – specifically, our inability to recapture the past and failure to appreciate the true value of things until they’ve gone.

The Road to the City is a rather tragic tale, lucidly conveyed in Ginzburg’s pithy, candid style. There is something raw and unadorned about the writing, an approach that fits well with the brutal reality of life for young women in Delia’s position – poor, uneducated women with little choice but to marry and raise children in a patriarchal society that favours men. While Delia is very prickly as a character – lazy, selfish, unreliable and insolent are descriptions that immediately spring to mind – it is hard not to feel some sympathy for her as she waits out her pregnancy in the hills. Ultimately though, the novella offers a stark commentary on society, highlighting the constraints placed on women and the consequences these can lead to for all those involved.

The Road to the City is published by Daunt Books; personal copy.