Tag Archives: Poland

August is #WITMonth – some recommendations of books by women in translation

As you may well know, August is Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. It’s a month-long 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 past few years; so, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read for WIT Month, here are a few of my recent favourites.

The Island by Ana Maria Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

The loss of innocence is one of my favourite themes in literature. It’s a thread that runs through many coming-of-age novels, this one included. Matute’s story is set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, fourteen-year-old Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother, Aunt Emilia and duplicitous cousin, Borja – not a situation she relishes. This dark, visceral novel charts Matia’s awakening to the adult world, beautifully executed in the author’s lucid prose. Matute excels at heightening the sense of danger on the island through her vivid descriptions of the elements, e.g., the intense heat of the sun and the turbulent depths of the sea.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr Antonia Lloyd Jones)

This 2009 novel by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, is quite a difficult one to describe. It is by turns an existential murder mystery, a meditation on life in an isolated, rural community and, perhaps most importantly, an examination of our relationship with animals and their place in the hierarchy of society. That might make Plow sound heavy or somewhat ponderous; however, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a wonderfully accessible book, a metaphysical novel that explores some fascinating and important themes in a highly engaging way. It’s also beautifully written, by turns arresting, poetic, mournful, and blacky comic. I loved it.

Valentino and Sagittarius by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Avril Bardoni)

There has been something of a revival of interest in the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg in recent years, driven by reissues of some of her novels and essays by Daunt Books and NRYB Classics. Valentino and Sagittarius are two separate yet related novellas from the 1950s, reissued together in one stylish edition from NYRB. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships, the tensions that arise when one person behaves selfishly at the expense of those around them. Resentment, delusion, evasion, pride, loyalty and compassion all come together to form these perceptive, richly textured narratives. When viewed together, they highlight how foolhardy we can be, especially when investing all our hopes in a particular individual or venture – the fallout for the surrounding family members is often painful in the extreme.

Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki (tr. Karen Van Dyck)

First published in 1946, Three Summers is something of a classic of Greek literature, a languid coming-of-age novel featuring three sisters, set over three consecutive summer seasons. At first sight, it might appear as though the book is presenting a simple story, one of three very different young women growing up in the idyllic Greek countryside. However, there are darker, more complex issues bubbling away under the surface as the sisters must learn to navigate the choices that will shape the future directions of their lives. Sexual awakening is a major theme, with the novel’s lush and sensual tone echoing the rhythms of the natural world. Ultimately though it is the portrait of the three sisters that really shines through – the opportunities open to them and the limitations society may wish to dictate. This a novel about working out who you are as a person and finding your place in the world; of being aware of the consequences of certain life choices and everything these decisions entails. (I read this book in the NYRB Classics livery, but Penguin have recently published a beautiful new edition as part of their European Writers series.)

Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese (tr. Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee)

First published in Italian in 1953, this is a brilliant collection of short stories and reportage by the critically acclaimed writer Anna Maria Ortese. As a whole, the book conveys a vivid portrait of post-war Naples in all its vitality, devastation and squalor – a place that remains resilient despite being torn apart by war. Sharp contrasts are everywhere Ortese’s writing, juxtaposing the city’s ugliness with its beauty, the desperation of extreme poverty with the indifference of the bourgeoisie, the reality of the situation with the subjectivity of our imagination. The attention to detail is meticulous – as is the level of emotional insight, particularly about women’s lives and family dynamics.

Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

This novella, which revolves around Kōko, a thirty-six-year-old divorced woman, and her eleven-year-old daughter, Kayako, shares many similarities with Tsushima’s Territory of Light, a book I really adored. Like Territory, Child of Fortune explores themes of marginalisation, motherhood and the pressure to conform to conventional societal expectations – the setting of 1970s Japan is highly significant here. This is a haunting, beautifully written book – by turns subtle, reflective and deeply melancholic. And yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end, a sense of Kōko finally seizing control, once again ready to forge her own path in life.

(You can find some of my other faves in last year’s WIT Month recommendations post from July 2020, including books by Françoise Sagan, Irmgard Keun, Yuko Tsushima and Tove Ditlevsen. There’s also my list of recommendations for foreign language films directed by women – a Twitter thread I may well repeat next month, with new suggestions of movies to seek out.)

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. Perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? Please feel free to mention it below.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Antonia Lloyd Jones)

Drive Your Plow… , the 2009 novel by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, is quite a difficult one to describe. It is by turns an existential murder mystery, a meditation on life in an isolated, rural community and, perhaps most importantly, an examination of our relationship with animals and their place in the hierarchy of society. That might make Plow sound heavy or somewhat ponderous; however, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a wonderfully accessible book, a metaphysical novel that explores some fascinating and important themes in a highly engaging way. I loved it.

Central to the narrative is Janina, a highly intelligent, idiosyncratic woman in her sixties who lives in a remote Polish village near the border with the Czech Republic. Janina – who narrates the novel – is a marvellous creation, the sort of woman who sees the world in a very particular way, standing up for what she believes in without being willing to compromise her intrinsic values. She invents names for everyone around her, eschewing the lacklustre nature of formal names in favour of more appropriate epithets that capture something fundamental about a person – typically a particular aspect of their appearance or personality. Consequently, we have characters named ‘Big Foot’, ‘Good News’ and ‘Black Coat’, to name but a few.

I believe each of us see the other Person in our own way, so we should give them the name we consider suitable and fitting. Thus we are polyonymous. We have as many names of the number of people with whom we interact. My name for Świerszczyński is Oddball, and I think it reflects his Attributes well. (p. 30)

In winter, there are only two other residents besides Janina who remain in this remote, snowbound area – Janina’s neighbour, Oddball, and one of the local hunters, Big Foot, whom Janina despises, the source of her hatred for this man ultimately revealing itself as the story unfolds.

One night, having noticed something strange about Big Foot’s house, Oddball discovers the hunter lying dead on the kitchen floor, so he calls on Janina for help. Even though Janina knows it is wrong to disturb a body before the police appear on the scene, Oddball insists on making it look more respectable, and it is during this process that the presence of a clue emerges. There is a bone lodged in Big Foot’s mouth, ‘long and thin and sharp as a dagger’.

At first, it appears as though Big Foot simply choked on the bone while eating his dinner; however, as Janina examines the contents of Big Foot’s kitchen, another theory begins to seed itself in her mind. On the windowsill she spots a deer’s head and four trotters, presumably the spoils of a kill that Big Foot had carried out before his death. Moreover, other deer are visible in the vicinity that night – Janina and Oddball see them clustered together outside Big Foot’s house on their approach.

What if the herd have taken revenge for the slaughter of their sister? Are animals seeking vengeance on the hunters of the district, striking back against the perpetrators of these inhuman acts? ‘Animals have a very strong sense of justice,’ Janina muses at one point – while humans merely have a view of the world, animals have an innate sense of it.

As other deaths swiftly follow, Janina becomes increasingly convinced that her theory holds water, particularly when deer prints are found near the body of the second victim – another hunter, the Commandant – who is found dead in a shallow well.

One of the many things that Tokarczuk highlights in this endlessly fascinating novel is the invisibility or dismissal of women, especially when they reach middle age. Janina writes impassioned letters to the local police, outlining her theories on the ‘murders’, which she backs up with supporting evidence, such as the deer prints and the alignment of the celestial planets. Astrology is a major area of interest for Janina, and her belief in its influence over our lives is fervent and unwavering.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given society’s attitudes to ladies of a certain age, the police swiftly dismiss Janina as a nut job, a ‘crazy old crone’ with nothing better to do with herself. Would a young man or an attractive woman be treated differently, Janina wonders? Almost certainly, yes.

Once we have reached a certain age, it’s hard to be reconciled to the fact that people are always going to be impatient with us. In the past, I was never aware of the existence and meaning of gestures such as rapidly giving assent, avoiding eye contact, and repeating ‘yes, yes, yes’ like clockwork. Or checking the time, or rubbing one’s nose – these days I fully understand this entire performance for expressing the simple phrase: ‘Give me a break, you old bag’. I have often wondered whether a strapping, handsome young man would be treated like that if he were to say the same things as I do? Or a buxom brunette? (pp. 38-39)

Central to the novel are issues of animal rights. Does man have a greater right to life than an animal? Where do animals sit in the hierarchy of society? Who sets these ‘rules’ and parameters, and are they correct? Who deems whether someone is useless or unimportant, and by what criteria?

Naturally, Janina is a fierce defender of animal rights – the belief that animals are just as important as her fellow humans, if not more so, is fundamental to her actions. As far as Janina is concerned, the way a society treats its animals speaks volumes about its values, potentially undermining any notions of justice or democracy.

‘You have more compassion for animals than for people.’

‘That’s not true. I feel just as sorry for both. But nobody shoots at defenceless people,’ I told the City Guard that same evening. […]

‘Its Animals show the truth about a country,’ I said. ‘Its attitude towards Animals. If people behave brutally towards Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all.’ (p. 109)

As the novel draws to a close, there is a form of resolution to the mysterious deaths which feels satisfying and appropriate, especially given the novel’s inherent themes. Nevertheless, that’s far from being the most interesting thing on offer here. Alongside the moral and ethical issues of animal rights, Tokarczuk casts her eye over a myriad of fascinating subjects from the poetry of William Blake to the challenges of ageing to the frailties of the human body – ‘fancy being given a body and not knowing anything about it. There’s no instruction manual.’

She also manages to fit in some time for a brief digression on one of the major failings of men, how several of them succumb to ‘testosterone autism’ as they age and regress. (For the interested, the major symptoms of this condition include: ‘a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication’, the development of an interest in various tools, machinery, WW2 and ‘the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains’. In parallel, the capacity to read novels almost entirely disappears.)

In summary then, Drive Your Plow… is a wonderful metaphysical noir, one that subverts the traditional expectations of the genre to create something truly thought-provoking and engaging. It’s also beautifully written, by turns arresting, poetic, mournful, and blacky comic. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures something of the novel’s luminous quality and mood.

Outside, in the pool of light falling from the porch lamp, the snow was changing into a slow, sleepy shower. Oddball stood next to me in silence, tall, thin and bony like a figure sketched in a few pencil strokes. Every time he moved, snow fell from him like icing sugar from pastry ribbons. (p. 14)

Drive Your Plow… is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; personal copy.

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman

I loved this thoroughly absorbing memoir by the journalist Hadley Freeman, a book that combines the personal and the political in an emotionally involving way. Ostensibly, House of Glass tells the story of Freeman’s paternal grandmother, Sala, and her family, a narrative that spans the whole of the 20th century – the product of a decade’s worth of meticulous and illuminating research on the part of the author. And yet, it is also a thoughtful meditation on the challenges of being Jewish during this fateful period of history, touching on issues such as identity, immigration, assimilation and social mobility. I’m already saving a place for it in my reading highlights of the year.

My grandmother would sit under an umbrella, separate from us. She was further protected from the sun by a wide-brimmed hat, various Hermès – or Hermès-esque – silk scarves wound in complicated knots around her neck, mini Dior handbag in her lap. She looked as distinctly French as my grandfather looked American, with the naturally soft, elegant looks of a Renoir painting but now overlaid with the melancholy of a Hopper one. (p. 3)

The discovery of a burnished red shoebox, full of tantalising mementos of Sala’s past, catalyses Freeman’s quest to understand her grandmother’s life and personal history. While the focus of the initial research is Sala, it soon broadens to encompass her brothers, each one possessing an intriguing backstory of his own. The journey is a fascinating one, taking Freeman from Picasso’s archives in Paris to an isolated farmhouse in Auvergne to the concentration camps of Poland.

glass

Sala was born in 1910, the youngest child of Reuben and Chaya Glahs, Polish Jews living in Chrzanow, which at the time was part of Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The tension between tradition and progression was already present within the Jewish community at this point. At the age of twelve, Sala’s eldest brother, Jehuda, urges his parents to be ‘less obviously Jewish’, ultimately persuading them to change the family name to the more westernised ‘Glass’ – ‘something simultaneously strong and fragile, able to withstand pressure but prone to breaking’.

In the early 1920s, as pogroms against the Jews begin to sweep through Poland, the family moves to Paris, settling initially in the Marais Pletzl, a rundown area housing many Jewish immigrants – and it is from here that the Glasses begin to establish new lives and personal identities for themselves.

Jehuda becomes Henri, who, following his training as an engineer in Prague, settles in Paris where he works in the garment trade. Marriage to Sonia, a bright, resourceful Polish woman with a talent for languages, soon follows, as does a move into a more lucrative career in photoimaging. In a remarkable turn of events, Henri invents the Omniphot microfilming machine, a device that plays a significant role in the Resistance movement during the Second World War.

Jakob becomes Jacques, a passive, mild-mannered man who finds work as a furrier. A spell in the French Foreign Legion follows in the early stages of the war.

Sender, however, takes a somewhat different path to his older brothers. An ambitious, self-motivated individual at heart, Sender becomes Alex Maguy, a creative genius with a passion for beauty and the best of French culture. Through a combination of artfulness, hard work and determination, Alex works his way up from apprentice in a garment workshop to owner of a couture salon by the age of twenty. It’s a fascinating and successful career, one that brings him into contact with several leading artists and designers of the period, including Christian Dior and René Gruau, both of whom work as illustrators for Alex’s label.

Like Alex, Sara (aka Sala), is captivated by the culture of Paris, a city steeped in art, beauty and fashion. However, just when her life appears to be at its most radiant – she studies art, finds a job and falls in love – political developments intervene, causing the family to take action. In 1937, Alex arranges for Sara to marry Bill Freiman, an American businessman who promises a life of relative comfort and safety. Much to her dismay, Sara must make a terrible sacrifice – to give up her own happiness for the sake of her family, largely in the belief that they will be able to join her in the US.

In what must have been a state close to shock, Sara began to accept that she was going to America to marry a man she didn’t know and liked less. She would never have done it just to save herself. But for her whole family? Of course she went.

[…] The only option open to Sara was the one that countless women had been forced to take before her: marry someone she did not love. It is the traditional form of female sacrifice, so common that it was considered at the time expected and unremarkable. What would have been extraordinary, in the eyes of those around her then, is if she’d refused to do it. (p. 160)

By tracing the lives of Sara/Sala and her siblings, Freeman teases out various differences that prove influential in shaping their destinies. In particular, there are questions around passivity vs action, compliance vs defiance and separateness vs assimilation.

When the authorities conduct a census in France in the early 1940s, Jacques registers as a Jew, firm in the belief that it is better to conform – that his adopted country, France, will ultimately take care of him.

Stay where you are, don’t question things, put your life in the hands of others, just trust – those were Jacques’s natural tendencies. (p. 244)

Sadly, as a consequence of this registration, Jacques is one of the first Jews to be rounded up under the Vichy regime in Occupied France, sealing his fate with a transfer to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, just 20 km from his birthplace of Chrzanow.

Did he [Jacques] wonder why he, alone among his siblings, hadn’t risked anything to stay alive? Why he was the passive one among them and how was this the conclusion to that story? Did he think about the weird irony of his life, how he had always wanted to stay still, but was forced to travel so far, and yet ended up right back where he began? (p. 253)

Henri, on the other hand, is careful to assimilate, quickly seeing the advantages of integration as offering some level of protection. With the help of his wife Sonia – an interpreter fluent in multiple languages – Henri passes as a German during the period of Occupation, thereby enabling him to put the Omniphot to vital use.

Henri and Sonia never registered as Jews. Both of them foresaw the dangers ahead and Sonia, as usual, took charge. She figured out how to buy false identity cards on the black market which claimed they were a Christian German couple, called Class. She also spoke German so fluently she could pass as a native, even to German officers, and Henri could get by. They then rented a tiny apartment on the Avenue des Minimes, under the name of Class, and left almost everything back in their home on rue Victor-Cousin, so it would look to the police who came looking for the Jewish Glasses like they’d simply abandoned it. (p. 209)

Alex, too, takes a different approach, one of outright defiance and self-preservation. Following a distinguished spell in the French Foreign Legion, Alex spends much of the war in the South of France, ultimately hiding out in a farmhouse in the Auvergne for the best part of a year. Once again, it’s a remarkable story, involving a host of anecdotes, brushes with death, and the receipt of favours from friends in high places. Following the war, Alex ultimately becomes a hugely successful art dealer – his friendship with Picasso is something of a highlight, the pinnacle of an illustrious life and career.

By contrast, Sara, who ultimately reverts to being called Sala, is trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, deep in the midst of small-town Long Island. When it becomes clear to Sala that a permanent reunion with her family will not be possible, she throws herself into the lives of her two boys – Ronald, who will become Hadley’s father, and his younger brother, Rich. There are biennial trips back to Paris to see the family – brief opportunities for Sala to re-immerse herself in the wonders of French culture – but these are scant compensation for the opportunities that were passed up.

In summary, then, House of Glass is a wonderfully immersive memoir, one that asks searching questions about a whole host of issues including familial identity, integration, personal outlook, xenophobia and social mobility. Topics that remain all too relevant in Europe (and the wider world) today where instances of racism and nationalism are still very much in evidence.

Freeman presents this story of her family with a blend of humanity, balance and perceptiveness, laying out the siblings’ lives both openly and engagingly. There is a real sense of journalistic rigour here, a thoroughness alongside the insights and reflections. Very highly recommended indeed, particularly for readers with an interest in European history.  

House of Glass is published by 4th Estate; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.