Tag Archives: #WomeninTranslation

Foreign language films directed by women – a list of recommendations for #WITMonth

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen the thread I’ve been running during August. It’s a list of foreign language films directed by women, with a new recommendation going up every day – a bit like a version of #WITMonth for home streaming or the cinema.

Just to make it easier to see the full list, I’ve collated it here, with the final entry to be added tomorrow.

It’s been a fun thing to do, particularly as I’ve tried to include as many different directors as possible without doubling up. So, if you enjoy world cinema, maybe you’ll discover some new suggestions here. (All the films listed are available to view on home-streaming platforms or DVD, certainly in the UK.)

As ever, do feel free to mention any of your own favourites in the comments. Who knows, if I’m still here next year, I may well run it again with a different selection of films!

Day 1: PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (Celine Sciamma). Everything Sciamma has made is excellent, but this ravishing love story set in 18th-century Brittany is my personal favourite. An exquisitely-paced exploration of passion and desire.

Day 2: FILL THE VOID (Rama Burshtein). Set within the Orthodox Hasidic community of Tel Aviv, this sensitive, understated gem is well worth seeking out. In the wake of a tragedy, a young woman must try to reconcile family obligations with her own personal wishes.

Day 3: LOURDES (Jessica Hausner). Sylvie Testud is terrific in this subtle, unsettling film about faith, delusions and the desire to believe in miracles. A slow burner shot through with flashes of poignancy and dry humour.

Day 4: THE WONDERS (Alice Rohrwacher). This director has been getting rave reviews for her latest, HAPPY AS LAZZARO, but her earlier film about family, aspirations and beekeeping is probably my fave. The children in this are wonderfully naturalistic.

Day 5: PERSEPOLIS (Marjane Satrapi). Based on Satrapi’s comic book series of the same name, this striking animated film is powerful depiction of a young girl growing up in 1970s/’80s Iran. I am definitely due another watch of this.

Day 6: HEAL THE LIVING (Katell Quillévéré). This beautiful, moving film, which follows the journey of a human heart from donor to recipient, captures something of the lyricism of Maylis de Kerangal’s source novel. (No longer on All 4 but available elsewhere.)

Day 7: I AM NOT A WITCH (Rungano Nyoni). A young Zambian girl is accused of being a witch in this striking satirical fable — the imagery is stunning. A BAFTA winner for Outstanding Debut, there is a real sense of poignancy here.

Day 8: SUMMERTIME (Catherine Corsini). Set in 1970s France, this sensitive film about sexual freedom, family commitments and the quest for women’s rights is ideal viewing for the heady days of summer. The central relationship between two young women is beautifully judged.

Day 9: THINGS TO COME (Mia Hansen-Løve). Pretty much everything this director has made is brilliant, but this exploration of a woman’s life is a personal favourite. Isabelle Huppert is superb as a philosophy professor whose world begins to collapse around her.

Day 10: THE GOOD GIRLS (Alejandra Márquez Abella). A recent discovery for me. Set in 1980s Mexico as the economic collapse begins to bite, this smart satire about ladies who lunch is a barbed delight. The petty jealousies between the characters are brilliantly observed.

Day 11: WAJIB (Annemarie Jacir). A father and son drive around Nazareth delivering wedding invitations in this sensitive, bittersweet film of family tensions and the balance between tradition and modernity. Fans of Abbas Kiarostami will likely enjoy this.

Day 12: 35 SHOTS OF RUM (Claire Denis). Plenty of choice with this director, but I’m going with this gem from 2008. A rich, emotionally elegant portrayal of a father-daughter relationship. The central performances are very subtle.

Day 13: TONI ERDMANN (Maren Ade). What to say about this film other than it is completely unique and unpredictable. A portrayal of an awkward father-daughter relationship unlike any other. By turns, uproariously funny, wonderfully surreal and oddly poignant. A triumph.

Day 14: MUSTANG (Deniz Gamze Ergüven). With its focus on five Turkish sisters, this brilliant film is a vibrant yet painful insight into life as a young girl in an oppressive society where arranged marriages are the order of day. Absolutely worth seeking out.

Day 15: CAPERNAUM (Nadine Labaki). Setting aside the somewhat contrived framing device, this wonderfully naturalistic film about a street kid on the run makes for compelling viewing. The shots of Beirut are evocative and affecting.

Day 16: ON BODY AND SOUL (Ildikó Enyedi). There is a curious fairytale-like quality to this story of two co-workers, a hesitant romance playing out as they share the same dream. I loved this one – just don’t let the first 20 minutes put you off!

Day 17: THE APPLE (Samira Makhmalbaf). After being locked up by their parents for 11 years, two young Iranian girls are finally released, free to experience a new life in Tehran.  It’s a long time since I watched this, but I recall it being very moving.

Day 18: SUMMER 1993 (Carla Simón). Something of a critics’ favourite, this subtle, naturalistic film about loss and the complexities of family dynamics is well worth seeking out. As with Alice Rohrawcher’s THE WONDERS (no 4), the children are really terrific here.

Day 19: IN BETWEEN (Maysaloun Hamoud). Three Palestinian women sharing a flat in Tel Aviv, each fighting against the constraints of conformity, repression and familial expectations. This excellent film follows their quest for independence.

Day 20: THE HEADLESS WOMAN (Lucretia Martel). I love this mysterious, dreamlike film about a woman who is involved in a car accident. A compelling exploration of guilt, denial, concealment and inaction – Maria Onetto is brilliant in the lead role.

Day 21: JEUNE FEMME (Léonor Serraille). Laetitia Dosch is terrific in this painfully funny depiction of a young woman shuttling around the apartments and shopping malls of Paris in search of a job and some kind of identity. (Currently on Mubi, if you have access to that.)

Day 22: THE CHAMBERMAID (Lila Avilés). A brilliant debut feature that explores the life of a young chambermaid in a wealthy Mexico City hotel. This very affecting film is an understated gem, full of small humiliations and reinforcements of the social hierarchy at play.

Day 23: THE FAREWELL (Lulu Wang). A charming, humane, bittersweet film of clashing cultures and family values. Like many of the best stories, it blends humour with poignancy in fairly equal measure. Probably one of the best crowd-pleasers of 2019.

Day 24: A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (Ana Lily Amirpour). A lonely young woman, dressed in a hijab, wanders around the streets of Bad City at night in this stylish film that tips its hat to Jim Jarmusch. Beautifully shot in cool black and white.

Day 25: DISORDER (Alice Winocour). Great work here from Matthias Schoenaerts, channelling the pain and paranoia of PTSD, in this underrated thriller from Winocour (co-writer of MUSTANG, no. 14). The visuals and soundscape are excellent, adding to the intensity of the film.

Day 26: THE PORTUGUESE WOMAN (Rita Azevedo Gomes). The glacial pace won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but this story of a 16th-century noblewoman is beautifully shot. One ravishing image after another, it’s the closest I’ll get to an art gallery during lockdown.

DAY 27: WADJA (Haifaa Al Mansour). Notable for being the first Saudi-Arabian film ever to be directed by a woman, this portrayal of a young girl rubbing up against the restrictions of a strictly conservative society has tremendous spirit and heart.

Day 28: ALMAYER’S FOLLY (Chantal Akerman). Akerman explores themes of colonialism and identity in this compelling adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel of the same name – all shot in this director’s characteristically observant style. (Currently on Mubi, if you have access to that.)

Day 29: CLÉO FROM 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda). Over the course of two hours, a beautiful young woman tries to occupy herself while waiting for the results of a biopsy. A film that perfectly captures the spirit of Parisian life in the 1960s; a true classic of the French New Wave.

Day 30: OPEN HEARTS (Susanne Bier). Mads Mikkelsen stars in this compelling film about two couples whose lives become intertwined following a car accident. An early film by the director whose later English-language work includes TV’s THE NIGHT MANAGER. 

Day 31: ATLANTICS (Mati Diop). There is an element of supernatural mystery about this story of two young Senegalese lovers forced to make life-changing choices. One of the most poetic, visually stunning films released last year. I loved it.

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

First published in 1946, Three Summers is a something of classic of Greek literature, a languid coming-of-age novel set over three consecutive summer seasons – recently reissued by NYRB Classics in a beautiful new edition. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)

The story focuses on three sisters – Maria (aged 20), Infanta (aged 18), and Katerina (aged 16) – who live with their mother, their unmarried Aunt Theresa, and their grandfather in the Greek countryside just north of Athens. The girls’ mother, Anna, is separated from her husband, Miltos, following the latter’s open affairs. A Polish grandmother, whom we never actually meet in person, is another important character in the novel. There is a whiff of scandal and romanticism around this woman, mainly because she left her husband for a travelling musician several years earlier, abandoning Anna and Theresa in their childhood.   

In an evocative opening chapter, we see how the three sisters differ from one another in terms of character, their particular patches of garden reflecting something of the nature of their personalities. While Maria’s tiny vegetable garden is ordered and divided into discrete squares, Infanta’s is wild, containing almond trees that can survive without frequent watering or special care. Katerina’s, by contrast, is more spontaneous still, bursting with flowers grown from randomly-scattered seeds – a riot of contrasting colours all packed together. As Katerina is the novel’s narrator, it is predominantly through her eyes that we see the rest of the family.

At first sight, it might appear as though the novel is presenting a simple story, one of three sisters 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.

The houses were closer together again here. About forty all in a clump, crowded together out of loneliness, like people. The gardens were beautiful this year. The heavy rains that winter had done them good. They were full of green and the trunks of the trees were shiny. Tiny tomatoes were beginning to appear. You could already see the yellow stamen on the male pistachio trees, and the female ones waiting. The males would go to the females. All the females could do was ready their juices, receive the male and bear fruit. They waited, in the burning heat, sensitive to any gust of wind that might bring them the seed. (pp. 50-51)

Maria is the most sexually liberated of the three girls, losing her virginity during a chance encounter with a physically attractive young man in the village. Nevertheless, she is quick to choose a life of stability and domesticity by marrying Marios, the boy who has worshipped her from childhood. The first of the three seasons ends with Maria and Marios’s wedding – the arrival of their first two children swiftly follow, one in each of the two subsequent summers.

Infanta is more withdrawn than her sisters, preferring the company of her beloved horse to that of her family. A beautiful, courageous girl at heart, Infanta spends most of her time riding in the countryside, often accompanied by Nikitas, a local boy who clears harbours feelings for her.

Katerina is perhaps the most romantic of the three girls, forever daydreaming and exercising her curiosity about the world around her. By the second summer, she is wildly in love with David, an astronomer who is also writing a book. For Katerina, love is a passionate thing, a feeling characterised by a sense of anticipation and anxiety, manifesting itself in a rapidly beating heart. And yet, by the end of the novel, she is oscillating between a desire for David and a yearning for a more adventurous, independent life, one in which she has the freedom to travel the world.

I’m not like Maria. I wouldn’t let a boy touch me just to pass the time. Maybe I’ll find someone who will watch the daisies blooming in the field with me, who will cut me a branch of the first autumn berries and bring it to me with the leaves are still damp. Or maybe I’ll set out to see the world alone. (p. 20)

To complicate matters further, Katerina has an unexpected rival for David’s affections. Maria’s forty-five-year-old mother-in-law, Laura Parigori, is forever hanging around the young man, eager to capture his imagination and affections, much to the annoyance of Katerina.

Alongside the theme of sexual awakening, the novel offers different perspectives on the nature of love and marriage, society’s expectations of women at the time, and the balance between passion and stoicism. We learn more about Aunt Theresa, how an incident with her former fiancé has coloured her life, making her somewhat nervous and fearful as a consequence. There are other family secrets too – perhaps most notably the reason for Anna’s detachment and lack of passion, something that Katerina is curious to uncover.

While Three Summers may not be the most polished or literary of novels, its language is dreamy and evocative, capturing the sultry nature of summer in lush, sensuous prose. 

Mornings were different now. Day broke with less brilliance than in the summer, but everything was somehow clearer. The air smelled of crushed apples, and left in your mouth the juicy, tart taste of apples eaten unpeeled. It was a delicate air, sometimes chilly. The sky was blue – a deep, rich blue – with white clouds racing by. (p. 81)

In the end though, it is the portrait of the three sisters that really shines through – the opportunities that are open to them and the limitations that society may wish to dictate. It’s a novel about working out who you are as a person and finding your place in the word; of being aware of the consequences of certain life choices and everything these decisions entails. I’ll finish with a final quote which captures something of the essence of the novel, replete with its languid, reflective prose. 

Now my sisters and I no longer lie around in the hay talking. We aren’t all in the same place the way we were last year and other years. And when we happen to be together it’s as if there is a new awkwardness, as if we had betrayed one another by doing our own thing.

Certainly some day the awkwardness will pass, though time will never undo the betrayal. And perhaps when it does pass we will long for the time when we all lay around in the hay and our desires were so fluid and uncertain that they were no longer our own. They became the air we breathed; a thought of Maria’s became mine and mine Infanta’s – a kind of unearthly communion. (p.130)

(This is my second read for August’s focus on Women in Translation, a.k.a. #WITMonth – if it’s of interest, you can find more details about it here.)

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins, 2020)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations.

The setting for the novella – this French-Korean writer’s debut – is Sokcho, a coastal city in the far north-east of South Korea, close to the North Korean border. Dusapin’s story revolves around a young woman in her early twenties, currently working as a cook and housemaid in a run-down guest house struggling to keep up with the new hotels in the city.

The narrator – who remains unnamed throughout – is something of a misfit in her community, her French-Korean origins marking her out as a source of speculation amongst the locals. Moreover, she is being made to feel inadequate by her conventional Korean mother, a woman who sells seafood at the nearby fish market. There are repeated references to the narrator’s weight and her status as an unmarried woman, both of which give rise to pressure from the mother. The narrator, for her part, feels at best ambivalent and at worst hostile to her boyfriend, Jun-oh, an aspiring model intent on furthering his career in Seoul.

Into the narrator’s life comes Kerrand, a French graphic artist from Normandy whose speciality is creating comics. Almost immediately, there is a certain frisson to the interactions between the two, an undeniable charge that feels detectable to the reader. 

I felt a chill as a draught blew through the kitchen. Turning round I saw Kerrand come in. He wanted a glass of water. He watched me work while he drank it, staring hard as if he were trying to make sense of the image in front of him. I lost concentration and nicked the palm of my hand. Blood welled onto the carrots, hardening to form a brownish crust. Kerrand took a handkerchief from his pocket. He stood close to me and held it to the wound.

‘You should be more careful.’

‘I didn’t do it on purpose.’

‘Just as well.’

 He smiled, pressing his hand against mine. I broke away, feeling uneasy. (p. 8)

With few contemporaries of her own age close at hand, the young woman is intrigued by Kerrand and his reasons for coming to Sokcho, particularly in the low season. In truth, the Frenchman is looking for inspiration for his new book, the final instalment in a series featuring a travelling archaeologist – a loner who bears a striking resemblance to Kennard with his dark looks and striking features.

At night, the young woman hears Kennard sketching in the next room, a sound shot through with sadness and melancholy, seeping into her consciousness as she tries to fall sleep.

In bed later, I heard the pen scratching. I pinned myself against the thin wall. A gnawing sound, irritating. Working its way under my skin. Stopping and starting. I pictured Kerrand, his fingers scurrying like spiders’ legs, his eyes are travelling up, scrutinising the model, looking down at the paper again, looking back up to make sure his pen conveyed the truth of his vision, to keep her from vanishing while he traced the lines. (p. 67)

There is a sense that the narrator is disturbed by Kennard’s potential vision of her, reflected in some of the drawings she secretly watches him sketching.

As the narrative unfolds, the connection between Kennard and the narrator waxes and wanes, defined by occasional moments of intensity interspersed with significant periods of latency. At first, the young woman does not reveal her dual nationality to him, choosing to communicate in broken English instead of her competent French. He eschews the Korean meals she cooks for the guests, preferring instead to pick up Western-style junk food which he eats alone in his room. Nevertheless, Kennard is sufficiently interested in the narrator to ask her to show him something of Sokcho. A trip to the border with North Korea follows, complete with a visit to the museum whose ghostly souvenir shop is staffed by a waxwork-like attendant, her face frozen as if in aspic.

Threaded through the novella are signs of tension between the South and the North. At Naksan these are highly visible, from the barbed wire on the beaches to the bunkers with sub-machine guns poking out from their openings. While the scars from WW2 on the beaches of Normandy are old and worn, those in South Korea remain raw, signalling a country still at war with its neighbour.    

Our beaches are still waiting for the end of a war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They build hotels, put up neon signs, but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife-edge, it could all give way any moment. We’re living in limbo. In a winter that never ends. (p. 88)

Body image is another running theme, particularly the various pressures – both external and self-imposed – an individual can experience to look ‘perfect’ or attractive. Several aspects of the story tap into these anxieties, from the narrator’s battle with bulimia to her boyfriend’s obsession with modelling to a female guest’s recovery from plastic surgery. Food too plays an important role in the novella, mostly through the traditional meals the young woman prepares at the guest house, frequently using octopuses from her mother’s stall. The pufferfish is also highly symbolic here, a poisonous delicacy that must be prepared correctly to avoid death on consumption.

This novella is beautifully-written, characterised by Dusapin’s clipped, crystalline prose. The desolate South Korean landscape is skilfully evoked, the stark imagery reflecting feelings of division and alienation. Winters in Sokcho are especially cold and bleak. As the narrator reflects, one has to live through them to understand this, defined as they are by the essence of the city – the sights, the smells and the isolation – these are the elements that seep into the soul.

The book finishes on an enigmatic note, an ending that feels at once both mysterious and strangely inevitable. All in all, this is a haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty. Very highly recommended indeed.  

Winter in Sokcho is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers/Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen (1967, tr. Tiina Nunnally, 1985)

Childhood is the first in a series of three volumes which together form The Copenhagen Trilogy, a work of autofiction by the revered Danish writer and poet, Tove Ditlevsen (1917-78). It is a striking text, shot through with a tangible note of sadness, in which the innocence of childhood is juxtaposed with the harsh realities of an austere world. (The subsequent volumes – Youth and Dependency, which I’ll touch on at the end of this piece – cover the author’s adolescence and adult years respectively.)

Born into a working-class family in a down-at-heel district of Copenhagen, Tove experiences a rather harsh and lonely childhood. With her love of books, songs and poems, Tove is considered somewhat unusual by her family – particularly her mother, whose intolerance and dismissive attitude give rise to a fractured mother-daughter relationship.

Tove finds her childhood narrow and restricting, ‘like a coffin’ in which she is shackled and constrained. In search of solace and a means of expression, Tove longs to write down all the words that flow through her, the fledgling poems that come naturally throughout her days. Nevertheless, she keeps these artistic ambitions to herself for most of her early years, jotting down her poetry in a private album which she hides in her room – mostly out of a fear of being ridiculed by her family. In essence, these poems become a way for Tove to cover the exposed areas of her childhood by enriching her limited existence through creative expression.

It is only once Tove reaches middle school that her world begins to widen somewhat, sparked by her introduction to the public library and everything it contains. While the librarian suggests books suitable for children, Tove finds these too basic for her requirements. It is more challenging fiction that she is after, grittier stories like Les Misérables and other such texts.

By the age of twelve, Tove is experiencing signs of depression, haunted by thoughts of death and mortality. A foreigner in her own world, she longs to escape the narrow confines of her local community, eager to make her own way in life. The conventional trappings of marriage and motherhood are not for her; she shuns everything a reliable, steady life represents, including its feeling of security.

While Tove finds her childhood very restrictive, there is also a sense that she acknowledges these early years to be precious in their own way – possibly something to be looked back on with a degree of nostalgia or fondness, even if they never seem quite so rosy at the time. As her childhood draws to a close with her confirmation, Tove becomes increasingly aware of the dangers of the future, ‘a monstrous, powerful colossus that will soon fall on me and crush me.’

What particularly strikes me about Childhood is Ditlevsen’s powerful tone of voice. The memoir is written in a candid, unvarnished style, almost childlike in certain respects, which fits so naturally with the subject matter at hand. Nevertheless, the reader is frequently pulled up short by the arresting nature of Tove’s experiences – made all the more shocking due to the plain-speaking style in which they are delivered.

Childhood is dark and it’s always moaning like a little animal that’s locked in a cellar and forgotten. It comes out of your throat like your breath in the cold, and sometimes it’s too little, other times too big. It never fits exactly. It’s only when it has been cast off that you can look at it calmly and talk about it like an illness you’ve survived.… Wherever you turn, you run up against your childhood and hurt yourself because it’s sharp-edged and hard, and stops only when it has torn you completely apart. It seems that everyone has their own and each is totally different. (pp. 30–31, Childhood).

In this respect, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the British writer Barbara Comyns, whose excellent semi-autobiographical novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a favourite of mine. (There’s a link to my review here if it’s of interest.)

Now that I’ve read all three books in Ditlevesen’s trilogy, I can safely say that they’re all just as absorbing as the first – perhaps even more so given the way Tove’s life develops into adulthood. There is a frankness to Tove’s account of her life, one that gives the books a sense of intimacy and immediacy that is hard to resist.

In Youth we follow Tove through a string of unsuitable menial jobs, some of which only last a few days before she is fired for her naivety and unfiltered views. As far as Tove is concerned, her eighteenth birthday can’t come soon enough, a time when she can finally strike out on her own outside of the boundaries of her family.

Throughout her adolescence, Tove continues to write poetry, frequently composing pieces and songs for work colleagues and associates. Her life remains lonely and challenging; nevertheless, there is a seam of dark humour running through this volume (and parts of the subsequent one, Dependency), largely stemming from the author’s matter-of-fact tone of voice and narrative style.

One evening Nadja comes over, dressed, as usual, as if she had just escaped a burning house. (p. 29, Dependency)

There are moments of brightness too, glimmers of hope and determination on the part of Tove that one day some of her poems may be published.

I can’t explain to myself, either, why I want to so badly to have my poems published, so other people who have a feeling for poetry can enjoy them. But that’s what I want. That’s what I, by dark and twisting roads, am working towards. That’s what gives me the strength to get up every day, to go to the printing office and sit across from Miss Løngren’s Argus eyes for eight hours. That’s why I want to move away from home the same day I turn eighteen. (p. 63, Youth)

Meanwhile the impeding outbreak of WW2 rumbles away in the background, casting a shadow of darkness over the external world.

By her early twenties, Tove is a published poet, now married to a literary editor, a much older man named Viggo F – a most unsuitable match as it turns out. In Dependency, Tove recounts the experiences of her early adult life: a sequence of love affairs and marriages, some gratifying and others not so much; pregnancies, both wanted and unwanted (a distressing search for a doctor willing to perform an illegal abortion is painfully relayed); and ultimately, a battle with opioid addiction that will consume her day-to-day existence and emotional soul.

There are brief periods of solace when Tove finds an outlet through creative expression, her writing remaining a source of fulfilment whenever it is possible. Nevertheless, the spectre of addiction continues to hover overhead, even during Tove’s ‘clean’ periods of remission.

It [the pharmacy] radiated a muted light from containers of mercury and beakers filled with crystals. I kept standing there, while yearning for small white pills, which were so easy to get, rose inside me like a dark liquid. Horrified, I realized while I stood there that the longing was inside me like rot in a tree, or like an embryo growing all on its own, even though you want nothing to do with it. I pulled myself away reluctantly, and kept walking. (p. 130)

This is a remarkable series of books – clear, candid, striking and elegant. It has something of the power of the most compelling memoirs, coupled with a simplicity that feels almost poetic, certainly at times. In short, very highly recommended indeed. A wonderful rediscovery on the part of the publishers.

Childhood, Youth and Dependency are published by Penguin; personal copies.

Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

I have long wanted to read the Italian writer Elsa Morante, ever since I learned of her influence on Elena Ferrante (you can find my reviews of Ferrante’s work here). Arturo’s Island was Morante’s second novel, originally published in Italian in 1957, and now freshly translated by Ann Goldstein for this Pushkin Press edition (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy). It is a beautifully-observed, passionate coming-of-age story, one that captures the pain and confusion of adolescence in an imaginative, poetic style.

The narrative is told from the viewpoint of Arturo Gerace as he looks back on his teenage years spent on the remote island of Procida in the Bay of Naples – a tumultuous, troubling time in this young individual’s life.

At fourteen, Arturo spends most of his days roaming around the island, dreaming of great adventures with pirates, kings and other enigmatic figures from tales of fantasy. His father, Wilhelm, is a restless wanderer who frequently leaves the island for long periods with no planned date of return. With his unpredictable nature and temperament, Wilhelm is prone to frequent outbursts, displaying little thought for the feelings and sensitivities of those around him. In spite of this, Arturo idolises his father unquestioningly, eagerly anticipating the day when he is old enough to join Wilhelm on his seemingly intrepid travels.

Every act of his, every speech, had a dramatic fatality for me. In fact, he was the image of certainty, and everything he said or did was the verdict of a universal law from which I deduced the first commandments of my life. Here was the greatest seduction of his company. (p. 24)

Life for young Arturo is a solitary one, with his father often away and his mother no longer alive following her death in childbirth. He yearns for some much-needed love and affection, the kind fuelled by his romantic imagination – the absence of Arturo’s mother is very keenly felt.

She was a person invented by my regrets, and so she had, for me, every wished-for kindness, and different expressions, different voices. But, above all, in the impossible longing I had for her, I thought of her as faithfulness, intimacy, conversation: in other words, all that fathers were not, in my experience. (p. 44)

Moreover, young Arturo is largely in charge of the Geraces’ home, a somewhat run-down, castle-like building bequeathed to Wilhelm by an old friend – a man with an intense dislike of women and their ‘ugly’ appearances. As such, Arturo has had very little exposure to girls or women during his life, particularly given the isolated nature of his upbringing.

One day, Wilhelm returns unexpectedly to Procida with his new bride, Nunziata – a rather hesitant young girl from Naples who has been pushed into marriage by her mother, Violante. At sixteen, Nunziata is barely older than Arturo, a situation that leaves our protagonist struggling to understand this sudden change in dynamics and everything it represents. For the first time in his life, Arturo has a rival for his father’s affections, one who is almost as inexperienced and naïve as the young boy himself.

When I passed my father’s room, I heard from behind the closed door an excited whispering. I was almost running when I reached my room: I suddenly had the sharp, incomprehensible sensation that I had received from someone (whom I couldn’t yet recognise) an inhuman insult, impossible to avenge. I undressed quickly and, as I threw myself into bed, wrapping myself in the covers up to my head, a cry from her reached me through the walls: tender, strangely fierce, and childlike. (p. 124)

Virtually as soon as he has arrived home, Wilhelm becomes restless again, seeking the company of Nunziata and Arturo one minute and then shunning it the next. It’s not long before Wilhelm begins to view Nunziata as an appendage, akin to a tiresome relative of little interest or importance. Consequently, Arturo and Nunziata – the latter now pregnant with Wilhelm’s child – are left mostly on their own at the Casa dei Guaglioni while Wilhelm continues his erratic travels abroad.

At first, Arturo wants as little as possible to do with his new stepmother, shunning her company in favour of wandering around the island.

My antipathy towards my stepmother, meanwhile, didn’t diminish but became fiercer every day. And as a result of the life she led with me during my father’s absence from the island was certainly not very happy. I never spoke to her except to give her orders. If I was outside and wanted to summon her to the window to give her some command, or warn her of my arrival, I used to simply whistle. (p. 158)

Then, all of a sudden, he experiences a dramatic change of heart, prompted by the belief that Nunziata’s life may be in danger during the birth of her child, Carminiello. From this point onwards, Arturo begins to see his stepmother in a new light, viewing her as more beautiful and graceful than before. Meanwhile, Nunziata devotes herself to caring for the new baby, mainly at the expense of any consideration for Arturo or his potential needs – a situation that leaves Arturo feeling somewhat jealous of his new stepbrother.

I felt I could never have peace if she didn’t return to being, toward me, at least, the same as she had been before the fatal arrival of my stepbrother; and yet at no cost did I want to betray that longing to her. So I looked desperately for a means that, without wounding my pride, would force her to be concerned with me, or to manifest once and for all, her irredeemable indifference towards Arturo Gerace. (p. 233)

As the months slip by, Arturo must try to make sense of his emotions as they oscillate between an idealised form of first love for Nunziata and abject disillusionment – his demonstrations of affection are swiftly rejected. He tries, somewhat in vain, to grapple with new and confusing situations in this abrupt exposure to the complexities of the adult world.

Arturo’s Island is an emotionally-rich novel, frequently punctuated with passages of profound depth. Morante skilfully captures the vulnerabilities of youth, the maelstrom of emotions that characterises Arturo’s adolescence – the young boy’s experiences are very keenly felt. The author’s style is perfectly matched to the subject matter at hand: lyrical, intuitive and painfully perceptive. While the main thrust of the narrative takes places in the run-up to WW2, there is a timeless feel to this story, akin to a classic myth or fable.

With its imposing penitentiary, Procida is painted as an isolated, mysterious place, one with elements of menace and darkness, albeit lightened by the allure of the natural world. Morante’s descriptions of the island’s environment are beautifully expressed.

As this excellent novel draws to a close, Arturo must contend with emotions of antipathy, lust, jealousy and disillusionment. Morante’s portrayal of the young boy’s experiences is both intimate and compelling, tackling themes of forbidden love and ambiguous sexuality with insight and sensitivity. Alongside the struggle to reconcile his feelings for Nunziata, Arturo must also come to terms with a new, rather disturbing vision of his father – a discovery that will leave a mark on his character forever.

This is a layered, emotionally-rich novel, one that will likely suit lovers of interior-driven fiction with a strong sense of place. The pace is leisurely, reflecting the rhythm of life on the island – definitely a slow burner, but one that will reward the reader’s patience and emotional investment.

I read this book for Biblibio’s #WITMonth, which is running throughout August. For an interesting companion piece dealing with similar themes, see Agostino (1944) by Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante’s husband – also very highly recommended indeed.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike novella shot through with a strong sense of isolation that permeates the mind.

First published in the late 1970s as a series of interlinked short stories, Territory of Light focuses on a year in the life of a young mother, recently separated from her somewhat ambivalent husband. As the story opens, the unnamed woman – who narrates the novella – and her three-year-old daughter are newly established in a fourth-floor apartment with windows on all sides, thereby forming the ‘territory of light’ of the title.

Tsushima poignantly depicts the young woman’s pain in adjusting to life as a single parent, no longer sure of her own sense of self or future existence. The husband, Fujino, is in a new relationship, unable or unwilling to contribute financially to his daughter’s upbringing – a situation that leaves the narrator trying to cope with the unsettling transition taking place.

This man was my daughter’s father and my husband, but he knew nothing of the life I had been leading for over a month now – an existence that was uneventful enough in its way, and yet the tranquillity of the days ahead only fed my apprehension – and I could give him no idea of that life. I felt as though I had before me an invisible, rickety, misshapen mass that not only kept its precarious balance but was actually sending out roots and even tentative new shoots that only my eyes could see. Having been presented with this unstable object, I’m starting to grow too attached to it to be able to slip back into married life with Fujino as if nothing had happened. The way he spoke to me, as my husband, didn’t feel right anymore. (pp. 22-23)

There are times when the narrator oscillates between openly trying to prevent her husband from spending time with his daughter and secretly wishing they could all get back together – to coexist as a typical family unit, whatever form that may take.

I longed to have my old life back. But there was no going back now, nor any way out. I couldn’t decide whether I’d done this to myself or fallen for a ruse of unknown origin. What I’d failed to see so far, it turned out, it was my own cruelty. (p. 59)

In the meantime, she must juggle the needs of a lively three-year-old alongside her job as an archivist in an audio library, relying on the support of a day-care centre for childcare during the week. As the demands of single parenthood increase, there is a sense of this woman receding into the darkness, giving rise to feelings of guilt, fear, annoyance and fatigue. Her nights are haunted by anxiety-fuelled dreams and fragments of memories, frequently punctuated by the toddler’s persistent cries – something the narrator tries to block out through an increasing reliance on alcohol.

Interestingly, Tsushima doesn’t shy away from illustrating the fragile nature of the young woman’s state of mind, characterised by her increasing consumption of drink, a tendency to oversleep on weekdays, a lack of care for the apartment, and – most worryingly of all – her neglect of the child’s wellbeing. Even though it is clear that the narrator loves her child very much, the practicalities of the situation remain stark and unadorned.

As one might expect from the title, imagery plays a significant role in the novella, contributing significantly to the mood and atmosphere of the piece. Tsushima’s prose has a fluid, poetic quality, particularly when depicting the play of light within the building itself.

No one else must know about this place that made me yearn to dissolve until I became a particle of light myself. The way that light cohered in one place was unearthly. I gazed at its stillness without ever going in through the gate. (p. 119)

The narrative is punctuated with beguiling images, each one possible to visualise in the mind – perhaps best illustrated by the mosaic of bright colours ‘like a burst of bright flowers’ that suddenly appears on the roof next door.

The unexpected sight of bright colours on that weathered tiled roof set my heart racing with sudden foreboding. I leaned out of the window and took a closer look. They were coloured paper squares. Red ones. Blue ones. Green, yellow…I could only conclude that every sheet in the pack of origami paper I had bought my daughter a few days earlier had floated down, one after the other, taking its time and enjoying the breeze, on to the tiled floor roof below. I pictured a small hand pluck one square at a time from the pack, reach out the window, and release it in midair. My daughter, who had just turned three, would have been laughing out loud with pleasure as she watched the different colours wafting down. (p. 47)

Territory of Light is a quiet, contemplative novella – strangely unsettling in tone yet thoroughly compelling. There is a sense of intimacy and honesty in the portrayal of the narrator’s feelings, something that adds to the undoubted power of the book. Themes of isolation, alienation and disassociation are heightened by the somewhat ghostly nature of the setting, the apartment being located in a commercial building where the mother and child are the sole occupants at night. Tsushima’s focus on the day-to-day minutiae of life is a powerful one, forcing us to contemplate how we would cope in similar circumstances, how our own failings and vulnerabilities might be exposed.

Moreover, the spectre of death runs through the narrative – from the young boy who falls to his death accidentally while playing, to a suicide on the railways, to the funerals glimpsed in the street, the concept of our ephemerality is keenly felt. Tsushima’s own father – the Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai – took his own life when she was just one year old, a point that adds another layer of emotional intensity to story reflected here. Nevertheless, there are moments of brightness too – the simple pleasures that motherhood can bring in spite of the myriad of challenges.

By the end of the book, there are tentative signs of some kind of acclimatisation on the part of the mother, the glimpse of a new beginning on the horizon. Nevertheless, the delicate balance between darkness and light remains, a point that serves to remind us of our own fallibilities in life.

This is my second piece for #WITMonth (women in translation) which runs throughout August. Several other bloggers have written about this book. Here are links to relevant posts by Grant and Dorian.

Territory of Light is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Voices in the Evening by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. D. M. Low)

Born in Palermo in 1916, the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg is perhaps best known for her autobiographical novel Family Lexicon, winner of the Strega Prize for fiction in 1963. Voices in the Evening is an earlier novel, first published in Italian in 1961 and translated into English in 1963.

In many respects, Voices is an episodic work, a series of interconnected vignettes depicting the lives and loves of various members of one particular family, all set in a small Italian village, viewed from the perspective of the years following WW2.

Central to the novel is Elsa, an unmarried twenty-seven-year-old woman who lives with her parents in the watchful village community, a place where gossip and arbitrary judgments are prevalent, adding colour to the inhabitants’ day-to-day activities. The narrative is bookended by two ‘conversations’ between Elsa and her mother. I use the term ‘conversation’ with caution as the dialogue is in effect a monologue with Elsa remaining silent in the face of her mother’s barbed musings and pointed observations.

‘One can see that there is a party somewhere,’ she added, ‘at the Terenzis’ very likely. Everyone who goes has to take something. Nowadays many people do that.’

She said, ‘But they don’t invite you, do they?

‘They don’t invite you,’ she said, ‘because they think that you give yourself airs. You have never been to the tennis club either. If one does not go about and show oneself, people say that such a person is giving himself airs, and they don’t seek one out anymore…’ (p.4)

These opening and closing vignettes set the tone for the novel, emphasising the sense of distance between Elsa and her mother, a feeling of separation between the generations. There is a touch of wry humour in these passages too, a note of irony in Ginzburg’s prose as Elsa must endure her mother’s complaints.

Voices can also be thought of as a novel of conflicts or tensions – conflicts between mothers and daughters, men and women, and ultimately those between different values and ideals. The first half of the narrative explores the troubled lives and loves of the most influential family in the village, a household headed up by old Balotta (or Little Ball), the owner of the local cloth factory where Elsa’s father works as an accountant. Old Balotta has five children, most of whom are unlucky in love. There is also another family member to contend with: Purillo, the patriarch’s adopted son.

Gemmina, Balotta’s eldest daughter, is in love with Nebbia, a man who rejects her advances in favour of marriage to a foolish young girl from a nearby village. Next in line are Balotta’s sons, Vincenzio and Mario – the former a bit of a misfit, the latter cheerful and sociable.

The Balotta family dynamics are disturbed when Mario decides to marry Xenia, an artist he meets during a business trip to Munich. Xenia appears somewhat aloof with her expensive tastes in clothes, food and other accoutrements. There is even a concern on the part of Balotta that Xenia might be a spy – the girl’s lack of interest in learning Italian is another point against her.

The family’s relationships are characterised by various flaws and failings – more specifically, unrequited love, marriages of convenience, and unions founded on acceptability at the expense of emotion.

The final vignette is the most emotionally compelling in the sequence, the story of a doomed love affair between Elsa and the last of Old Balotta’s sons, a young man by the name of Tommasino. Every Wednesday afternoon, Elsa and Tommasino spend time together in a nearby town, a place where they can experience a sense of freedom, unburdened by the weight of familial ties or expectations. Their meetings are conducted in secret, mostly in a rented room on the Via Gorizia.

At heart, Tommasino is not a romantic; his demeanour is a solitary one, reflecting a reluctance to be tied down. However, everything changes when Tommasino visits Elsa at home one evening, a move which soon results in the young couple’s engagement. As Elsa’s family begin to make preparations for the wedding, Tommasino glimpses the life of responsibility and domesticity that lies ahead. It is a world that does not appeal to him, far removed from the atmosphere of Via Gorizia with all its simplicity and seclusion. As a consequence, Tommasino cannot help but make his true feelings known to Elsa.

There was something, all the same, something intimate and delicate, and it had its own fulfilment and its own freedom. You and I, up there in the Via Gorizia, alone, without any plans for the future, without anything at all, have been happy in some fashion of our own. We had something there; it was not much but it was something. It was something very slight, very fragile, ready to break up at the first puff of wind. It was something which could not be captured and bought to the light or it would die. We have brought it to the light and it is dead, and we shall never recover it any more. (pp. 142-143)

Voices in the Evening is a simple yet subtle novel, one that explores the tension and discontentment in relationships between men and women, particularly those living in a small, close-knit community. There is a strong sense of estrangement running through the novel, a feeling of separateness and isolation in a shifting world. The shadow of war also looms in the background, accentuating a feeling of unease and instability.

Ginzburg’s prose is direct and unadorned in a way that leaves quite a bit of space in the narrative, maybe too much. If I had a criticism, it would be to say that the novel as a whole feels a little slight, particularly given the episodic structure and shift in focus from one character to another. Nevertheless, in some instances, what is left unsaid between individuals can seem just as significant as what is shared. Plus, I’m significantly impressed to want to read Ginzburg’s highly-regarded autobiographical work, Family Lexicon.

This is my first post for Biblibio’s Women in Translation event, which is running during August. (It just so happens that my #WITMonth has started a little early this year.)

Voices in the Evening is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

Last year I wrote about La Femme de Gilles (1937), an early novella by the Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe. It’s an intensely powerful story of desire, pain and selfless love, all conveyed in the author’s spare yet beautiful prose. When Daunt Books announced they would be reissuing Marie (first published in 1943), Bourdouxhe’s follow-up to Gilles, I knew I wanted to read it. Luckily this book came along at just the right time for me; moreover, it turned out to be a great choice for Women in Translation month which is running throughout August.

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Like its predecessor, Marie focuses on the inner life of a young married woman. As the novella opens, thirty-year-old Marie is on holiday in the Cote d’Azur with her husband of six years, Jean, the man whom she loves with a profound sense of tenderness. One afternoon, while Jean is swimming in the sea, Marie notices a young man on the beach, most probably another holidaymaker; he is lean, tanned and muscular, and Marie is instantly attracted to him. The sight of this youth in his early twenties awakens something in Marie, more specifically ‘the realm of the possible; the fascination and excitement of a new world.’

A day or so later Marie heads out for a walk on her own with the intention of finding the attractive stranger again; it’s not long before she spots him on the beach. Even though the man strikes up a conversation with Marie, words are barely needed; they have already formed a deep connection.

They sit on the sand. They might have gone on talking; about the distant hills that unfold towards the sea, about a white villa the outline of which is visible among the cypresses. But what would have been the point? They know that there is nothing to say. They mutually accept this great silence, and the richness, the sincerity that lies within it. They also know that in that moment they are seeing everything from the same point of view and that, for both of them, that red sail on the sea stands out as clearly, as harshly, as cruelly, as the thing that is deep inside them. (pg. 17-18)

As they prepare to part, the young man gives Marie his phone number back in Paris, the city which is also home to Jean and Marie. As she watches him go, Marie feels completely alone, stranded between two opposing worlds: the safety and security of her life with Jean vs the possibility of new and uncertain experiences ahead.

Back in Paris, life continues as normal for Marie (at least at first) as she occupies her time with housework and the occasional session as a private tutor. Nevertheless, the young man from the beach remains in her thoughts. When Jean goes away on a business trip for a few days, Marie contacts the man. They meet up in a café, walk the streets of Paris for a while and take a room for the night.

To dwell any further on the plot probably isn’t necessary at this stage, plus it might spoil some of the experience of reading the novella itself. While things happen in the story, this isn’t an action-driven narrative; instead the focus is on experience, memories and introspection. As with La Femme de Gilles, Bourdouxhe holds the reader close to her female protagonist’s point of view. This is another richly realised portrait of the inner life of a woman at a pivotal moment in her life. To her friends, family and husband, Marie appears to be content in her marriage. At an early point in the novella, a female friend observes: ‘Marie, you love your husband very deeply; you’ve managed to find complete fulfilment in your love; you are the only one amongst us who really knows what happiness is.’ Internally, however, Marie is far from at ease with herself, as illustrated by the following passage, one that appears later in the book. (Claudine is Marie’s rather melancholy and irresponsible older sister, a very different creature from the intelligent and capable Marie.)

And she’d stay there until the blue light of dawn came through the window. Thrown back on herself, she’d feel quite alone at the heart of a well-worn past – even though she had created such fine things. Jean, Claudine: links that did not want to expire, that tightened their hold in a final struggle as others tried to replace them.

‘Please, please leave me!’ She’d have liked to shout this in all the space around her. How she longed to have neither past nor future! And yet – on the one hand there were these still burning ashes and on the other there was this new thing, this thing that did not yet have a name. Like a warm beast that moved inside her, making its nest. (pg. 85-86)

As Marie reflects on the nature of her position, her mood varies quite significantly. There are instances when she seems lost and dissatisfied with her situation, most notably when a change in Jean’s job forces the couple to move away from Paris for a while. At other times, a brighter Marie emerges, one in tune with her own her solitude and desires in life.

Like its predecessor, Marie is written in an emotive, intense and intimate style. It is a more optimistic novella than La Femme de Gilles, more hopeful but every bit as compelling. In his review in The Guardian, Nicholas Lezard describes Marie as one of the most French novels he has ever read, and I can see what he means. To quote Lezard: ‘the book’s concerns are, to put it broadly, existentialist’.

I really loved this novel; it’s in the running for one of my books of the year. This wonderful story of a young woman’s awakening is played out among the busy streets, cafés and train stations of Paris, a city beautifully evoked by Bourdouxhe’s prose. I’ll finish with a favourite quote, one that captures the rather dreamlike mood of certain passages in the narrative.

They went up in a very narrow elevator where there was only room for two bodies face to face. Young maids in canvas pinafores, organdie bows in their hair, bright red lips in inscrutable faces, slip like spirits through the deserted corridors, respecting the anonymity, the secrets of every soul, and folding up quilts with vestal movements. Muffled sounds, orders given in low voices, words that turn into mysteries, doors that shut without a sound. The peace and safety of a temple, with all the solemn, human poetry of a lodging house. (pg. 33)

Marie is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

 

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

My first encounter with Silvina Ocampo’s work came in the shape of Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, a novella she co-wrote with her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares. This playful take on the traditional murder mystery genre made my 2014 end-of-year highlights, so I’ve been looking forward to reading Thus Were Their Faces, a collection of Ocampo’s short stories published earlier this year. In her introduction to this collection, Helen Oyeyemi informs us that the panel of judges for Argentina’s National Prize for Literature deemed Ocampo’s body of work to be “demasiado crueles” meaning “far too cruel”  and so they denied her the prize. While it’s true to say that several of these stories feature rather sinister events, I’m not sure I would simply label them as “cruel”. They’re far more interesting than that, a point I hope to demonstrate in this review.

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Faces contains forty-two stories drawn from seven different collections of Ocampo’s writing published from 1937 to 1988; the pieces vary in length from one or two pages to longer works.

Several of the pieces throughout the collection feature individuals who possess the ability to see into the future, an unsettling sense of clairvoyance that often arouses suspicion amongst those around them. In one of my favourite stories, Autobiography of Irene, a young woman describes how she foresaw her father’s death three months before it happened.

I was happy, but the sudden death of my father, as I said before, brought about a change in my life. Three months before he died, I had already prepared my mourning dress and the black crepe; I had already cried for him, leaning majestically on the balcony railing. I had already written the date of his death on an etching; I had already visited the cemetery. All of that was made worse by the indifference I showed after the funeral. To tell the truth, after his death I never remembered him at all. (pg. 78)

This clever, beautiful and moving piece ends with a development that brings Irene’s story full circle, one that made me turn back to the beginning to read it a second time.

The supernatural crops up again in The House Made of Sugar, the first of several excellent pieces taken from Ocampo’s 1959 collection, The Fury. In this disquieting story, the narrator tells of his partner, Cristina, a woman whose life is governed by superstitions.

There were certain streets we couldn’t cross, certain people we couldn’t see, certain movie theaters we couldn’t go to. Early in our relationship, these superstitions seemed charming to me, but later they began to annoy and even seriously worry me. When we got engaged we had to look for a brand-new apartment because, according to her, the fate of the previous occupants would influence her life. (She at no point mentioned my life, as if the danger threatened only hers and our lives were not joined by love.) (pg. 91)

Finally, the narrator finds what he hopes will be the ideal place: a little house that looks as if it is made of sugar. On discovering that the house had been occupied in the past and subsequently remodelled, he decides to keep quiet and let Cristina believe that their home is brand new. But once the newly-weds move in, the narrator starts to notice certain changes in Cristina’s behaviour. Slowly but surely she begins to inhabit another woman’s life, that of the mysterious Violeta, the previous occupant of the house.

In The Photographs, a fateful little story from the same period, Ocampo shows her talent for taking what should be a joyful celebration and injecting a touch of the macabre into it. Recovering from a stay in hospital and unable to walk unaided, Adriana is allowed home for her fourteenth birthday party. As they wait for the photographer (Spirito) to arrive, the guests entertain themselves with ‘stories of more or less fatal accidents. Some of the victims had been left without arms, others without hands, others without ears’.

Members of the family jostle and position Adriana for a series of photographs, moving and manipulating her as if she were a rag dog. As the story unravels, there is a striking contrast between the sugar-coated sweetness of the occasion and the insensitivity shown towards the young girl.

In the third photograph, Adriana brandished the knife to cut the cake, which was decorated with her name, the date of her birthday, and the word “Happiness,” all written in pink icing, and covered with rainbow sprinkles.

“She should stand up,” the guests said.

An aunt objected: “And if her feet come out wrong?”

“Don’t worry,” responded the friendly Spirito. If her feet come out wrong, I’ll cut them off later.”

Adriana grimaced with pain, and once more poor Spirito had to take her picture sunken in her chair surrounded by the guests. (pgs. 122-123)

The Velvet Dress, touches on another contrast: the dual nature of velvet, a fabric that feels smooth when rubbed one way and rough when rubbed the other; a fabric with the power to repel as well as attract. This story features a woman who is having a dress made-to-measure, a velvet dress featuring a dragon motif embroidered with black sequins.

I couldn’t tear myself away from watching the fittings of the dress with the sequin dragon. The lady stood up again and, staggering slightly, walked over to the mirror. The sequin dragon also staggered. The dress was now nearly perfect, except for an almost imperceptible tuck under the arms. Casilda took up the pins once more, plunging them perilously into the wrinkles that bulged out of the unearthly fabric. (pg. 146-147)

Without wishing to give too much away, this brief but effective tale takes a sinister turn. It’s narrated by a child, the dressmaker’s companion, who peppers the narrative with several cries of “How amusing!”

This childlike sense of mischief and wickedness is present in several of Ocampo’s stories, especially those from the 1950s and ‘60s. Other pieces from this period include:

  • The Wedding: another story with a sting in its tail, this one featuring a girl who hides a huge spider in the hairpiece of her soon-to-be married neighbour, Arminda. As the girl’s friend says “Spiders are like people: they bite to defend themselves.”
  • Mimoso: a sinister story of a woman who has her beloved dog embalmed following its death. But when someone taunts and criticises her for doing so the woman takes her revenge in the most fitting way possible.
  • The Perfect Crime, in which a man commits a crime of passion involving poisonous mushrooms.
  • The Lovers, which features a couple who meet sporadically. Shy and with little to say to one another, they indulge in a ritual of picnicking on cakes. As they devour the pastries with ‘loving greed and intimacy’ they find a way to commune with each other and their movements become synchronised.
  • Thus Were Their Faces: a strange, dreamlike story in which forty children from a school for the deaf strive to assume similar characteristics, personalities and identities ‘as if they wanted to become equal’. Here’s an extract:

They were also linked by the violence of their gestures, by their simultaneous laughter, by a boisterous and sudden feeling of sadness in solidarity hidden in their eyes, in their straight or slightly curly hair. So indissolubly united were they that they could defeat an army, a pack of hungry wolves, a plague, hunger, thirst, or the abrupt exhaustion that destroys civilizations.

At the top of a slide, out of excitement not wickedness, they almost killed a child who had slipped in among them. On the street, in the face of admiring enthusiasm, a flower vendor almost perished, trampled with his merchandise. (pg. 193)

Several of Ocampo’s stories blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. One of the earliest stories, The Imposter, demonstrates this to good effect. In this extended piece, the young man who narrates the story is sent on a journey by a family friend to check up on his son – the boy has hidden himself away at a secluded ranch in the countryside. When the narrator arrives, several objects and people remind him of things he has seen before: images, people and scenes from his dreams start to appear in reality; strange developments occur; and as the story progresses, one begins to question what is real and what is illusory. This is another story featuring a shift that will have you flipping back to the beginning to read it again.

Some of Ocampo’s final stories are characterised by a free-spirited wildness, possibly the product of an especially vivid imagination in the years leading up to her death. Others are gentler, tenderer pieces such as And So Forth, which features a man who falls for a mermaid. This beautiful, mystifying story reads like a prose poem, an ode to a different kind of love.

I love the stories in Thus Were Their Faces, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of the pieces point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. Ocampo studied painting with the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, and this flair for the artistic shows in her prose which sparkles with strange and mysterious imagery. This is an unusual and poetic collection of stories – highly recommended.

Thus Were Their Faces is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 9/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Madame de ___ by Louise de Vilmorin (tr. Duff Cooper)

While looking through my shelves for suitable books for Women in Translation month, I found Louise de Vilmorin’s novella Madame de___. It’s a perfect one-sitting read, short enough to squeeze into a spare hour or two. Despite being published in 1951, Madame de ___reads like a classic 19th-century French novel, albeit in miniature. It is a beautifully constructed story: elegant, artful and poignant all at once.

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Madame de___ is a woman of some distinction. She and her husband, an astute and wealthy man, belong to a circle of society that values elegance, discretion and reputation. They are no longer in love with one another but have moved into a different phase of their marriage; nevertheless, it suits both of them to remain together.

Even though her husband never questions the amount of money she spends on clothes, Madame de ___ likes to think of herself as rather clever and prudent. Consequently, she keeps the true extent of her expenditure hidden from her husband. After this has been happening for few years, Madame de ___ finds herself with significant debts to settle. Unwilling to confess her position to her husband for fear of losing either his respect or his confidence, she decides to sell some of her jewellery in secret. After some deliberation, Madame de ___ settles on a pair of earrings made of two glittering heart-shaped diamonds, a gift from her husband on the day after their wedding.

She called on her jeweller. He was a thoroughly reliable man; in the houses of many of his most important customers he was as much a friend as a jeweller. She swore him to secrecy, and spoke to him in such a way that he received the impression that M. de ___ was aware of what his wife was doing. The jeweller assumed that M. de ___ had some private money troubles, and wishing to help him without letting Mᵐᵉ de ___ realise what he suspected, he tactfully asked:

“But, Mᵐᵉ, what will you say to M. de ___?”

“Oh,” she answered, “I shall tell him I’ve lost them.”

“You are so charming that I am sure people always believe whatever you say,” said the jeweller, and he bought the earrings.

Mᵐᵉ de ___ paid her debts, and her beauty, free of care, shone brighter than ever. (pgs. 12-13)

This unfortunate act sets in motion a sequence of lies and acts of deceit that come back to haunt Madame de ___ over the course of this story. Perhaps she really did believe the jeweller when he flattered her with the notion that people will always accept whatever she says without probing too deeply…

A week later Madame de ___ claims she has lost the diamond earrings on the evening of a ball. The next day the incident is reported in the newspaper giving the impression that the earrings may have been stolen. On seeing the report, the jeweller feels he must approach M. de ___ and discreetly inform him of the true whereabouts of the earrings. M. de ___ is saddened to learn of his wife’s actions. He is shocked not only by the blatant manner of her deception at the ball but also by her insincerity. By pretending to be upset by the loss of the jewels themselves, Madame de ___ has shown herself to be somewhat disingenuous.

Unbeknownst to his wife, M. de ___ buys the earrings from the jeweller and promptly gives them to his Spanish lover who is leaving Europe to live in South America. Following her arrival in her new home, this lady also finds herself with debts to pay, and so she sells the earrings given to her by M. de ___ to a local jeweller. A European diplomat then spots the earrings and buys them for their beauty.  By pure chance, the diplomat, a newly-appointed Ambassador, happens to meet Madame de ___ at a formal dinner, and they are clearly attracted to one another. At first Madame de ___ is unsure of her true feelings for the Ambassador, but they maintain a flirtatious relationship over the course of several months. Finally, Madame de ___ realises she is in love with Ambassador and rushes to inform him. Delighted at this development, the Ambassador gives Madame de ___ a gift as a token of his love: a beautiful pair of diamond earrings, cut in the shape of hearts.

By now we’re about one-quarter of the way through the book. It’s a short novella, so I don’t want to reveal too much more about the remainder of the plot; save to say the return of these earrings gives rise to more lies, duplicitous behaviour and heartache for more than one person in this story.

Madame de ___ proved to be an excellent choice for WIT month. I was utterly captivated by this little novella; the prose is graceful and stylish, just like our initial impressions of Madame de ___ herself. Ultimately though, the story evokes an enduring sense of melancholy and solitude. I’ll finish with a quote that captures it as well as any other. As we join the scene, Madame de ___ is just coming to terms with the nature of her true feelings for the Ambassador.

Wrapped in a heavy cloak, with some muslin round her head and her arms buried to the elbows in a fur muff, she sat by a low wall which overhung the beach and gazed on the waves and the horizon, which was lit up at regular intervals by the beam of a lighthouse. Suddenly she felt that she no longer had any importance; she asked herself what she was doing in the world, and why she was living; she felt that she was lost infinite space; she sought for the meaning of life and could find no answer in her mind, only the face of one person. Her heart grew heavy with the double weight of that presence and of that absence. She felt a violent desire to be given confidence in her own existence and she felt nobody could give it to her but the man without whom she now knew that life would be unendurable. (pgs. 22-23)

Max and Guy have reviewed Madame de ___, and their posts include further analysis on particular elements of the story – as always, they are well worth reading. My thanks also to Scott who recommended this novella. The Pushkin Press edition contains an excellent afterword by John Julius Norwich, son of the translator, Duff Cooper (one of Louise de Vilmorin’s lovers). It offers a fascinating insight into de Vilmorin’s life, one that adds another dimension to this fateful little tale.

Madame de ___ is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy. Book 6/20, #TBR20 round 2.