#WITMonth: Soft in the Head by Marie-Sabine Roger

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August is Women in Translation Month, the reasons for which are discussed by Katy Derbyshire here on the Freeword Centre site, and elsewhere.

soft in the headSo it is a fitting moment to write about Marie-Sabine Roger‘s joyful novel Soft in the Head, published in 2016 by Pushkin Press and translated by Frank Wynne.

Germain has been looked down on and insulted all his life, by his mother, his teacher and his so-called friends. He’s left school functionally illiterate and thinking of himself as an idiot, and he lives in a caravan at the bottom of his mother’s garden. When he’s not working or in the bar, or whittling wood, Germain likes to sit in the park, counting the pigeons. One day, as he arrives at the park, there’s “this little old lady who looked like she was the type to throw breadcrumbs to get them to come to her” sitting on a bench near the pigeons. Germain’s heart sinks, but the old lady doesn’t act as he expects.

She didn’t stare at me out of the corner of her eye the way most people do when I count.
She stayed very still. But then, just as I was about to leave, she said:
“Nineteen.”

This is the start of an unusual and touching friendship between Germain and the 86-year-old Margueritte that changes both their lives for the better. Margueritte is a retired scientist with a deep passion for books. She begins reading to Germain, first from Camus’ The Plague, and then from other books. At first he only thinks of it as “not unpleasant”, something to keep your ears busy, but soon he is hooked. Margueritte tells Germain that he is “a true reader” because reading starts with listening. This is the first time that anyone has taken him seriously, and as a result, he comes out of the defensive persona he has adopted, and slowly blossoms.

I loved the relationship between the two of them, which is gruff and warm, all at once. And I particularly appreciated Frank Wynne’s achievement in capturing each of their distinct voices. Germain is rough and, initially, crude, while Margueritte is clipped and precise, or as Germain puts it:

She had a complicated way of talking, with more frills and laces than a tart’s knickers, the way posh people talk.

There is also word-play of the sort where the apparent effortlessness of the translation shows just how much work has gone into it. And personally, I enjoyed seeing little bits of Irishness come through in words such as “banjaxed”.

There is sadness in this book – loneliness, cruelty and a soul starved of affection – but there is so much joy too. In words, in language, in books, and in friendship.

Words are boxes that we use to store thoughts the better to present them to others. Show them to their best advantage. For example, on days when you just feel like kicking anything that moves, you can just sulk. Problem is, people might think you’re ill, or depressed. Whereas if you just say out loud: Don’t piss me around, I’m really not in the mood today! It avoids all sorts of confusion.

Apparently “up lit” is a thing now. So there’s a fancy term for books like this, that make you feel better about the world without sugar-coating it. I’d love to see more of them in translation. The world is grim enough without always having to read miserable books. When I tweeted my enjoyment of this book, Frank Wynne replied that it had been a “joy to translate” and that joy really shines through. Lovely.

 

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Quick Curtain by Alan Melville

After Death on the Cherwell, I have checked out a few more of the British Library’s Crime Classics series and Alan Melville‘s books really stand out among the bunch for the quality of their writing. Melville wrote a few crime novels in the 1930s before turning his hand to writing for the theatre and TV. He went on to appear as a panelist on various television programmes as well.

The first of his books that I read was Death of Anton and I have just finished Quick Curtain (1934), in which Melville satirises the theatrical world.

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‘Don’t talk bunk!’ said Mr Douglas. ‘You can’t carry on with the show with a man dying on stage. Drop the curtain!’

When Douglas B. Douglas—leading light of the London theatre—premieres his new musical extravaganza, Blue Music, he is sure the packed house will be dazzled by the performance. What he couldn’t predict is the death of his star, Brandon Baker, on stage in the middle of Act 2. Soon another member of the cast is found dead, and it seems to be a straightforward case of murder followed by suicide.

Inspector Wilson of Scotland Yard—who happens to be among the audience—soon discovers otherwise. Together with Derek, his journalist son, Wilson takes charge of proceedings in his own inimitable way. (see: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25571844-quick-curtain)

The plot of Quick Curtain is in many ways as slender as that of “Blue Music”, although I note that it predates Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer by a year in having an actor shot on stage with a real gun at the point when his character is meant to be killed in the play.

The introduction by Martin Edwards quotes a contemporary review by Dorothy L. Sayers, who thoroughly disapproved of Melville’s refusal to take the genre seriously. She exclaimed disgustedly that he is interested only in “light entertainment” and “a fig for procedure!” Sayers was quite correct – Quick Curtain isn’t even trying to be a police procedural, but despite her misgivings, it is all the better for that.

Melville was writing about a world he knew through and through, and this shows (contemporary readers apparently enjoyed spotting famous theatrical figures in the novel). Similarly, his talent for dialogue shines through (despite the usual period inability to convey the speech of the “lower orders”), particularly in the relationship between Inspector Wilson and his son. There are plenty of good one-liners and a wealth of witty description, which sometimes put me in mind even of the great P.G. Wodehouse. The whole thing is played for laughs, and it gets them. “Light entertainment” and “a fig for procedure!” it is, and I say hurrah for that.

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Hotel Alpha by Mark Watson

I was fortunate enough to win a signed proof copy of Mark Watson’s novel Hotel Alpha just before it was published by Picador in 2014. For one reason or another, the book languished on a TBR pile (although my husband read and enjoyed it), then we moved house and it got filed on a shelf, and with one thing and another, I never got round to reading it. But the other day I was having a “what shall I read?!” crisis, and the book came back to mind and finally got read.

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Three decades ago, the charismatic Howard York built the empire of his dreams: the Hotel Alpha. It was once the finest in London, but over the years, as the world around it has moved on at an ever more dizzying rate, the hotel has struggled to keep pace.

Graham, the Alpha’s concierge, has been behind the front desk since the day the hotel opened and has witnessed every stage of its history. Chas, Howard’s blind adopted son, has almost never ventured outside its walls. Both of them view the Alpha as their sanctuary, the place that gives them everything they need. But both of them must now accept that the Alpha no longer offers them the life they most want, and that Howard’s vision has been built on secrets as well as dreams . . .

The novel is narrated in alternating chapters by Graham and Chas, and their stories are interwoven with those of the hotel itself and other characters in and around it over the years. It offers moments of comedy and of tragedy, and I found it engaging and moving. I also enjoyed the contrast between the two voices and their differing perspectives on the same events. There is also a website, Hotel Apha Stories, which tells more stories of the hotel, further fleshing out some of the characters and events – warning though, there are some spoilers!

I think part of why it appealed to me is that Chas and I are pretty much the same age, and so his experiences of politics and changing technology throughout the novel pretty much match my own. Obviously this little trip down memory lane helps build a connection with a character.

Mark Watson is a great story-teller and now I will look out for more of his writing.

 

 

 

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Apple Cake and Baklava

I was sent a copy of Apple Cake and Baklava by Kathrin Rohmann, translated by my friend and colleague Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (Darf Publishers, 2018) for review.

As I read it with Son2, it seemed to make sense to share what he thought of it too.

Apple Cake and Baklava by Kathrin Rohmann, tr. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

It’s the story of Leila and Max – Leila is the new girl in Max’s class at school in Germany, and a refugee from the war in Syria. She is living in a nice flat with her mum and two brothers, but misses her dad and her grandma, who stayed behind in Syria because Grandma Amina was too ill to travel. Leila particularly misses her Grandma Amina’s garden, but she has a walnut from the tree there, given her as a farewell present, and it is her most precious possession. She feels that it is a link to her grandma and to Syria, and it offers comfort and security in a strange situation. Max likes Leila straight away, but he’s too shy to speak to her at first. It’s only when Leila loses her treasured walnut and Max tries to help her find it that they strike up a friendship. Like Leila, he has a close relationship with his grandmother, Granny Gertrud, who also had the experience of being a refugee – this time at the end of the Second World War. This means that she is able to talk to Leila in a way that nobody else can, as the two have this shared experience.

Here are Son2’s thoughts (spoiler alert!):

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“I thought that in some points it was really sad like when Leila said that her dad and grandma couldn’t come to Germany because Leila’s grandma was very ill but in some points it’s really happy like when they plant the walnut in Granny Gertrud’s garden.

I liked it when Max found Leila’s walnut and when they thought that Leila’s dad could take over Jette’s dad’s bakery instead of going to his cousin in Canada.”

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We read it shortly after Son2’s school had learnt about the refugee crisis as part of Norfolk Welcomes and the story works really well as an opening to talk about some difficult issues and emotions. It deals with friendship, loneliness and homesickness and touches lightly on people-smuggling, war and the dangers faced by refugees.

Each chapter is told from the perspective either of Leila or of Max, giving us an insight into how each of them feels about the events of the story. I found that this worked better when I was reading it aloud to S than when reading it to myself as an adult reader, although I’m not sure why. It’s interesting how these things make a difference, though.

Ruth’s translation leaves some traces of German and Arabic, which helps to remind young readers of the setting in a different country, and of the difficulties in learning a new language – we see that Leila is much better at this than Max.

The recipes at the end are a nice touch too, and we will have to try them out!

You can see more reviews and Ruth’s thoughts on the book here: https://ruthahmedzaikemp.com/2018/06/11/apple-cake-and-baklava-2/

 

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Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

For Miss Cordell, principal of Persephone College, there are two great evils to be feared: unladylike behaviour among her students, and bad publicity for the college. So her prim and cosy world is turned upside down when a secret society of undergraduates meets by the river on a gloomy January afternoon, only to find the drowned body of the college bursar floating in her canoe.

The police assume that a student prank got out of hand, but the resourceful Persephone girls suspect foul play, and take the investigation into their own hands. Soon they uncover the tangled secrets that led to the bursar’s death – and the clues that point to a fellow student.

Originally published in 1935, Death on the Cherwell  is one of the British Library’s reissues of classic crime novels (from 2014) and it features an introduction by Stephen Booth.

A crime novel set in a fictional women’s Oxford college will inevitably attract comparisons with Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night but this is a much more light-hearted affair, with its focus more on the students than the dons, although it shares a disdain for the word “undergraduettes”, which appears to have been beloved of journalists at that time. The set-up is promising: a group of friends have formed a league to seek revenge on the college bursar, only to be interrupted by her drowned body floating down the river in her own canoe. Initial shock gives way to a determination to solve this mystery by themselves.

As a mystery,  it is a little lacking – the solution is easy enough to guess – and, the blurb notwithstanding, the police do most of the work. As a period-piece, it’s fascinating, especially if you’re interested in slang, fashion and suchlike. There is the casual xenophobia you’d expect from the era – the “Yugo-Slav” student is, obviously, excitable and baffled by the English insistence on punctuality.

There are points when it reads like a child trying to please their teacher by shoe-horning in as many “wow words” as possible in place of the prosaic “said”. In the first chapter alone, characters cry in shrill dismay, retort in withering tone, comment, suggest, grumble, decree, point out, demand, interrupt, declare, remind, muse, inquire, concede, advise, comment, squeak, whisper, mutter, exclaim, murmur, state, yell, corroborate, gasp and wail…

On the other hand, I did like the opening musings on undergraduates (perhaps not so much the case these days with debts and fees and all the rest of it? And of course undergraduates were also under age in those days…):

Undergraduates, especially those in their first year, are not, of course, quite sane or quite adult. It is sometimes considered that they are not quite human. Emerging excitedly from the ignominious status of schoolgirl or schoolboy, and as yet unsteadied by the ballast of responsibility which, later on, a livelihood-earning career will provide, they enter the university like beings born again with the advantage of an undimmed memory of their former lives. […] The easily acquired label of “originality” is so much more distinguished than the “naughtiness” of their out-passed schooldays, and quite a lot of wildness may be mixed with a modicum of work and form a sound basis for a highly respectable later life.

It may not have the depth of the best crime fiction, but as a fun and frivolous way to spend a wet bank holiday, it was highly entertaining.

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

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On Reviewing – Translations and Other Things

There are several controversies/discussions/debates swirling around my Twitter at the moment which are at least partly related. There are issues about how to review translations, what to do if you think a translation is flawed or poor, and about whether to publish bad reviews at all. I don’t yet know whether I can collect my thoughts on these matters into something coherent, but my brain won’t let go so I’m going to try.

I’ve written a bit about Reviewing Translations before, but things have moved on since then, and if the “Translators’ Toolkit” that Susan Bernofsky talked about has appeared, I haven’t seen it. Katy Derbyshire has been writing about this too, recently, in response to a couple of other blog posts: On Appreciating Translations. I want to echo this, and something I quoted from Kate Briggs in This Little Art:

I think we owe translators, and perhaps also ourselves, some recognition of what it might have meant to have handled every single word (space and punctuation mark) of the writing-to-be-translated, to have taken a decision in relation to its every single word (space and punctuation mark), and indeed to have written every single one of its parts […], which might in turn be another way of saying each and every one of its risks.

The decisions that we take when we translate are sometimes conscious, agonised, wrestled over for anything from minutes to months, and sometimes more or less automatic as we fall back on default options or when a text is (seems?) simple, or when we’re up against a tight deadline. Sometimes these defaults can be misleading, and this can lead to the kind of error that a reviewer might spot. Or they might just make the text boring. Or they might be perfectly fine. And when we’ve wrestled with a sentence and finally feel that we’ve done it justice, we’d like that recognised in some way, but a reviewer might not feel that they have the tools to do so…

Well, if you enjoy a translated book, think about the fact that the words you’re reading were written in your language by a translator in response to the words written in another language by the author. If you don’t enjoy it, why is that? It’s important to distinguish between a good translation of a book that’s not to your taste and a poor translation. While it can be hard to be certain, it’s worth wondering whether the writing is deliberately awkward or just stilted: is the translator aiming to replicate an effect? That’s probably more likely than just missing the point or being unable to write, at least in a properly published, well edited book, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, there’s the question of whether bloggers should publish bad reviews at all. Some people feel that there’s something dishonest about only ever blogging about books you love. Other people feel that it’s hurtful or harmful to the author to berate a book that you hated. Some people want to engage with whatever they read, and others to provide a recommendation service. Personally, I want to write about books when they prompt some kind of response. Usually that’s because I’ve enjoyed them, but sometimes it isn’t. I don’t want to be unkind, just to be fair and honest. There has to be room for a range of approaches, and a place for balanced, constructive criticism. I guess, like with so many things, it comes down to a big fat “it depends”. It depends who you’re writing for, and why. I’m not writing for a huge audience, and it’s mostly about putting things into words when they’re buzzing around my head.

I can’t quite get behind the idea of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. The test I often propose to my kids is to think whether what they’re about to say is true, and if so, is it kind, or helpful? Perhaps the way we’re inclined to review comes down as much to personality type as anything else. Are some of us just incurably honest, or overly inclined to see both sides of everything? Hmm. Anywhere, here are some questions that I think are worth asking around critique:

  • What purpose does it serve to criticise a book?
  • Is it me trying to maintain my sanity within a long tradition of parents applying adult logic to cartoons for humorous effect (for example)?
  • Is there something harmful in the way a book depicts a character?
  • Is it perpetuating stereotypes, falling into lazy tropes such as victim blaming in crime fiction?
  • Is a mistranslated word important in the overall scheme of things? If it changes things significantly, then it must be possible to point that out.
  • If it doesn’t, is there any need to nit-pick?
  • Is this a mistake, or an issue, that the author/translator/others can learn from?
  • If so, is this the best venue to raise that?

Is there anything I’ve missed? I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts.

 

 

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The Orenda Roadshow – Nordic Authors and the Beast from the East

It’s been a bit nippy in the last week, if you hadn’t noticed… Obviously, this had to be the week of the Orenda Roadshow – a large gaggle of brilliant authors from the UK and Europe travelling from Aberdeen to Liverpool to Nottingham to Warwick with one-woman publishing powerhouse Karen Sullivan, who is Orenda Books.

L to r: Matt Johnson, Su Bristow, Thomas Enger, Michael J. Malone, Antti Tuomainen, Louise Beech, Steph Broadribb, Louise Voss, Lilja Sigurdardóttir, L.V. Hay, Simone Buchholz, Karen Sullivan

Team Orenda (L to R): Matt Johnson, Su Bristow, Thomas Enger, Michael J. Malone, Antti Tuomainen, Louise Beech, Steph Broadribb, Louise Voss, Lilja Sigurdardóttir, L.V. Hay, Simone Buchholz, Karen Sullivan

I had the opportunity to meet up with them in Nottingham, and then join the party as far as Warwick, and it was fortunate that we’d arranged it that way as I’m not sure I’d have made it out of Norfolk on Wednesday. Luckily, there wasn’t nearly as much snow in the Midlands as at home, and although it was very cold, there was no real disruption to the trains.

Simone Buchholz reading from Blue Night

Simone reading from Blue Night in Nottingham (on her left Louise Beech and Johana Gustawsson, on her right, Matt Wesolowski)

It seems that the book-lovers of Warwick are hardier than those of Nottingham, where the audience was decidedly depleted, but those who braved the conditions seemed appreciative. Each author gave a brief “elevator pitch” summary of their book, followed by a one-minute reading, then audience questions, refreshments and book signings.

It was lovely to meet so many of Team Orenda, and particularly Simone Buchholz so that we could celebrate the publication day of my translation of her book together. Yes, Blue Night is now out in paperback. And I now have a much longer wishlist of Orenda books to read.

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