After the purge of a house move, the books that survive are in a random state. The lucky ones are shelved, but many lie in boxes only to be liberated if I think they may contain something I want. Flung aside they sit in jumbled piles on the floor, like the shifting borders of mainland Europe. The boxes were labelled, but it turns out not precisely enough: “Fiction” could be anything from Jane Austen to Carlos Ruiz Zafón. The muddle does mean I unearth unexpected gems when I scrabble through, and some are from mainland Europe.
If I wasn’t British I’d probably possess more books not written in my mother tongue or by non British authors. Other nations buy far more translated writing than we do, in part because their publishing industries risk more, and their authors do sometimes write in a second language.(Think of Conrad, Nabokov, Yann Martel, Eva Hoffman.)
Beata Bishop’s One Spoilt Spring (I’m providing the US link showing the wonderful dustjacket) was written in English and published by Faber in 1960. Beata Bishop was a Hungarian who became a BBC journalist and her novel tells of a young woman involved in the resistance against the Nazis in Budapest. Of many works about Eastern Europe under the Nazis, probably the best known by a UK author is Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, filmed by the BBC as “The Fortunes of War”. But Bishop gives us the story from the Hungarian point of view. Sadly, this quote reflects much of Hungarian reality today: “…every second person around her was a potential victim, certain to be persecuted the moment the political situation deteriorated.”
Also from Hungary, The Door was written by Magda Szabo in 1986 and translated in 1995. It’s the strange tale of the relationship between a writer and her employee, the difficult, disturbed, faithful Emerence. Where Bishop focussed on one season of one year, Szabo gradually reveals Emerence’s whole life story, during the siege of Budapest, the Nazi invasion and then under communism. Emerence is controlling and disagreeable, has suffered appallingly and through a mixture of hoarding and giving, withholding and nurture, is trying to make sense of a life smashed up, just as the book tries to make sense of ageing. The image of the door, kept locked, forced open, welcoming or rejecting, may be unsubtle on a psychoanalytical level, but it’s powerful enough to act as another character in the narrative. This is not a book for the faint hearted, but there is a dream like quality to the long sentenced prose. I remember thinking it wonderful but on returning to it for this post I was repelled: it’s one of those books, like Kafka perhaps or Stefan Zweig that meets your emotions with a slug of uncomfortable recognition so you need all your strength to read it.
Sándor Márai was another Hungarian whose Embers, translated by Carol Brown Janeway (Penguin, 2003) is also a poetic, elegiac exploration of memory and age. I found it a delight to read – no, “delight” is too diaphanous a word, but a pleasure, with beautifully translated cadences and always enough simplicity to leaven the description. A look online showed me it breeds poetry in the readers too; I’ve seldom found such beauty and feeling in a set of reviews. (The reviews are polarized through: there’s some viciously expressed dislike, along the lines of ‘how dare you waste my time when you know I wanted a plot?’) And yet more doors: “Door latches gave off the traces of a once-trembling hand, the excitement of a moment long gone, so that even now another hand hesitated to press down on them.”
Shall we go somewhere warmer? Most of the modern Spanish fiction I’ve read has been in Spanish, but my language skills aren’t up to the verbosity of the classics. That Bringas Woman is a wonderful portrait of sycophantic upper class society in 1860s Madrid. Never have aristocrats appeared such dinosaurs. Condemned in their pointless lives to ever greater display and unable to pay for it, their economic model should be unsustainable. Rosalia the heroine is forced into finding unpleasant solutions to the conundrum. This is dense and detailed but well translated with a helpful introduction and notes, which will appeal to anyone who enjoyed Madame Bovary, Vanity Fair, Balzac or Dickens (although it’s much shorter). A detail that stayed with me years after reading it was the minutely described fashion for sewing pictures using the hair of loved ones instead of thread. Yes, you did read that correctly.
In my childhood home, there were many stories about Italy, then even more starkly divided into sophisticated North and poverty stricken South than now. I read Danilo Dolci’s To Feed the Hungry, a classic collection of interviews with Sicilians. Bread and Wine (revised 1955) by Ignazio Silone and Christ stopped at Eboli (1946) by Carlo Levi (also filmed) were both by opponents of Fascism living in internal exile.
The modern classic The Leopard (1958, also filmed by Visconti) by Guiseppe di Lampedusa begins during the Garibaldi uprising of 1860 but remains informative about the workings of Sicilian society today. In the 1970s and 1980s there was an outpouring of films to complement these books: The Tree of Wooden Clogs, set in Lombardy, Padre Padrone (Sardinia), Cinema Paradiso (Sicily again) heralded two decades earlier by Fellini’s La Strada. In some ways, with the publication of Elena Ferrante‘s Neapolitan novels, little has changed: we read of tumultuous, crime ridden, sun baked volcanic places whose inhabitants struggle with gross passions and strong, crude morals. Characters of great delicacy and potential do appear in all the works I’ve referred to, but it has to be said that the more brutish features prevail. Ferrante’s popularity, despite her often difficult, intense prose, suggests these are archetypes, and indeed one of her Communist activist characters quotes Dolci. (My daughter who recently lived in Palermo as part of her Italian degree, tells me they are less popular in Italy than in Anglophone countries, which may be because the mirror held up is hardly flattering.)
As long as there is no Dexit, Denmark remains a member of the EU. What a pleasure to unearth Peter Høeg’s Miss Smila’s Feeling for Snow (1992). (This seems to be available in two differently titled translations.) Høeg taught me about the quiet crime novel, no less menacing for the intelligent, controlled nature of its excitement. If it isn’t too much of a contradiction, it’s narratively rich in colourlessness, noiselessness, isolation and loneliness. Miss Smilla also provides an introduction to minority ethnic Greenlanders. The film of the same name did it justice, I thought, and may have been what inspired all those BBC4 Scandi noir commissions..
Finally, anyone who’s enjoyed listening to Mac the Knife, and been led from there to the The Threepenny Opera, will appreciate The Threepenny Novel by Bertolt Brecht (1934). It’s witty, exuberant, cruel and sharp like the stage work and the prose rattles along like a Berlin tram. If you want ways to tell modern bankers what you think of them, consult Brecht! Much more cheerful, if decadent and cynical, than the last item in that particular box, which I don’t have the courage to reread but which shaped my early ideas of justice and equality when I was a teenager. Andre Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, originally written in French about Ernie Levy, the designated “just man” of his generation, who died at Auschwitz in 1943.
This was of necessity a random selection. A few more months, a few more open boxes and who knows where we’ll travel on the blog? Or maybe it would save disturbing them if I go browsing for some more recent titles.
© Jessica Norrie 2016