WordPress tells me I’m five this week! Not a message I expected to see when I wrote my tentative Welcome in 2016. Right now I’m very preoccupied by what’s best described as a Demanding Family Event so will keep this post brief (at last! you sigh). It’s a quick rundown of the posts you and I liked best every year. Thank you for travelling with me; do please revisit and return, and I’ll do my best still to be writing for you (and me) in 2026.
2017: Most popular post: The Best Independent Bookshop in London. Could be subtitled How to Bring up a Bookworm. If you are more or less raised in a good bookshop, your welcome to the world of words is assured. Runners up in my own mind are diversions into UK travelogue: an exploration of “my” corner of East London called The World in Four Short Blocks and Marsh Frogs Sing Loudly in the Ditches which came from a trip to the ancient Sussex town of Rye. I also wrote a little about cultural appropriation as I worried my way into The Magic Carpet. I wouldn’t dare start writing that book now, but it has its merits and I hope Getting It Right expresses the sensitive dilemma so many authors face.
2018: Most popular post: I was surprised but pleased for my German translator to find this was Sought and Found in Translation, after the publication of Der Infinity-Pool. But I also enjoyed exploring an unusual POV In a Nutshell, and was humbled and proud (if you can be both at once) to be asked to start a fortnightly books column for Smorgasbord, one of which is here. I kept that up for a year or so before asking to contribute more occasionally so that I could get on with my own writing. But I was so pleased to be asked and Sally and her crowd of co-bloggers have become good and supportive friends. Finally, although sometimes along with many of you I feel as though I Can’t be Bloggered, I did have a bit of fun giving a backward glance to Prologues.
2019: Most popular post: The Magic Carpet – Standby for Landing. This is one flight that hasn’t been cancelled so if you haven’t bought it yet… I also had the interesting experience of a blog tour in 2019, and there are a couple of posts about that. Not sure what I was doing otherwise, there seems to be a six month gap in blog posts.
2021: …when as I say an ongoing family event has taken most of my time and attention, and my most popular post so far is from people revisiting my Easter Eggheads quiz of a previous year. My post on a workshop with Sophie Hannah did well though, and if you look back through there are others on writing courses each year. I’ve learned a lot in five years. Please stay with me, even if we’re both erratic, for the next five.
Please note: This blogpost interview with my translator is in French and English so you don’t have to read more than half of it! If you blog about books in the francophone world please see the full French text below and feel free to republish it (by all means share too if you blog in English). Also please do contact me for a free Mobi file if you would be interested in reviewing Infinitude.
Je publie cet entretien avec ma traductrice en français et en anglais, donc il ne faut lire que la moitié ! Le texte français est proposé à la suite de l’anglais et j’invite les blogueurs du monde francophone à le diffuser sans modération ! De plus, si vous êtes blogeur/se et que vous aimeriez écrire en donnant votre avis sur Infinitude, je vous prie de me contacter pour obtenir une version électronique gratuite de mon roman.
As this is my English language blog, I’m providing the English version first.
Faced with the horrors of Brexit, it’s a pleasure to have collaborated on Infinitude, the just published French translation of my first novel. As soon as I published The Infinity Pool in 2015, a translation was suggested. The German version appeared in 2018, and the French edition two months ago. You’ll find the paperback and the Kindle edition by searching any Amazon worldwide, or at: http://getbook.at/Infinitude
I owe huge thanks to Isabelle Rouault-Röhlich, who’s patiently translated my first novel. She deserves great success with this project. This interview introduces her and explains the process of translating someone else’s book.
Hi Isabelle ! Where do you live and work ?Which languages do you use in daily life?
Bonjour Jessica ! I live in Valencia, Spain. I work here, and also in Paris or London when I’m lucky enough to be asked by clients. My mother tongue is French, but I spoke English from when I was about six years old, so we speak English at home too. Of course in Valencia I also speak Spanish (Castilian). My husband works a lot with German, so our house sometimes sounds like a real Tower of Babel!
How did you come across this translation project?
The project for this book was posted by a colleague on a translators’ forum. I already had wide experience of editorial translation and of translating non fiction. But up until then, I hadn’t had the opportunity to translate a novel, so I didn’t hesitate a second before buying the book and diving straight in. The story hooked me straight away, that’s what decided me!
Tell us about the process of translating a whole book. How do you start? What are the pleasures – and the pitfalls?
There’s no shortage of pitfalls. But I was prepared for them. The main difficulty is thinking you can translate something every day. It isn’t always possible to fit it in with the demands of other customers, and you have be be very disciplined. The other traps are more to do with language and the science of translation: you must remain aware that the translator’s role is adaptive, and not get discouraged when the French and English don’t match. For example, if you can’t find an equivalent concept or term in the other language, then you must return to the story and take a step back from interpreting the words literally. And when the English sentences seem a bit long and putting them into good French seems impossible, you mustn’t give up but keep formulating and reformulating…
Can you give us an elevator pitch for Infinitude/The Infinity Pool?
Serendipity, a holiday settlement on a Mediterranean shore, promises personal growth for body and soul. But this year, Adrian, the charismatic “guru” director, hasn’t turned up. His loyal disciples must fight their personal and 21st century battles alone. Infinitude is a novel about the importance of others.
Who do you think would particularly like this book? Is there a special place, or a particular time of life when it would resonate most?
I think it’s a novel for people aged 25-45. But there are no real age limits!
I know you’ve already translated one book from English to French. Can you describe it please (and provide link)?
Yes, thank you for the plug! I’ve finished translating“Les audacieuses”, an adaptation of “Rouge” which is a novel by Richard Kirshenbaum. It was inspired by the lives of Elsa Rubinstein and Estée Lauder and the troubled relationship of the two great women who invented modern cosmetics.
The novel won’t come out until 7 January 2021, delayed by the pandemic. I’ve also another project with a publisher who wants to introduce French readers to an American author who disappeared too young. It’s still under wraps…
Infinitude is partly about the effects of tourism on a traditional community. I think you too are campaigning against environmental damage?
Yes indeed. I’m very active in the struggle against plastic pollution and single use plastics, taking part in beach clean-ups. I’ve produced multilingual publicity for town halls and institutions to educate their citizens, and also poster resources for public use everywhere. I’m seeking financial backing for this campaign, and you can find details on my website: www.wordistas.net
What sort of translation do you do to bring home the bacon? How can we ask you to quote for a project?
I do mostly “adaptive translation”. I also specialise in “trans-creation”, which is creative marketing and publicity translation. And I have a special interest in environmental translation work. Please see my website (above) for more details.
Thank you so much, Isabelle, and especially for your hard work over the past few years. Let’s hope Infinitude is an infinite success for both of us!
Thank you too, Jessica, very much. Our mutual trust has helped us get this project finished. Now like you I wish Infinitude all possible good fortune and infinite success!
English readers stop here unless you wish to practice your French (but feel free to comment below).
A vous, lecteurs francophones!
En total contraste avec les horreurs du Brexit, cette belle collaboration avec le traducteur de mon premier roman a été pour moi un grand plaisir. Au moment de publier The Infinity Pool en 2015, l’idée de proposer une traduction a été lancée. La version allemande a été publiée en 2018, et la version française – Infinitude – vient de sortir !
Vous pouvez consulter et acheter le livre en version papier ou pour Kindle chez Amazon dans le pays de votre choix, ou ici : http://getbook.at/Infinitude.
Je souhaite tout particulièrement remercier Isabelle Rouault-Röhlich, qui a patiemment traduit ce premier roman, et je lui souhaite ainsi qu’à ce projet la plus belle des réussites.
À suivre, cet entretien présente la traductrice et explique un peu le processus consistant à traduire un livre rédigé par quelqu’un autre.
Bonjour Isabelle ! Où habites-tu et où travailles-tu ? Quelles sont les langues que tu parles au quotidien ?
Bonjour Jessica ! Je vis à Valence, ou Valencia, en Espagne. Je travaille ici, mais aussi à Paris ou à Londres si j’ai la chance d’être appelée pour un projet par un client ! Ma langue maternelle est le français, mais j’ai commencé à parler anglais très tôt, vers l’âge de 6 ans, alors nous parlons aussi anglais à la maison. Et à Valence, je parle espagnol (castellan), bien sûr. Mon mari travaille lui beaucoup avec l’allemand, ce qui fait de notre maison une vraie tour de Babel parfois !
Comment as-tu entendu parler de ce projet de traduction ?
Ce livre m’a été proposé par une de mes collègues grâce à un forum de traducteurs. J’avais déjà une grande expérience de la traduction éditoriale et de la traduction d’ouvrages de non-fiction. Mais jusque-là, je n’avais pas eu l’opportunité de traduire des romans, c’est pourquoi je n’ai pas hésité une seconde et ai acheté le livre pour m’y plonger immédiatement. J’ai tout de suite accroché à l’histoire, c’est ce qui m’a décidée !
Raconte-nous un peu le processus de traduction d’un livre entier. Comment l’aborde-t-on ? Quels sont les plaisirs – et les pièges ?
Les pièges ne manquent pas. Mais je m’y attendais ! La difficulté principale, c’est de penser qu’on peut traduire un peu chaque jour. Ce n’est pas toujours possible quand on a d’autres clients, et il faut une grande discipline. Enfin, les autres pièges relèvent plutôt de la langue et de la traductologie : il faut être conscient du véritable rôle d’adaptation du traducteur et ne pas se décourager quand l’anglais et le français ne sont pas d’accord, par exemple si on n’arrive pas à trouver un concept équivalent ou un terme dans l’autre langue, auquel cas il faut se plonger dans l’histoire et prendre du recul par rapport aux mots en tant que tels. Et si les phrases anglaises sont un peu longues et que l’exercice en français semble impossible, il ne faut pas se décourager, formuler et… reformuler.
Est-ce que tu peux nous présenter Infinitude en 25 mots ? Un résumé en quelques secondes ?
Au bord de la Méditerranée, un lieu de vacances propose à un public un peu « bobo » de se ressourcer, corps et âme. Mais cette année, Adrian, le charismatique « gourou » de Serendipity, n’est pas arrivé. Ses fidèles « suiveurs » vont se retrouver face à leurs contradictions et à celles du XXIe siècle. Infinitude est aussi un roman sur l’importance de l’autre.
A ton avis, quels lecteurs aimeront ce livre ? Est-ce qu’il y un endroit parfait pour le lire, ou un moment de la vie qui correspond particulièrement pour le lire ?
Je pense que ce roman s’adresse aux 25-45 ans. Mais il n’y a jamais de limites d’âge !
Je crois que tu as déjà traduit un autre roman anglais en français…
Oui, merci de le mentionner ! J’ai terminé la traduction de “Les audacieuses”, une adaptation à partir de “Rouge” un roman de Richard Kirshenbaum inspiré de la vie d’Elsa Rubinstein et d’Estée Lauder et des relations houleuses entre les deux grandes dames qui ont inventé la cosmétique moderne.Visiter: https://michel-lafon.ca/livres/les-audacieuses/
Ce roman ne sortira que le 7 janvier 2021 à cause de la pandémie. Enfin, j’ai un autre projet en cours avec un éditeur qui veut proposer au public français de relire une auteure américaine qui a disparu trop tôt. C’est encore confidentiel…
Infinitude fait allusion aux effets du tourisme dans une communauté traditionnelle. Je crois que toi aussi tu luttes contre les dommages à l’environnement ?
Exactement. Je suis très active dans la lutte contre la pollution par le plastique et les plastiques à usage unique et je participe à des nettoyages de plages. Je réalise des écrits multilingues de sensibilisation citoyenne pour les mairies et les institutionnels, mais aussi pour diffuser auprès de tous les publics, et je suis à la recherche de financements. Ce que je propose est présenté sur mon site web www.wordistas.net
Et quel genre de traduction fais-tu pour gagner ton pain quotidien ? Où peut-on te joindre pour en savoir plus sur ce que tu proposes ?
Je fais le maximum de traduction-adaptation. Je suis aussi spécialiste de la « transcréation », c’est-à-dire la traduction créative pour la publicité et le marketing. Enfin, la traduction environnementale m’intéresse beaucoup.Mon site web est www.wordistas.net.
Merci beaucoup Isabelle, et merci encore pour ton grand travail de ces dernières années. Espérons une réussite infinie pour « Infinitude » !
Merci beaucoup à toi, Jessica. La confiance nous a permis de mener à bien ce projet. J’espère comme toi qu’il aura un succès infini. Alors bon vent à ce livre !
I do have some news this week, but first I have a question for you:
Did you ever go to school?
As many of you know, I was a teacher for 33 years. I posted a lot about it when I started this blog, because I was still in harness. Then I retired and with gratitude in my heart for a fascinating career that at last I was leaving (when I started I only intended to stay a few years), I blogged a farewell.
Four years later, what a lot of crap we’ve seen, and even more this week. Nurses, porters, paramedics and hospital cleaners have been refused a pay rise. They’re supposed to live on clapping and rainbows, I suppose. Teachers did get one (from existing money, so something else will have to go), and immediately teachers are blamed for it. Why have they got a pay rise? They haven’t even been in school! Lazy, workshy – and so on.
Right then, today the class task is 5 minutes silent reading which you’ll find here. It’s a heartfelt plea from a practising English teacher. Authors who read this: we need English teachers. They read our books and teach the readers of tomorrow! So head over and read her POV, please, and I want to see you back in here as soon as you’ve finished.
Now spend 5 minutes writing your answer to Susan English. How are you going to help put things right for this teacher and her colleagues? (You at the back – if we don’t get this done today we’ll all be staying in until we do.)
This possible model answer is more or less what I commented on her blog:
I do so sympathise. I taught all age groups and some teacher training/school improvement. In my NQT year (then called “probation”) I went to a family party at my new partner’s home in a county where they love to tell you they’re “proud to call a spade a spade”.
“What do you do?” asked an aunt/cousin/bad-fairy-at-the-wedding. “I’m a teacher,” I said. “Teachers? I wouldn’t give you the time of day for ’em!” she retorted. And so it went on… party after party, all my teaching life:
“What do you do?” / “I’m a teacher…” “Teachers? Ever heard that saying: ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’. Ha ha ha! Oh I remember Mr X/ Ms Y. We used to love winding him up! And we made her cry! Yes, she used to run out the room weeping! Those were the days!”
These otherwise pleasant people somehow became bigoted monsters the moment you said you were a teacher. I can only think each of them had been damaged at an early age by one of the very few colleagues who doesn’t have pupils’ welfare etched deeply in their hearts.
Nowadays I go to parties (currently only on Zoom, of course) and when people say “What do you do?” I say, “I’m a writer!” “WOW!” they answer. “That’s so impressive! I could never do THAT! You must be so brainy, have such focus, work so hard, have such imagination and empathy…” “Yup,” I say. “I developed all those when I was teaching, and I did my best to develop them in your children too.” “You were a teacher? Oh we had this teacher and we used to make her cry…” etc.
When you leave, write a novel about it. Or start one now. Writing The Magic Carpet was as good as therapy and it really boosted my morale. Yes, I HAD done a good job, yes I HAD worked hard, and I know you do too. Even if no-one else does, I’m saying, “You’re a teacher? Well DONE!”
(A* for the blog post too.)
What other news do I have? It’s BIG news, it deserves a post to itself and next time I’ll have one. The French version of The Infinity Pool was published this week. It’s called Infinitude. Are you French? Do you know French people? (Could be because a French teacher started you off…) Soon I’ll be interviewing Isabelle the hard working translator but for now here’s the book cover, the link’s above, and here’s some bon vin français to drink a toast. Now please find someone to buy it, and/or Der Infinity-Pool which is the German version because guess what? Teachers DO mostly earn more than authors or translators. Except in respect.
My book became someone else’s book this week. A big round of applause, please, for Michaela Pschierer-Barnfather, who has produced Der Infinity-Pooland added a subtitle for good measure – Urlaub im Jetzt. No, I’m not sure what it means either, but it was approved by committee: this British novel was translated by an Austrian, with German and Swiss citizens to moderate. Meanwhile Isabelle Rouault-Röhlich, my French translator, has moved to Barcelona where she’s busy adding Catalan to her already fluent Spanish. If I wasn’t ashamed to be British, I’d have researched European funding for this project. They’re a great team and I’m so grateful to them all.
When The Infinity Pool (henceforth TIP) was first launched, an Amazon representative got in touch raving about its prospects, and suggesting translations. As a linguist myself I was intrigued and contacted translator friends who posted the project on bulletin boards. That’s not really the right way to do it, without a budget or any guarantee of the starry authorial universe Amazon implied. All I offered was a very small payment and the uncertain promise of a share of royalties. We committed to try and sell to mainstream publishers first, paying the translators an exit fee if their work wasn’t accepted, and to self publish if that didn’t work. The pluses for the translator were therefore very few, apart from adding 82,000 words of literary work to their CVs. It also gave them a break from the bank statements, tenders, medical records and insurance claims that form the normal daily fare of these talented, creative people (though Michaela was commended for the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry translation in 2015, and Isabelle has translated a children’s book, so these translators, should you need one, are versatile and come highly recommended).
I was surprised and touched by how many people were keen! I set them the task of translating the first paragraph and a sample page of their own choosing, and ran the results past German and French mother tongue friends, who voted unanimously for Michaela and Isabelle. The Society of Authors, with much justifiable harrumphing about exploiting translators, helped draw up a contract which improved matters slightly for them. I was chastened, remembering having to put my own day job first when writing the book, and we all became more flexible about dates.
The experience of being translated is a strange one. I speak fluent French, and have a translation diploma myself, but it’s not my mother tongue. In French I could read and discuss how Isabelle conveyed my meaning. In German I was at Michaela’s mercy, and we had long phone calls and facetime sessions as she meticulously tried to make sense of what I was on about. If there’s one thing this experience has cured me of, it’s multi-claused sentences that dribble on forever – sorry, Michaela and Isabelle! I now have two articulate, sensitive women speaking on my behalf to other communities – it’s a generous and humbling experience. They’ve probably given my naive first novel much more sureness of touch, and I’ve discovered the pleasure of putting my trust in strangers (now friends, I hope).
It’s been quite a journey. German commercial publishers didn’t offer on Der Infinity-Pool (henceforth DIP), though they commented favourably on the translation quality, so we’ve taken the Amazon route. Now Michaela is faced with marketing, the bane of all authors, self published or not. As she began to take that in, she commented she felt “stunned”, but was still generous enough to thank me for “taking her on board for this adventure!” – in her shoes, I’d want to drown me in TIP. As a non German speaker, it’s tricky to help her as much as I’d like. So, Bitte, any of you with German, Austrian, Swiss contacts or who know German speakers anywhere in the world – DIP is available worldwide! Please recommend it, buy it, review it, talk about it, especially to any Hollywood moguls passing through. I can provide electronic copies for review, and paperbacks (probably UK only but try your luck). I honestly feel it’s now more her book than mine, and she has worked so hard. I would love it to at least pay for her to have a holiday!
(Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you don’t read French!)
Et un appel aux amis français! Si vous avez même quelques minutes de liberté cet été vous pourriez aider Isabelle! Nous voudrions des lecteurs pour son texte (une partie ou tout, au choix) pour commenter et pour identifier les diablotins qui s’imposent pour dérouter même les plus professionnels des écrivains et des traducteurs. Je serais éternellement reconnaissante. Vous recevrez des citations dans l’édition finale et éventuellement une copie complémentaire. Je regrette que le budget ne permet pas de paiement supplémentaire, mais vous aurez l’honneur de participer dans mon projet européen. (Constatez-vous mon côté déplorable britannique? – je voudrais un service européen, mais je ne veux pas payer. Mais si un jour le version français devienne bestseller, je vous récompenserai. Enfin, prière de commenter en-dessous si vous pouvez nous assister.)
Now you see why I didn’t translate TIP myself. However in writing that paragraph I learnt a new word I like very much: diablotins! I imagine diablotins as similar to the gnomes in Mrs Weasley’s garden, returning when the translator’s back is turned to play havoc with her prose. One especially persistent diablotin or possibly Maschinenteufel has been messing with our DIP title page and delaying the paperback, but we have him beat now. They’re Brexit supporters one and all, I’m sure. Do help us chase them away together.
If the Nobel Committee asked me which songwriters deserved a prize for both literature and peace, I’d say the French (and Belgian) ones. George Brassens, Jacques Brel, Barbara...and which interpreters of them deserved something too, for reaching out and breaking down barriers: Piaf, Juliette Gréco singing the words of Brassens, Aragon, Queneau – and Brel again, who crops up everywhere. The work of these songwriters/poets/singers foretold the work of Dylan decades earlier with just as much brio, panache, joie de vivre and on occasion angst (why are none of those English words?) and, dare I say, it more tunefully too. Let’s have a look at a few gems of poetry, simple philosophy, politics and music.
I heard the songs of Brassens as a child, not realising he also wrote poetry and novels. He lived in hiding for five years in Paris after escaping from a German forced labour camp.He was a true European, with a musical Italian mother who was a strict Catholic and a liberal, anti clerical French father. His songs are often jaunty and cheerful, but the lyrics are uncompromising.
Brassens wrote Chanson pour l’Auvergnat in 1954. (For copyright reasons I’ve not reprinted any of the original in this post, but given my own unpolished English summary instead. It’s easy to find both lyrics and performances online, by Brassens himself, Juliette Gréco and relatively recently Manu Dibango among others.)
This song is for you, the Auvergnat who without guile, gave me four sticks of wood, when my life felt cold. You gave me firewood when all the good chattering people had shut the door in my face, only firewood, but it warmed my body, and even now gives a joyous flame to my soul.
He goes on to praise the hostess who gave him bread, when “there was hunger in my life” and no one invited him in, and tells how her welcome still warms his heart. Finally the stranger/foreigner (l’étranger means both in French, how UKIP must envy that) who, watching as the police arrested him, gave him an awkward smile of encouragement rather than laughing and clapping with the watching crowd. That sweetness still burns like the sun in his soul. When you good people die, he says in each chorus, may you go to heaven.
Some parallels here, surely, with the situation of migrants to Europe? Let us hope they meet an Auvergnat…
Piaf sang of the kindness of strangers too, in a song you will all know the tune of – daah, Dah, dah, Daah, dah DAAAHH but whose story you may not have known:
Come in, Milord, sit down. It’s so cold outside but you’ll be comfortable here…Put your feet up!
The singer is a prostitute and her client a English aristocrat. She’s flattered that he’s come to her, she’s seen him go proudly past, a beautiful girl at his side (so beautiful it made her shiver), a silk scarf over his shoulders. Then today the girl left on a ship, threw away his love, broke his heart. How sad love is, and life itself…but you can find new chances for happiness. He’s a great lord and she’s just a woman of the streets, but she can sympathise…(as the the music slows and Piaf speaks in a shocked voice rather than singing) “but you’re crying, milord. …there, there…it’s not so bad…give me a little smile?…that’s it..bravo!“and the music speeds up, they dance, and the man is comforted, for a while at least. This brilliant song turns social standing on its head: the poor street girl has the generosity and power to comfort the aristocrat in his moment of fragility – and yet she and we know he will probably survive longer and more comfortably than she. The songwriters were Marguerite Monnot and Joseph Mustacchi.
Thirdly, “Barbara”. She was born Monique Serf in Paris to Jewish parents from Alsace and Odessa.
She spent the war in flight from the Nazis, yet her song Göttingen (1965) must surely be the soundtrack to peace and reunion everywhere. She visited the German town and wrote this haunting song about how Göttingen’s parks and schoolchildren and roses were different to those in Paris, but just as beautiful; about how when there is no shared language you can still smile at each other, and about how she fears another war between France and Germany because there are people she loves in Göttingen. She recorded the song in both French and German, and it was quoted by Gerhard Schroeder at the celebrations to mark 40 years of the Elysée Treaty of Reconciliation. Do listen to it – but be warned, it will become a earworm and so it should.
I don’t mean to look only at the past (and I have nothing against Americans or Dylan!) Last week I suggested Books against Brexit and will return to that, but for now I seem to have swung towards a (better) Song for Europe. How about the wider world and the present? Fortuitously, this came onto my facebook page today. It’s good to see the tradition of moving, constructive, poetic song writing in response to power and exclusivity is still going strong: This American Life asked Sara Bareilles to imagine what President Obama might be thinking about this election. She wrote this song, which Leslie Odom Jr. sings. It’s free to download until December 3. Credits at the links given.
We’ve heard so much recent talk about hard or soft Brexits. Call me a whinger, accuse me of not accepting a democratic result: I’ll still whinge, I’ll still refuse to accept. I don’t, as far as I know, have any “foreign” blood – unless being a quarter Scottish counts or my grandmother’s maiden name deriving (arguably) from that of a favourite of William the Conqueror’s. But since the referendum, part of my soul’s been torn out. I was brought up European before we’d even joined the Common Market. My parents lived through World War Two, just too young to be called up. My mother had to leave her school at 14 when so many pupils were evacuated it wasn’t viable for it to stay open. Trying to restart her education, she went as a paying guest to the French Massif Central in 1946, where she witnessed more that war had done. Later she managed a degree in French and Italian while bringing us up.
Before our first European holiday when I was seven, we had an introduction through books my parents provided. There were huge hardback Babar books (some with illustrations which would now be thought offensive so I’ve chosen one of the later books to show here: note the Citroën and what is surely a Provencal landscape):
Then came the delightful Madeline (“In an old house in Paris covered with vines/Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines“). Cuddly, philosophical Moomintroll was a comforting bedtime read from a minority ethnic Finn who wrote in Swedish.
From This is Rome – more cities covered now – I remember a multi-armed policeman directing mad traffic with six gloved hands. In The Story of Ferdinand, a bull lived happily under the “cork trees”of Andalucia until captured for the bullring, but he was too peaceable animal to fight so they allowed him back. I’ve now discovered this classic was actually American, and has an interesting political history.Germany offered the terrifying Strewelpeter and Emil and the Detectives, which I tried several times but found boring. My father was equally bored by a gentle Dutch children’s classic called The Wheel on the School but I liked this environmental tale of protection for nesting storks. Then there was a sweet book of cartoons called The Lovers by Raymond Peynet. This was for adults, but such a Gallic blend of innocence and naughtiness was delightful for a child. What you give a child, an adult remembers, and Peynet was a precious find when we cleared the house after they died.
By that time we were setting off annually in the Vauxhall Victor to Dover for our holidays “on the continent”. My mother did the talking, French, Italian, (no Spanish because they refused to go there until Franco died), German because although we were still playing English vs Germans in the school playground and our neighbours in Finchley had come over on the Kindertransport, my own parents had decided they wanted to put that past behind them. As soon as Spain grew out of such ideas too, they went there. When they retired they went to Hungary, what’s now the Czech Republic, Rumania, Greece, Portugal – my mother’s well thumbed phrase books evidence of her will to try meeting the locals on their own terms.
My memory is of a France still war scarred and dilapidated as late as 1970. We stayed in fly blown hotels and endured nasty toilets in the yards of dark cafes.But we discovered potage, beignets, and vinaigrette. We children drank Orangina, learned how pizza and ice cream should really taste and played boules on beaches that stayed warm till after dark. I was lucky to see Marcel Marceau, the famous mime artist and as a teenager the films of Chabrol, Truffaut, Fassbinder. I learned from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and Polanski’s Macbeth that Europeans could collaborate across borders and centuries to create extraordinary art (much older, I discovered the potent mix of Shakespeare and Italian opera). I began very slowly to read in French: “Bonjour Tristesse” was my first conquest and from it I learned the phrase “J’ai envie de…”
J’ai envie de rester européenne.
My French Literature BA in the then school of European Studies at Sussex included German, Spanish, Italian, Danish and English literature too (plus Russian and Scandinavian), to be read in the original if possible. Why did I choose that degree? I think the books started it off, even more than the holidays, because books were so wonderful, no matter how often you read them, whereas the holidays were sometimes uncomfortable and the drives, in pre cassette/CD/DVD days, very long. Europe wasn’t perfect, after all, but then neither are we.
I tried to bring my children up the same. Babar and Madeline of course, but also a child’s version of Don Quijote, my son patiently allowing me to translate a few pages each night for a bedtime story, and a picture book called The Beast of Monsieur Racine that my daughter recently admitted she found “creepy”. Sebastian is always late showed us what a rural Swiss school would look like (once he got there). On holiday in Brittany we saw lobsters in tanks outside restaurants and read the wonderful Monsieur Thermidor (author from Warwickshire, actually). Frog and the Birdsong by Max Velthuijs helped them understand when their grandmother died. Cuentos para contar en 1 minuto y 1/2 (stories to tell in a minute and a half), picked up in the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, boosted my daughter’s Spanish GCSE. Together we watched films by Almodovar and Guillermo del Toro, and I knew I’d done something right when she qualified as a translator of Spanish and Italian.
My family and I are European citizens. We can work, have medical treatment, travel… We have assured rights to holiday and sick pay, to maternity and paternity leave. We share the whole heritage. It doesn’t mean we aren’t equally fond of and proud of the English language (I write in it, after all). But between us we’ve lived in France, Spain and Italy. We have friends from all over Europe, some here, some there. These assets and relationships will now be weakened or even lost. I’m motivated by literature, but there are parallel arguments for scientists, economists, musicians, artists, medics. My children and I never had to go through a blitz on our city or hear guns booming as we stood on a doorstep on the south coast. Let’s not forget the original reason for establishing a European community: to create stronger trading and cultural links and thereby prevent another war.
In bookshops in Europe (many more than we now have here) I browse so much translated work, because nobody there minds reading the work of “foreign” writers. It shames me that we have so little available here. But, whether you read in translation or in the original, it does seem to me that if we keep reading, relating to and discussing European writers, we’ll never truly leave Europe. So why not Books against Brexit? Given the rise in hate crime since the referendum, we need a counter movement. (En passant, before I get yelled at, I do recognise the wide spectrum of opinion among Brexiteers and I know most of them have no racist or fascist intentions.) Rock against Racism and Love Football, hate Fascism were successful campaigns, so would Books against Brexit work? Could it even be parented by my other idea (as far as I know equally hypothetical) Words for the World?
In subsequent posts I’ll be making some recommendations.
Once upon a time a poor author decided she was tired of typing so she thought she’d try out the word recognition software on her iPad. She wanted to write a blog post about fairy tales BUT the elves and the shoemaker became the show emailer. Fairies were various, Rapunzel became rap ur seal. The Arabian Nights turned into Radiance Nights (rather lovely, actually), and she has a rather Sheherezade. So the poor author went to bed in a huff.
One stormy evening the poor author tried again.
Maybe it was just her voice wasn’t clear enough. Maybe her ideas needed editing, but somehow or other it didn’t seem to make much sense when she read it back. Then someone suggested making a virtue of necessity: she would write a blog post through voice mail with no corrections and see if anyone could tell what it was about.
So she wrote about reading books instead, and this time she realised you have to say the punctuation. Full stop. Please read on:
Eyebrows. No, I love to 1st books on the wet autumn afternoon, lying on the sofa in my pyjamas without a care in the world. That sounds a bit dubious velocity
Of course what I really meant was biologically. But the timer runs out very quickly with the voice recognition is it software. Someone that means you have to have your ideas more quickly they need to be more six synced and no I meant succinct. Well done softwar
Let’s return to the paragraph for last what I said was I love to browse books on the wet autumn afternoon a wet awesome afternoon no a wet autumn afternoon. But first it came out as I love to pass books on an autumn afternoon no and autumn aftern. Interesting to see what happens when the timer runs out Medford meet word no meat word no mate word no mate M I D word. I don’t know what this voice recognition softt gets the word mate.
Anyway, if we were talking about passing books on a wet autumn afternoon, that was what I thought would be a bit do you BS know do you BS, no NO, do you PS, do you PSPS, do you B. Well what I was trying to say and will go off voice recognition software and I’ll type it was: “Dubious”. Biologically. Do you BS (dubious) to pass books biologically even if you are a bookworm!
Strangely, the software sometimes correct its own mistakes. But then sometimes it makes them worse. That’s how do you BS became do you pierce azin as in earrings or piercings and that’s how past books which was meant to be browns books, no, arouse books, NO, “browse” books became first books. (I don’t know what the word recognition software thought I was trying to say but I reckon some whole new positions for things to do with books have been invented inadvertently. Arouse books, anyone?)
The author gave up! she thought, it may be that even though I suffer from incipient RSI I should go back to typing my next novel. Oddly enough apart from the capital letter at the beginning, that sentence came out perfectly.
See you more clearly next week back here on the block!
This writing blog got diverted and may seem more like a travel blog, so let me, Japanese fashion, impose some order. (Travelling followers picked up recently, please do stay on board: I think our interests coincide.) Hiroshima was so striking I wanted to deal with it first, but now back to what I read to complement my trip.
Why did I go to Japan? My fascination arose from childhood, and a book called Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden. A small girl receives a present of two Japanese dolls, and her cousin models a house for them to live in.
Of course it’s dated now. Girls may design and work with wood as much as boys; children, sadly, no longer go to the high street by themselves to find information at the bookshop (so few local bookshops remain, for one thing). But nevertheless it was a delight to reread, thirty or more years later, the night before leaving for Japan.
Rumer Godden deals, with a light touch, on culture shock and homesickness and efforts by both sides to integrate. The children Nona and Tom understand the dolls need a home different from British homes, where the walls slide and discrete areas may be screened or opened up according to temporary considerations. Everything must be polite and ordered, and there is beauty in small, humble moments – one flower in a tiny vase, a scrap of silk for a pillow. The dolls have very human characteristics; Miss Happiness is optimistic and can accept hardship; Miss Flower is nervous, can’t believe a foreigner can understand her and is so grateful and gracious when the foreigner attempts to do so. In a bonus for those with a talent for carpentry, the book includes instructions on how to make a Japanese doll’s house.
Dolls and puppets are important in Japanese culture, and feature in the next novel I read. Junichiro Tanizaki is a classic Japanese author, and Some Prefer Nettles was published in 1928. I returned to Tanizaki after another absence of thirty years, having as a teenager adored his epic The Makioka Sisters, about a family of sisters living in Osaka (It’s comparable, perhaps, with Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba, Chekhov’s Three Sisters and any number of green spined Virago Modern Classics. Or even Jane Austen).
I wasn’t disappointed. Here again was the clear prose; the economical, poetic images conveying in one line as much as a page of Western description; psychology rendered through gestures, clothing, or choices of food and drink. Tanizaki’s characters think carefully about the design of every object they use, in order to enhance the experience in anticipation, during use, and and in memory. It’s a centuries old Japanese trait that continues today- think of Japanese technology, or think of a Zen garden.
In Some Prefer Nettles, a couple are preparing for divorce. There is no animosity between Kaname and Misako, they are simply tired of each other, but they have a child and an elderly father to consider. And so they proceed with care, with resignation, almost hoping to be denied the pleasure they seek, if it will help diminish the shock to the order of things. Meanwhile there are doll festivals and puppet theatre outings in which their situation is reflected through age old Japanese culture. (The puppets are life size and operated by up to three puppet masters at a time: I saw the one below at the theatre in Kyoto.)
The husband, Kaname, was brought up in old Tokyo “before the earthquake” (of 1923) and harks increasingly towards tradition; the wife seeks modernity but remains adept at selecting his kimonos and arranging flowers for the shrine. “He looked down on her, a sort of mute regret rising in him, without fear of meeting her eyes…..The early cherries were just coming into bloom.” It’s a beautiful, elegiac portrait of a society and a marriage, with a surprising number of echos for the contemporary Western reader.
I considered reading Murakami, having found the same simple, limpid prose quality in Norwegian Wood, but felt I should explore a wider range of Japanese novelists and discovered Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. Where Tanizaki told a story of modern marriage in a traditional society, this book, set in contemporary Tokyo, tells of timeless romance under modern conditions. A youngish woman meets her old teacher by chance, and he’s now retired and a widower. As with Tanizaki, you can open any page at random and be sure of finding elegiac, gentle prose, a yearning quality: the teacher’s name is Sensei and the narrator murmurs and repeats it just for the joy in the sound of the name. There’s the design commitment again: practical details investing everyday items with a touch of poetry. “The hot spiciness of the crackers really did go quite well with saké…I heard a faint chirping and then the sound of the leaves on the branches rustling for a moment, and then it was quiet again.” I suspect this simple beauty is a quality of the Japanese language, or it may be something that happens in the interface when Japanese is translated into English. But both novels – in which not a huge amount happens – are immensely clear, readable, universal and moving despite the significant cultural differences between us.
I read these two novels on my return. While I was in Japan, I read Motions and Moments, the third essay collection by Michael Pronko, an American professor who has made his home in Tokyo. At first I found these illuminating: as we moved around Tokyo I recognised quirks that he (affectionately) identifies. I was helped to understand certain customs through his intermediary insights; I enjoyed his descriptions of Japanese gardening (they use tiny secateurs like nail scissors to clip their shrubs with minute precision) and understood what he meant by getting lost in Tokyo “vertically as well as horizontally”. The first two parts of the book (Surfaces and Miniatures) were well written, witty and informative. Part 3, Constructs, could have used some editorial help with, er, construction (and I’m aware he acknowledges the help of Newsweek editors at the end). Perhaps by then I was too immersed in the spare beauty of Japanese expression to enjoy American verbosity and repetition. But it’s worth a read if you are going to Tokyo.