Monday, August 20, 2018

Am I Disturbing You?

Am I Disturbing You? / Anne Hébert; translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.
Toronto: House of Anansi, 1999, c1998.
104 p.

This little novella by French Canadian author Anne Hébert has been on my shelf for ages! I finally took it down to read it, and it was a quick read, though with its own sense of deep back story.

Edouard and Stéphane are two young friends living in Paris who one day come across a young woman crying as she sits on the edge of a fountain. They kindly go over to check on her, and she finally tells them that her name is Delphine, she's from Quebec, and she's pregnant & homeless. 

Delphine is a bit strung out; she can't stop talking - as Edouard says, words just dribble out of her mouth, she keeps talking even if nobody is listening. Stéphane becomes especially attached to her, and over the next couple of months she becomes a regular fixture in their lives, appearing and disappearing, and telling them about her married lover Patrick Chemin. He's married to a wealthy French woman, and Delphine has followed him to Paris to make him acknowledge her and her baby; she is convinced he will leave his wealthy wife for her. 

As readers, we think we know where this is going, and we are partly right. But Hébert surprises us in the development of the story - at least she surprised me. 

In the book's opening pages, Edouard tells us that Delphine has appeared at his door in the middle of the night with her catchphrase, "Am I disturbing you?" But without waiting for an answer she crawls into bed with him and mumbles away until, Edouard says, he leans over to clear her long black hair off her face and her breathing changes: she dies in his bed. 

That's not a spoiler, by the way - it's on page 4. Edouard then goes back over their history with Delphine trying to figure out how and why sh let her into his very orderly life. Her story, her presence, brings back his own troubled and lonely childhood. In the last few pages of the book we return to the scene in Edouard's room, with the police and ambulance there. Edouard is still feeling shocked and numb; but the last few lines throw his whole account into question. Is he a reliable narrator? I had to reread both the opening and closing again, but I still can't decide what I think. It's a slight, depressing story, but it's also finely crafted and quite ambiguous. Hébert is strong at portraying a character in just a few lines, and so each of these three leads, as well as the various side players, seem real and rounded. But motives are more mysterious. 

This story, though short, is atmospheric, redolent with the sense of a hot Parisian summer, with the exhaustion of Delphine's wandering through the hot streets looking for her lover. The converging storylines are finely drawn, and there is an awful lot in this brief narrative to think about. Though not my favourite of Hébert's works that I've read thus far, it is a story that sticks in the mind, that still has me pondering what *really* happened, and why. It's dream-like and perhaps that it why it stays in your thoughts, with its various images appearing randomly in your memory. Definitely worth exploring this one. 

Sunday, August 19, 2018


Nirliit / Juliana Léveillé-Trudel; translated from the French by Anita Anand.
Montreal: Esplanade, c2018.
145 p.

This unusual read is written by a Quebecoise woman who works summers in the Nunavik area of Northern Quebec. She has created a novel in two parts; the first is the narrator speaking to her lost friend Eva, who was murdered during the year the narrator was back down south. In the second she speaks to Eva's son Elijah as he makes his way as a young man without a mother.

The narrator flies north (and south again) like the geese, nirliit. She includes a list of vocabulary at the beginning of the book, and many of these Inuttitut words are sprinkled throughout the text, giving it a stronger sense of place. 

It's a serious novel, with the narrator highlighting both the beauty of the isolated tundra and the social problems found in Salluit. The Inuit struggle to live meaningful lives in the face of addictions, racism and domestic violence, all realities arising from the lifestyle that they've been forced into through government decisions around resettlement and resource extraction in the past. But their resilience and perseverance is also noted, and the desire for education as a way out. 

Focusing in on Eva's life and the repercussions of her murder personalizes the narrative, rather than just being a set of generalizations. Her life, family and friendships resonate throughout the book, continuing on into the ways her son manages once she is gone, with his own relationships and children appearing. Characters are complicated and individual, making their own decisions independently; they are not caricatures. 

The story is based in the author's experiences, and so is told from an outsider's perspective. She acknowledges the problems she sees all around her, but in a compassionate way, in a style that seems to also acknowledge her own part in the situation as a Southerner and Canadian. It has an overtone of recognition and apology, while clearly revealing her deep love for the land and the community, her friend Eva in particular. 

It was not what I expected, but was a beautifully written and powerful exploration of the realities of life in the North for many isolated communities. I appreciated that she spoke from her own perspective and did not try to speak for the Inuit - this is her own story of life in Salluit as an outsider. 

A really different read, sombre and yet with glimpses of light. I think it's important for Canadians in particular to see and understand the lives that our governments have so strongly affected. 

Read an interview with the author at Quebec Reads to learn more about the inspiration behind this book. 

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Les Belles Images by Beauvoir

Les Belles Images / Simone de Beauvoir; translated by Patrick O'Brien
Fontana, 1973, c1966.
154 p.

I picked this one up in a thrift store -- I mean, just LOOK at that 70s cover! Yikes!

But I hadn't read a novel by Simone de Beauvoir before -- somehow it hadn't really registered that she was also a novelist. This brief story about a woman who is working with images as an advertiser, and is also having a bit of an existential crisis about her own self-image, was worth reading. Despite this cover...

Laurence is married to Jean-Charles, and has two young daughters, Catherine and Louise. She works in a successful ad agency, she belongs to the wealthier class, and has a young lover on the side. All very French. She's also aware that the "Belles Images" that she works with serve to hide an empty, existential hollowness at the core of life.

"Belles Images" also references the place of women in this mid-60s French world. Laurence is assumed to have her job because of her husband; her mother Dominique is obsessed with feeling young and vital, having left Laurence's father for someone more rich and exciting. Catherine is getting to an age where she is starting to ask those existential questions like "why are people alive?" Laurence knows that to squelch those thoughts and send Catherine to a psychiatrist will just train her into the role of woman that Laurence herself is struggling with.

Jean-Charles can't see the problem and thinks it will be easier just to conform and get along with the way the world is going, though this progress that he sees leaves out the progress of women and gender equality, focusing only on the economic progress he experiences. Laurence sees the social lies that enable people to continue living in their bubbles, the role of advertising and media in keeping people anesthetized against the social unrest in America and in former French colonies that they see on the television screen, only to be replaced with commercials a minute later. All of this leads her to try to synthesize her experiences, to recover from the fissures in her understanding of life. But in the end, she only hopes that her children will have the chance that she glimpses might be possible for women, though "it's too late for her". The themes of this 1966 book are scarily still present; the role of women in public and private life still fraught with difficulty and struggle. After 50 years I'd have hoped that we'd move past some of Laurence's identified issues, but instead we've gone backwards in many ways. 

This was a really interesting read. The content, as noted, is still relevant - Laurence is a great character, always questioning and trying to find a way to live authentically. The style is also appealing. It's an existentialist novel with an actual readable plot, and the flowing style moves from first person to third person seamlessly, following Laurence's actions and thoughts equally. It feels natural once you adapt to it. It's a short novel with a lot to think about. I'm glad I discovered it. 

Friday, August 17, 2018

Exquisite Corpse

Exquisite Corpse / Pénélope Bagieu; translated from the French by Alexis Siegel
New York : First Second, 2015.
124 p.

I enjoyed Brazen, Penelope Bagieu's graphic novel biography collection, so much that I quickly picked up another of her books from my library as well. 

It's the story of Zoe, unhappy in her life as a product model, enduring sexism on the job and a disgustingly sexist, boorish boyfriend. While wandering around Paris she encounters a reclusive author when she spies him in his window and asks to use his bathroom. Her youthful and uneducated mien inspire him, and when she throws off her job and boyfriend, she goes back & is taken in by Thomas Rocher, a best-selling and famous author she does not recognize at all - one of her charms for him. 

However, she is quickly bored and annoyed when he will never leave the house for any reason, and then his ex-wife Agathe, also his editor, starts hanging around once more, now that he has a new novel on the go, thanks to Zoe's inspiration.

Zoe begins to read, and to read, and to read. She educates herself and slowly she and Agathe come to a detente, mostly over their shared annoyance with Thomas. Then Zoe discovers the big secret -- Thomas Rocher "died" a few years ago, and the posthumous novels that his editor brings out are bigger hits than ever thanks to that. 

What to do? Especially since Thomas is starting to ignore her and treat her poorly... Zoe must make a choice, and with some surprise support from Agathe she makes her move.

But you'll have to read it yourself for the twist, and the way in which Zoe decides to reclaim a life for herself. The writing in this brief story is wry and amusing, and the characterizations are not complex but they are fun. Bagieu plays with literary cliches and truisms, and has fun with it. I enjoyed the surprise ending - well, it was a surprise to me - and laughed a lot at the skewering of literary pretensions and the interplay of the characters. I also enjoyed the style of the art; it is bright and expressive and fits the storyline well. 

If you are in need of a fun, light read, which is both very French and very much set in literary circles, this one is a great choice. 

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Translation Thursday: Currently Reading

It's Translation Thursday! Each Thursday this month I'm going to share the translation I'm currently reading plus a few more on my reading list. Here's today's list:

Currently Reading:

Umami by Laia Jufresa 
(as reviewed at Tony's Reading List)

Want to Read:

Before, by Carmen Boullosa
(as reviewed at Bookishly Witty)

Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World by Sabina Berman

Her Mother's Mother's Mother & her Daughters by Maria Jose Silveira
(as reviewed by Cecilia Weddell)

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

This House is Mine

This House Is Mine / Dorte Hansen; translated from the German by Anne-Marie Stokes
New York :, St. Martin's Press,, 2016
325 p.

Hildegard von Kamcke arrives at the Altland house of Ida Eckhoff alongside her 5 year old daughter Vera, displaced from East Prussia in 1945. They are taken in, begrudgingly, and given a small room and sparse food in return for work on the farm.

Ida's coldness doesn't drive Hildegard away; rather as she adjusts, she becomes more and more attached to this house. After Ida's son Karl returns from WWII a broken man, Hildegard ends up marrying him, and the house indeed then becomes her own.  

The book follows Hildegard and Vera as they make a home in this setting; but only Vera sticks. Hildegard finds a better offer from a rich man with a villa, and leaves with him - but without Vera, who is then cared for by her stepfather Karl. Vera's never fully accepted by the neighbourhood, always with a taint of 'outsider' despite her commitment to this place, despite the fact that she grew up there. She's too different, too independent. 

But when Karl, old and ill with PTSD, needs her, Vera cares for him in the old rambling house that is falling down around them. But into the picture comes her niece Anne and her son Leo, looking for refuge when Anne's relationship fails. They move to the country because of course rural life is purer and more healing, and develop a new relationship with the cold and emotionally distant Vera. Family heals all wounds! No, seriously, while it does sound a bit like a Hallmark movie, there is more darkness and toughness in this one. Hansen notes, "Vera Eckhoff didn’t know much about her niece, but she knew a refugee when she saw one."

I actually enjoyed the sense of hope and healing that Hansen allowed to arise in the relationship between these two women. While I can be a cynical reader at times, I appreciated that this book was not fully despairing despite its beginnings in war, suicide, trauma, and family dissolution. The power of place and belonging comes through here; while families can break apart, they can also reform themselves into something new. And the very specific place of the house was a powerful central theme, and vital to the creation of belonging. The house had a motto carved on its front: 

“This hoose is mine ain and yet no mine ain, he that follows will caw it his.”

The only constant is change, and this book illuminates that perfectly. The theme of refugees and identities in Germany right now is pretty topical, and Hansen explores the long history of such movement within Germany to give another perspective on alienation and belonging. This was a bestseller in Germany, and its readability, strong story, and additional wry humour might explain why. Recommended. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Go, Went, Gone

Go, Went, Gone / Jenny Erpenbeck; translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
New York: New Directions Books, 2017.
286 p.

After finishing a string of novels that all seemed concerned in some way or another about women and procreation and all that comes of that, it was refreshing to read this current novel by Jenny Erpenbeck.

Not only does it not focus on procreation, it mostly looks at men and migration.

This story takes on the plight of refugees and migrants in Germany, centred in the experiences of Richard, a recently retired Professor of Classics. He is very privileged indeed, at the top of the heap - an educated white man in his own country with lots to live on and a sense of a solid life with pretty small first world problems to concern himself with. 

But then he comes across a demonstration on Alexanderplatz - African migrants staging a hunger strike, trying to bring attention to their hopeless situation. 

As Richard gets drawn in to the lives of this set of refugees once he volunteers to teach German at a temporary residence, he learns more and more about the impossible situation they are in. Bureaucracy means that they can't work in Germany without having papers, but not being able to work means they can't get papers. Various things like that reappear again and again - if they've landed in Italy they have to claim residence there, but can't unless other conditions are met which can't be met. It's painful to read the frustration and the stalled hopes of these refugees & migrants (almost entirely men in this book). Their back histories are slowly revealed as they trust Richard more and his desire to help expands. And not all interactions he has are glowing with joy; Erpenbeck is no Pollyanna. While some of Richard's friends think he is ridiculous, others start to understand more about what is happening, thanks to his newly awakened awareness. 

This book takes on very timely themes of migration, our sense of identity, belonging, and entitlement, and the responsibility of us all to recognize our common humanity. Erpenbeck writes with intensity and with moral complexity; while it's a timely topic with political currency, this story is a story, not a screed. It's not a political pamphlet at all, rather, a deep and compassionate exploration of people and relationships, and the human connection we owe to one another. It was a thought-provoking and important read.