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Sophie Hughes discusses what drew her to Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder

Sophie Hughes discusses what drew her to Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder

The Remainder was recommended to me by the writer Carlos Fonseca, who urged me to read ‘one of his favourite books of 2016,’ saying: ‘I really think you’re going like this.’ He was right. Every now and then a book makes my fingers itch to translate it from the very first pages. Thomas Bernhard, Vladimir Nabokov, and Natalia Ginsburg have this effect (alas, they are already expertly translated … what’s more, from languages I don’t speak …). Other just as brilliant writers don’t. Probably, it boils down to how clearly you hear their characters’ or narrators’ voices, and I suppose translator–author chemistry is as unpredictable as that between two strangers across a crowded bar.

To me as a translator, Alia Trabucco Zerán’s novel presents several wonderful challenges, but none more irresistible than the voice presented in this excerpt: that of Felipe. Felipe and Iquela (who narrates other chapters) are twentysomething-year-old friends living in modern-day Santiago and plagued by the shadows that Chile’s military dictatorship has cast over their lives. The neurotic Felipe aspires to a perfect number, a sum that might give him closure after his father’s ‘disappearance,’ helping him to answer a pivotal question prompted by Pinochet’s infamous torture mechanism: ‘How do we square the number of dead with the number of graves?’ Felipe sets himself the task of achieving that number, that perfect zero, convinced that his particular brand of morbid math will close the book on his grief. Prowling the streets of Santiago in this extract, this disturbed young man begins an alternative death toll to the official count.

Trabucco Zerán’s language and imaginative technique are at times virtuosic. The musicality and idiosyncrasies in the original Castilian are not arbitrary, but rather are symptoms of her characters’ struggles to find their voices, and they present the translator with brilliant linguistic problems. Beyond the aesthetic impulses that led me to want to translate The Remainder, I am interested in literature that interrogates the suitability of the novel form to recount traumatic national pasts in Latin America.

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One Lange leads to another: on finding and translating Norah Lange’s People in the Room Charlotte Whittle

When I was doing graduate work in Hispanic Studies, I met and became friends with a writer whose name was Nora Lange. Nora Lange had just moved into an apartment with some upstairs neighbors from Argentina, who were delighted to be living above someone called Nora Lange, and asked her if she was familiar with the work of the Argentinean writer, Norah Lange. When Nora Lange asked me about Norah Lange, I had never heard of her, but I was intrigued, since as a student of literature in Spanish, I was all too aware of how male dominated the Hispanic literary canon can often seem. I was even more intrigued when I began to learn of Norah Lange’s background: she had been closely associated with a number of major male writers, including Borges and Girondo, both of whom I’d read, without ever coming across the woman who was allegedly at the heart of their rivalry. I remember asking my advisor at the time – a scholar of Latin American literature – about her, and his reply that she had been “totally forgotten.” This was soon after Edwin Williamson’s biography of Borges had been published, in which Norah is described as a flame-haired Scandinavian beauty who tormented the young Borges and went on to “inspire” some of his most essential writings. But there was no exploration of Norah’s work. Indeed, everywhere I looked I found her referred to as the “Muse of the Avant Garde,” rather than as a significant writer. Nora Lange and I began to co-translate some of Norah’s early poems, written in the Ultraísta mode championed and later abandoned by Borges, who wrote a patronizing prologue to Norah’s first book. But it was on a trip to Buenos Aires a few years ago that I was able, with some difficulty, to find Norah Lange’s complete works (put out in 2005-6), and began to be seduced by her unique authorial gaze and her eccentric prose. I came to realize that in Argentine literary mythology, Lange is a figure familiar to many, but read by few, and I was truly surprised she hadn’t been translated. Personas en la sala/People in the Room is the first novel I tackled (and the first one finished!); I began translating the first few chapters in my spare time while I was teaching Spanish, and, as an early subscriber and fan of And Other Stories, it occurred to me that And Other Stories might be interested in Lange’s writing, so I pitched it, and here we are.

One of the biggest challenges has been teasing out the subtle meanings from long, labyrinthine sentences, and resisting the temptation to break them into sections to make them more “manageable.” I think the endless layering of clauses and the twists and turns of a sentence that goes on for many lines really are part of Lange’s style, even though, in general, sentences can be longer in Spanish and are often shortened in English. The challenge has been to preserve some of the eccentricities of the prose, without sacrificing clarity. When Lange writes something like, “on the verge/at the edge of night time,” or “on the verge of lightning,” (al borde le la noche, etc.), it’s tempting to think that, since we wouldn’t say that in English, we should find another solution. But such usages are unusual and unexpected in Spanish, so to respect the uniqueness of her style I often felt I was treading a thin line between readability and respect for eccentricity. But the difficulty of this book has also been what has made it pleasurable and rewarding.

People in the Room is a profoundly visual novel. Often while translating I tried to put myself in the place of the voyeur, to see what she was seeing, while also trying to see her as she is watching. As Carola Moreno writes, there are two visual layers at work: “Lange manages to transform the reader into a spy of the voyeur.”

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Bluemoose Christmas Reading

RAISING SPARKS by Ariel Kahn
Raising Sparks is a magical-realist story set in Modern Israel. It reveals the hidden worlds, shared histories and unknown stories of the modern Middle East.
The story emanated from the tragedy of Ariel’s two close friends being killed in a bus explosion in the first intifada in Jerusalem where Ariel was studying.
Ariel started the first Arab-Israeli book club. The book club was re-launched on 26th September at Daunts Hampstead.
As Leone Ross says. ‘At the heart of this story is female rebellion: a young woman running towards her future, making her own rules.’
Malka Sabbatto is a young woman who flees the confines of her traditional family in Jerusalem, followed by Moshe, a Russian immigrant and her father’s top student. After falling in with a sinister cult in Safed she escapes to Jaffa where she starts to build a new life under the wing of an Arab chef. When she feels she has finally found contentment, a family tragedy forces her to return to Jerusalem.
Debut novelist, Ariel Kahn is a prize-winning writer and academic. He initially trained to be a rabbi in Israel, Ariel has won the Bloomsbury New Voices competition, the London Writing Competition.
He currently lives in North London with his partner and two children.

THE GALLOWS POLE by Benjamin Myers
An England divided. From his remote moorland home, David Hartley assembles a gang of weavers and land-workers to embark upon a criminal enterprise that will capsize the economy and become the biggest fraud in British history. They are the Cragg Vale Coiners and their business is ‘clipping’ – the forging of coins, a treasonous offence punishable by death. A charismatic leader, Hartley cares for the poor and uses violence and intimidation against his opponents. He is also prone to self-delusion and strange visions of mythical creatures. When excise officer William Deighton vows to bring down the Coiners and one of their own becomes turncoat, Hartley’s empire begins to crumble. With the industrial age set to change the face of England forever, the fate of his empire is under threat. Forensically assembled from historical accounts and legal documents, The Gallows Pole is a true story of resistance that combines poetry, landscape, crime and historical fiction, whose themes continue to resonate. Here is a rarely-told alternative history of the North.

http://www.walterscottprize.co.uk/benjamin-myers-wins-2018-walter-scott-prize/
“Powerful, visceral writing, historical fiction at its best. Benjamin Myers is one to watch.”
– Pat Barker;
“A phenomenal and highly energised novel.’ Sebastian Barry;
“From the half-forgotten history of northern working men on the brink of the Industrial Revolution, Myers has unearthed a powerful story which he tells with great vigour.” – The Sunday Times;

“This powerful novel is as darkly lovely as Emily Bronte’s work” – Joanne Harris;
“A brilliant, extraordinary book.” – Mary Anne Hobbs, 6 Music;
“A roaring furnace of a novel. In telling a big story about a small place, Benjamin Myers portrays social upheavals which have a sharp contemporary echo, as well as bringing to light a little-known and fascinating fragment of rural English history…he meets the challenge for every author of historical fiction – bringing alive the past and speaking forcefully to the readers of today” – Judges – WALTER SCOTT Prize 2018.

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Christmas Reading from Bitter Lemon

The Cold Summer by Gianrico Carofiglio, translated by Howard Curtis.
Do we need another mafia story? There are plenty of them, in fiction, film, and TV, portraying mafia families in the United States and Italy, and in other countries infected by organised crime. But Gianrico Carofiglio offers an unusually detailed and fascinating portrait, far beyond the clichés of crime families and godfathers, in his new The Cold Summer, along with a contrasting portrait of how the criminal organisation and the police define and control reality. The complex structure of Carofiglio’s narrative, with multiple structural and social parallels at the local and national level, contrasting criminal and civil worlds, and personal events in the lives of the characters, serves to reinforce the emphasis of the novel on the crucial role of structure in human life. But it is ultimately the ethical and sometimes contemplative Fenoglio who holds the whole novel together. His humanity holds out hope for some respite from the violence and corruption that lie behind all the story’s events. As he himself says of his role, what he does (and who he is) “gives meaning to chaos.”

The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and other stories by Teresa Solana, translated by Peter Bush.
Our best title ever? Solana’s love of surrealism and black humour shines through in her novels, but these short stories show her true strengths. In the title story, a prehistoric detective is asked to investigate a triple-murder which is threatening to disrupt cave life. He becomes not only the world’s first detective, but also the first religious charlatan. He might even consider inventing psychoanalysis – after all, it’s not like he has anything better to do. The second collection in this volume contains stories representing a mosaic of Barcelona as a city of contrasts, hustlers and low level criminals, bending the law not just to survive, but to live large and keep boredom at bay.

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Dedalus Christmas Reading, The Mussolini Canal by Antonio Pennacchi, translated by Judith Landry

Why is The Mussolini Canal by Antonio Pennacchi such a great book and should be on everyone’s must read list?
First, it is a riveting story telling 100 years of Italian history by following the lives of a family of northern peasants transplanted to the recently drained Pontine marshes to fulfil a grandiose scheme by Mussolini.
Secondly, the characters and the family dynamic are engrossing. We soon care about them and the minutiae of their lives. Mussolini is a major character in the novel and for the most part is sympathetically treated although his flaws and the disastrous effect he had on Italy is there for all to see. Contemporary events flash through the book and the hardship and misery of earlier periods are also seen against the background of modern prosperity. The heroes and heroines of this novel come from the extended Peruzzi family.
Thirdly and above all, the reader feels he is eavesdropping a private Italian conversation and in doing so learning what it is to be an Italian and getting to the heart of this nation. The narrative voice isn’t lost in the English translation, Judith Landry’s translation is pitch perfect, so much so it reads as if the book was written in English.
The great Italian novels for me are I Malavoglia(The House by the Medlar Tree) by Verga, The Leopard by Lampedusa and The Mussolini Canal by Pennacchi. These are the three narratives which use the family to tell Italy’s story and document the state of the nation during periods of great social change. They are novels which engage both the mind and the heart and in doing so stay forever in the reader’s mind.
The Mussolini Canal sold more than 400,000 copies in Italy and has been widely translated. In the UK it has received universal praise and I will end with Margaret Drabble’s appraisal in the Times Literary Supplement.
‘The Mussolini Canal by Antonio Pennacchi is an epic account of the rise of Fascism. It’s the story of the (fictitious) Peruzzi clan of sharecroppers, moved from their native north to the malaria-ridden Pontine Marshes for the building of the canal and the New Town of Littoria. It mingles family legend and up-to-date political commentary with personal appearances from Edmondo Rossoni and Mussolini, and takes us through Italy’s Imperium and the campaign in Ethiopia to the Anzio landings. The complex chronology and the demotic and combative narrative voice (of a young Peruzzi descendant) are imaginatively handled by the translator, Judith Landry, and the novel presents us with a whole new landscape, complete with the kiwi fruits and eucalyptus that thrived in the reclaimed land. Better than any guidebook, it explains how and at what cost Mussolini succeeded where Romans, popes and emperors failed. A challenging but very illuminating read.
Margaret Drabble in Books of the Year in the Times Literary Supplement

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Guest Blog by Zoe Turner The Book of Birmingham by Kavita Bhanot

The Book of Birmingham

I had lived in Birmingham for a year before moving to work with Comma in Manchester, and ‘The Book of Birmingham’ was the first title that I began to publicize. The relationship that I had built with the city of Birmingham the year before was a confusing one. I had spent a lot of time there wondering why everything felt so disconnected; why, as numerous and driven as they were, its creative organisations seemed so scattered and hidden, and why, as ethnically and culturally diverse as the population was, these various communities often still felt separated from one another. Moving around the city could be like hopping from one island to another, as though one side of the street was almost invisible to its opposite neighbor. I was in Birmingham to study Film Production and, alongside these emotional observations, I was learning from those I worked with that the city was largely neglected by the film and television sector. I started to piece older ideas together with these new ones, things picked up as a person growing up in the Midlands; that the Brummie accent was a horrible thing to hear, that you ought to keep your wits about you in Birmingham, that there really wasn’t much to be there for other than to shop in the Bullring. When I spoke to other people in Birmingham about this sensation of a disjointed and misconstrued place, there was large agreement, but we could never quite put a finger on the conception or reason.

When I read Kavita’s introduction to this collection, things began to click into place, loudly and firmly. Her explanation of the ‘ring of complex, conflicting and often neglected neighbourhoods’ comprised of varying immigrated communities from across origins and generations, and a mistreated and misinformed white working class, which circles the city centre, ‘a never-ending work-in-progress, constantly in flux, endlessly undergoing ‘development’.’ Kavita seemed to be sketching the Birmingham in my mind’s eye onto the pages when she continued to describe this gentrification of the centre, which was like watching money being pumped into money as if to try and compensate for its less than appealing reputation ‘like a done-up front room for guests, hoping all this expensive new furniture will finally enable Birmingham to live up to its ‘second city’ status.’ Instead, this airbrushing and overfeeding of the centre has served to muscle out the city’s long-standing settlers with less money than is needed to afford this new housing, dining, entertainment and people seem to move around each other in a contrasting bustle of much separated selves.

The stories Kavita Bhanot has compiled in ‘The Book of Birmingham’ then, are a way of knocking down the illusions which surround the city and make the truth of it inaccessible to people from the outside. Instead, these stories invite passing visitors (or readers) into local experiences, opening doors to very specific pockets of time and place within the city’s recent history that they otherwise would not see for all the demonising headlines and glaring canal side apartments. Bound together as they are, these stories of interracial coupling in 1960s Smethwick, social affluence between generations of immigrants, rumours, tensions, desires and surrealism, complete a jigsaw of Birmingham that tells real versions of real people from a long made-up location. After reading this collection, the next time you walk through Birmingham it will be softer; you’ll live the moment of realisation as with a new friend when you both find that you’re comfortable in sharing the depths of your lives. And you’ll hear no bad word said about them; rather, you’ll urge the understanding that everybody carries a history, some more complicated than others.

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Timothy Lane’s blog on Waves by Eduard von Keyserling

Much to my shame prior to proofreading this novel I had not heard of Eduard von Keyserling. It is easy to arrogantly get to the point where you feel you have read the major novels of a particular time and place, only to discover a forgotten classic and wonder how this one came to be forgotten. It is all the more surprising when a writer from a language and culture of prominence is neglected. If a minor classic work in Serbo-Croat were to be neglected one would be saddened but not surprised, but an equivalent neglect of a German or French classic should be a lesson in how capricious literary status can be. And there is much to be said for the world touched upon in Waves (German title: Wellen).

Eduard von Keyserling (1855-1918) was from a Baltic German noble family, born in what is today Latvia. The community of Baltic Germans he belonged to and whose minor aristocrats populate his novels, is now vanished. To put this disappearance into perspective in 1881 the population of Baltic Germans was estimated at 180,000, roughly 5% of Estonia’s and 6% of Latvia’s population. Today there are no more than 5,000 people of German descent, the two wars and their consequences having radically reshaped demographics.

The events of Waves take place over one long hot summer spent on the coast. The real life coastline location is thought to be the Curonian Spit, a sixty mile sand dune spit separating the Curonian lagoon from the Baltic Sea, a beautiful location popular with affluent sojourners and famous for inspiring expressionist painters from the art school in nearby Konigsberg. It is therefore fitting that one of Waves’ main characters is a painter.

The painter in question, Hans Grill, has eloped with a Countess who’s portrait he was commissioned to paint, by her much older husband. The beginning of the novel finds the painter and the Countess Köhne-Jasky, Doralice, one year after their elopement, holidaying for the summer in the home of a fisherman. Free spirited and ambitious, Hans has plans over the summer to make a detailed study of the sea, and then to establish a study in Munich where he will no longer be reliant on Doralice’s money. There is clear evidence that already Hans’ plans that involve a certain level of dull tethered domesticity for Doralice do not sit well with her listless and enigmatic spirit.

Also holidaying close by are the Buttlär family and the Generalin von Palikow. Baroness von Buttlär is particularly troubled by the proximity of such a disgraced woman, not least because of her husband’s incorrigible philandering, but because of her presumption that such an unhealthy example close by will be bad for her daughters, Lolo and Nini. Older, less neurotic and less disposed to such stern society judgements, her mother-in-law the Generalin remonstrates with her objections and insists that the family must at the least show a decent modicum of civility. An uneasy familiarity between the conventional family and the social pariahs is established, in part due to the adoration of the Countess by the young bride to be Lolo. Entranced by her beauty, gracefulness and wit, her sensitive nature romanticises the Countess.

Into this company comes not just the long expected Baron, but Lolo’s fiance, Baron Hilmar von dem Hamm, a dashing and passionate German Army Officer. Quickly and completely infatuated with the Countess, he makes no attempt to conceal his courtship, despite the presence of his own fiance and Doralice’s husband. One might expect the novel’s progress from this point to follow a rather typical pattern of an adultery repeated, a tragic clash of male pride and the further falling from grace of the Countess. But the novel never becomes a drawing room soap opera and avoids the besetting sin of many fin de siecle novels where affluent people with too much time and too little purpose saunter from one languid but cultured dejection to another.

Alongside the little dramas of Lolo and her Officer, Doralice and Hans, and the endless gossiping of the Buttlär’s there is the constant presence of the sea, beautiful, formidable, capricious: a perilous livelihood for the fisherman, a challenge for Hans to paint. Keyserling with his painterly prose and his eye for the contrasts and parallels between nature and humanity, effortlessly accompanies his story of romance and tragedy with rich evocations of the sea, the way a drama is dignified by the addition of apt music.

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Timothy Lane’s Blog on The Dark Domain by Stefan Grabinski

‘Fumes’, the first tale in this short story collection, opens with a description of a blizzard. A young man, called Ozarski, who we are told is an engineer, has been separated from his colleagues by a snowstorm. As evening sets in, he quickens his pace in the hope of finding shelter for the night. Trundling on, he becomes tired, dispirited and acutely isolated. Following the road he has taken into a small valley he is relieved to discover a rudimentary inn, erected in complete seclusion.
The door bursts open as soon as Ozarski knocks. In front of him is a tall sturdy white-haired old man. He asks for lodging and is welcomed effusively. The welcome Ozarski receives begins to unnerve him. The old man puts his arm round Ozarski’s waist to guide him to his dinner table, insists on touching his knee when he sits, and stares at him ‘with black demonic eyes, that burn with wild lecherous fire’. Despite his age, the impression he gives is of great strength and energy. After serving his guest with bread and drink, he eventually disappears into an adjacent room, leaving Ozarski to pass judgement on what a dive he has discovered.
After a little while the door to the adjacent room squeaks open. Expecting to see the strongly built white-haired gentleman, Ozarski instead sees an attractive young woman. She goes over to a cooking pot that has been simmering away on a stove and pours out the contents into a large clay pot. She brings the Borscht over to Ozarski and as she does so, she brushes his cheek with her breasts that are partially exposed from her unbuttoned blouse. She sits down close to Ozarski and he leans over touching her breasts. Seemingly oblivious to the sexual aspect of the situation she simply stares at him while answering his questions. He at first assumes she must be the old man’s daughter, then thinks she is his mistress, but she consistently dodges his questions until she too disappears into the adjacent room.
Baffled by her conduct, Ozarski drinks yet another vodka and is on the verge of falling asleep when the old man re-appears. He has brought wine and yet again touches Ozarski in a manner that unnerves him, this time pinching his thigh. His evident anger at being touched causes the old man to retreat from him, but he still leers at him from the other side of the room. By now very angry and very drunk, Ozarski demands that the old man sends the pretty voluptuous woman back into the room and clears off to leave them in peace. He runs after the old man as he is heading next door but before he can follow him inside the young woman remerges, wearing fewer clothes and carrying baskets of bread to be put into the oven.
Ozarski becomes ever more drunk and ever more aggressive in his badgering of the young woman. After she puts the bread into the oven she promises that she will return at midnight to lie with her guest. Once more he frustratedly watches her disappear into the enjoining room. He begins to undress and with an undiminished capacity for vodka lies down on his surprisingly comfortable bed. Expecting the young woman to come back earlier than stated for the bread and wanting to be ready for her, he puts out the lamp leaving the room lit only by bright embers from the oven. His eyes trained on the red light of the oven Ozarski begins to doze.
He falls asleep and dreams of the old man and the young woman, who combine in his mind into an unsettling chimera. Upon awaking he is disturbed by a sound coming from the oven, and soot falling down the chimney. It is at first too dark for him to see much, but the clouds part sufficiently for a strip of moonlight to illuminate a little of the room. He sees naked muscular calves hanging over the stove, then watches in shock as the rest of a body emerges amidst much falling soot from the smoke-hole. Before him in the dim moonlight is a horrible old white-haired hag. But despite her evident signs of extreme age she has the supple thighs, hips and big breasts of a young woman in her prime. But it is her face that most perplexes the befuddled Ozarski, because it is so familiar.
She steps forward and her face comes more clearly into the moonlight. It dawns on Ozarski that the face is a hideous combination of both the young woman and the lecherous old innkeeper. This terrifying monstrosity walks right up to his bed, placing one leg along the edge of the bed and with the other places a toe directly over his lips, she pulls back the bedcover and begins to undress him. Undoubtedly frightened and wishing to defend himself, he finds, ‘his will fettered by the fire of her lustful eyes, he surrendered with some kind of terrible joy.’ Noticing his response to her, the creature removes her toe and lies down next to him where she begins fondling his body. They roll around on the bed, both abandoned to passion, until her embrace of his chest with her arms and his loins with her legs is so painful that he cries out for her to stop. Unable to prise himself free he reaches for a knife on the bedside table and plunges it into the flesh below the left armpit. The creature screams, part animalistic male roar and part wailing female shriek.
Relieved by the release of the crushing hold, he stumbles from the bed looking for matches to make light, the moon having passed behind clouds. Making himself a light he sees the soot and blood covering the bedsheets. Still dizzy from drink and the hag’s vice-like hold, he staggers to the window letting cold air in. He briefly loses consciousness, only to wake with a renewed memory of that awful cry. Urgently grabbing the taper he rushes to that inner room from whence each time either the old man or the young woman emerged. Standing on the threshold of the room he looks in: there on a dirty plank bed are the bodies of both the large white-haired old man and the young woman, they each have an identical stab wound beneath the left armpit.
‘Fumes’ is a great sinister short story, and a striking start to one of the few selections of Grabinski’s work available in English. Grabinski has on occasions been called the Polish Poe, or the Polish Lovecraft. Sometimes this is to give a quick sense of his English language genre relatives, but I think much of the time it is to stress the exulted company of weird fiction writers he deserves to be ranked amongst. I would demur from the comparison on one note, I could never rate Poe anywhere close to Grabinski, well, maybe in one or two pieces he almost justifies being complimented as the American Grabinski.

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Timothy Lane on Toomas Nipernaadi by August Gailit

If one was to ask an enthusiastic reader with an interest in classic European novels for a list of their favourite books, it is likely that one would hear the same names rattled off, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Zola, a lot of Russian and French authors, maybe the odd novel from Scandinavia or Italy. It is unlikely that many novels from the Balkans or the Baltic countries would be mentioned. For both reader and publisher alike, the question is always whether this is simply a matter of the greater cultural reach that certain languages enjoy, or whether one cultural hemisphere is indeed richer than another when it comes to that form of cultural expression.
For my own part there have been many times when I have come across a celebrated name in another literature, I have been keen to find a translation, and have been disappointed to find either no translation, or very old translations that are hard to acquire in a readable edition, reading a classic from another literary tradition in a tattered third hand copy isn’t for me. For any Dedalus reader it will of course be well known that Eca de Queiroz in English has been one of our great accomplishments, and if such a great Portuguese author can be so little known and appreciated in the English-speaking world for so long, it should tell us that great writers wait to be brought to bigger audiences.
August Gailit (1891-1960) published Toomas Nipernaadi in 1928. An important figure in Estonian Literature he was the founder of the Siuru movement, a neo-romantic movement (named after a fire-bird in Finno-Ugric Mythology) with less formalist preoccupations to the Young Estonian Movement. It is worth making clear that Estonian like Finnish is not an Indo-European language, whereas Latvian and Lithuanian are. Indeed the Estonian epic the Kalevipoeg was drawn together from Estonian folklore inspired by the way the Kalevala was created from Finnish folklore, both story sequences having many overlapping themes and figures.
It should come as little surprise to find that Toomas Nipernaadi has a strong romantic era feel to it. This is particularly the case when one contemplates the character of Toomas. He is introduced to us as a solitary raftsman haphazardly working his way down the river as Spring returns. A poor forester Kudisiim and his daughter Loki, who have a small cabin on the riverside run to help a raftsman they believe to be in danger. Instead of finding a beleaguered raftsman upset at his misfortune on the river they find a lackadaisical Toomas on the riverbank whistling and playing his zither without a care in the world. Unable to understand his lack of will to get back on the river and reach bustling rich settlements like other raftsmen who have passed by, father and daughter return to their cabin, perplexed by this strange wandering newcomer. And so it is that Toomas finds himself in the first of the little communities we see him effect.
The very next day Toomas begins to involve himself in the life of Kudisiim and his richer neighbour Habahannes. He asks many questions about Kudisiim, his home and his neighbours, wanders about the woods singing and playing his zither, whilst giving very little substantive information away about himself. As the days pass he helps to repair Kidisiim’s cottage and becomes ever more romantic in his overtures to Loki. After one of his many dream-filled speeches to her she musters courage enough to ask him to take her with him on his raft. Moll, the daughter of the richer neighbouring farmer scoffs at the credulity of Loki believing anyone would have any interest in such a simple girl as her. One would normally be inclined to think that either a romantic elopement or a tragic betrayal of innocence might unfold next in the story. Instead we have a characteristically Nipernaadi-ish conclusion.
He meets Loki at night, they board his raft and set out along the river together. Some way along the river, Toomas discovers that Moll not Loki is aboard the raft with him. Moll has scared Loki off by frightening her with tales of wicked men like Toomas, intending to take her place. Discovering the deception Toomas jumps off the raft leaving her to helplessly drift down the river. We next meet Toomas strolling chirpily down a dusty road in the wood, as though all the preceding drama had never happened and we never hear about any of the characters he met again. We simply follow Toomas into a new environment where he tells entirely new tales of his provenance and where we wander what mischief he will cause next.
At first one feels Toomas must be something of a trickster figure, a transformative presence who enters stable or rather staid communities and stirs up changes by his fancies and his provocations. After each escapade in each village Toomas sets off to somewhere new with a forgetfulness akin to Peter Pan, making himself anew for a new environment. His effect on women is particularly pronounced. He courts almost every woman he meets, flattering them with compliments and inveigling them into his extravagant imaginings. The reader can’t help but be amused by a man who is on occasion described as resembling a scarecrow, carrying on like a gangly Don Juan.
Toomas’ farfetched dreaming is notable for how many normal people are brought under its spell. At one stage he claims to be a professional fen drainer who has amassed untold riches by draining fens and discovering treasure troves. His passionate conviction draws scepticism, credulity and ridicule, but as much as one can’t help but be aware of the absurdity of the claim, one is most sympathetic to the characters who want to believe Toomas’ romantic tales.
At the end of the novel we learn the rather melancholic truth about this eccentric wanderer. As the weather is turning and winter approaches Toomas comes to a fishing village. Once again insinuating himself into a local family and making all sorts of wild promises to a young woman. A new note of strain and desperation has made its way into his behaviour, reality and its dry reason catching up with him, until one day a lady arrives at the cabin of the fisherman he has been frequenting, who reveals herself to be Inriid Nipernaadi, Toomas’ wife:
‘I’m Nipernaadi’s lawful wife, have been for the last sixteen years. Has he not told you about it? Oh yes, I know him; when he goes on his summer travels, he’s a workman, farmer, tailor, or a chimney sweep, if you please. Then he denies his real profession and family, lives like a bird on a branch. This is what he’s like, I’m used to his ways and peculiarites. Come spring he disappears from me and his friends and then there’s no use looking for him.’
Inevitably one finds oneself comparing Toomas’ Nipernaadi to Don Quixote. But whereas the latter wakes from his delusions to a complete sense of his tragic absurdity, we can’t help but reread Toomas’ earlier attics and see in them the self-aware attempts of a romantic man to embellish with magic and adventure an existence that feels too mean and prosaic. When his wife appears to bring him home like some indulgent maternal figure, he peevishly insists, ‘the summer belongs to me’, it is not winter yet, he does not have to go home to reality quite yet.
The very best books, however much one might focus on form, style and influence, make some claim on us through our feelings, and Toomas Nipernaadi’s great appeal is just what a sympathetic figure he is, and how much time one would have for him if he turned up in the summer months with ambitious fen-draining and treasure finding plans.

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Timothy Lane on Drifting (À vau-l’eau) by J.-K. Huysman

A brief description of Drifting’s plot could easily lead one to think that is it a short minor work, only worth the time of academics and completists. This would be a mistake, as this little book creates a vein of characteristic Huysmans black comedy. I would go as far as to place it amongst my favourite of his works. It is the last piece that Huysmans wrote in his first period of major prose writing, defined by a more naturalistic approach. It was followed by his most famous and successful novel À rebours, as such it is hard not to make comparisons between the two and see foreshadowings of À rebours’ radical departures from naturalism.

Jean Folantin is a middle aged middling clerk working for the Ministry of the Interior in Paris. Although occupying an unexceptional position in the Civil Service, it is certainly a major improvement on the poverty of his ancestors. Despite some intelligence, industry and ambition, Folantin quickly learns that merit has little to offer one in procuring advancement in the Ministry, the right connections are indispensible if one wishes to move up.

His career stasis is complemented by a dissatisfactory Bachelordom. A short-lived period in his youth of visiting the very cheapest prostitutes with his limited funds, is followed by a disappointed attempt to build a more lasting relationship with a young working girl. This relationship ends with her absconding and leaving him with an unspecified venereal disease. Lacking the charm or social graces to woo a woman and lacking the funds sufficient to keep a mistress, Folantin comes to accept a dull loneliness in addition to his dull career.

It is at this stage in his life that we meet Folantin as he is in the process of ordering cheese at the end of his meal. Amidst a table of empty wine bottles and congealed leftovers Folantin picks at a Roquefort that was predictably awful. As he walks home his thoughts are anxiously preoccupied with whether on this cold evening there will be a warm fire waiting for him. Much to his chagrin he comes home to a freezing apartment and in between grumblings at the difficulty of finding reliable housekeepers, he begins to review the terrible day he has had at work and the awful meal after. Falling into a deep gloom he begins to, “review his forty-year way of the cross, stopping in despair at each station.”

Folantin is on a quest. He would like to find a reasonably priced restaurant where he can enjoy a good meal, or even just a fairly good meal. Every evening after work he debates with himself whether to return to the below average to poor restaurants he knows are consistent in their mediocrity, or to be more adventurous and risk the truly awful and inedible, in the dim hope of the enjoyable. Every available type of restaurant he has tried in every part of Paris he has frequented, has sufficient drawbacks to make his choice of restaurant utterly hopeless. In a rare sociable mood, he dines with a friend, the experience cures him of his desire for sociable dining.

Folantin’s past is never divulged but in one clear passage of biography, we get snippets of his life between his wretched meals, indeed his quest for a decent meal matters significantly more to him than anything else in his life. An edible meal has a positively transformative effect on his outlook. On the occasions his bachelordom particularly needles him, it is the vision of a woman to make decent home cooked food that especially taunts him. Maupassant, praising the book, described it as a ‘Ulysses of the eatery’. But while Homer allows Odysseus to see his family and his native Ithaca again, Huysmans has Folantin dolefully paraphrasing Schopenhauer after a depressing tryst with a prostitute.

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