Ready for launch

February 4, 2015

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My dress is pressed. The wine is on its way. In a few hours’ time, I’ll be taking those shrink-wrapped copies of Reading the World in the picture above to central London to join a mountain of others at the launch before my book goes on sale tomorrow and I become a published author.

I’m excited to see my friends, family and many of the people who helped make the book happen. I’m eager to hear my editor speak about the project. And I’m looking forward to getting up on stage to read an extract out loud.

But for now, sitting in the peace and quiet of the living room where this journey started just over three years ago, I’m taking a moment to reflect on this project and where it has led. I’m thinking of the people around the planet who shared their knowledge and experience with me, the supporters who cheered me on, and the amazing stories we found together.

Human beings and books are capable of extraordinary things.

Book of the month: Han Kang

January 27, 2015

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Some books follow you around. At least, that has been my experience this month with The Vegetarian by the South Korean novelist Han Kang. No sooner had I resolved to read it after seeing a tweet about it from Gary Perry, assistant head of fiction at Foyles, than it seemed to be popping up everywhere.

When I went into the Guardian newspaper’s offices to record a podcast about my forthcoming book, it cropped up in conversation with the literary editor Claire Armitstead. Next, I saw that Chad Post, editor of Three Percent, had picked it out as one of the texts for his translation students at Rochester University to discuss this semester.

Then, before I knew it, an enthusiastic tweet of my own somehow led to an invitation to the London launch. And so last week, there I was in the London Review Bookshop, listening to Han Kang (speaking through an interpreter) and her translator Deborah Smith discuss the novel with Deborah Levy, author of the Man Booker prize-shortlisted novel Swimming Home.

It’s not surprising that The Vegetarian has captured so many people’s imaginations. The premise alone is bound to intrigue: centring on a hitherto apparently unremarkable woman, Yeong-hye, the narrative presents the fallout from her abrupt decision to reject meat – and with it the food culture she has grown up with – after she has a violent dream. As her eating becomes more and more restricted and her body shrinks and weakens, the cracks in her relationships deepen, allowing glimpses of the traumas, assumptions and impossible dreams that lie beneath.

The novel’s tone is one of its great strengths. Indeed, despite the weightiness of the subject matter, the opening pages have a levity and dry wit as Yeong-hye’s husband sets the scene of his marriage to ‘the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world’. This lightness makes the shock all the greater when the husband and his in-laws round on Yeong-hye, attempting to overcome her resistance and act upon her with violence that they find frighteningly easy to justify.

Han’s (and Smith’s) beautifully modulated sentences weave their way through a series of increasingly outlandish, alarming and yet alluring images as the narrative barrels further and further away from the apparent normality of the outset. From fleeting tropes, such as the idea of a wound consuming an entire body, to the monstrous yet exquisite flower-copulation video created by Yeong-hye’s video artist brother-in-law as a way of enacting his own particular ambitions for her body, the text astonishes and challenges the reader.

As in most ambitious works, the writing takes risks that occasionally threaten to destabilise it. At the start of each of the novel’s three sections – which are narrated by a different family member, although never the title character herself – it is as though the narrative is thrown up into the air until we deduce whose gaze we have borrowed and everything falls into place once more. Similarly, a few of the flashbacks emerge so subtly out of the texture of events that it is sometimes difficult to locate yourself – a technique that adds to the dreamlike quality of much of the writing but can distance the reader from the narrative too.

Overall, though, the effect is utterly absorbing. Poetic, shocking and thought-provoking, this is a book that forces us to confront some of the darkest realities of the human experience: the violence with which we are forced to be complicit simply through the fact of our existence, the way we manipulate and objectify others, and our ability to become inured to horror and abuse. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books, 2015)

Well, not quite a movie. But a close second. This is the author film made for me by the excellent production company Vloop.

The idea is to give a little flavour of what Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer is like and how it’s different from the blog. At the end, there are links to three very short extra videos about some of the highlights from that extraordinary year, as well as the film of the shelf piling up with books. I hope you like it.

Seeing the finished film is a great end to what’s already been a very exciting week. In the past few days, the book’s first review has been published and I visited the Guardian newspaper’s offices to record a podcast – to be released soon.

There are lots more things to come in the next few weeks as we build up to the UK publication day (or pub date, as I’ve learned it’s called in the industry) of February 5, 2015. Watch this space.

The finished book

January 10, 2015

Finished book

A package came last night. This was inside. It’s the UK edition of the finished book, the book that so many of you helped make happen.

If you look closely, you can just spot me peeking up from the author photo on the inside back cover. You can’t see it from here, but I am grinning in that photo almost as much as I am now.

Roll on the UK publication date of February 5, 2015!

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Since finishing my year of reading the world, I’ve been delighted to find that booklovers around the planet have kept in contact and still send me recommendations of good reads. It’s always a pleasure to hear of tempting books, but I’m particularly delighted when I come across a new translation from a country that I know to have very little literature available in English. Consequently, when I heard that innovative independent publisher And Other Stories was bringing out By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel from Equatorial Guinea, I was thrilled.

As far as I have been able to discover, this book is the second commercially available translation of literature from the country (the first being Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of Your Black Memory, which I read for my project). The reasons for this lack are various (and in some ways the situation is quite typical of French-, Portuguese- and, in this case, Spanish-speaking African nations, most of which have very little literature in translation), however the fraught political situation in Equatorial Guinea made bringing this book to the Anglophone market particularly difficult, as translator Jethro Soutar explained in an article for the Guardian earlier this year. So when my copy arrived, looking striking with its elegant cover design, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.

Set on the remote island of Annobón off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, the novel explores the childhood memories of its nameless narrator. It charts his recollections of growing up in his eccentric grandfather’s house and in a society fuelled by the competing imperatives of superstition and the need to secure goods and favours from passing ships. Punctuated by a series of catastrophic events that shape the community and the narrator’s own way of thinking, the narrative examines storytelling, memory and the way we reconcile ourselves with the events, beliefs and customs that made us who we are.

In many ways, this book is an ideal candidate for translation. Because its narrator grew up in a bilingual society, moving between the vernacular and the formal Spanish-language world of school, and because he now lives away from the island, he is a natural-born go-between. Whether he is unpicking the practicalities of cutting the dates from palm trees, explaining the relative significance of Christian terminology in his mother tongue and learned language, or unravelling the beliefs behind the ostracization of she-devils (known by their penchant for nighttime sea bathing), Ávila Laurel gives him a knack for making the unfamiliar plain.

Constantly questioning, evaluating, musing and challenging, the narrator draws the reader in with a compelling hybrid style that (as he reveals towards the end of the book) blends his own recollections with the island’s oral tradition. At times, he asks our opinion on the events of the story; at others he deflates those he portrays with dry wit. When the narrative takes a turn for the shocking, his tone is disconcertingly direct, with some passages recalling the monologues of an analysand on the therapist’s couch as he returns again and again to past traumas, searching for the key to unlock their meaning.

There are fantastical descriptions that might tempt the reader to reach for the term ‘magical realism’. And there are even occasions when the narrator assumes a schoolmasterly tone: ‘Does anyone know how you get the half-formed canoe to the shore from the bush it lies in?’ he asks at one point, so that for an instant we seem to be children sitting in a circle round him, agog as he spins his tale.

In the same way, the narrative plays with print conventions, eschewing chapter markers for occasional breaks in the storytelling and, at one point, even recording the number of victims to die in the island’s cholera epidemic with a series of crosses printed in the middle of a paragraph.

As a result, the book makes for a challenging read in the best sense of the word. Leaping between registers, tenses and episodes, with long digressions and whimsical catastrophisations and speculations interrupting proceedings, this novel (if that is the right term for it) divests readers of their preconceptions. Those looking for a conventional, three-act plot with a protagonist, an inciting incident and everything tied up neatly at the end will not find it here.

Instead, what you get is a lyrical evocation of quite another world, with plenty to chuckle at and be troubled by along the way. Thronged with suspected sorceresses and a sense of the supernatural, this book weaves a kind of magic. Abandon any assumptions you might have about what a story is at the title page and dive right in.

By Night the Mountain Burns (Arde el monte de noche) by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories, 2014).

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Back in October, I received a rather unusual invitation. It was to a private view of Inside Out, an art exhibition at the Luxembourg embassy – or Luxembourg House as it’s known – in London. Not being an aficionado of Luxembourgish art, I was nonplussed at first. Then my eye caught the name of the painter whose work would be on show: Robi Gottlieb-Cahen, the writer/artist who generously sent me the manuscript of his trilingual Minute Stories (since published by Éditions Phi) so that I could have something to read in English from Luxembourg back in 2012.

Delighted at the chance to meet the man himself, I headed over to Wilton Crescent in Knightsbridge one evening after work. After hanging my coat up in a side room under an imposing picture of Queen Elizabeth II, I made my way into a high-ceilinged space lined with a series of artworks painted in Gottlieb-Cahen’s distinctive style – created by layering acrylic paint, ink and other pigments and then using acid to craft the image (you can see examples on Gottlieb-Cahen’s website).

I spent some time wandering among the works, admiring their eerie beauty and sometimes disturbing darkness, and it wasn’t long before I recognised the artist from the photograph on his exhibition leaflet. There he was, standing beneath the painting pictured above, engaged in an animated conversation.

I went over and introduced myself. Gottlieb-Cahen greeted me warmly and we spent several minutes reminiscing about the projects that brought us together and discussing his latest work.

The darkness I’d identified in the paintings was a central theme, he explained. Although he was a very positive, upbeat person, a lot of his works portrayed suffering, some of them drawing on the experiences of his relatives, many of whom were killed during the Holocaust. He did, however, always try to include some suggestion of hope in his creations.

‘My wife says for me it’s either psychotherapy or painting,’ he said with a grin. ‘I choose painting.’

He chooses words sometimes too. When I asked about his writing, Gottlieb-Cahen told me he had recently finished another collection of short stories, which he was hoping to place with a French publisher. Like Minute Stories, this collection featured some of his artwork alongside the text, although there were more words and fewer pictures than in the previous book.

As I said goodbye, he promised to email me one of his recent pieces. This he did a few days later and, testing my school-girl French to its limits, I read ‘Souvenir d’un pantalon à anges’ (Memory of a pair of angel trousers), a quirky story about a liaison that goes wrong when an innocent question leads the narrator to reveal the cruel and obsessive war he has been waging against slugs in his back garden.

Like Gottlieb-Cahen’s paintings it contains a mixture of lightness (in the form of many laughs) and more sinister elements. If it’s representative of the rest of the collection, French-language readers have a treat in store when Gottlieb-Cahen finds a publisher.

Meanwhile, if you’re in central London and fancy checking out his artwork yourself, Inside Out remains at Luxembourg House until 9 January 2015. Just email londres.amb[at]mae.etat.lu to make an appointment to see it.

Picture courtesy of Robi Gottlieb-Cahen

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Since I started asking for recommendations of books to read back in late 2011, I’ve been inundated with suggestions of tempting-sounding titles from around the globe. To this day, I receive messages and comments from booklovers across the world sharing some of their favourite reads with me. I still add all valid recommendations to the list and hope to continue doing so for a long time to come.

Among the welter of titles I have heard about over the last three years, however, there have been several that have stood out as being particularly admired. November’s book of the month is a prime example.

Its writer, David Grossman, has been mentioned to me by a large number of readers – so much so that I very nearly picked one of his novels as my Israeli choice for A Year of Reading the World. It was only my curiosity about the premise of Aharon Appelfeld’s Blooms of Darkness that made me plump for that instead.

So it’s great to be able to report back to you on one of Grossman’s books now: To the End of the Land, which was translated into English in 2010, two years after the original appeared in Hebrew.

The novel tells the story of three Jewish characters, Ora, Avram and Ilan, whose lives are intertwined from the moment they meet as teenage patients in a plague hospital in 1967. As they grow up, they are shaped and twisted by their loyalties and the cruel events of Israel’s modern history, which simultaneously bind and divide them through a web of secrets and regrets. But when her younger son Ofer volunteers for further service with the Israel Defence Forces, Ora is unable to stand the pressure anymore. Terrified that every moment will bring a knock at the door to notify her of his death, she sets out with Avram on a trek across the country to Galilee, covering old ground in search of peace.

Few books contain so many deft depictions of the fluctuating dynamics of human relationships. From the seismic shifts that break, warp and split lives, to the momentary lapses and dissemblances that colour conversations, this book has it all, with joyous bursts of humour to boot. For example, we see the moment-by-moment collapse of a longstanding relationship during the disastrous taxi ride taking Ofer to the front for which Ora unthinkingly books her trusted Arab driver, Sami, and through it the way that ‘the fears and hatred [they] both drank with [their] mother’s milk’ make certain things impossible – for all that Ora and Sami may laugh and rail together against ‘the long-winded indignant, greedy pretenses of both Jews and Arabs’ in times of relative tranquillity.

The descriptions of the wild places Ora and Avram pass through, dotted with memorial plaques to fallen soldiers and ruined Arab villages, are powerful, but it is the mental and emotional landscape that takes centre stage. Among the many extraordinary passages are a series of narrations from Ora about her memories of raising her sons, which transfigure the mundane incidents of domestic life into searing revelations of the myriad ambiguities and moral compromises that go into making up a human being. The scene in which the young Ofer discovers the truth about where meat comes from will stay with me for a long time – as will Grossman’s afterword, in which he discusses briefly the death of his son in military service in 2006 (the experience, he says, changed ‘the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written’).

Congratulations have to go to translator Jessica Cohen for her work with what must have been a challenging text – just one of the many conundrums being a passage where Ofer’s brother Adam talks exclusively in rhyme. My only quibble was with the choice of the word ‘pub’ for many of the various bars featured in the text, but this may not bother American readers – at whom this version was primarily aimed.

The expansiveness of the story’s emotional excavations means that this is an unapologetically long book and it took me a while to read. Like its characters, it moves at walking pace. The investment of time is well worth it, though. As Ora herself reflects: ‘It’s a good thing the path is so long… This way, there’s time to get accustomed to all the changes.’

To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Vintage Digital, 2010)

Meet the bloggers

November 7, 2014

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Bloggers are a strange breed. We spend hours in front of our computer screens when other people are out partying, seeing friends or asleep (I, for example, am writing this at 6.50am – why on earth?). We obsess over details (when normal people are thinking about dinner or plans for the weekend, we will most likely be agonising over which photo to choose for our next post or wondering if the ‘and’ in the third sentence should really be a ‘but’). And we know an alarming amount about sometimes extremely niche areas of life.

So when I was invited to take part in Blog10’s inaugural social event, bringing together a group of bloggers from a variety of fields over dinner and wine to discuss ‘The Changing Face of Blogging’, I was both excited and apprehensive. Could a handful of us webby weirdos really sustain intelligent conversation over the course of several hours, I wondered. Would there come a point where we all became jibbering wrecks muttering in corners, our fingers twitching from keyboard withdrawal?

As it turned out, my fears were groundless. From the moment I arrived at Book and Kitchen (a beautiful bookshop with a café and events space in London’s Notting Hill, loved into being by director Muna Khogali), I knew this was going to be a good evening.

One of the most fascinating things about it was the range topics we covered on our blogs. From flower writer Rona Wheeldon’s award-winning Flowerona to Mark Sheerin’s art blog Criticismism, and eclectic sites such as Katie Antoniou’s London Plinth and AnOther magazine blog represented by Mhairi Graham, we hailed from a huge variety of virtual worlds. In addition, our ventures ranged in size from those with a few hundred hits here and there to Abimarvel by superstar fashion blogger Abisola Omole, who – six years after she started her blog during her GCSEs at school – employs a full-time staff member and an intern to help her run the site.

I was particularly interested to meet fellow book blogger Kim Forrester and hear about her ten years of experience writing Reading Matters – which makes A Year of Reading the World seem like a flash in the pan.

As the evening went on, topics of conversation included how blogging changed our lives, how we used social media, and potential threats to freedom on the web such as the issue of net neutrality. The debate was ably led by Kate Baxter of Fabric of My Life and the whole thing was helped along by some fabulous food prepared by Muna and her team (you can see the scrumptious chicken biryani on Mark’s plate in the photo above). And although everyone looks quite serious in that picture, there were plenty of laughs.

I’m told there will be a podcast of some of the discussion, which I’ll share here when I can. But in the meantime, I’d be very interested to hear about your experiences. How has creating and running a blog been for you?

With thanks to Marmalade PR for the invitation.

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As those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while will know, translation (or the lack of it) is probably the single biggest obstacle literary explorers have to face. With only a handful of texts from many countries making it into English – the globe’s most published language – each year, the literary offering from many parts of the planet available to Anglophone readers is negligible, if not non-existent.

This can affect classics and national treasures every bit as much as lesser known works. During my Year of Reading the World, for example, I was shocked to discover that the great Mozambican novel Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa (named one of the top 100 African books of the 20th century) had not been published in English. I was lucky to read a manuscript translation and discover Khosa’s towering warrior-leader hero, Ngungunhane, that way. But for the moment, unless they also read Portuguese, Anglophone bibliophiles have no official way of meeting him.

So when fellow book blogger Marina Sofia tipped me off about a long overdue translation of a novel by another internationally celebrated writer, I was determined to take a look.

Coming some 86 years after the original, Michelle Bailat-Jones‘s rendering of Swiss author Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz‘s Beauty on Earth makes the work widely available to English-language readers for the first time (there is an anonymous 1929 translation, but it is only stocked in a very few libraries and diverges from the French-language version in several key respects).

The story turns on the arrival of Cuban emigrant Juliette in a small European mountain village following the death of her father. The plan is for her to stay with her uncle, a café owner called Milliquet, until she turns 21, but before long Juliette’s unsettling beauty has stirred simmering resentments and tensions in the community, setting a train of events in motion that can only end in disaster.

As Bailat-Jones observes in her ‘Translators note’, the narrative voice is one of the most curious and distinctive aspects of the book. Part Greek chorus, part omniscient witness, it veers between every perspective and none, swooping in and out of people’s minds and concerns – not to mention pronouns and tenses. At times it has an almost hypnotic feel, with the repetition of key phrases giving the text a compelling timelessness, as though its events are taking place in an eerie eternal present.

This sense of timelessness is heightened by the creative portrayals of action, colours and scenery in the book, which give it the air of an intricate landscape painting set before our eyes. Small details are rendered with fine brushwork. We read, for example, of how ‘a ladder of sunshine had descended from a hole in the sky, like a boat throwing a rope to someone cast overboard'; of a leaf ‘wrinkled up […] like a duck’s foot'; and of how, when one of the characters smashes a mirror, ‘a star is made in the glass and his view of us vanishes’.

Meanwhile, flashes of light come in the form of shockingly precise observations on the human experience, revealing in language as clear as glass how ‘one has to kill impossible things inside oneself’ and how vehemently we deny the approach of our own ruin.

Inevitably, the experimental use of images and words means that occasionally the events described take some time to come into focus, leaving us momentarily bewildered and unsure as to exactly what is going on. In addition, the ponderous pace of some of the scenes – in which the narrative eye can linger on the cutting and consuming of bread and cheese, for example, for several sentences – sparks the occasional flicker of impatience.

Taken as a whole though, the accretion of these details builds up a mesmeric picture so that, in the final pages, we are able to step back from the canvas and appreciate the full effect. Beautiful.

Beauty on Earth (La beauté sur la terre) by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, translated from the French by Michelle Bailat-Jones (Onesuch Press, 2013)

Proofs!

October 15, 2014

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Yesterday, I got an email from my UK editor, Michal Shavit at Harvill Secker/Random House. She said the uncorrected proofs of Reading the World had arrived.

Unable to be in the same city as my book without holding a copy in my hands, I made a detour on my way to visit a friend and stopped off at Random House in Pimlico. This little pile of beauties was waiting for me – six of only 80 produced to be sent out to journalists and reviewers in advance of publication next year. They’re not finished – there are still some proofreading things to catch and one or two loose ends to tie up – but they are pretty close, a sort of dress rehearsal for how the book will be.

I stuffed them into my trusty Daunt Books bag and scurried off, eager to have a good look. Over the next few days I’ll be combing through the pages and going over the queries from the proofreader to try to catch any last slips and typos before it all goes to press for the final time.

There’s a lot to do before it’s finally put to bed, but this is definitely a proud moment. Hard to believe it all started with a 300-word blog post asking for help from the world’s readers almost exactly three years ago today

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