Book of the month: Jacqueline Harpman

Getting translated into English is a tricky business. An anglophone book deal represents an opportunity for a writer to access a huge international audience because novels that appear in English have a greater chance of securing other language deals. But, with literary translations making up 3 to 5 per cent of publications in much of the English-speaking world, there is a narrow bottleneck to negotiate to achieve this kind of global reach.

For many books, time is of the essence. Editors love novelty and the idea that they are discovering talent before anyone else. As a result, most novels that don’t get picked up for translation in the year following their first publication are unlikely to make it beyond their original language.

Every so often, however – perhaps because of a news event or the efforts of a particularly tenacious champion – an exception breaks through. And sometimes books get several incarnations. Such is the case with Belgian author Jacqueline Harpman’s classic I Who Have Never Known Men, which was published in French in 1995, and first appeared in Ros Schwartz’s translation as The Mistress of Silence in 1997, before being republished under the more direct translation of its title in 2019, seven years after its author’s death.*

I was lucky enough to interview Ros Schwartz for the Royal Literary Fund’s Writers Aloud podcast some months ago. In a metaphor that feels uncannily resonant for the times we are living through, she used the French word ‘passeur’ to explain what translators do. ‘Passeurs were people who helped refugees escape during the war,’ she told me. ‘[A translator is] a passeur, a ferry if you like, between cultures.’

The image of the passeur is also relevant to Harpman’s novel. Narrated by a nameless girl who is one of 39 female prisoners held in a subterranean cage until the day an alarm sounds, leading the guards to flee while the door is open, the novel explores exile and alienation. Left to wander a deserted landscape that they cannot even be sure is Planet Earth, the women piece together the fragments they discover to try to understand what has happened to them and how to survive until the bitter truth finally reveals itself.

The richness and depth with which Harpman inhabits her narrator’s experience is astonishing. Indeed, it is no surprise that she was a psychoanalyst, for she presents the psychological shifts with which the protagonist encounters her predicament incredibly vividly. Those of us who have lived through lockdowns will recognise the truth in the heightened sensitivity you develop and the greater significance small events and objects take on when your world shrinks. Similarly, it is fascinating how thoroughly Harpman brings to life the experience of living without timekeeping devices and the ingenious way the narrator adapts to this.

The novel is also a powerful portrait of how we try to make sense of things – the ways we attempt to read situations we lack the necessary contextual information to understand. As so many of us do when confronted with texts that work differently to the kinds of stories we are used to, the women in the novel draw on their own limited knowledge to plug the gaps in their comprehension of this strange new world.

In the case of the narrator, who has been imprisoned since she was an infant and knows little of adult human civilization, this tendency is particularly clearly demonstrated in the naive fantasies she constructs around the young guard who keeps watch over the cage. Ignorant of the mechanics of sexual relationships, she tells herself stories that blend scraps of information with instinct and guesswork to bring about a mysterious ‘eruption’ in her maturing body. ‘This was extremely difficult because I was simultaneously the inventor of the story, the narrator and the listener awaiting the shock of the unexpected.’

Indeed, exploring the potential and purpose of storytelling forms an increasingly urgent theme. Repeatedly, along with questions about what defines human existence, the novel invites us to consider what a text is and what it does. Towards the end of the book, the narrator, who, we learn, is writing the account we’re reading, reflects on the strange alchemy that happens when someone reads a story: ‘The reader and I thus mingled will constitute something living, that will not be me, because I will be dead, and will not be that person as they were before reading, because my story, added to their mind, will then become part of their thinking.’

Yet, even as she examines storytelling, Harpman resists many of its conventions. There is a playful irreverence at work sometimes in the text: ‘Underneath, there were several items,’ writes the narrator at one point. ‘[…] But I shan’t go into the difficulties I had in identifying and naming all these things because that would be too tedious and I wouldn’t enjoy it.’ The reader’s curiosity is just one factor in the crafting of this story; this text must also serve its author’s pleasure.

At other points, the narrative seems to critique itself: ‘So few things happened during all those years of walking. I found the bus, I lost the road, I arrived here.’ It is almost as though Harpman is taunting the reader with her refusal to bow to plot conventions by withholding the revelations and resolutions the setup seems to demand. Indeed, on the face of it, this is a profoundly bleak and open-ended book.

To read it this way, though, would be to miss the subtleties at work beneath the surface that bring about the very transformation the protagonist claims reading is capable of effecting. For in being worked upon by Harpman and Schwartz’s fine words, we find ourselves changed from passive bystander to active participant. The story we hold in our hands may be a lonely one. But the fact that we are able to read it and enter into its protagonist’s strange experiences conveys a message of profound hope.

I Who have Never Known Men (Moi qui n’ai pas connu les hommes) by Jacqueline Harpman, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (Vintage, 2019)

Picture: ‘Tundra Landscape‘ by Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on flickr.com

*Corrected on 1 March 2022 to include details of the earlier edition.

Book of the month: Annelies Verbeke

One of the joys of this project has been the opportunity it’s given me to interact with authors around the world. From Turkmen author Ak Welsapar, who graciously asked me to write the preface to the latest English-language translation of his work, to Suchen Christine Lim from Singapore, who sent me a copy of her most recent novel only a few months back, I’ve really enjoyed learning about the lives and processes of so many wonderful writers. Given the geographic spread of the people whose work I’ve read for this project, however, it’s unusual that I meet them face to face.

The author of my latest book of the month is a rare exception. Having shared a stage with Annelies Verbeke at Vrije Universiteit’s Abraham Kuyper Lecture in Amsterdam last month (you can see us in the picture above in conversation with moderator Abdelkader Benali), I was delighted to receive a copy of her novel Thirty Days, translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters. I dived in and was quickly absorbed in what has turned out to be one of my favourite reads of the year so far.

Taking place in the space of a month, the novel follows the experiences of Alphonse, a musician-turned-decorator who has moved with his girlfriend to the rural district of Belgian Westhoek. Discovering that his work and manner often encourage clients to open up to him, Alphonse is quickly immersed in a web of personal tragedies, comedies and intrigues that spreads out across the pages of the novel, binding together everyone he meets and leaving no-one, but especially the protagonist, unchanged.

This is an immensely stylish book. With a strong instinct for the loose connections and quirks in human interaction, Verbeke presents a large cast of memorable and compelling characters. No matter how slight their involvement in the narrative, each of them feels rounded and finely drawn, and comes to us in the midst of pressing dilemmas. From the furious, butterfly-obsessed translator Alphonse encounters at a retreat building he is contracted to paint to the kebab-shop worker with a penchant for ice sculpture who slices off his finger in the process of preparing a shawarma, they all command attention and convey the impression that what we see of them is the merest tip of a deep iceberg of experience and feeling.

This is particularly true of the protagonist, Alphonse. The manner in which his history is revealed is incredibly skilful and invites readers to interrogate their assumptions. Having spent a long time imagining my way into the mindset of a person with markedly different life experiences and cultural markers to my own for my second novel, Crossing Over – which features an illegal Malawian migrant as one of its main characters – I was awed by Verbeke’s ability to take us into her hero’s universe. What’s more, I was envious of the facility with which she is able to make telling points without ever allowing the issues she explores to hi-jack the narrative and render her characters cardboard cut-outs acting in the service of ideas.

Verbeke’s control of the many elements of the story is hugely impressive. Wide-ranging though the narrative is – touching on the First World War, West African music and agricultural history, among many other things – the novel wears its author’s extensive research lightly. All the facts it features have an impact on the story and the writing hardly ever feels showy.

The result is a profoundly moving, insightful and witty piece of work, a book that has the capacity to make readers laugh and cry. It is, quite simply, fantastic. ‘Without a doubt, Verbeke is the greatest talent of her generation,’ proclaims a quote from the Flemish newspaper De Standaard on the front cover of my copy. I can well believe it.

Thirty Days (Dertig dagen) by Annelies Verbeke, translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters (World Editions, 2016)

Picture courtesy of Vrije Universiteit.

Book of the month: Saskia De Coster

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Moving house is a chance to reflect on many things. As I wrote in my post about packing up my year of reading the world bookshelf, my recent change of address led me to ponder this project and the many different people and ideas to which it introduced me anew.

I also found that it reintroduced me to a lot of other books – not least some of the many volumes on my to-read mountain. Since 2012, this has grown to a massive size. Barely a days goes by without someone contacting me or leaving a comment here suggesting another intriguing book.

Publishers are no exception. I often get emails from presses keen to send me copies of their latest releases in the hope that I might write about them on this blog. I’m always glad to hear about great books, but I’m also very honest with companies that contact me like this: because I only choose one book to feature each month, I am unlikely to review most of the books publishers send me. Indeed, I can count on one hand the number of review copies I have written about here.

Still, last month, as I was packing up, I happened upon an uncorrected proof sent to me by World Editions earlier this year. It was for the English-language version of Wij en ik (We and Me) by Belgian writer Saskia De Coster, translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier.

The accompanying publicity material was impressive. This was, according to World Editions, ‘a brilliant, incisive novel’. Indeed, they went so far as to call it a European response to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

If that weren’t curiosity-piquing enough, the cover of the proof bore a ringing endorsement from Dutch author Herman Koch, whose Summer House with Swimming Pool I read recently and enjoyed. And so, taking the book up from the stack on which it had languished for half a year, I put the packing on hold for a bit and began to read.

The novel follows the fortunes of the Vandersanden family, spanning more than three decades from 1980 until almost present-day. Living in a housing estate high up a mountain, megalomaniac Mieke, her taciturn husband Stefaan and their increasingly wilful and non-communicative daughter Sarah move through their days in isolation, caught in a web of silence that threatens to strangle them all. Through their stories and those of the community around them, De Coster paints a devastating picture of the modern-day nuclear family, revealing how loneliness can be threaded through the most intimate relationships of all.

The comparison of De Coster to Franzen is understandable, but somewhat limited. Although the two share an expansiveness to their writing and a willingness to devote pages to teasing out minutiae that most writers would baulk at for fear of readers’ ever-shrinking attention spans, the Belgian author’s prose has a quality all its own.

At her best she gets inside the heads of her characters to the extent that the whole world and the images used to portray it are coloured and slanted by their specific neuroses and concerns. When we look through the eyes of Mieke – whose days consist of an obsessional round of domestic chores – life explains itself by way of housework metaphors, whereas increasingly paranoid Stefaan sees reality in terms of political plots and intrigues.

There are some lovely instances of humour too. De Coster delights in bathos, frequently undercutting her creations’ pretensions or delusions with sharp one-liners that stay just the right side of bitter.

In time, however, this falls away and in the second half of the book the narrative takes flight, steering an exhilarating course between the peaks and valleys of the emotional landscape, revealing stunning vistas and terrifying cliffs.

This is not a perfect novel. There are some clunky word choices and overworked imagery. Observations such as the would-be bon mot that ‘rain in Belgium is like the great leader in a dictatorship: it pops up everywhere’ feel laboured and unnecessary.

At times the pacing jolts, jerking us abruptly from one scene to the next. And although the shifts of perspective from one character’s mind to the next often feel natural and fluid, there are points at which they bewilder.

The biggest issue concerns the mysterious ‘we’ of the title – a strange disembodied consciousness that creeps into the story at odd moments, commenting on the action in the manner of a Greek chorus. Although this occasionally adds a nice sense of mystery, it is not developed enough to merit its place and feels rather like scaffolding that may have helped in the construction of the narrative but would have been best taken down to show off the finished work.

These near misses are symptomatic of the risks writers must take to do exciting, new things, however. And there can be no doubt that, for all its imperfections, this is a bold and daring book. The epigraph from Virginia Woolf is a key to De Coster’s ambitions for her story: ‘To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face.’

For my money, she has achieved this. Uneven though it may be, We and Me contains startling truths about the way we live and die. To read this story is to be changed by it.

Thanks for sending me the proof, World Editions. I wonder what other delights are lurking in my mountains of unread books…

We and Me (Wij en ik) by Saskia De Coster, translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier (World Editions, 2016)

By the way, it’s been great to see such a brilliant response to Postcards from my bookshelf – nearly 120 entries in the week since it went live. If you haven’t applied yet but would like to be in with a chance of receiving a book chosen by me next year, visit the post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read.

Belgium: pressing issues

When you’re trying to read a book from every country in a year, you realise how conservative the big UK publishers are. Sure, they have one or two big-name non-British/American writers on their lists — the Achebes, Rushdies and Roys — but if you’re looking for books from beyond the post-colonial sphere, you’re going to have to turn to the small presses.

These come in all sorts of packages: some are based at universities, others span several offices around the world. Still others operate out of back rooms, garages and garden sheds, getting by purely on the dedication of the one or two people who run them, often while juggling full-time jobs.

The size of these presses means that they tend to be fleeter of foot than their lumbering commercial cousins and better able to develop distinctive lists. They might focus on literature from particular regions, on certain topics, or by specific sorts of writers. Or they might champion a particular ethos or style of writing. 

Dalkey Archive Press is one of these. According to its website, places ‘a heavy emphasis upon fiction that belongs to the experimental tradition of Sterne, Joyce, Rabelais, Flann O’Brien, Beckett, Gertrude Stein, and Djuna Barnes’.

Given these criteria, it’s easy to understand what attracted the Dalkey Archive team to Belgian writer Francois Emmanuel. Filled with rich images and startling perspectives, his collection of short stories Invitation to a Voyage recalls the modernist tradition, diffracting the everyday through a prism of strangeness to show it to the reader afresh.

Subterfuge and hidden motives are the lifeblood of many of the pieces. We see the private detective hired to investigate a classical violinist with whom he gradually falls in and out of love and the informer (or is he a madman?) sent to infiltrate a literary organisation (or is it an asylum?) and report back to a shadowy ‘organization’.

Sometimes the deception may be self-delusion, through which a character must break in order to achieve peace (unsurprising, perhaps, coming from a writer who is also a psychotherapist). The most powerful example of this is in the final story, ‘On Horseback upon the Frozen Sea’, a chilling retelling of the Bluebeard tale in which the narrator recounts the strange disintegration of a female friend after she rents a country house with a mysterious locked room.

Emmanuel is adept at sketching complex situations using only a few details. The description of the woman’s landlord in the garden ‘cutting, snipping, clipping, scarifying’, for example, tells us all we need to know about the unnamed fears giving her sleepless nights.

On occasion, though, these details can become too diffuse, making the narrative hard to follow and generating an effect similar to the frustration that the private detective’s commissioner describes in ‘Love and Distance: A Fragmentary Report’: ‘one believes one is looking through a wider and wider lens, but one sees only the lens, the irisations, the dust motes on its surface’. This is not helped by the breathless punctuation, which leaves the early stories hopping with commas (the opening eight-page piece has only one full stop) and makes it hard to resume the thread if you have to look up from the book for anything. Perhaps this is deliberate, but it is a risky strategy because it threatens to derail the largely very enjoyable flow of the stories.

Interestingly, for all their linguistic experimentation, the universe of the works has a strangely old-fashioned feel. Emmanuel first published this collection in 2003, so it would be unfair to expect it to reflect the full force of the digital era. Nevertheless, the world he presents seems immune to the shifts in thought and interaction that the information superhighway had already instigated by then. Reading the collection, you could almost be back in the worlds of Joyce and Djuna Barnes.

No doubt I’ll read more Dalkey Archive books this year, so it will be interesting to see how some of their more recent titles compare. In the meantime though, old-fashioned or not, the world of Francois Emmanuel lingers in my mind.

Invitation to a Voyage by Francois Emmanuel (translated from the French by Justin Vicari). Dalkey Archive Press 2011