A Luxembourgish artist’s story

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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

A new title hits the shelves

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One of the exciting things about reading the world was the number of unpublished manuscripts I got to sample during the project. From the crowd-sourced translation of Olinda Beja’s A casa do pastor, which I read for Sao Tome & Principe after nine volunteers generously converted it into English for me, and Mozambican literary giant Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa’s Ualalapi, to Ak Welsapar’s The Tale of Aypi  – the first book ever to be translated directly from Turkmen but still, sadly, without an Anglophone publishing deal – I was repeatedly surprised and delighted by the extraordinary works I had the privilege of discovering.

People often ask me whether any of these works are going to make it into the shops. I hope so, is the short answer. Certainly many of them deserve to – not least because they are often one of the few, if not the only, English-language translations of literature in existence from particular nations. I would be delighted if this project meant that some of these exciting stories had a chance to break into the world’s largest publishing market.

So you can imagine my pleasure when I heard today that Robi Gottlieb-Cahen’s Minute Stories has come out through Editions Phi.

Now, I have  to confess that A Year of Reading the World has nothing to with Gottlieb-Cahen’s success – the book was already slated for publication when Claudine Muno, frontwoman of Luxembourgian band Claudine Muno and the Lunar Boots, helped me find it. Still, it’s great to hear of the first AYORTW manuscript making it into print – particularly from Luxembourg, which has very little literature available in English.

Gottlieb-Cahen’s fascinating collection of tiny stories of no more than two or three sentences written in three languages and accompanying paintings by the author will give many readers a chance to sample literature from a nation they might not otherwise have the opportunity to read a book from. Congratulations on your achievement, Robi!

And for details of more AYORTW titles coming to bookshops or e-retailers near you, watch this space…

Picture from Editions Phi

Luxembourg: a mission and a half

I had an email from Andrew in Ireland. Back in 2004, when the European Union expanded from 15 to 25 states, he undertook a project to read a book from each member country. He got round them all, with one exception: when it came to Luxembourg there was nothing he could get hold of to read in English.

It’s not surprising that Andrew found getting literature from the world’s only sovereign grand duchy difficult: with three official languages (French, German and Luxembourgish), there’s enough to do translating documents so that all of the country’s 500,000 or so citizens can read them without looking further afield.

Nevertheless, Andrew did give me something to go on. In the course of his research, he’d heard about a Luxembourgish writer called Claudine Muno who had published a novel in English in 1996, at the age of just 16. By all accounts it was out of print.

I looked Muno up. It turns out she’s continued to be something of a trailblazer and is now frontwoman of the Luxembourgish folk-pop band Claudine Muno and the Luna Boots. Crossing my fingers, I left a message on the group’s Facebook page, asking if Muno could tell me how I could get hold of her book.

Muno replied. She was sorry to say that her novel was completely unavailable – she and her editor only had one copy each left. However, she did have a recent audiobook with young writers reading extracts from their work, some of them in English – would I be interested in that?

And so it was that during a drive down to Cornwall, my long-suffering boyfriend and I listened our way through Write Out Loud, a mixture of Luxembourgish, French, German and English pieces read in the same earnest tones that I remembered members of the Creative Writing Society (many of them dressed in black and sporting berets) adopting at open-mic nights at university.

It would have been tempting to claim this as my Luxembourgish book and leave the quest there. However, given that the prose extracts in English probably only amounted to a total of five minutes’ listening time, this would have felt a bit like cheating. So, taking a deep breath, I sent an email to 19-year-old Joshi Gottlieb, the mastermind of the project and the writer on the CD whose quirky, oddball style I’d most enjoyed.

Gottlieb came back with the manuscript of a book by Robi Gottlieb-Cahen, who did the cover illustration for Write Out Loud. Written throughout in three languages (English, French and German), the book looked set to be published by Éditions Phi  in February 2013. I sighed with relief. I may even have whooped in triumph: at last, I had my Luxembourgish book.

Minute Stories is a collection of micro-tales – many of them no more than a sentence long – each of which has been paired with one of Gottlieb-Cahen’s paintings. As Jean-Marie Schaeffer explains in her introduction, ‘here, one single person holds both the pen and the brush’, creating ‘fundamental indecision in the relation between pictorial and narrative identities’.

In some cases, the link between the two works is clear. There is the visual joke of a picture of a woman with her arm thrown back undercut by a comment about shaving underarm hair and – my personal favourite – a sentence about someone who will not stop talking accompanied by a nightmarish painting of a clownish face, which evokes that feeling of being cornered by someone you’d really rather not speak to perfectly.

Some of the other associations are less obvious. While it is clearly Gottlieb-Cahen’s intention to challenge readers to find their own meaning in the interplay of the words and images, the obscurity of some of the connections can be frustrating. The picture of a naked buxom woman above a sentence about shoelaces, for example, left me scratching my head.

This sense of uncertainty permeates the stories too, many of which deal with loneliness, loss, leaving and ‘the art of not understanding each other’. We are repeatedly invited to question the identity of the narrators – are they Gottlieb-Cahen or someone else altogether?  In addition, the informality of their grammar and punctuation, which gives them the feel of text messages or notes scribbled in someone’s diary, and the occasional bracketed references to the places where the events happened make them seem like moments snatched from everyday life.

There is also the question of the relation of the text’s three languages to each other. Although the English version of the text is printed first on each page, one or too minor syntactical oddities suggest that it is not Gottlieb-Cahen’s first language. This made me wonder how the stories were written. Did Gottlieb-Cahen work in one language and translate into the other two? Or did he generate each version independently?

The web of questions grows as the book progresses, wrapping the reader in a cat’s-cradle of ideas. Gottlieb-Cahen keeps this light and playful with regular bursts of bathos and wit, which challenge the hushed reverence that often seems to be the expected response to art books. The result is a fascinating and exuberant exploration of pictures and words and our relationship to them. Well worth the effort it took to find it.

Minute Stories by Robi Gottlieb-Cahen (slated for publication by Éditions Phi in 2013)