“A library is a place where you can lose your innocence without losing your virginity.” (Germaine Greer)

I really feel I’ve lost my blogging mojo over the last year. It started with the 2018 heatwave which killed off my reading for a few weeks; my reading recovered but my blogging never really did. I’m hoping Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) hosted by Meytal at Biblibio will help, but given we’re nearly halfway through, maybe not 😀 If any of you lovely bloggers have any tips on how to recover they would be gratefully received!

Anyway, here is what I hope will be the first of a few posts for WITMonth; starting with two novels loosely linked by themes of virginity, or lack thereof.

Firstly, Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones (2007, trans. Clarissa Botsford 2014) published by the wonderful AndOtherStories. Set in Albania, its also another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit (Dones is Albanian but wrote this originally in Italian).

Sworn Virgin looks at the experience of Hana, who has taken on a mostly extinct northern Albanian Kanun tradition. The tradition is that a family without male heirs can nominate a female to become a sworn virgin; she will live as a man and fulfil male roles. Hana took on the role willingly to avoid a marriage she didn’t want.

“ ‘It’s not that hard to be a man, you know?’ she says. ‘I swore never to get married, it’s a tradition that exists only in the north of the country. Let me explain: when there are no boys in a family, one of the girls swears to behave like a man and to remain a man for the rest of her life. From that moment on, she has to play all the roles and take over the tasks of a man. That’s why I became the son my uncle never had. Uncle Gjergj was my father’s brother; he took me in and brought me up after my parents died.’”

At the start of the novel Hana is travelling to the US to live with her cousin Lila and begin the process of becoming Hana again. Lila is highly feminine and doesn’t quite understand that for Hana, who has been living as Mark for 15 years, the transition back is not straightforward.

“ ‘You need to take off these men’s clothes.’

‘There’s no hurry.’

‘The sooner you get rid of them the better.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘I thought that was the deal. That you were coming here to go back to what you were.’

‘Yes, but there’s no hurry.’”

Hana has to adjust to a new country as well as a new way of presenting herself to the world. Although a story of immigration, Sworn Virgin is also a story of homecoming – to oneself. Hana has to decide how her appearance will express who she is, but also look at her life and think about what she wants. She had loved books and wanted to go to college, but had to return home when her beloved uncle Gjergj was dying. When her studies became impossible and she was facing marriage she didn’t want, she chose to become Mark instead.

“She had men’s clothes and a flask of raki in her pocket, and these had been her mirrors. She had needed nothing else. Up there in the mountains, time and place had been equal partners.”

 Although the sworn virgin tradition may be seem extraordinary to those of us unused to it, Dones has made a documentary about sworn virgins before she wrote this novel and to me it never felt sensationalist or exoticised. There is much in Hana’s story that is relatable. Sworn Virgin is about reconciling yourself to the past, and how it is never too late to make changes when you find you’ve outgrown certain decisions.

“Hana tries to bring her attention back to her body. The man she thought would still be tenaciously inhabiting her is no longer there. That man was only a carapace. Lila was right: Mark Doda’s life had been no more than the sum total of the masculine gestures Hana had forced herself to imitate, in the skin worn leathery by bad food and lack of attention. Mark Doda had been a product of her iron will.”

The focus on virginity is given a wider scope too. Hana’s virginity has become a burden to her, something to discard to help her move forward. Losing it is about Hana acknowledging herself as a sexual being with desires, and prioritising her own needs  – both sexual and non-sexual – in a way she hasn’t been able to before. This is dealt with non-romantically but still sensitively.

Obviously there is a strong theme of gender roles in Sworn Virgin, but for me it was first and foremost a character study of Hana, and the many binaries she has to adjust to: home/new country, rural life/urban life, family/independence.

“She tries to penetrate the unique spirit of the individual, she analyses their face and eyes, she tries to imagine the thoughts hiding behind those eyes, but she tends to avoid thinking about the fact that the thoughts are inextricably linked to male or female ego…She’s only just realizing now that for a long time she has had to consider things from both points of view.”

Secondly, from one extreme to the other. If there’s a character in literature not remotely associated with virginity, its probably Emma Bovary. Although I can’t stand Emma, I still picked up Sophie Divry’s Madame Bovary of the Suburbs (2014, trans. Alison Anderson 2017) with anticipation because I  had really enjoyed The Library of Unrequited Love. This isn’t quite so sparky as her previous novel, but then I don’t think its supposed to be, given as its dealing with a pervasive sense of middle class ennui.

M.A. (geddit?) is born in the 1950s and dies around 2025. In between, she is bored.

“You could not voice your feelings of dissatisfaction, because – and images from all over the world came to remind you – everything had been programmed for you to be happy.”

As the quote above shows, the novel is written in the second person. Normally I would hate this technique, but here I thought it worked quite well. The reader is constantly being told ‘you’ are doing/feeling these things, but we’re not. Essentially we feel the same sense of disconnect as M.A. does to her comfortable middle class life, living in the titular area, in a house she owns with her husband Francois, raising their children.

“In those days it didn’t bother you, or not for very long, that you never had a break. Inventing a marinade, discussing your daughter’s progress, teasing your husband about his incompetence at household chores; you got the impression that at last you were enjoying a certain return on your investment, after so many years of movement, migration, studies, pregnancies.”

Of course, as we know, Madame Bovary found one way to alleviate her boredom, as does M.A. with the vacuous Phillipe. Inevitably the affair is doomed, but unlike Emma, M.A. carries on. In this way I actually found it more depressing than its namesake; Madame Bovary is quite melodramatic, whereas this novel suggests there are plenty of lives of quiet desperation being carried out across the land.

However, I don’t want to suggest this is a bleak read, it’s not. The things I enjoyed about The Library… are evident here: the light touch, the wry humour:

“The eldest among us aware of what awaits the newlyweds once everyone has left, once the tables have been cleared, the last goodbyes are said, and we find ourselves in front of a refrigerator.”

Flaubert famously said ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi.’ Divry suggests ‘Vous êtes Madame Bovary’.

“Deep down no-one knows whether supreme happiness is attainable in one’s lifetime, physical pleasure remains one of its earthly traces, a trace we cling to, as long as we have the strength.”

To end, there’s an obvious 80s pop tune I could include on the theme of virginity, but for once I’m not going the obvious route 😊 I love the Pet Shop Boys and I don’t think I’ve ever managed to shoehorn them in so here they are singing about sinful urges:

27 thoughts on ““A library is a place where you can lose your innocence without losing your virginity.” (Germaine Greer)

  1. Sworn Virgin sounds interesting (and I haven’t visited Albania on my Around the World challenge, so may be one to check out). I’ve had the Divry on my TBR list for ages – I will get to it.

    Let it be known that I read this post humming Madonna, only to finish with a Pet Shop Boys surprise! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is really interesting, I knew nothing about the sworn virgin tradition. I hope you enjoy it if it becomes your Albanian book trip!

      The Divry is a quick read, so a speedy way to feel good about a diminishing TBR 😉

      Glad I managed to surprise you! I fully planned on a Madonna ending until suddenly I realised Neil & Chris had a very apt song too 😊

      Like

  2. Ah, I like the sound of the wry humour in the Sophie Divry. We all need a bit of lightness in our lives now and again, especially in the current political climate with its air of darkness and uncertainty. (If only we could rewind a few years and jettison David Cameron into oblivion then we might not be in this hellhole right now.) You’ve also reminded me that I never got around to reading Divry’s other book, The Library of Unrequited Love. Definitely something to remedy at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We really do Jacqui! I had a dream last night I was following JR-M round the streets screaming profanities at him – not like me at all, I promise! The Library of Unrequited Love I can definitely recommend in these times – quick, witty and warm 😊

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  3. Oh, the Pet Shop Boys – I won’t be cursing you for this earworm!

    I read Sworn Virgin when it was first published here and found it extraordinary, one of those examples of books in translation that open your eyes to a world on your own continent but so very different. I also enjoyed Madame Bovary in the Suburbs, a daring idea but she pulled it off, I think.

    Lovely to have you back! I think the best thing you can do is resist pressure so this isn’t a plea for more. Always happy to read your comments and see your tweets.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you enjoyed it Susan! I do like them so it’s an oversight that they’ve not appeared until now 😀

      Sworn Virgin definitely opened my eyes too. Updating Bovary was hugely brave but I definitely agree that she pulled it off.

      It’s lovely to be back – I’m hoping I can sustain it!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Aaaargh spooky monks! I wish he’d torn off his shackles at the end … Sworn Virgin sounds fascinating – great review, thank you. Sympathize with losing the blogging mojo, since judging HWA prize have been a bit off words including my own which isn’t doing much for my WIP!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The monks are so spooky aren’t they? Matthew Lewis knew what he was writing about 😀

      Sworn Virgin is fascinating, it really opened my eyes to the tradition.

      I’m not surprised you’ve been off words – you had so many to get through! I’m sure you’ll get back to your WIP with renewed vigour soon Victoria 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I find that having a limited amount of time to write blog posts spurs more writing. I’ll have, say, a Tuesday morning reserved and think ok, what have I read that I can write about in the time I have? Your posts are often long, about more than one book, and always with a great title and a song. Sometimes you might give yourself permission to post something that doesn’t have all the elements. It’s an anti-perfectionism exercise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jeanne 🙂 I’m a terrible procrastinator so maybe setting aside a specific time to do it is exactly right – I do it then or it doesn’t get done. Sadly perfectionism has never been one of my problems – I wish it was 😀

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  6. Love the quote at the top of your post!

    Both of these books sound good. I’ve never heard of sworn virgins before – how interesting! And I think it would be neat to read a Madame Bovary spin-off (with a different ending). It’s true, though, I often wonder how many people are just making their way thrugh life with no true happiness.

    I was thinking you must have been done in by all your May posts. You probably need the rest of the year to rest from and prepare for that one month! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Naomi! I googled ‘quotes about virginity’ and that one came up, perfect for a book blog 😀

      They’re both really interesting books, very different from one another. I also wonder how many people are really happy – it’s not something talked about much really, especially if like MA all the trappings are there and so it feels unacceptable to be unhappy.

      The May posts aren’t too bad so long as I’m organised with them! I’m not sure what my slump is due to but I’m hoping it’s near the end…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Lovely to see you here when you feel like posting. Perhaps go for a round up of capsule reviews sometimes? I get a bit overwhelmed sometimes when real life is busy, but I find I need to do a post to empty a book from my brain and move on properly ot the next one.

    And what an interesting pairing of books! I enjoyed Divry’s earlier book, but I don’t know that I’m in the right frame of mind to deal with a book of quiet desperation at the moment. I think I’d rather a little drama… 😀

    And thanks for the PSBs – I’ve been listening to them a bit recently. You can never have too much Neil Tennant!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kaggsy 🙂 I’ve never posted about every book I read, but maybe that’s the way to go to get more in the rhythm of posting again. I think I can finish WITMonth with some reviews but if I struggle after that I’ll have to do something to address the problem!

      The Divry is much quieter than her previous novel, so maybe not for you right now if you’re seeking some drama!

      You can *definitely* never have too much Neil Tennant 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Sworn Virgins sounds fascinating – well, at least the sworn virgin bit. Not so sure about yet another immigrant to the US story – I feel I’ve read millions of those in the last few years.

    Hmm… no good advice about the blogging slump, I fear. I usually take some time off but you’ve laready tried that. Joining in with some of the quickfire memes for a bit? Or doing some tags? There’s an intriguing one doing the rounds at the moment… https://realizinggrace.wordpress.com/2019/08/06/the-literary-fiction-book-tag. Six Degrees? Or an update post on how your AW80 challenge is doing? Sometimes I find doing something different from just reviews reignites my enthusiasm.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t want to put you off FF! The focus isn’t really on the immigrant experience and Hana doesn’t really struggle – finds a job, makes friends, moves to her own place – so its much more about her working out who she is.

      Wise advice – I’m always so impressed with how prolific you are. Looking at memes/tags is a good idea, I will investigate the blogosphere further 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Both these sound really interesting. I am particularly fascinated by Sworn Virgin as I know so little about Albania. The Sophie Divry interests me because I actually really like Madame Bovary (the novel not so much the character). Glad to see you posting again. I often find it hard to keep going. Susan is right though, don’t put pressure on yourself though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Ali, it’s nice to be posting again 🙂

      Sworn Virgin doesn’t tell you too much about Albania as a lot of it is set in the US and the Albanian bit is about a rare tradition in the north, but it’s still an eye-opener.

      I think Madame Bovary is beautifully written, it’s just Emma I don’t like! The Divry is an interesting read whether someone knows the original or not, but it’s a really skilled update of the original so if you like Madame Bovary I think you’ll enjoy it.

      I hope you enjoy these if you get to them 🙂

      Like

  10. Sworn Virgin sounds interesting.
    Like you, I don’t like Emma Bovary but at least she has two valid excuses for her behaviour: a stupid education and divorce was not legal in France at the time. What excuses a modern Emma Bovary could have? None. Put your big girl panties, leave your husband and find a job if you’re not happy.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I owe you a debt of gratitude. I have had ‘If You Were The Only Girl In The World’ going round my head as an ear-worm for the last few days. Happily it has now been replaced by It’s A Sin which is welcome relief!!

    Liked by 1 person

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