“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:

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Novella a Day in May 2019 #29

Pinocchio – Carlo Collodi (1883, trans. Geoffrey Beck 2009) 160 pages

Pinocchio, like a lot of classic children’s literature, is deeply weird and dark. I didn’t read it at all as a child, despite seeing the Disney cartoon which is very different. I picked it up as an adult because its published by the ever reliable NYRB Classics, and it turned out to be an intriguing read.

The basic premise I think everyone knows: a wooden puppet comes to life, wants to be a real boy, misbehaves and every lie he tells has a very obvious effect on his physiognomy.

“ ‘Lies, my boy, are immediately recognizable, for there are two kinds: lies that have short legs and lies that have long noses. Yours happen to be the long-nosed variety.’

Pinocchio, wanting to hide his face in shame, tried to run from the room – but he couldn’t. His nose was so long that it wouldn’t fit through the doorway.”

Pinocchio isn’t very likeable. He’s totally idle and only interested in himself.

“ ‘Of all the trades in the world, there’s only one that really suits me.’

‘And what trade would that be?’

‘That of eating, drinking, sleeping, playing, and wandering wherever I like from sunup to sundown.’

‘For your information,’ said the Talking Cricket, with his usual calm, ‘everyone who plies that trade ends up either in a poorhouse or a prison.’

‘Watch out, you doom-and-gloom Cricket! If I snap, you’ll be sorry!’”

Pinocchio does snap, and kills the Cricket stone dead. A short-lived relationship with an insect, who is nothing like the top hat and frock coat wearing, enduring friend of the cartoon.

The story is episodic, with Pinocchio going on several adventures, invariably taking the wrong decision, and failing to learn from his mistakes. It has the feel of folk tales rather than fairy tales, being grounded in an earthy reality of poverty and banditry, even when the bandits are a fox and cat double act. Pinocchio is always appealing even though he is selfish and unheeding, but there is never any sentimentality in the tale.

However, there is the strong didactic element associated with fairy tales, and Pinocchio is constantly lectured, by the cricket, by adults, and by the fairy with sky blue hair who crops up in various guises.

“ ‘Dear boy,’ said the Fairy, ‘people who talk that way almost always end up either in a prison or a poorhouse. For your information, everyone, whether they’re born rich or poor, is obliged to do something – to keep busy, to work. Woe to anyone who yields to idleness! Idleness is a dreadful disease and must be treated at once, starting in childhood. If not, it will be too late by the time we grow up.’”

Pinocchio does eventually learn and does become a real boy, but there’s something irrepressible about him. The feeling at the end is not of conservative integration where all is right with the world, but rather that the subversive elements that have been present all along are still there, waiting to spill out at any minute.

It’s a tale that can be enjoyed by children and adults. My edition included contributions from intellectual heavyweights to say the least: an Introduction by Umberto Eco, an Afterword by Rebecca West and a quote on the back by Italo Calvino. This shows how Pinocchio has been so widely recognised and why it endures; deceptively simple, hiding its complexities in an engaging children’s tale, it can be read differently each time.

I really didn’t like the cover of the NYRB Classics edition, finding it creepy, but it captures the unsettling quality of the tale of an animated puppet perfectly:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #23

The Year of the Hare – Arto Paasilinna (1975, trans. Herbert Lomas 1995) 135 pages

Following on from The Cat yesterday, I thought I’d look at another novella about a relationship with an animal today; the international bestseller about a man who leaves his life behind after injuring a wild hare.

Vatanen is a journalist deeply unhappy with his career, metropolitan life, and his marriage.

“Their flat had become an extravagant farrago of shallow and meretricious interior-decoration tips from women’s magazines. A pseudo-radicalism governed the design, with huge posters and clumsy modularised furniture. It was difficult to inhabit the rooms without injury; all items were at odds. The home was distinctly reminiscent of Vatanen’s marriage.”

The novel opens with him in a car with his photographer, hitting a hare with their car. The hare limps off and Vatanen follows it. He splints its leg and takes care of it, deciding never to return to his life.

What follows is a series of episodes in which Vanaten meets various eccentric characters as he travels further north in Finland, having adventures and finding the presence of the hare promotes honest and open conversations with people.

“If it’s difficult to teach an old dog to sit, as they say, then it’s even more difficult to teach an old Lapland roue to swim.”

The Year of the Hare is picaresque, and the emphasis is on the escapades rather than the characters. I didn’t feel I really knew Vananten any better by the end of the novella, but it had been mostly fun spending time with him and the hare.

I say mostly, because there were a couple of episodes I had to skip. These involved cruelty to animals. There was one particularly horrible incident where Vatanen tortures a raven, and there’s an extended bear hunt towards the end. But skipping over these parts still left a lot to enjoy, and the sense of Finland and its landscape is beautifully evoked.

“When, that evening, Vatanen slowly ski’d back from Vittumainen Ghyll to Laahkima Gorge, accompanied by his hare, he no longer thought about Kaartinen’s strange world. There was a half-moon, and the stars were glimmering faintly in the frozen evening. He had his own world, this one, and it was fine to be here, living alone in one’s own way. The hare ambled silently along the trail ahead of the skier, like a pathfinder. Vatanen sang to it.”

A slightly bonkers, occasionally surreal tale about following your own path and keeping an open mind as to who might accompany you part of the way.

The Year of the Hare was made into a film two years after publication, but I can’t find a trailer for that Finnish version. Its been a bestseller in France, so here is a trailer for the French film adaptation from 2006. Christophe Lambert is immediately too likeable as Vatanen but the atmosphere and scenery look spot-on:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #22

The Cat – Colette (1933, trans. Antonia White, 1953) 96 pages

Back in January when I wasn’t sure I’d manage NADIM this year (I’m still not sure – 9 posts to go!) I did a week of novellas by Colette. I loved immersing myself in her writing that week so I couldn’t resist including another of her novellas this month.

The Cat is familiar Colette territory: a young, slightly feckless couple failing to communicate. The difference is that there are three beings in this marriage: Alain, Camille, and Alain’s Russian Blue cat Saha.

Alain is from old money that is rapidly dwindling; Camille is new money that is much more abundant.

“Alain listened to her, not bored, but not indulgent either. He had known her for several years and classified her as a typical modern girl. He knew the way she drove a car, a little to fast and a little too well; her eye alert and her scarlet mouth always ready to swear violently at a taxi driver. He knew that she lied unblushingly”

They desire one another but they don’t communicate in any meaningful way. Alain almost seems to despise Camille at times – finding her tacky and invasive – unlike his pedigree cat, whom he adores. The three of them move temporarily to a friend’s flat while their home is being refurbished:

“He was incessantly and increasingly aware of his repugnance at the idea of making a place for this young woman, this outsider, in his own home. He nursed this resentment and fed it with secret soliloquies and the sullen contemplation of their new dwelling.”

For Camille, the resentments and disappointments which begin to build in their marriage become focussed towards Saha. As she points out, it is worse than another woman. Saha isn’t a competitor, but Alain loves her unconditionally and has an easy sensual relationship with his cat, whereas his sexual relationship with Camille is complicated by his feelings of contempt.

“As soon as he turned out the light, the cat began to trample delicately on her friend’s chest. Each time she pressed down her feet, one single claw pierced the silk of the pyjamas, catching the skin just enough for Alain to feel an uneasy pleasure.”

Spoiler alert: I must admit I did what I never do and skipped to the end of this story before reading very far, to check the cat wasn’t killed. I couldn’t face a story where that happened. But thankfully Colette is more subtle than that. Saha doesn’t die, which means the failures in the human relationship occur not in the rage of grief, but in something more subdued and sadder. Saha is a focus for the confused, antagonistic feelings the young couple have for one another. The cat brings these feelings to the surface more quickly than perhaps they would have done without her, but there is no doubt they would have occurred at some point.

You don’t need to be a cat lover to enjoy this story. It is a study of a young, naïve, selfish couple and the unthinking damage they do to one another, while professing their love. This being Colette, alongside the psychological insights, there are beautiful descriptions of the natural world:

“High in the sky a hazy moon held court, looking larger than usual through the mist of the first warm days. A single tree – a poplar with newly opened glossy leaves – caught the moonlight and trickled with as many sparkles as a waterfall. A silver shadow leapt out of a clump of bushes and glided like a fish against Alain’s ankles.

‘Ah! There you are Saha! I was looking for you. Why didn’t you appear at table tonight?’”

To end, here’s the lady herself with a couple of her beloved pets:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #21

The Ice Palace – Tarjei Vesaas (1963, trans. Elizabeth Rokkan 1966) 176 pages

This novella is like the titular structure: impressive, delicate, beautiful and disturbing. It’s impossible to review without giving away plot points, so apologies in advance and do skip to just the quotes if you don’t want to know but still want an idea of the gorgeous writing!

The Ice Palace tells the story of two eleven-year-old girls, Siss and Unn. Siss is a leader among her peers, newcomer Unn is quiet and shy. She stands alone at break times, yet the popular Siss finds herself drawn to Unn.

The girls have a deep unspoken bond that they don’t understand themselves. The first time Siss goes to Unn’s house after school, they have an almost spiritual experience gazing into a mirror together. Unn wants to tell Siss something, but Siss feels overwhelmed and leaves, thinking:

“You can tell me more another time. Whenever you like another time. We couldn’t have gone further this evening. It had been a great deal as it was. But if they were to go further it would make things impossible. Home again as quickly as she could. Otherwise they might get involved in something that would shatter it for all of them. Instead they had shone into each other’s eyes.”

The next day, Unn feels too embarrassed to see Siss again, and decides to visit the local Ice Palace, a frozen waterfall.

“She lay flat on the ice, not yet feeling the cold. Her slim body was a shadow with distorted human form down on the bottom.

Then she changed her position on the shining glass mirror. The delicate bracken still stood in the block of ice in a blaze of light.”

The natural descriptions are stunning, but never overwhelm the narrative:

“Unn looked down into an enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and confused tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone. The sun had not yet come, but it shone ice-blue and green of itself, and deathly cold.”

Unn goes missing, and it doesn’t take much for the villagers to work out where she might be. Finding her proves impossible though:

“The men continued to search. They had life and light on their side. They were visiting an unknown fortress, and it looked like the fortress of death. If one of them struck the wall with his stick it proved to be as hard as rock. The blow recoiled and vibrated in his arm. Nothing opened up. They struck all the same.”

Siss is devasted. She makes Unn a promise that sees her withdraw from her family and friends, taking Unn’s place alone at the edge of the playground.

“I promise to think about no-one but you. To think about everything I know about you. To think about you at home and at school, and on the way to school. To think about you all day long, and if I wake up at night.”

The Ice Palace is a novel that doesn’t spell out its characters’ feelings but leaves you in no doubt as to how strong they are. It is a study of grief in pre-adolescents; Unn is an orphan and Siss is overwhelmed by her feelings when Unn goes missing. The atmosphere of a Norwegian village in winter is beautifully evoked and it is haunting without being creepy. The novella doesn’t give trite answers but instead asks how we learn to live with pain, with the things to which there are no answers.

“Slowly the palace changes colour. The shining green ice whitens in the warmth of the sun. The transparent chambers and domes grow dim as if filled with steam, concealing all they may possess, drawing a cover over themselves and concealing it. The whole palace draws the white colour over itself and starts to dissolve on the surface. Inside it is still ringing hard. The ice no longer sends out lightening among the fields. But shines, whiter than before, shines quietly.”

Novella a Day in May 2019 #16

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler (2014, trans. Charlotte Collins 2015) 149 pages

After the traumas of The Blind Owl yesterday, lets all recuperate in a beautiful Austrian village😊 But that’s not to say that A Whole Life is a comfort read; it’s exactly what the title says – the tale of one man’s whole life, containing tragedy and joy.

Andreas Egger arrives in the village as a young orphan, at the start of the twentieth century. His uncle doesn’t really want him and he is bullied violently by him until he gets old enough to demand it stop, but not before his leg has been broken and badly reset, leaving him with a lifelong limp.

Nonetheless he is a strong and valued manual labourer in the village, later working for the cable car company, shinning up and down the mountains. Egger is a loner but not lonely; ultimately he is a man of the valley, mountains and meadow of his village.

“Sometimes on mild summer nights, he would spread a blanket somewhere on a freshly mown meadow, lie on his back and look up at the starry sky. Then he would think about his future, which extended infinitely before him, precisely because he expected nothing of it. And sometimes, if he lay there long enough, he had the impression that beneath his back the earth was softly rising and falling, and in moments like these he knew that the mountains breathed.”

From this small village Egger witnesses the many and rapid changes of the twentieth century. He participates in some – his only protracted period of time away is when he is a prisoner of war – but mostly he just observes. There are the major upheavals:

“The mayor was no longer a Nazi these days, geraniums hung outside the windows again instead of swastikas”

And also the social shifts, such as the quiet village becoming beset by tourists:

 “He had already been so long in the world: he had seen it change and seem to spin faster with every passing year, and he felt like a remnant from some long buried time, a thorny weed still stretching up, for as long as it possibly could, towards the sun.”

Egger also experiences some major changes in his personal life, but to avoid spoilers I won’t give details. I’ve seen A Whole Life compared to Stoner and while I do love Stoner I think this is quite different. Although both are about male, twentieth-century, somewhat isolated lives, I didn’t find this nearly so sad.

“Drops of water trembled on the tips of the blades, making the whole meadow glitter as if studded with glass beads. Egger marvelled at these tiny, trembling drops that clung tenaciously to the blades of grass, only to fall at last and seep into the earth or dissolve to nothing in the air.”

A beautifully written novella which demonstrates how a life can look quiet and small from the outside but be entirely rich and fulfilling. Above all, it’s about walking your own path.

“And in the mornings after the first snowmelt, when he walked across the dew-soaked meadow outside his hut and lay down onto one of the flat rocks scattered there, the cool stone at his back and the first warm rays of sun on his face, he felt that many things had not gone badly after all.”

Novella a Day in May 2019 #13

Scars on the Soul – Francoise Sagan (1972 trans. Joanna Kilmartin 1974) 124 pages

This is a strange novella. It’s a story of a Swedish brother and sister living in France, and an extended reflection on Sagan’s writing life: a direct address to the reader.

“It isn’t literature, it isn’t a true confession, it’s someone tapping away at her typewriter because she’s afraid of herself and the typewriter and the mornings and the evenings and everything else.”

Sagan tells the story of Sebastian and Eleanor van Milhelm who are entirely feckless and devoted to one another.

“Life without her, drink without her, were like lukewarm water, Not a bad thing, all said and done, to have one’s life circumscribed to that extent by someone who – whatever she might say – was as much his slave as he was hers.”

While they are not quite incestuous, they certainly have an unhealthy attachment to one another. They move around living off their looks, finding benefactors who will pay for their lifestyle so that neither have to get jobs.

“ ‘Someone’ being that providential person who, because of their charm, their wit, their luck, would act as temporary provider for brother and sister. This person so far had never failed to materialise and was usually discovered by Sebastian, Eleanor, as in this case, being too lazy to go out.”

Yet the van Milhelms are not despicable. They are not malicious or even particularly manipulative; there is the sense that those they live off share an understanding whereby everyone knows what the deal is. There is a sense of ennui as their lives are essentially empty, yet it’s a sad story rather than a depressing one.

Scars on the Soul is certainly a post-modern novella, drawing attention to the art of Sagan as a writer and the artifice of the novel.

“There are moments when I’m on the point of writing ‘But I digress,’ an old-fashioned courtesy to the reader, but pointless in this case, since my purpose is to digress. Nevertheless, this blow-by-blow account of eroticism has irritated me. I’m returning to my van Milhelms ‘who frequently indulge in that sort of thing but never talk about it.’”

I think this novella wouldn’t be for everyone, as it is neither one thing nor the other – not fiction or non-fiction, not short story or essay. Yet I found it satisfying. I was invested in the van Milhelms story and I enjoyed Sagan’s witty reflections on writing and her fame after many years (this was written in her late 30s after the success of Bonjour Tristesse at the prodigiously young age of 18). It’s not something to read when you want a meaty, plot-driven story but Sagan is a hugely talented, skilled writer and there is much of interest here both in the fiction and in the portrait of one writer’s life.