“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:

“Honeymoon, keep a-shining in June” (By the Light of the Silvery Moon)

As a companion piece to my last post about marriage, I thought I would look this week at portrayals of honeymoons. Originally I planned to include On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan but I ran out of time & wanted to re-read it in order to do it justice, as I remember it being very moving. So please don’t let my inadequacy prevent you from checking it out if you haven’t read it 😉 Onwards to honeymoon stories I’ve read more recently!

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All the ‘honeymoon’ pictures I googled made me want to vomit, so here’s a Weimaraner puppy instead

Firstly, Orkney by Amy Sackville (2013), which is an eerie, claustrophobic tale of a honeymoon taken on a remote Scottish island. Richard is a professor of English literature who is entranced by literary sirens and by his silver-haired wife, forty years younger than he, strange and unknowable:

“She is a tiny, perfect, whittled trinket found bedded in the sand, carved patiently, for comfort; she is a spined and spiky urchin with an inside smooth as polished stone, as marble; she is frond of pallid wrack, a coral swaying in the current, anchored to the sea-bed; she is an oyster, choking on grit, clutching her pearl to her.”

The unnamed wife is obsessed with the sea, taking long, lone walks by day and having water-filled nightmares by night:

And as she dreams her submarine dreams I lie beside her, a whale’s carcass, a wrecked ship, a vast ribcage in the dark blue deep; and she is a tiny luminescent silver fish, picking me clean, in and out of all that’s left of me, bare bones long since freed of flesh and rigging.”

Each chapter covers a day of their honeymoon, told from Richard’s perspective. This is not a plot-driven story as very little happens, in some ways it is quite a slight tale, but I found Sackville’s beautiful writing made it compelling and carried me along. The atmosphere gradually becomes more uncanny, with a sense that is not just Richard’s wife who is unknown, but that there are no certainties at all:

“An overcast, lowering sky this morning; the clouds have clotted through the night. Something gathering, brooding, out on the sea. A darkness spreading. The edges of my wife blur against the sky.”

Orkney is short novel about the stories we tell ourselves and each other, how we understand the world, and how what is real and unreal is not always clearly delineated:

“He tells her tales of the finfolk and selkies. Nothing can replace those first tales, which have coloured the cast of her thought, which have filled her nights with the sea, which are at least as real to her as anything she’s learned of the world since.”

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Secondly, the short story Here We Are by Dorothy Parker (1931). A young couple are on a train, having been married “exactly two hours and twenty-six minutes”.  Most of the story is dialogue, and they come across as so terribly young and naïve.

“He sat down, leaning back against the bristled green plush, in the seat opposite the girl in beige. She looked as new as a peeled egg. Her hat, her fur, her frock, her gloves were glossy and stiff with novelty.”

They sit and talk about the day, the wedding, those they know, and bicker about silly things: hats, mainly.

“‘Hell, honey lamb, this is our honeymoon. What’s the matter?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘We used to squabble a lot when we were going out together and then engaged and everything, but I thought everything would be so different as soon as you were married. And now I feel sort of strange and everything. I feel so sort of alone.’”

Of course, what they are not saying is that the train is speeding them towards a hotel room, and they are terrified about what is going to happen once they are alone together.  The story is a masterclass in ‘show, don’t tell’ writing. Parker’s trademark acerbic wit is not to the fore – the story is gently funny, and I felt sorry for this unknowing couple marrying in such a different age, and desperately hoped it would work out for them.

Speaking of virgins: