Archive | August, 2017

The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller

24 Aug

HungerAngelAfter I read The Land of Green Plums a few years ago, Herta Müller joined a short list of authors whose work I want to read all of.  I am not the sort of reader who methodically works through an oeuvre; I crave different voices. But this list includes Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Mavis Gallant. (It used to include Angela Carter; I adore her short fiction, but actually found trying to read her novels like trying to eat an entire chocolate mousse cake.) Müller’s fiction is poetic and harrowing and sheds light on the country my family comes from.  For me, she is a must.

For my third installment of  Women In Translation Month, I tackled The Hunger Angel. This novel tells the story of Leo Auberg, a young German man in Romania deported to a labor camp in Russia in January 1945. I was surprised to learn that this happened: all Germans living in Romania and from the ages of 17-45 were forced to “rebuild” the Soviet Union. Indeed, as Müller explains in her Afterword, this was something shameful that Germans in Romania only discussed among themselves, if they discussed it at all. (Müller emigrated to West Germany after being persecuted by Ceausescu’s secret police.)

The Hunger Angel meditates on objects. Life in a gulag is tedious, so in lieu of a tight narrative arc, the first two-thirds of the book move laterally from things like cement and coal to yellow sand and firs. There’s a weirdly loving chapter about a kind of shovel known as “the heart-shovel,” which, by virtue of its design, allows Leo to forget himself as he works in ways that other tools or tasks don’t.

And, of course, as the title implies, there’s a food problem. With just one piece of bread a day and two bowls of cabbage soup, and no mid-day meal, the hunger angel emerges an antagonist who skews how prisoners perceive their world and how they behave. But memories of food from childhood buoy Leo and his prison-mates. One day, every summer, his mother would take him to the Café Martini where he could gorge himself on sweets:

We could choose among marizpan truffles, chocolate cake, savarins, cream cake, nutcake roll, Ischler tartlet, cream puffs, hazelnut crisps, rum cake, napoleons, nougat, and doboschtorte. And ice cream–strawberry ice cream in a silver dish or vanilla ice cream in a glass dish or chocolate ice cream in a porcelain bowl, always with whipped cream. And finally, if we were still able, sour-cherry cake with jelly.

As if being in a gulag is not challenging enough, Leo is in the closet. When men and women dance on Saturday nights (who knew they had dances, albeit sad dances, in gulags?), he remains off to the side. Men and women couple in the barracks; he does not. Though he observes: “Half-starved humans are really neither masculine nor feminine but genderless, like objects.” Over the course of the novel, this meditation on objects also becomes a larger meditation on loneliness and longing and trying to stay alive.

Leo has a poet’s eye, and it is that vision, that attention to language, which makes reading this essential book bearable.

Silvina Ocampo’s “The Imposter”

17 Aug

ocampoSilvina Ocampo, an Argentine author who was a contemporary of Borges, writes with a strangeness that alternates between a delicious sensuality and a deep, deep creepiness. For my second Women In Translation Month installment, I decided to tackle “The Imposter” in her posthumous collection Thus Were Their Faces, translated by Daniel Balderston. In this novella from 1948, Luis Maidaina is a young man who sets off from Buenos Aires to the more-or-less abandoned Swans Ranch taken up by another young man,  Armando Heredia, who is troubled.  Luis is to pretend to befriend Armando and keep an eye on him, reporting back to Armando’s father, who owns the ranch and is a friend of Luis’s father.

The train ride from the city to the country is ripe with color and texture: “The burning light of day was resting in all its blue brilliance on the glass, on the metal handles, on the motionless fans, on the leather seats.” A woman in white muslin covering “voluminous breasts,” daintily eating alfajores with her daughter, asks Luis about his destination and seems to know of the Heredia family as well as well Luis’s father. The town where Luis must debark is her hometown, Cacharí, apparently haunted by “a terrible Indian chief” murdered by the army a century ago, who for three days and nights yelled “Cacharí! Cacharí! Cacharí!” as he died and no one dared approach him. The woman continues: “They say that even today, when the wind blows at midnight in the winter, you can hear Cacharí’s cry.” She warns that the Swans Ranch is infested with bats and frogs and that Armando burned his horse’s eyes out with “Turkish cigarettes” because it disobeyed. Meanwhile, “the horizon made the sun look squat and almost purple” and they pass “an endless lagoon in which some sleepy flamingos were resting like flowers” and  later “a llama and…rhea lit up by the monstrous light of the train.”

The woman’s gossipy warnings set the tone for the remainder the story. Off the train a “hoarse” ranch hand who picks Luis up recalls Cacharí. In the landscape bird cries also recall that slain chief. The house is dark, dusty, leaky, crumbling. The heavy wooden furniture is adorned with mermaid tails. Armando tells Luis the Swans Ranch has no swans–his grandfather had them all killed when his Aunt Celina, swimming in their lagoon, fell ill and eventually died. After that, the family left the ranch to decay.

Despite Armando clearly posing a danger, Luis grows close to him. They talk about dreams–Armando doesn’t dream while Luis has many dreams which trouble is waking life with serious bouts of déjà vu. Armando claims he would commit a crime just to dream, that a lack of dreams feels like a lack of memory. Luis tries to uncover whether Armando has a girlfriend, whether that girlfriend really exists (or has been dead for four years), and whether to write to Armando’s father for help. Each time Armando suspects Luis of spying, he threatens to kill him. And Luis worries if he tries to escape the ranch, he will also be killed.

The story is rife with birds, strange dogs and cats, abandoned rotting spaces, and talk of tigers, doppelgängers, and frightening mirrors. The questioning of reality, memory, and imagination builds more and more, taking the story into the realm of the truly fantastic (at least, by Todorov’s definition)–where reader and character alike question reality.

Italo Calvino wrote that Ocampo “captures the magic inside everyday rituals, the forbidden or hidden face that our mirrors don’t show us” better than anyone. Borges said “her stories have no equal in our literature.” I can’t wait to devour the rest of this collection and I hope if Calvino and Borges are up your alley, you’ll read up all of Ocampo too.

Fall Classes at Hugo House

15 Aug
013

A fresh green chestnut

Sharpen your pencils: I’m teaching two classes at Hugo House this fall. Member registration opens today and general registration opens August 22. Scholarships are available: apply here by August 25!

  • Wall-to-Wall Writing Prompts will be a fun-for-everyone one-day writing bonanza. I’m bringing in all my favorite prompts. If you’re eager to kick start some new writing, this one’s for you. Come with some overheard lines of dialogue and leave with six story openings and a plan to finish at least one. Meets Saturday, September 30, 1-4 pm. Sliding scale pricing available for this class. Please call Hugo House at (206) 322-7030.
  • Fiction I  is a six-week intro to fiction, with a special focus on character, plot, and landscape. We’ll read short stories from James Joyce, Jamaica Kincaid, Flannery O’Connor, Sherman Alexie, and Louise Erdrich, among others. Writing prompts in and out of class will be geared toward writing a short story, though of course all the skills covered are applicable to novels. We’ll also learn the basics of the workshop model. Meets Saturdays from October 14 to November 18, 1-3 pm.

Hope to see you then!

“The Ball” by Irène Némirovsky

10 Aug

Golder

I read Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française in French to prepare for my language exam at UW. Among the three works I inched through, it was the only one I managed to finish that summer. (The others were Swann’s Way, which I hope to tackle again one day, though it will probably have to be in English with some kind of Proust support group, and a vintage collection of short stories in a volume designed for college students, which was kind of stodgy.)  What I remember best from Suite Française, other than the scenes of Parisians evacuating before the German Occupation, is Némirovsky’s use of light. A woman hiding in a house shrouded in trees seems trapped in something aquatic. It was then that I learned and cherished the word glaucous.

Other than the fact that the French were fleeing the Nazis, there was no whiff of anti-Semitism in that book that I, with my limited language skills, could detect. So I was surprised, when reading Claire Messud’s introduction to the collection David Golder, The Ball, Snow in Autumn, The Courilof Affair that Némirovsky was virulently anti-Semitic, a token Jew at a right-wing newspaper, and a convert to Catholicism. Not that any of this saved her in the end. (For an in-depth discussion of Némirovsky see Susan Rubin Suleiman’s The Némirovsky Question.)

Michael read “David Golder,” the novel that made Némirovsky famous at 26. Though the story is well-written, the stereotypical depictions of Jewish businessmen did not sit well with him. (It should be pointed out, if you don’t know, that the stereotype of the banker Jew is a result of centuries of discrimination, as Jews were not allowed to practice most other professions or own land.) I wondered whether the popularity of “David Golder” had any connection to pandering to stereotypes. I decided to save my time and skip to “The Ball.”

Here, the Kampfs are a nouveau-riche couple who want to throw their first big party. M. Kampf “made a killing” in the Stock Market and in just four years they moved from a modest apartment to one that could accommodate (if a bit uncomfortably) 200 guests. The story was published in 1929 and you can feel the imminent doom.

M. Kampf is Jewish (alas, the Jewish stockbroker) and his wife is Catholic. They’re raising their fourteen-year-old daughter Antoinette to be Catholic. Mme. Kampf, whose past is questioned and who married M. Kampf for money, is desperate to host a glamorous party that will establish her reputation with the aristocracy. She hires a band to play the blues and the Charleston, and orders a bevy of roses, buckets of champagne, aspic, oysters, foie gras, caviar sandwiches, game, fish, petit fours, and, a modern luxury to be delivered fresh at 11 pm: ice cream.

Poor Antoinette keeps getting in the way of party planning. It is her violent emotions that attract me most to this story. Her thoughts feel the most real, compared to the somewhat flat, Mme. Bovary-esque aspirations of Mme. Kampf. Indignant, in bed, Antoinette thinks:

To them a fourteen-year-old was just a kid–to be pushed around like a dog…I want to die! God, please make me die…Dear God, sweet Holy Virgin, why did you make me their child? Punish them, I’m begging you. Punish them just once, and after that, I’ll gladly die.

Antoinette’s desire for vengeance suggests something darker here than your run-of-the-mill teen anger, but it also pushes this story deliciously to its conclusion. The characters probably aren’t any more likable than in “David Golder,” not that that is a requirement for my reading pleasure. But Antoinette’s course of action moves the story toward a complex, yet surprisingly tender, picture of mother-daughter conflicts.  If you like the glamor of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age Stories, or coming-of-age stories in general, you’ll want to check this one out.

“Translation is not kale” in The Seattle Review of Books

10 Aug

WITMonth2017-2August is Women in Translation Month. This is the fourth year of the campaign, which was founded by literary blogger and biophysicist Meytal Radzinksi. I’m a big fan of this effort to raise awareness about women writers in translation and read more of them. And, I’m super excited to have my piece “Translation is not kale” in The Seattle Review of Books today, which discusses WITMonth in a wider context and revels in some of my favorite-favorite books. You can read “Translation is not kale” here. I’ve also got three reviews scheduled right here on my blog, starting today and continuing the next two Thursdays. More soon!

 

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