Nicole Krauss: Forest Dark

The latest addition to my website is Nicole KraussForest Dark. This is another superb novel from Krauss, telling two parallel stories. One is about Jules Epstein, a sixty-eight year old, divorced Jewish-American man who has made a lot of money but now feels disconnected from his present and finds the need to reconnect with both his personal past (his parents, in particular) and his Jewish past. The other story is about a novelist called Nicole whose failing marriage and writers’ block gives her an epiphany – a sense of being in two places at once but also in the forest dark (a quote from Dante). Both set off to Israel, Jules to reconnect with King David and leave a tribute to his parents, Nicole to reconnect with the Tel Aviv Hilton, where she was conceived and where she has spent many happy hours both as a child and adult, which she thinks might be the key to writing her next novel, but also to find Kafka. Both Jules and Nicole also get their own contemporary but somewhat oddball guides. It is a book about discovering one’s private past but also one’ collective past as well as finding our who we are now.

Fiona Mozley: Elmet

The latest addition to my website is Fiona Mozley‘s Elmet. There have been a lot of interesting novels coming out recently from young British women. I recently read Adelle Stripe‘s excellent Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, and here is another first-class novel set in Yorkshire. This novel surprised everybody by being nominated for the Man Booker longlist. It tells the story of a bare knuckle fighter, John, and his two teenage children, Daniel and Cathy, who live in a remote area of Yorkshire and live mainly off the land. However, they come up against an exploitative landowner and John takes the fight to him, leading to one of the most explosive endings in a début novel I have read. It is a wonderfully written novel and well deserving of its nomination and I for one would be very happy if it won.

Nicole Krauss: The History of Love

The latest addition to my website is Nicole KraussThe History of Love. This is an excellent book about creativity and authorship, about the Holocaust and about who we are. Leo Gursky was in love with Alma back in Slonim (variously in Poland and Russia). Her father paid for her to go to the USA before the Nazis arrived but Leo did not escape in time. However, he managed to hide out and emigrated to the USA after the war. Meanwhile, Alma, thinking him dead, had married. Leo had written three books before the war. The History of Love, however, was a novel apparently written by Zvi Litvinoff and only available in Spanish, about a woman called Alma. The connection between these characters, the novel and Alma Singer, who is named after the Alma of the novel, forms the basis for the complicated plot.

Minae Mizumura: 母の遺産 (Inheritance of Mother)

The latest addition to my website is Minae Mizumura‘s 母の遺産 (Inheritance of Mother). This is a feminist novel, about the changing role of women in Japan. We follow three generations of Japanese women, who all have their own problems, caused or exacerbated by their sex. We mainly follow Mitsuki and her older sister Natsuki who are dealing with the illness and then death of their mother, Noriko. Mitsuki, in particular, feels the responsibility she has for looking after her ailing mother, even while she learns that her husband is having an affair and planning on leaving her. But we step back to Noriko and to Noriko’s mother, who both struggled against the contemporary mores regarding the role of women. Things may have improved, but it still is not easy for women in Japan. This is another first-class work by Mizumura.

Jean Stafford: The Mountain Lion

The latest addition to my website is Jean Stafford‘s The Mountain Lion, a semi-autobiographical novel with the two main characters, brother and sister Roger and Molly Fawcett, being based on Stafford and her brother Dick, who were very close, as are Ralph and Molly. The Fawcetts live in California. Mr. Fawcett is dead but his family are well-off. His widow, Rose, also lost her father when she was young and her mother remarried a rough cattle rancher, Mr. Kenyon, who visits annually. When he dies on one visit, the family get to know, Claude, the only child of his marriage to Rose’s mother, and Molly and Ralph spend the summers at his ranch. The story is mainly about how Ralph drifts away from Molly, wanting to become more manly in imitation of Claude, culminating in the hunt for a mountain lion, while Molly becomes more interested in literature. In many respects, it is a very sad story but very well-told.

Cherchez la femme

Here is another interesting article on that perennial issue of (lack of) women in translation. I am as guilty as the next man on this. I note that, of the seventy-eight books I have read so far this year, twenty-one are by women, i.e. 27%. That figure is quite high by my normal standards. In her article, Dr. Castro points out various reasons for this. One of the reasons is that relatively few women are translated in the first place.

In English but not well-known

Dr. Castro is Galician. Books originally written in Galician tend to be translated into Spanish before they make it into any other language. I do not claim to have any knowledge of Galician literature but, it seems to me, that the best-known Galician authors that have been translated, are Manuel Rivas and Álvaro Cunqueiro, both, of course, men. If you look at the Wikipedia page on Galician authors, they are virtually all men. Of those that wrote in Galician, the only woman died in the nineteenth century, of those that wrote/write in Spanish, one died in the nineteenth century, one in 1921, and only one is still alive and has been translated into French and Dutch but not English. I do not know whether this reflects the reality of contemporary Galician literature, whether it reflects the male bias of the Wikipedia writers or whether there is some other reason. The only modern woman Galician writer I am aware of translated into English is María-Xosé Queizán (who is not on the Wikipedia page) and she is hardly well-known. Dr. Castro make this same point as regards two recent anthologies.

If we look at Spain as a whole, the situation is marginally better but not much. The best-known modern Spanish writers in the English-speaking world tend to be male: Cercas, Chirbes, Juan Goytisolo, Luis Goytisolo, Marías, Marsé, Muñoz Molina and Vila-Matas. There are, of course, women writers. Some of Esther Tusquets‘ books have been translated into English but they are not very well-known. The same could be said for Almudena Grandes and Ana María Matute, two very fine writers. Espido Freire has one work in English, her first. Soledad Puértolas and Carmen Laforet have not fared much better. Lucia Etxebarría, Marina Mayoral and Lourdes Ortiz have yet to be translated into English. With the possible exception of Rosa Montero, the same applies to a whole host of other fine Spanish women writers.

I have focussed on Galician and Spanish writers, as Dr. Castro is Galician and Spanish. However, I do not think the situation is very much different for other nationalities, as Dr. Castro points out. Of course, some of the responsibility lies with publishers but some lies with bloggers. I am fortunate enough to be able to read a few languages other than English and do try to look out for interesting works written by women that have not been translated but have to admit that of the fifteen books that I have read this year that have not been translated into English, only three were by women. There are several other literary bloggers who read other languages and review books they have read in these languages who, I hope, also look out for women writers.

Like many bloggers, I look out for books that I think that I might enjoy. Yes, I do look for women writers and I also look for for writers from lesser-known countries, but the majority of books I read, I read because they seemed interesting. The brutal reality is that the majority of books that I come across that seem interesting are by men. This may be because of my innate male bias (indeed, almost certainly is) but also because of availability, what I read about on other blogs and other sites and because what publishers are publishing.

This chart shows the percentage of MPs that are female by country. (It is out of date. The figure for the UK since the last election is 32%). Dr. Castro mentions the record number of MPs in the UK Parliament but it is still below one-third and behind such countries as Belarus, Burundi, Grenada, Mexico, Namibia, Nicaragua, South Africa, Tanzania, Timor Leste…. and Spain, and only just ahead of Sudan and Tunisia and the same as Algeria and half the amount of Rwanda, though well ahead of the United States. As with MPs, so there is still a long way to go with translated literature as Dr. Castro clearly points out. Part of the problem is that most readers in the English-speaking world do not read translated literature, except for things like Scandi-crime. Many of the most interesting works coming out in translation are published by small presses, who are constrained by what they can afford, what they think will sell and any subsidy they may get.

There is no easy answer, just as there is no easy answer concerning parliamentary representation and other areas where women fall behind. In the UK this week, the big scandal is that the BBC pays its male talent more than its female talent. The only real surprise is that people are surprised. I will certainly continue to try and identify good women writers but I know that men will likely continue to dominate as they do in the blogs of most other men bloggers.

Adelle Stripe: Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile

The latest addition to my website is Adelle Stripe‘s Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile. This is Stripe’s first novel though she has been writing poetry for many years. It it a fictionalised biography of Andrea Dunbar, a young playwright who grew up on a poor estate in Bradford, Yorkshire, and died aged twenty-nine, from a brain haemorrhage. Stripe gives us Dunbar’s story – her miscarriage at age sixteen, her three children by three different fathers, her drinking – all of which she used in writing her plays. But Stripe, as she says in the foreword, embellishes the story, giving us a feminist novel and a novel showing the misery on sink estates in modern Britain, with the women bearing most of the burden. It is an excellent novel about the sad tale of a playwright who died too young but also the sad state of modern Britain.

Janne Teller: Hvis der var krig i Norden (War)

The latest addition to my website is Janne Teller‘s Hvis der var krig i Norden (War). This is a story that imagines that it is the Danes that become refugees (in the Danish original) but the British in this translation of the book. Britain as been taken over by a dictator with his nasty Britification police and is at war with the Scandinavian countries, who are bombing the UK. The fourteen year old boy (though Teller uses the second person to drive the point home to the readers) and his family have to flee and go to Egypt where there is a large refugee camp but where they are not particularly welcome, not least because the British behave badly. We follow their difficulties in trying to get asylum, work and learn the language, while things are not going well at home. Showing the problems faced from the British point of view is highly effective and, is of course, Teller’s aim.

Naomi Alderman: The Power

The latest addition to my website is Naomi Alderman‘s The Power, winner of 2017 Women’s Prize for Fiction. It was the first science fiction novel to win the Women’s Prize. Most of the novel is set in the near future (or an alternative present) and takes as its premise that women (primarily younger women) acquire power to inflict an electric shock of varying degrees of intensity. The prime use of this is to repel (and, in many cases, kill) assailants, nearly all men who assault them. The book tells the story of four individuals and those associated with them – three women and one man – and we see the inevitable changes in the world through their eyes. The man is a Nigerian who becomes the unofficial chronicler of the age, while the three women (two British, one American) are all involved directly in the ensuing events. The novel culminates in a major clash between a Saudi army based in Northern Moldova and a state in the same area run by women. Alderman shows that the women with this power can be just as violent as the men while, at the same time clearly making the point about male violence and abuse of power.

Jean Stafford: Boston Adventure

The latest addition to my website is Jean Stafford‘s Boston Adventure. Jean Stafford had a strong reputation when this book was released in 1944 but her reputation seems to have faded (this book is currently out of print, though easily obtainable). The book tells the story of Sonia Marburg, twelve years old when the book starts, daughter of poor immigrants to the US (he, Hermann, German, she, Shura, Russian) who live in (the fictitious) small town of Chichester, across the bay from Boston. Shura has mental health issues and is not happy with her lot. Hermann is not happy, either, having hoped to make his fortune in the US. Shura works as a chambermaid in a hotel mainly catering for summer visitors from Boston but is often substituted by Sonia when she is unwell. There Sonia meets a rich Bostonian, Miss Pride, who takes an interest in her and when , firstly, Hermann runs away, and then Shura is committed to an asylum, Miss Pride takes Sonia in as her trainee secretary. Stafford mocks the Boston patrician society, seen primarily through Sonia’s eyes. Sonia herself feels trapped and more or less Miss Pride’s plaything but cannot find a way out. Though a bit dated, it is a book still worth reading.