Archive for June, 2012

Translated from Dutch by Judith Wilkinson

Winner of the 2011 Popescu Prize (formerly the European Poetry Prize for Translation)

As the 2nd Dutch Literature Month comes to an end (thanks, Iris – I enjoyed myself as much as last year), and I reach the half-way point of the Read More, Blog More Poetry challenge, I’m getting ambitious.  Reading a full poetic sequence of 97 translated poems or is that 1 poem with 97 stanzas? A case can be made for either viewpoint, I think.

I said at the beginning of the year that I was attracted to narrative poems.  That remains true and so I was drawn to this collection by the promise of a narrative sequence, a story of a dysfunctional family, completely dominated by a tyrant father.

Each poem (with the exception of the last) begins with “My father” and a description of a trait of his which is then expanded upon or serves as a starting point for some very strange incidents.  Poem 1 gives a good indication of what is to come.

My father
moved heaven and earth

heaven broke and the earth tore

my mother came running along a platform,
threw herself in front of a train on a daily basis ….

The narrator remains at a distance, an observer of the impact of this parental behaviour on his mother and his brothers  (A fictional family.  The author states:  “Years ago, I invented someone whom I called my father …., and invented my mother, my brothers and myself.).

The portrait of the father is multi-faceted.  This despot is quite needy.  He is fortunate to have a loving wife, one who sacrifices herself for the sake of her sons, who inevitably adore her and hate the father.  Poem by poem the composite picture builds and comes into focus.  That despite some very strange cracked imagery, some perplexing and irritating jumps in logic. (Designed perhaps to demonstrate the ever-shifting emotional landscape of this home?)  However, like a kaleidoscope of broken pieces, it finally fits together.

Tellegen himself likens his poetry to jazz, with multiple improvisations on a theme.  Well, yes, there are some riffs I adore, others hurt my ears. So too in this collection. Here’s one I found particularly successful.

My father
poured salt in wounds,
my father loved wounds,
kept making new, capriciously spreading wounds, insidious wounds, undermining wounds,
looked in the attic for old and forgotten wounds,
beat them into my mother and my brothers,
filled them with salt and acid kisses

‘happiness is a wound,’ my father said, ‘I’m looking for happiness’

my mother nodded,
pain is indispensable, she knew that.

As the collection progresses, the vitality of the father diminishes, he sickens and dies.  The final poem begins with My mother.   It is a surprisingly poem.  Instead of relief, the woman is lost with little comfort to be found in the love of her sons.

Everyone loved her, that was obvious,
and loved her more and more, more wildly, more hungrily


and my brothers called her again,
slammed their fists on the table,
plates bounced up, glasses toppled over

and my mother went inside
and thought of my father,
spring had come, and no mercy.

It would appear that the next generation of raptors has landed.

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I  joined this challenge to stretch myself as I tend not to read poetry by choice. Six months down the line I still don’t, but nil desperandum, I have at least become more aware.  There are now some poetry blogs in my google reader; I will be reviewing an entire poetry collection in the next couple of days; and I am planning to attend a couple of poetry events at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival.  Shall we say that poetry is growing (albeit slowly) on me?   Who knows what the rest of the year will bring?

To prove my newfound awareness, here are a couple of links to online poetry resources, which I would have previously ignored.

1) No matter where you are in the world, you cannot have missed the fact that it is the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. To honour that, Faber have produced a multi-media library of 60 poems, one for each year of Her Majesty’s reign. The intention is to document the social changes that have occurred. It’s an interesting library to browse through. For personal reasons (ahem) I think 1958 was a fantastic vintage.

2) The Scottish Poetry Library  has an online database of poems to peruse, ponder and enjoy, a weekly podcast and a poem of the moment.  No need to visit it in person as I did last month!  With the Olympics on the horizon, why not browse The Written World, a collaboration between the SPL and the BBC. The project aims to represent all 204 participating nations in poetry.

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First there was the film – Dutch with English subtitles – and then there was the novel. It’s what happens when a script writer and producer creates a successful film and sees the potential to improve it by penning a more successful novel.  That’s said with hindsight, because, of course I read the book first.  Though given the way the book is fleshed out, I wish I’d done it in the sequence the two were created.

The Novel

Bride Flight (the novel) is an absorbing epic telling the story of three women who fled from post-WWII Holland to find new lives with their fiancés who were waiting for them in New Zealand.  Three women, cast from very different moulds, flying around the globe to marry three very different men and three very different futures.  On the flight (coincidentally the last great London-Christchurch air race of 1953) they meet Frank, a bachelor, who is to play a crucial role in the lives of all three.

The novel begins with the three women, now in their old age and no longer in contact with one another, receiving invitations to Frank’s funeral. They all decide to attend.  As they travel to Frank’s vineyard,  they reminisce on their experiences and the secrets of the past begin to emerge.  It becomes obvious that this reunion is highly-charged.  The question is whether it will spiral out of control or will they reconcile?

I found their characters and stories, and the portrayal of the values and attitudes of a bygone era absolutely authentic.  I’m not going to go into detail for fear of spoilers.  I will say that the future held many surprises for all concerned and their lives in New Zealand were not necessarily better than those they left behind in Holland.  450 pages simply  *** flew by *** (apologies, I couldn’t resist that).  Good storytelling and a seamless translation.  I was particularly gratified to learn that Lanarkshire is not the wettest place on earth – Greymouth on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island has that honour.  I will also say, at the risk of stereotyping, that this is more likely to appeal to female readers.

Was there anything that bothered me?  I do get annoyed with books that portray the most devout character as the most miserable.  But given that this man’s family was wiped out in the North Sea Flood of 1953, I suppose he had plenty to be miserable about.   I found his other inadequacies a trifle exaggerated.  Still it made for good drama.

After reading the novel, the film felt hurried. In transforming the story from film to novel, the author changed, as far as I can tell, only one plot detail and even then it was simply a matter of timing. Certainly the scene was more dramatic in the film, but it wouldn’t have happened like that in real life.  The book felt more real.  I have to say, though, that the landscape of New Zealand looked absolutely glorious.

This post is part of Dutch Literature Month 2012, hosted by Iris On Books.

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Apologies for the lateness of this posting- I’ve been a little pre-occupied for the past couple of days.  The publication of the Edinburgh Book Festival programme is of insurmountable importance in this reader’s literary life and tends to push all other considerations and deadlines to one side.  The EIBF is the biggest and the best, taking place in the heart of Scotland.  So to celebrate, let’s stay there for the duration of this blog hop.

You may remember I attended the launch of Scotland’s Bookshelf back in March.  Today I have a couple of those specially produced booklets to give you.  Described as a primer for 100 year’s of Scotland’s books, you’ll find a more detailed description on my original post. I’m sure you’ll find plenty of books to add to your already out-of-control TBRs!  Also useful as a reference tool for those participating in Subtle Melodrama’s Scottish Fiction Challenge.  (Actually I’m sure she’ll allow you to count it as one of your titles.)

To enter, simply leave a comment and a Scottish thought – a memory (if you’ve ever visited – only don’t mention the rain.  It’s lashing down as I type.), or a place you’d like to see, a book/a poem you’d recommend or one you’d like to read.  You might even tell me about your favourite malt!

You already know my favourite place:  Charlotte Square, Edinburgh.  You’ll find me there from 11-27 August this year.  7 weeks and counting!

This giveaway is open to all countries.  Winners will be notified on the 27th of June.


Start blog-hopping now.  Isn’t this list of other participants impressive?

Participating blogs:

  1. Leeswammes
  2. Candle Beam Book Blog
  3. Musings of a Bookshop Girl
  4. Book Journey
  5. breieninpeking (Dutch readers)
  6. bibliosue
  7. heavenali
  8. I Read That Once…
  9. The Parrish Lantern
  10. The Bibliomouse
  11. Tell Me A Story
  12. Seaside Book Nook
  13. Rikki’s Teleidoscope
  14. Sam Still Reading
  15. Nishita’s Rants and Raves
  16. Readerbuzz
  17. 2,606 Books and Counting
  18. Laurie Here (US/CA)
  19. Literary Winner (US)
  20. Dolce Bellezza
  21. The House of the Seven Tails
  22. The Book Diva’s Reads (US)
  23. Colorimetry
  24. Roof Beam Reader
  25. Kate’s Library
  26. Minding Spot (US)
  27. Silver’s Reviews (US)
  28. Book’d Out
  29. Fingers & Prose (US)
  30. Chocolate and Croissants
  31. Scattered Figments
  32. Lucybird’s Book Blog
  33. The Book Club Blog
  34. Lizzy’s Literary Life
  35. The Book Stop
  1. Reflections from the Hinterland (US)
  2. Lena Sledge’s Blog
  3. Read in a Single Sitting
  4. The Little Reader Library (UK)
  5. The Blue Bookcase (US)
  6. 1morechapter (US)
  7. The Reading and Life of a Bookworm
  8. Curled Up with a Good Book and a Cup of Tea
  9. My Sweepstakes City (US)
  10. De Boekblogger (Europe, Dutch readers)
  11. Exurbanis
  12. Sweeping Me (US/CA)
  13. Living, Learning, and Loving Life (US)
  14. Beauty Balm
  15. Uniflame Creates
  16. Escape With Dollycas Into A Good Book (US/CA)
  17. Curiosity Killed The Bookworm
  18. Nose in a book (Europe)
  19. Giraffe Days
  20. Page Plucker
  21. Based on a True Story
  22. Read, Write & Live
  23. Devin Berglund
  24. Ephemeral Digest
  25. Under My Apple Tree (US)
  26. Annette Berglund (US)
  27. Book Nympho
  28. A Book Crazy, Jane Austen Lovin’ Gal (US)
  29. Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity

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English Gardens -MunichEarlier this year, I read Peter Stamm’s marvellous Seven Years which is set in my beloved Munich.  It is one of my favourite reads of 2012 thus far.  Given that it’s now June and I’m still wearing a winter coat in Scotland, I am relocating this virtual interview to a warm early summer’s evening in Munich’s English Gardens. We are enjoying a cool, refreshing beer as we chat about his novel.  In the finest tradition of one of the main characters, please eavesdrop on our conversation.

LS:  Describe the genesis of Seven Years. How long did the novel take to write? Are the characters based on real people? 

PS:  I worked on the novel for about two years as it involved a lot of research. The book was inspired by Gombrowicz’s play Yvonne, the Princess of Burgundy.   The main characters are not based directly on people I know, although there may be some similarities here and there.

LS:  When did you decide on the architectural elements?  How, when and why did you settle on Munich and Marseilles as your two cities of contrast?

PS: That came quite early on.  I wanted a city that suited Alex and Sonja.  Somewhere a  bit too trendy.  Hence Munich.  Marseilles was chosen because of the Le Corbusier connection.  I already knew and liked the city, which is quite different from Munich.  First impressions are that it is much uglier, yet it is still a very lively and exciting place.

LS:  How do you know about the mold in the Olympic Village bungalows?  (I’m curious as I lived there myself.)

Olympisches DorfPS: I visited, just at the right time – just before the bungalows were demolished.  (What! Lizzy takes a deep breathe and tries not to hyperventilate. Those bungalows were iconic!)  A student showed me round and explained the lifestyle.

LS:  Seven Years is a novel replete wth flawed and unlikeable characters.  Is there a character you dislike more than the others and why?

PS: I understand Ivona least of all.  Perhaps that’s why I became so fond of her.  Sonja’s not that bad.  She does try to be a good architect, wife and mother. It’s not really her fault that she doesn’t entirely succeed.  And Alex isn’t a bad human being.  I must always feel sympathetic towards my main characters.  I wouldn’t be capable of spending so much time with them otherwise.

LS:  Would you say that Ivona, with her unquestioning and neverending devotion in the face of Alex’s callousness, is nothing other than a male fantasy?

PS: I’ve heard that accusation before.  And although there are no real-life models for the three main characters, people have told me that they know people like that.  

LS: Towards the end of the novel, Alex reviews events and summarises them thus:  It seemed to me that everything had just happened to me, and I was as little to blame for it as Sonia and Ivona.  I wasn’t a monster.  I was no better and no worse that anyone else.  Would you really let Alex off so lightly?

PS: Yes.  How often do we make wrong decisions?  An author shouldn’t judge.  My ambition is to understand the human condition and to forgive everything.  Alex is as much a victim as a perpetrator.  

LS:  Describe the translation process from your point-of-view.  Does this differ from language to language?

PS: It does.  There are translators who do not contact me at all.  Other send me loads of questions.  Michael Hofmann is a very experienced translator, who sends in queries only when the German is ambiguous.

LS: Unformed Landscape is described as your masterpiece and was your first novel to be translated into English.  Did this success bring additional pressures when writing subsequent novels? Has being translated made any difference to your choice of subject matter?

PS: Not at all. My first novel, Agnes, was translated into 25 languages. Being translated shouldn’t make any difference to an author’s material. Quality is the only valid criteria. If I had wanted only to make lots of money, I would have chosen a different profession.

LS: I co-hosted German (language) Literature Month last year and am likely to do so again this year. This incorporates a Swiss literature week. Could you give me 3 recommendations of Swiss literature to seek out to read Swiss Literature Week? (They need not have been translated into English.)

PS: Anything that Markus Werner has written; Klaus Merz, Jakob schläft; Tim Krohn, Quatemberkinder

LS: The desert island question. You are allowed to take 3 books onto this proverbial island. What would they be and why?

PS: My Notebook, in case there’s an electricity supply; a note book should there be no electricity and, assuming multi-volume works are allowed, The Encyclopedia Britannica, the best encyclopedia I know. 

LS: You are allowed one more book – one of your own. Which would it be and why?

PS: Unformed Landscape, because Kathrine is my favourite character.  She is so frequently alone.  It’s almost as though she’s living on a desert island herself.



Peter Stamm (Photo credit Gaby Gerster)

Peter Stamm will be appearing at the 2012 Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 23.  I plan to be first in the queue!

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Winner Premio Nadal 2010

Translated by Julie Wark

Published by Alma Books

When Julian receives a request from Salvador, his long time friend,  to visit him in Alicante, he decides to go even though he knows there is a strong possibililty that he will never return to his home in Buenos Aires.  For Julian is in his mid-eighties and Salvador has requested his help in capturing two former Nazis, a man and wife who oversaw the extermination of the Jews in Mauthausen, the very concentration camp where Julian and his friend were incarcerated.  When Julian arrives at his friend’s nursing home, he finds Salvador has died. Julian, who wished only to return to the normality of humanity following his escape from the Nazis, finds himself inheriting the dead man’s mission  for justice.

At the same time Sandra, a thirty-year old pregnant woman who is alienated from her family and has left the father of her child, is suffering from morning sickness on the beach.  An elderly couple comes to her aid.  They befriend her, employ her as a companion to the woman and establish themselves as a surrogate family.  Not until Sandra’s path crosses with Julian and she becomes aware that she is working for the only foreigner to be awarded the Gold Cross (and therefore extremely cruel) is there any sense of menance.  Will she be able to extract herself from the situation without giving away that she knows who the couple really are?

Clara Sánchez’s novel is based on the fact that after the Second World War, many Nazis found refuge in Spain, where they managed to live to a ripe old age without anyone bothering them.  In her novel they have formed a protective community, complete with new recruits.  Now in old age and dying off, though still ruthless when necessary, they are aware that they may yet be called to account for the crimes of the past.

This is an intelligent  novel exploring the moral legacy of the past.  Is there any point pursuing Nazi war criminals when those still alive are now old and feeble?  Is there still a threat in leaving them in peace?  As for their victims, can their wounds heal without justice?  Absorbing too, the juxtaposition of the outlooks of old age and youth.  Julian, an old man on the cusp of death, reflects on his life and his attempts to establish normality and meaning after being reduced to a piece of flesh with no rights to exist on the earth.  Sandra, a young woman on the cusp of life, lost in contemporary doubt as to the meaning and purpose of her own.  And, of course, those old Nazis, going underground to survive in an world order they lost;  the Aryans, prey to the devastations of old age just like everyone else, ready to be exploited in a thoroughly modern way  …..

After all, what goes around, comes around.

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It’s Dutch Literature Month and serendipitously, Iris of IrisonBooks and I discovered that we  were both reading  Louis Couperus’s The Hidden Force.  We then decided to discuss it together.  Well, you know what happens when two book bloggers get together to discuss books. It could take a while, particularly when the topic for discussion is a multi-layered narrative such as this!

Firstly, a plot summary, courtesy of www.collider.com. (Does anyone know when the film will be released?)

In The Hidden Force the decline and fall of the Dutch resident Van Oudijck is caused by his inability to see further than his own Western rationalism. He is blind and deaf to the slumbering powers of the East Indian people and countryside. The black magic, bird calls, vegetation, heat and the mysterious, hostile attitude of their Javanese subjects prove stronger than the cool power of the colonials. A novel written in 1900 and set in the Dutch East Indies. It concerns a colonial official who is undone by his wilful application of reason to a culture that is steeped in the mystical and irrational.

We start our discussion by explaining the reasons we picked the book up in the first place and whether it lived up to our expectations.

Lizzy: This harks back to my student past – 2 years of studying Dutch language and literature. If asked which were my favourite Dutch novels, I would reply The Darkroom of Damocles and The Hidden Force.  I’ve already reviewed Damocles on my blog.  Couperus’s time had arrived.  Unfortunately it didn’t live up to expectations.  Excellent still but not as great as I remembered.  I suspect this was due to  Alexander Teixeira de Mattos’s 1922 translation , edited and revised by E.M Beekman in 1985.  I had no problems with the English. I was more disturbed by the multitudes of unfamiliar Javanese and Malaysian words sown within the  text.   While there was an appendix , I would have preferred the explanations to have appeared as footnotes on the same page.  It would have made the reading much more fluid.  The constant back-and-forth to the glossary annoyed me.

Iris: I had wanted to read another book by Couperus last year (after having read Eline Vere in high school) but I ran out of time. And so when I decided to do another Dutch Lit Month this year, I knew I wanted to make an effort to read Couperus this time around. I also knew my choice would be The Hidden Force, since it is one of those famous fictional works concerned with Dutch colonialism. I felt it would make a great fit in between last year’s reading of Max Havelaar and this year’s readalong of The Tea Lords. I was especially interested to see how Couperus would handle the idea of Javanese resistance to colonialism through ‘a hidden force’.

I had expected Couperus to be somewhat difficult to read with his long, winding sentences. I should also have realised that like so many Dutch authors who wrote about the Dutch East Indies there would be a lot of Malaysian and Javanese words. And yet I struggled with both. Perhaps this was because in the midst of these two phenomena, the story did not manage to capture me as I much as I had hoped. I found that the story was obscured by the prose at times. I read a Dutch version of this book, which like yours translated the Malaysian words in an appendix at the back of the book (and I suspect some words were missing – at least I couldn’t find all of them),  This did not help to retain the flow of the story.

I thought it was interesting that the English translation available on the Gutenberg Project features a translator’s note stating that he chose to get rid of “nearly all the Malay and Javanese words scattered through the text”, since “the sense of colour throughout the book is strong enough without insisting on these native terms.”

Lizzy:  I wish I’d known that.  This could have been my very first  e-book read!   Now here’s a surprise , the Project Gutenberg edition is Alexander Teixeira de Mattos’s original  1922  translation, one which Beekman points out is inaccurate whether translating from Dutch or Javanese. It also omits some of the more controversial passages.

Iris: But do you agree with de Mattos’s assessment of the Malaysian words in the text and the sense of setting the text evokes? I ask because it seems almost every author opts to use Malaysian in texts about the Dutch East Indies. I always suppose this to be because they think it lends more credibility to the setting.

Lizzy:  Do I agree with a flawed  translator  or an  academically-minded and more accurate editor?  Actually with the former even if he deviated  from Couperus’s original style.  Beekman does acknowledge that de Mattos preserves the tone and the archaic diction of the original and in so doing, remains true to Couperus’s intent and mood.  And that, in my opinion, is  more  successful without all the foreign words, which I find both pretentious and alienating. Couperus didn’t need to use them, but as he had  been brought up in the Dutch East Indies, they probably came naturally . I wonder if  the assumption of Dutch authors  is  that  Javanese words are still familiar to their audience?

Iris: I had not realised de Mattos’s translation is considered flawed. It seems this is a choice between various “evils” then, as I imagine the “archaic prose”, as Beekman calls it, might be an essential part of the feel of the original work as well. I also wonder if authors consider Javanese or Malaysian words to be shared by the Dutch readers. I know they appeared in missionary reports at the time, so perhaps around 1900 the audience for which these works were meant did know something of these languages. Or perhaps it just comes so naturally to  those who have been in the Dutch Indies that they cannot imagine a work set there without it.

Given your criticisms, I am curious what made you like The Hidden Force so much first time around? Was this experience completely different or was the only difference reading it in English instead of Dutch?

Lizzy:  What a question!  It must be 30-something years since I read it.  I don’t even remember whether I read it in Dutch or in English.  Given my previous comments, I suspect it was a hard-copy of what is now the Gutenberg edition – the one without the foreign words.  I’m a more patient reader now.  The young Lizzy would never have persevered with the back and forth to the glossary.  It just goes to show what a difference a translation can make.

By the way, Pushkin Press will release a new translation by Paul Vincent in the autumn.  It will be interesting to see how they approach this obviously difficult question.

Right, I feel happier now I’ve got that off my chest.  Shall we move on and focus on the positive?

(Indeed we shall, tomorrow,  on Iris’s blog when we consider if The Hidden Force is a masterpiece.)

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