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“…something intangible, a veil, a glimmer of unreality…” #ReadIndies @Influxpress #MarieNDiaye

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When I was planning which books and publishers I wanted to spend time with during #ReadIndies month, I had a pretty good idea of what I intended to read and cover. However, there’s always a spanner in the works – and in this case it was a very good one! I was approached by Influx Press, who I’ve encountered before when I read “Plastic Emotions”; and they kindly offered a review book of a new book they were issuing, “Self Portrait in Green” by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump. The description sounded very enticing, and as NDiaye is a new author to me, I was happy to accept – and I’m very glad I did!

Marie NDiaye is a French author with an impressive record; longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker International Priz, she’s also been awarded the Prix Femina as well as being the first Black woman to win the Prix Goncourt, which is the highest honour a French writer can receive. The author of a dozen plays and works of prose, her book “Self Portrait in Green” is a novella length piece of fiction, and it’s absolutely mesmerising.

The book is told in the form of non-chronological diary entries, and the unnamed narrator seems to be a troubled and perhaps unreliable one. The novella opens with the Garonne River preparing to flood – it’s a place that will haunt her throughout the book – and the narrator goes on to relate a series of encounters with mysterious green women. Whether taking her children to school, visiting her estranged family members, or conversing with a suidical woman who may or may not already be dead, the image of green women possesses her. Real or unreal, as the narrator explores her life and her past, the idea of women turning into these strange and elusive green females becomes an obsession, and in the end it’s hard to know whether they’re part of her imagination or whether they really exist…

“Self Portrait in Green” is beautifully written and as haunting as the women it portrays. The constantly shifting locations and imagery are unsettling, the prose hints at things which aren’t seen and it’s a book that raises many questions but leaves the reader with no real answers. There’s a hint of the Gothic, a sense that the narrator may be projecting her anxieties onto these other women and a real feeling that her perceptions are unreliable. It’s a fascinating piece of writing and of course the title does suggest that the narrator is as much a women in green as the others she encounters, whatever the significance of that colouring is… Is the green the environment, the threat it’s under or the threat it brings? Green is of course the colour connected with jealousy, and that *is* an emotion which appears in the book. It’s all very intriguing, and open to interpretation, which I rather love.

On the evidence of this, Maria NDiaye is an author whose work I really would like to explore. As I said above, the writing is quite beautiful, the shifting atmospheres she creates convincing and the nebulous reality discomforting at times. I’ve no idea if this is typical of her work, but it’s a remarkable book and I’m very glad that I had the chance to include it in #ReadIndies. “Self Portrait in Green” is published on 25th February, and I highly recommend it!

“There is courage in concrete” #minnettedesilva #lecorbusier #plasticemotions @influxpress @kitcaless @blimundaseyes

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Plastic emotions by Shiromi Pinto

As I mentioned in my August reading plans post, one of the things I’m aiming to redress this month is my lack of reading works by women authors recently. This particular book not only helps with that aim, but is also about a pioneering female architect, of whom I’d never heard. In fact, her talents do seem to have been a little unappreciated generally, despite the fact that her work was groundbreaking, so I’m probably not alone. I always like a new discovery, whether it’s a book or a publisher or a hidden talent – and so I was very pleased that Influx Press chose to send me a review copy of “Plastic Emotions” – thank you! 😀

The architect in question is Minnette de Silva; born in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), she trained in Bombay and then London. One of the guiding influences of her life was her encounters with the famous modernist Le Corbusier; and “Plastic Emotions” charts her life against the background of their affair and her efforts to take new architectural principles back to her newly-liberated country. The format is intriguing – the narrative proper opens with letters between de Silva and Le Corbusier, in the immediate post-War period, when their affair has been in full swing but de Silva is reaching a turning point in her life. As a female, she’s dependent on her family and is drawn back to Ceylon, where she starts to try to carve out a name for herself in the architectural world. Repeatedly, de Silva has to fight the prejudices in her country, not only because she’s a woman, but also because of the fact that her architectural ideas are adventurous and out of keeping with the more traditional views of her countryfolk. Again and again she comes up against resistance, with her submissions being turned down, as well as professional betrayal. This strand of the story is counterbalanced by a narrative focused on The Architect and his life, as well as the aftermath of their various encounters. There are letters between the two; they move through all manner of glamorous worlds and maintain their attachment despite the distances between them. At the end of their journey, the book returns to letters; and the relationship is only severed by the inevitable death of Le Corbusier.

This, in itself, makes for a fascinating story; but an extra element is always present in the background of the story, as the protagonists live through the changes going on in the world. In the early parts of the book, this is the post-WW2 landscape, but as the narrative continues Ceylon goes through turbulent political changes, which de Silva survives by becoming something of a recluse. Le Corbusier struggles with ageing, as well as also fighting to get his own architectural vision accepted. He’s actually not painted as a particularly pleasant person; motivated selfishly by his own needs, having numerous affairs while still living with his wife, his reaction to the latter’s death is typically self-pitying. It’s a complex and gripping story; Pinto writes lyrically and beautifully, bringing the settings to life vividly, and the book is an entrancing read.

Pablo Picasso, Minnette de Silva, Jo Davidson and Mulk Raj Anand at the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defence of Peace. PAP [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

It does have to be said that with “Plastic Emotions” we are in the realms of autofiction again, and this *can* cause the odd knotty problem. I know little about Le Corbusier and knew even less about de Silva; however, author Shiromi Pinto (an interesting woman in her own right) makes it clear in her afterword that she played fast and loose with the facts – took liberties, as she puts it. That’s not a problem as such, as this is clearly a work of fiction, and an excellent one at that. But I confess I did wonder why there had to be an affair between the two architects? I’ve not read enough to know if there actually was; and nothing I could see online indicates that they were any more than friends. I perhaps would have liked to see Minnette forging her life on her own terms *without* everything she did being informed by that affair, standing as a creative person in her own right and out of the shadows of the more famous participant in this story. Certainly it seems from the novel that she was driven to create an architectural style which combined the modernist techniques she loved with the heritage of her country; and that is a much more human way to develop a model for living than that of Le Corbusier, whose designs may have looked marvellous on paper but were probably not that much fun to live in…

But that’s a minor quibble, in the end. “Plastic Emotions” is an atmospheric, involving and compelling story which focuses on the life of a pioneering woman making her way in what was considered as a man’s field, and succeeding. That her work has been neglected is criminal and the fact she’s only just beginning to be appreciated is shocking; I can only hope that Pinto’s wonderful novel has the effect of making more people seek out the real-life story and the work of the woman that inspired it!

August – a month where I *actually* undertake some challenges??? ;D @Read_WIT #AllViragoAllAugust @kitcaless @PushkinPress @Bryan_S_K @FitzcarraldoEds

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I’m breathing little sigh of relief as I’ve actually managed to make it to the summer break from work – phew! Life has been pretty manic lately so I could do with a bit of space to regroup – and catch up with the reading. I’ve failed, of course, to make it through any kind of challenge floating around in the book blogsphere, but I don’t mind really – I tend to plough my own furrow when it comes to reading! However, August does bring a couple of reading events in which I always like to take part, and I’m hoping this year will be no different.

I’m also painfully aware that I’ve been reading a *lot* of books by men recently and that’s perhaps unusual as I *have* tended to read a lot more women authors in the past – perhaps it’s just the way the books have fallen. However, I’d like to redress that this month and to be specific I hope to read at least these four lovelies if nothing else!

All four are by women authors and all sound fascinating, although they don’t all fall into the challenge categories – nevertheless, I want to read them all this month! 😀

Let’s start with “Plastic Emotions”:

which is a very pretty looking book (sorry to be superficial there…) It’s neither a Virago nor a translated work; but it’s by a woman author and about a pioneering woman architect, so I’m going to count it in for getting back to reading more women. The subject of the book is Sri Lankan architect Minnette de Silva, an inspirational woman who I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of before. So I’m looking forward to finding out more about her via Shiromi Pinto’s intriguing-sounding book.

Next up is a book for All Virago/All August (which I never stick to – I couldn’t restrict myself to one publisher for a month!)

Although not a Virago edition, it’s a Virago author in the shape of Vita Sackville-West. I’ve read and loved her work (though much of it pre-blog), and when Simon wrote about “The Death of Noble Godavary” recently and mentioned it was reminiscent of Vita’s book “The Heir” I was sold. Looking forward to this one!

There are two books in translation by women in the pile above, and first up is this from Fizcarraldo Editions:

Again, I’m intrigued and excited about this one. The Vivian of the title is the American photographer, Vivian Maier (who oddly enough featured in the wonderful “Selfies” which I reviewed a while back); and the author is from Denmark and apparently regarded as one of the country’s most inventive and radical novelists. Sounds fab! 😀

Finally, where would we be on the Ramblings without a Russian?!

There has been a flood of wonderful translations of Russian emigré literature recently, much of it from the lovely Pushkin Press; and this one has just recently been issued. It’s the first time this author’s been translated into English (thank you Bryan Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg!) and it’s described as a disturbing portrait of a lost generation of Russian exiles. Sounds amazing, frankly!

So. I have plans for August. Modest ones, I think, as I shall be on a break from work and also going off on my travels to visit the Aging Parent and the Offspring; which gives extra time for reading, especially whilst on trains… The question is, will I *actually* read the books planned?? I have to say that the hardest thing at the moment, looking at these four lovelies, is making a decision as to which one to pick up first…. =:o

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