Reflections in a camera lens @FitzcarraldoEds #vivianmaier #WITMonth @ReadWIT @Biblibio


Vivian by Christina Hesselholdt
Translated by Paul Russell Garrett

Well, at last I get to my first book for Woman in Translation month, and in fact the third book by a woman I’ve read in a row – yay! “Vivian” is a recent release from the wonderful Fitzcarraldo Editions, and the author Christina Hesselholdt is a new name to me although she’s an illustrious and prolific Danish author who’s produced many books and won a number of prizes. This is only her second novel to be translated into English, and I really hope more follow, because on the strength of this she’s definitely an author I want to read!

Bearing in mind that my last read was a novel about a neglected female architect, it’s interesting that I should have chosen to follow it with what’s described as a piece of documentary fiction, the subject of whom was also neglected during her lifetime – the photographer Vivian Maier. Vivian spent most of her life in obscurity, living a seemingly ordinary life as a nanny; however, over a period of around forty years, she constantly photographed street scenes, mostly around Chicago. The bulk of her photographs lay undeveloped for decades; she was an inveterate hoarder, of her negatives, tape recordings, and mounds of newspapers; and it wasn’t until two years before her death, when she was no longer able to pay for storage, that these were sold off and she began to be discovered.

Facts about Maier’s life are sketchy; her parents were French and Austrian immigrants and Maier was born in New York, though she seems to have spent portions of her younger years being shuttled backwards and forwards across the Atlantic. After working for a while in a sweatshop, she took up nannying – presumably this gave her a certain amount of freedom and the ability to pursue her hobby. Maier died in 2009 after a fall; in recent years her work has become known worldwide and her reputation soared. But we still actually know little about what motivated Vivian to live the way she did and take her photographs.

This absence, this lack of detail, allows Hesselholdt space to play with her subject’s story; and while she sticks closely to the facts that are known (as far as I can see from Maier’s Wikipedia page), she expands Vivian’s life to speculate on the reasons for her secrecy, what kind of existence she might have had, and why she chose a single path through life. What’s particularly exciting is the way that Hesselholdt chooses to do this; instead of a simple, chronological narrative, we instead are greeted with a polyphonic structure where the characters relate their story directly to the reader, corralled into order (or not…) by an unnamed narrator who has plenty of views of their own!

How much of the person behind the camera can be seen in the works? Is one hidden behind them or on the contrary do they unveil you? I think they do. The narrator is the real main character.

I can only agree with you.

I knew I was going to love this book from the very first page, with its post-modern structure and not-at-all objective narrator. We hear from Vivian herself; her mother, Maria; the parents and children in the various families Maier nannies for (though the narrator does reveal to us at one point that the families and children are a kind of composite construction); phtographer Jeanne Bertrand who lived with the Maier family for some time; other members of the Maier family; and so on. Unlike, say, Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves”, each speaker is clearly labelled so there is never any doubt who’s telling their tale, and the story Hesselholdt weaves for Vivian is a fascinating and often dramatic one. The Maier family is a mightily dysfunctional one, with alcoholism, indifelity, child abuse and madness lurking in the shadows. With autofiction (again!) of course, the reader can never be quite sure how much is real or not – and I have no way of knowing if the Maier family were really that awful – but Hesselholdt creates a compelling narrative and a credible background which would explain why someone like Vivian would choose such a singular path through life and remain in effect so isolated.

The story Hesselholdt tells is absolutely fascinating, and although in some ways seeks to explore and explain Maier, it in fact allows her to remain as mysterious and enigmatic as she was; let’s face it, we humans love a puzzle. It also looks quite deeply at photography as an art and what it captures and tells us about ourselves. The narrator quotes from Montaigne via Gide, reminding us that “every human carries within them the human condition”. The point being made is that we can recognise humans as humans even in images from the past. However, the narrator is not entirely convinced by this, as the static nature of a picture cannot reflect the whole human condition in the way the elasticity of writing can; the narrator is biased towards their own art form.

As you might guess, one of the book’s major strengths is its writing and construction; Hessleholdt allows plenty of humour to creep in, playfully at one point having the narrator and Vivian enter into a snarky dialogue which is breathtaking and funny. There are some newspaper clippings reproduced, which of course reflect Maier’s own obsessive newspaper collecting and filleting; and occasional quotations scattered through the narrative. Hesselholdt also creates a mystery of her own in the form of that narrator; initially taking something of a back seat in the book, as the story continues, the narrator reveals more about themself and I was left wondering whether this was meant to be a representation of Hessenholdt herself, or another layer between reader and author and story, or indeed the author’s comment on the act of writing and narrating. Certainly, her narrator has plenty of their own opinions, even commenting at one point on the autofiction element of the book:

I’m really not fond of documentaries with dramatised scenes, i.e. a fact is related and some actors subsequently perform a scene that illustrates what the narrator has just related. In dark moments I think that I may have strayed into this horrible genre.

It’s all very clever and entertaining, as well as being exceptionally readable and surprisingly gripping. Do you know Maier by the end of it? Probably not, because nobody really knew her (and you could argue that nobody really knows *anybody*); but I was certainly fascinated by the woman and her life, and I may end up down another wormhole.

Vivian Maier self-portrait 1953 – via Wikimedia Commons: Latasa Undagoitia [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Many of Maier’s images are self-portraits, often taken in shop windows or any reflective surface she could find; they show an ordinary-looking woman with a camera slung around her neck, usually staring unsmilingly at her image. She mostly seemed to get away with snapping her pictures because she was in some way invisible (as women often can be if they aren’t the obvious young glamorous attention seekers – particularly as they get older). Her selfies are somehow very moving, capturing and pinning her in time and in the act of plying her trade, completely in control of herself and her image and what she does. There are resonances here with the Sylvia Weil book “Selfies” I reviewed recently, and I understand why Weil chose to discuss an image of Maier’s and feature it on the book cover. Maybe these photographs were her way of stamping her identity on the world, of saying “Remember – I was here”, of not wanting to pass through life without leaving a mark.

I’ve expressed slight reservations about autofiction in the past, but I’ve really had my prejudices challenged with recent reads. “Vivian” in particular, with its clever structure, wonderful writing, playful yet thought-provoking narrative, and all-round fascinating story, is a real winner. It’s such a deep, complex and provocative book that I could say a lot more about it, but this post is already long enough! I’m relatively new to Fitzcarraldo Editions (late to the party again!); but I’ve found every book of theirs I’ve read to be a real winner and “Vivian” is no exception. It’s a wonderful read, highly recommended, and most definitely a book which will feature in my end-of-year best-of!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

The trick is to keep moving… #WITmonth #OlgaTokarczuk @jenniferlcroft


Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
Translated by Jennifer Croft

I can’t think of a better book to start off Women in Translation month!

Author Olga Tokarczuk and translator Jennifer Croft won the Man Booker International Prize this year with “Flights”, and although I tend to avoid most book prize winners like the plague, this one was shouting out to me to be read. Having spent several stimulating days in its company, I can say that in many ways it’s a hard book to review because it’s a hard book to define. Is it a diary? A novel? A collection of interlinking philosophical musings? Short stories? A series of travelogues? An extended meditation on the human need to make journeys? A study of the study of human anatomy and the art of preservation? All of these things and none of these things? It’s certainly dark and provocative in places, yet entirely intriguing and inspirational, and full of the most beautiful writing (elegantly rendered into gorgeous English by Croft).

It is widely known, after all, that real life takes place in movement.

In simple terms, “Flights” is a book about travel. In a series of pieces of varying length, Tokarczuk’s narrator ranges through time and location to explore human beings and their constant inability to settle (a syndrome from which the narrator also suffers). These individual his/herstories range far and wide, taking in such disparate tales as the last journey of Chopin’s heart, a missing wife and child on a Croatian island, a variety of Cabinets of Curiosities, the morals of preserving a human being’s body against their will, tales from a harem and the last cruise of an ageing professor. This latter thread, towards the end of the book, has some of the most beautiful yet achingly sad writing where Tokarczuk describes with stunning and chilling imagery the effects of a stroke, drawing on the motif of water and its destructive power against paper which she uses throughout the book. As my Dad suffered from several of these, it touched a nerve.

The author – by Tomasz Leśniowski [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

However, we always return to the framing narrative which deals directly with movement itself, travel psychology, the growth of airports, encounters with strangers en route and so much more. There are recurring themes – Moby Dick and whales, embalming and the preservation of the body, the endless questing nature of humans, the slippery nature of our perceptions of reality – all stitched together into a rich and compelling narrative.

… the Earth is round, let us not be too attached, then, to directions.

And the overarching theme is always movement, travel, flight – the latter word with a double meaning, as we are often in flight, running during our lives, either to or from people or places. “Flights” taps into the human spirit, recognising that we are restless, constantly searching beings, always moving on from what we already have. As a species we are unable to keep still, constantly driven to explore – and it could be argued that that is why we’re in the mess we are nowadays. A very pertinent and relevant short section of the book details carrier bags travelling the world as if they were some strange new species, which was funny and tragic at the same time.

We are the individual nerve impulses of the world, fractions of an instant, barely that part of it that permits the change from plus to minus, or maybe the other way around, and keeps everything in constant flux.

Tokarczuk is a Polish author and activist who trained as a psychologist (and I think this shows in the depth of her work); she’s courted controversy over the years by expressing views which have been unpopular with some patriots from her country. She’s won numerous awards for her writing in a variety of countries, and certainly if “Flights” is anything to go by, she’s an author to explore further. Croft seems to be her ideal translator (I love it when there’s a meeting of minds between the author and the person who renders their work in another language) and apparently she’s translating another of Tokarczuk’s works, which is very exciting for us Anglophones.

The translator, by Norapushkin [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

There is always the risk when writing a work as audacious and ambitious as this (and Perec’s “Life: A User’s Manual” springs to mind) that the whole will not cohere and will simply be a collection of parts. Tokarczuk acknowledges the difficulty of writing early on in the book:

Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work, completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand. You can only barely see from that writerly cellar the feet of passersby, hear the rapping of their heels. Every so often someone stops and bends down and glances in through the window, and then you get a glimpse of a human face, maybe even exchange a few words. But ultimately the mind is so occupied with its own act, a play staged by the self for the self in a hasty, makeshift cabinet of curiosities peopled by author and character, narrator and reader, the person describing and the person being described, that feet, shoes, heels, and faces become, sooner or later, mere components of that act.

However, I think she succeeds brilliantly with “Flights”, which is an extraordinary work, a real tour de force with soaring prose and unforgettable stories. Tokarczuk weaves a wonderful tapestry of travellers’ tales whilst all the while digging down into the human psyche to see what it is that motivates us and what it means to be human. Reading “Flights” is like taking a wide-ranging and thought-provoking journey. It’s a book that certainly deserves slow and close reading, and then reading again to truly appreciate its complex and multi-layered narrative; and it’s most definitely deserving of the praise and prizes it’s received. A wonderful start to #WIT month.

Exploring My Library – Colette (#WIT Month)


As it’s Women in Translation Month, I thought it might be a nice idea to share a part of my library which features works from someone who qualifies; and there are lots of candidates but I’m going for an author who was probably one of the earliest translated women I read, and is still among my favourites – Colette.

I’ve written about Colette here before, and she was a gutsy, fascinating woman who lived an incredible life. Her writing is just wonderful and so let’s got onto the books – and I own quite a few… In fact, they go two rows deep on the shelves and here they are:

front shelf

This is what the front looks like – a mixed selection of biographies and fiction.

back shelfAnd this is the back row – mainly my original Penguins from the early 1980s when I first read Colette, stored in chronological order together with other editions – because there wasn’t a complete set in Penguin, which was one of my bugbears, and still annoys me.

matching penguinsAs you can see, the Penguins at that time were quite lovely, with beautiful covers featuring a vintage photograph and very pretty design around it, in varying colours. I bought and read my way through all of these that were available, absolutely loving Colette, and I do wish Penguin had brought out all of her books in this style. Alas, not all were in Penguin and so the gaps were filled by different publishers.

unusual ones

These are some of my more unusual ones – two copies of “Mitsou” (which I only read recently), a very odd “Earthly Paradise” apparently featuring a flapper, a pretty older Penguin of “Ripening Seed” and an old hardback of “The Blue Lantern”. The latter is one of my favourite Colettes and yet not very easily obtained – I can’t imagine why…

animalsAnother more obscure title in a couple of variants – Colette’s “Dialogues des Betes” is another lesser-known title which I’ve only just picked up. She was known for her love of animals and it’s a shame this work isn’t easier to come by.

letters storiesCollected Stories is a wonderful volume, and I’d recommend it without hesitation – her shorter fictions are presented chronologically here, covering her time in music hall to the later stages of her life, and she’s as good at short stories as longer fictions. Her Letters are a delight too, and both of these books are overseen by Robert Phelps, something of a Colette scholar I believe.

some biogsThere’s a lot of biographical material on Colette as well, and these are just some of the books I have. The Thurman book is an excellent read, and probably a good place to start if you’re new to Colette and want a good biog.


Evidence, if  you ever needed it, that I really do buy too many books. I have a lovely set of the Claudine books in the original Penguin pastel type covers, so I don’t need an omnibus or a set of the older Penguins. But they’re so pretty………

break of day

Last, but certainly not least, “Break of Day”, my first and possibly favourite Colette. The Women’s Press edition on the left is the one I read back in about 1981 and it completely sold me on Colette. I then went on to read all of the books I could get in chronological order. Recently I picked up the Capuchin edition in a charity shop, just because I could – I did have another edition, a Heron hardback with a nasty cover, so I donated that as it was taking up a lot of space. I love “Break of Day” – I’ve read it more than any other Colette and can’t help thinking I’d like to pick it up again soon!

So there you have some of my Colette collection – I could have made this post a lot longer by showing you the inside of some of the picture books I have about her, reminiscences of her third husband, etc etc but I’d risk boring you to death. Colette was a wonderful woman and a marvellous writer, and is certainly a good choice if you’re looking for a translated woman to read this month!


#WIT Month – The dark side of Weimar Berlin


The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun

For last year’s Women In Translation Month I read “Child of All Nations” by Irmgard Keun; this was the second of her titles I’d enjoyed, the first being “After Midnight” which I’d stumbled across in Foyles in 2013. Keun was a fascinating woman with a fascinating life, surviving WW2 in Germany despite having been condemned for her degenerate tendencies, and also spending time with Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth in Ostend – in fact, she had an affair with the latter. I enjoyed both of her books so much that I decided to pick up another for #WIT Month – her second novel, “The Artificial Silk Girl”. Published in 1931, the book caused an immediate stir and was banned by the Nazis in 1933 and all remaining copies burned. Keun was apparently inspired by Anita Loos’ celebrated novel “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, although having read the latter I think that Keun’s book is something very, very different.


The book is narrated in the form of a diary by Doris, a young woman living in small-town Germany. Her family life is unhappy: despite loving her mother, she doesn’t get on with her father who drinks all the time, and work is in an office where she’s subject to the whims and attentions of an older boss. Doris is obsessed with the idea of glamour and fame, of getting into the cinema and becoming a star; however, that seems less than likely bearing in mind where she lives, and despite getting a small part as an extra in a local theatre, things are not going well for her. She loses her job, her father is demanding she pay for her keep, and the love of her life Hubert is marrying for money. So what’s a girl to do? Tell a lot of lies about the theatre boss, lock a rival in the toilet, steal a fur coat and head off to the bright lights of Berlin – well at least, that’s what Doris does, and her diary is intended to share all this with us and to record her rise to fame.

Berlin, however, is not all it’s cracked up to be. The glamour is superficial, the streets are full of people on the make and Doris finds it impossible to get an entry into any kind of show business as she’s sort of on the run without papers because of the fur coat. So she stays in a succession of temporary homes, hooking up occasionally with a man who always turns out to have a wife, and slowly running out of money and food and hope. Just as she’s about to starve to death, rescue comes in the form of Ernst, nicknamed Green Moss, who regards her as pure and feeds her up. But Ernst is also married, abandoned by his wife – so how will things turn out for the Artificial Silk Girl?

Once again, I was utterly hooked by Keun’s immediate and involving writing. A first person narrative is so often hard to get just right, particularly when it’s a younger person telling the tale. However, Keun succeeded admirably with Kully in “Child of All Nations” and once again gets it spot on here. Doris’s voice is just the right mixture of naivety and arrogance, her vulnerability hidden under a mask of bravado, when all she actually wants is a real home. In several sections Doris lapses into a slightly drunken stream of consciousness, recalling her past life in fragments, and as the truth about her family is actually revealed you can see why she’s ended up the way she has. In fact, I can’t help wondering about Keun’s own childhood as there are fractured families featured in so many of her works.


However, what made this book so fresh was the contrasts Doris sees between those who have and those who have not, something still very relevant today. Once again, if you have money you can grab hold of life to the full – without it, life is simply a dull trudge through the quotidian. I was reminded very much of “Grand Hotel”, a recent read, and one of its characters Flammchen who has the same understanding. The women in these books are dependent on their looks to get them a man and a secure life if they don’t want to spend their years scratching out a living at an underpaid job. And Keun is not averse to pointing out the ridiculous hypocrisy in their position:

If a young woman from money married an old man because of money and nothing else and makes love to him for hours and has this pious look on her face, she’s called a German mother and a decent woman. If a young woman without money sleeps with a man with no money because he has smooth skin and she likes him, she’s a whore and a bitch.

Keun was also very much ahead of her time. Christopher Isherwood may have claimed in 1939 that he was a camera, but Doris was there before him. She records the sights, sounds and people of Berlin brilliantly, relaying the city in all its seediness and glory to a blind neighbour, Brunner, in a marvellous series of impressionistic paragraphs. The problem is, when they actually take a walk in the real metropolis they realise that the glamour and the glitter is false and Berlin is a sad place to be. There is perhaps less focus on politics in “Artificial…” when compared with, say, “After Midnight”, but the reader is still aware of the increasing racial tension even if much of this flows past Doris. However, she is astute enough to say at one point, whilst winding up an anti-Semite, “Politics poisons human relationships. I spit on it.”

My version of “Artificial…” was published by the Other Press and translated by Kathie von Ankum. The blurb seems anxious to stress the connections between the book and such modern heroines as Bridget Jones and the ladies from “Sex and the City” – which I’m afraid would have actually put me off, had I not already been a Keun convert. And I did have slight reservations about the translation; I guess they went for the modern vernacular to appeal to today’s audiences, but I really can’t imagine Doris saying “grosses me out”…

However, these small reservations aside, “The Artificial Silk Girl” is highly recommended; as a piece of groundbreaking women’s writing it’s essential, as a portrait of Weimar Germany from the point of view of an impoverished woman it’s unparalleled, and in Doris, Irmgard Keun created an unforgettable heroine – eat your heart out, Sally Bowles! 🙂

Shiny New Books 11 – plus a great #WIT month read!


SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245Today sees the arrival of two exciting things! First off, the latest issue of Shiny New Books, no 11, is now live so head on over (as they say) for all things bookish and interesting. There will be plenty of new books to entice you to buy, plus lots of fascinating background stuff.


I’ve contributed a few things this time, and first of all will point you towards my (quite long!) review of Dostoevsky’s “The Adolescent”. Now available in a shiny new translation from Alma Classics, it’s an unjustly neglected book deserving of as much attention as the author’s other books. To find out more, have a look at my review here.


August is amongst other things, of course, Women in Translation month. I’ve already read a wonderful book that falls into this category and is likely to be one of my books of the year – “Grand Hotel” by Vicki Baum.


It’s a book I was really looking forward to and I wasn’t disappointed – it’s brilliant and I couldn’t put it down. “Grand Hotel” has been reissued in a lovely new edition from NYRB and that’s out today and highly recommended. If you want a good read for WIT month you don’t need to look any further than this. My review of GH will appear in the next edition of Shiny New Books but in the meantime – get reading it! 🙂

A Quick Round-Up and Update!


As a new month dawns and autumn starts to hit (I like autumn!) I thought I’d update and take a quick look back at August’s reading. I got through a surprising amount of books, many of which I actually planned to read – which is quite unheard of really, and also some nice re-reading. There were two challenges I dropped into during the month – Women in Translation month and the LibraryThing Virago Group’s All Virago/All August.

virago press logo

To take Women in Translation first, I actually read several books from that category as follows:

Paris Tales (I’m counting this as it contains a Colette!)
Tove Jansson – Moominpappa at Sea
Colette – The Blue Lantern
Irmgard Keun – Child of All Nations
Francoise Sagan – A Certain Smile
Clarice Lispector – The Hour of the Star

This was a really enjoyable challenge and one I could quite happily dip into regularly!

For All Virago/All August (where we include Persephones as well as Viragos) I didn’t do quite so well, only managing a few titles:

Eleanor Graham – The Children Who Lived in a Barn
Rosamund Lehmann – The Swan in the Evening
Diana Gardner – The Woman Novelist and Other Stories

Of the three, my favourite was definitely the Gardner book which I loved to bits.

Current reading involves the Big Books, with which I am making reasonable progress – I have got to the end of the first part of “Our Mutual Friend” and am loving it. Don Quixote is funny, but best in short bursts; and the Ballard and Aldiss short stories are marvellous, the hardest thing being not to gobble them up. Poetry-wise I’ve finished book two of the Penguin Modern Poets; and I confess I’ve sidetracked into a couple of other books, reading a review volume for SNB, and also “Howard’s End is on the Landing”, which I couldn’t resist.

dead witness

I’ve also finally come to the end of “The Dead Witness”, the anthology of vintage crime I seem to have been making my way through for ages. It’s been a wonderful read and the last two sets of three stories will be reviewed here shortly. However, looking up one of the detectives set me off on a rather frustrating rummage through my bookshelves, as I was reminded of the collections of stories entitled “The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes”. Back in the day I vaguely recall some of these being televised (I was too young to watch them) and in my early crime reading days I owned copies of the “Rivals…” books. However, a lot of digging about on shelves of double stacked books convinced me I must have discarded them at some point – which is very, very annoying….

But there *was* a bit of serendipity involved, because whilst digging I came across this:

A lovely Penguin Poetry anthology for the collection which I’d forgotten I had, and I probably bought for the lovely John Piper cover. So all is not lost, I’ve added it to the heap (which now looks like this)

updated poetry

and I shall be keeping my eye out for any “Rivals…” books on my travels!

#WomenInTranslation Month – The Cruelty of Youth


A Certain Smile by Francoise Sagan

Francois Sagan caused quite a sensation on the publication of her first novel, “Bonjour Tristesse“, in 1954 when she was just 18. Her second book, “A Certain Smile” followed in 1956 and was equally controversial. My copies of the stories are in one lovely World Books volume and WIT month seemed like a good time to pick it up.


“A Certain Smile” is narrated by Dominique, a young woman studying law in Paris at the Sorbonne. It is the 1950s and she spends much of her time with her lover Bertrand in what is recognisably a cafe society. The couple jog along, but there is a sense that Dominique is somewhat detached from life and love, and her relationship with Bertrand doesn’t strike the reader as having great passion. However, when she meets Bertrand’s uncle Luc and Luc’s wife Francoise, things change dramatically.


Dominique and the older Luc are obviously instantly mutually attracted, but Dominique is unsure of herself and unwilling to take things any further because of her liking of Francoise. However, after much angst and soul-searching, the pair become lovers, eventually spending two week in Cannes, and declaring that they will not fall in love. Alas, things are not that simple – Dominique is younger and less experienced at affairs, and not as in control of her emotions as she thought…

Sometimes in exasperation I wanted to say to him: “Why can’t you love me? It would be so much more restful for me.” But I knew this was impossible. Ours was more an affinity than a passion, and neither of us could ever bear to be dominated by the other. Luc had neither the opportunity, the strength, nor the desire for a closer relationship.”

On the surface, then, this is a seemingly straightforward novel about a younger woman having an affair with an older man. However, there are undercurrents. Dominique is a complicated character, seemingly indifferent to much around her and driven by a kind of existentialist ennui. In fact, boredom seems to be the strongest motivating force – neither Dominique nor Luc can bear to be bored, and this is what attracts them to each other and eventually unites them.


And Bertrand is, frankly, boring. Even though he’s young and good-looking, the older, uglier Luc is more attractive – perhaps because of his air of worldly weariness, perhaps just because Dominique recognises a kindred soul. Her behaviour could seem callous; after all, she’s betraying Francoise, who’s become very attached to her, as well as Bertrand. But Luc has had affairs before, and probably will continue to do so; whereas Dominique is ready to fall in love, and is tormented because she knows Luc cannot and will not love her, and there’s no question of him leaving his wife. Inevitably, Bertrand and Dominique split. The affair with Luc comes out, and then ends, and Dominique is left to pick up the threads of her life again.

Happiness is like a flat plain without landmarks. That is why I have no precise memory of my stay in Cannes except those few unhappy moments, Luc’s laughter, and the pathetic scent of fading mimosa in our room at night. Perhaps, for people like myself, happiness signifies a bolder attitude towards the tedium of everyday existence.

“A Certain Smile” is an absorbing novel, lifted above realms of just romantic fiction by Sagan’s writing, her evocation of place and time, and the dimension she allows her characters. All are well-developed and believable, all struggling with the business of living, and the story is entirely convincing. Her understanding of the problem that boredom with life can be is striking; something of a first-world problem, maybe, but a very real one. If I have any reservations it would be that there’s a distance here somewhere, a slight coldness in the book that kept me from feeling a real warmth and sympathy towards Dominique, but I haven’t quite worked out where that comes from. Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed my sojourn in 1950s France and I’m sure I’ll be returning to the other Sagans I have!

#WomenInTranslation Month – Adrift in Europe and the Wider World


Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun

I first stumbled across the writing of Irmgard Keun in 2013, when I picked up her book “After Midnight” in (old) Foyles as it sounded excellent. It was, and I reviewed it here, and was keen to read more of her work. “Child of All Nations” came my way via ReadItSwapIt shortly after, but it’s taken the impetus of WIT month to get me to pick it up…


The book is translated by Michael Hofmann, who’s also responsible for many translations of Joseph Roth and he provides a useful afterword too. The story is told from the point of view of Kully, a nine-year old girl who’s leading anything but a conventional life. Her father is a writer, and he and her mother and Kully herself are on the move in 1930s Europe (the book was published in 1938). They cannot return to Germany because Kully’s father is obviously persona non grata because of his writing and his views.

When I was in Germany, before, I did go to school, and that’s where I learned to read and write. Then my father didn’t want to be in Germany any more, because the government had locked up friends of his, and because he couldn’t write or say the things he wanted to write and say. I wonder what the point is of children in Germany still having to read and write?

However, the family is a very dysfunctional one: Kully’s father is permanently penniless, and he drags the girl and her mother from place to place trying to borrow from friends and acquaintances, get advances on books or payments for articles. Often the two females are left behind in a hotel as a kind of surety while he goes off to get cash – how he ever manages to write is a mystery! And sometimes the absences are longer ones, and you find yourself reading between the lines and suspecting there are other women involved.

The family is constantly shifting location, taking in Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris, Marseilles and Italy amongst other places, and all the time there is the threat of starvation and their political enemies. Finally, Kully’s father decides to try his hand across the Atlantic and here things take a stomach-churning turn. The end is suitably ambiguous and it is unclear whether this fractured family will ever be whole.

In the morning when we woke up, the whole world was different. The sky was three times as big and three times as high as anywhere else, and it was such a brilliant blue that it hurt your eyes. We passed bare-looking mountains with strange black and silver trees growing on them.

Using a child as a narrator is always going to carry risks, but I felt that Keun got the tone just right. Kully is an engaging companion in this story, innocent and yet knowing, and Keun cleverly has her reveal more than she knows without realising it. As adult readers we recognise the meanings of events that Kully does not, and Keun handles this element brilliantly. The girl is remarkably self-reliant, yet vulnerable at the same time, over-reaching herself and getting into scrapes. And because she’s a child, people talk freely in front of her thinking that she doesn’t understand or isn’t listening, when of course she’s a remarkably sharp observer.


“Child of All Nations” was an excellent portrait of the dispossessed of Europe during the 1930s. All through the book the shadow of what was to come is lurking in the background and of course we know what Keun could not, i.e. what would hit Europe in 1939. If I had a criticism to make it would be that the American section somehow seems a little unnecessary and doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the book. Despite this, however, I got very attached to Kully and her story and I definitely want to read more of Keun’s work.

Re-reading Colette for #WomenInTranslation month


The Blue Lantern by Colette

As you might be aware, August has been designated “Women in Translation” month (you can read more here) and it’s an initiative I’m happy to support. Looking through my shelves, I think I’ve always read a lot of WIT, mostly in the form of French and Russian authors – I have piles of Simone de Beauvoir, Kollontai, Akhmatova, Leduc and of course Colette. You would think, perhaps, that Colette wouldn’t need much promotion nowadays, but I’m not so sure. In my early feminist days, she was highly regarded and many of her books published in a lovely matching set by Penguin. But I just feel that in this country particularly she doesn’t get as much press as she should; her writing and her life are inspirational and so I felt moved to carry on my WIT reading with a re-read – “The Blue Lantern”.

blue lantern

Back in the day, it was very hard to get hold of non-mainstream books (pre-Internet, of course), and some of Colette’s less well-known works proved impossible to track down. “The Blue Lantern” was one of these and it was only in recent years that I managed to find a copy (it must have been pre-blog though). It was Colette’s last book, a volume of jottings, recollections and thoughts on life, and it was pure joy.

Written between 1946 and 1948, “The Blue Lantern” finds a Colette who’s approaching 75 and dealing with physical restrictions. Crippled by the arthritis that plagued the last years of her life, she’s restricted to a divan in her Palais Royal apartment, where the lamp with the blue shade is always burning and where she continues, against all the odds, to write. There are occasional trips away, to the south of France or to taste the new Beaujolais; visits from friends and neighbours, particularly Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais (the latter of whom springs vividly onto the page); thoughts and observations on her life, the local children, animals and plants – in short, everything you might expect from Colette’s ever-observant gaze.


All of this sounds very simple, but the prose is shot through with Colette’s vivid writing, her sharp eye for detail and her zest for living. Even at the end of her life, in great pain, she was irrepressible and unique. Colette laments the loss of her great friend Marguerite Moreno; describes visiting Switzerland to have treatment for the arthritis; takes us through some of the strange and often impertinent letters she receives; and at all times she is accompanied by her third husband, the wonderful and faithful Maurice Goudeket, her “dearest friend”.

I’ve yet to find something Colette wrote that I don’t love (which is quite a wild declaration, I know), and I find myself wishing that some enterprising publisher would bring out a beautiful uniform edition of all her works. Penguin did a lovely job with the paperbacks I have from the 1980s, but they didn’t bring out everything, plus not everything has been translated – and Colette is a writer than needs to be read by all lovers of France, beautiful prose and pioneering women!

(We’re very lucky that a young film-maker was clever enough to record Colette during these last years of her life, and the film can be seen here – Cocteau visits, her dearest friend is beside her and Colette reminisces about her past. It makes a perfect accompaniment to this book and is a pure delight….)

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