Month: March 2017

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Posted March 20, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 2 Comments

The Lover by Marguerite DurasTitle: The Lover (Goodreads)
Author: Marguerite Duras
Translator: Barbara Bray
Published: Pantheon, 1984
Pages: 117
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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Marguerite Duras is best known for her novel L’Amant (The Lover), which was published in 1984 and won the Prix Goncourt for that year. Set in the colony of French Indochina (now known as Vietnam) during the 1920s, the novel explores the salacious love affair between a fifteen-and-a-half year-old French girl and a wealthy Chinese man. What makes this a literary masterpiece is the exploration into desire (and colonialism) and the experimental style that Duras adopted for this novel.

The narrative devices adopted in L’Amant allows Marguerite Duras to tell an autobiographical story while offering a form of self-reflection and way to analyse her own feelings. To do this Duras often switches perspective from first person to third person as well as switching from a current point in the story to a flashback. For me the effects of these literary devices offered an ideal contemplation into the emotions Marguerite must have been going through and also providing a meditation into the art of writing.

The Lover was published when Marguerite Duras was seventy, fifty-five years after she met Léo while traveling by ferry across the Mekong Delta from her home in the town of Sa Đéc, to her boarding school in Saigon. The depiction of love was so masterfully done in the novel, I knew exactly how Duras was feeling. The whole idea of a first love and then reflecting back on it many years later only to find that what you thought was a great love was merely an infatuation. I think this was what brought The Lover together and what stuck with me the most.

Since it is a love affair between a young French girl and an older Chinese man in Saigon, I think we need to talk about colonialism when reflecting on L’Amant. You can see the disapproving opinions playing out from her widowed mother but it was the wealthy father who had the biggest impact on the Chinese businessman’s relationship. I had thought that class struggle and colonialism would have played a bigger part in a book like this but I feel that Marguerite Duras handled the idea well with just how the characters interacted with each other.

I was thrilled by The Lover and the passionate love affair in this novel. Though I have to say it was Marguerite Duras skilful use of narrative devices that really made this a new favourite. I want to dip in and out of this book and I have only just finished it. I was even tempted to carry this novel around, just so I can read a passage or two while I had a spare moment. You may notice that I have been reading a decent amount of French literature lately and it is because of novels like this that I am currently obsessed. I hope to one day have the necessary skills to read L’Amant in French; I have been practising the language just for novels like this.


War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

Posted March 18, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Historical Fiction / 0 Comments

War and Turpentine by Stefan HertmansTitle: War and Turpentine (Goodreads)
Author: Stefan Hertmans
Translator: David McKay
Published: Text, 2016
Pages: 304
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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Before he did, Stefan Hertmans’s grandfather gave him two notebooks which make up his life. Stefan held on to these notebooks for a while before he read them. Expecting the story of war he found a more detailed account of his grandfather’s life, from growing up in poverty, meeting his great love, war and a passion for art. Providing a more modern voice, War and Turpentine is a stylised account of what was in these notebooks. To call it a biography or memoir is a stretch but this literary hybrid is masterfully told.

Born in 1891, the author’s grandfather lived until 1981. While the key focus of the novel is the life of one person, I was particularly drawn to how it represented a whole country. This was a very turbulent time for Belgium. During The Great War, the occupation by German forces was so harsh that it is often referred to as the ‘Rape of Belgium’, which economically crippled the country and lead to a high unemployment rate. World War II was not as devastating but the country once again capitulated to the Germans.

There is a large section that focuses on the devastating nature of war to the people involved and the country. Despite the gritty nature, there is real beauty to be found. Like the title, War and Turpentine this is a novel of polar opposites; from gritty depictions from the trenches to almost dreamlike descriptions of the German zeppelins floating overhead.

Putting the depictions of war aside War and Turpentine also explores family, love, marriage and art, which allows a contrast from devastation to beauty. There is a real tenderness in the approach that Stefan Hertmans took in writing his grandfather’s story. I wonder what this story might have been if Hertmans produced it when he first received his grandfather’s notebooks. I think the 40 years between receiving the notebooks and writing this book gave him enough time to develop his craft and live his life. This I believe was necessary to come up with something so stunning and beautiful.

I love the title War and Turpentine simply because it accurately covers the balance found in the book. From destruction in war to the creation and beauty of art. This is a powerful piece of storytelling, masterfully executed. I am not sure where I found out about this book, I went into it not knowing much about it at all. The writing alone was enough to make War and Turpentine wonderful, which is a huge credit to David McKay’s translation. Everything about this book just resulted in the perfect balance of the dramatic and absolute beauty.


The 2017 Man Booker International Prize Longlist

Posted March 16, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 2 Comments

The Man Booker International Prize is one of the few major literary prizes that holds any interest to me. As many people know I am focusing more on reading books in translation and my goal is to have at least 50% of all my books be translation (currently sitting at 52% for the year so far). So when the longlist for this prize was announced late last night I paid attention. Unsurprisingly I had only read one of the books mentioned on the list, War and Turpentine (will post a review in the next few days). The Man Booker International Prize is a celebration of the finest fiction from around the world that have been translated into English. The prize awards the winning book £50,000 which is split equally between the author and the translator.

However, the main concern I have for the list was the lack of women in translation (only 26% of books translated into English are by female authors). I counted three out of thirteen books written by women; Swallowing Mercury, Fever Dream and Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. This gender imbalance is something I am struggling with in my own reading life as well, I have become very aware just how many women authors in translation there are and I feel I need to make more of an effort to balance my reading. I am even at the point where I am thinking about only buying books in translation if they were written by a woman, just to get more of a balance on my bookshelves. Having said that I am pleased to see a more even balance with the translators, with seven of the thirteen translators being women.

Another imbalance I have noticed with the longlist is to do with where the books are from. I count one book from South America and only three from Asia (including Yan Lianke from China who is the only author to return from last year’s longlist). France and Israel have two authors in the longlist. Though this is where the age old debate on how to classify these books comes in once again. Alain Mabanckou who was longlisted for his book Black Moses shows as French on the list, though he was born in the Republic of the Congo and currently resides in the United States of America.

I have often entertained the notion of reading the entire longlist of a prize like this but the lack of availability has often stopped me. I have found only five of the thirteen books in my library and have immediately reserved the four I have not read. If I were to read the entire longlist I would have to resort to my e-reader, an option that does not interest me. Although I have noticed an increasing need to use ebooks because of availability.

I will continue to read more books in translation, though I am not one to read recent releases. I hope to talk more about the books in this longlist as I read them but if you are interested in the Man Booker International prize I would recommend following the shadow jury. A group of book bloggers get together to write the entire longlist and blog about it; trying to predict the shortlist and winner.

Have you read any of the longlist? and if so, I would love to know what you are predicting to be on the shortlist or the winner. War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans is my current pick, not just because it is the only novel I have read but it is likely to make my top books of 2017 list. Let me know your thoughts on the longlist and the Man Booker International Prize in the comments below.

The 2017 Man Booker international prize longlist

  • Compass by Mathias Énard (France), translated by Charlotte Mandell and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
  • Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (Poland), translated by Eliza Marciniak and published by Portobello Books
  • A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman (Israel), translated by Jessica Cohen and published by Jonathan Cape
  • War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (Belgium), translated by David McKay and published by Harvill Secker
  • The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), translated by Don Bartlett and published by MacLehose Press
  • The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare (Albania), translated by John Hodgson and published by Harvill Secker
  • Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Iceland), translated by Philip Roughton and published by MacLehose Press
  • The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke (China), translated by Carlos Rojas and published by Chatto & Windus
  • Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (France), translated by Helen Stevenson and published by Serpent’s Tail
  • Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Germany), translated by Katy Derbyshire and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
  • Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (Denmark), translated by Misha Hoekstra and published by Pushkin Press
  • Judas by Amos Oz (Israel), translated by Nicholas de Lange and published by Chatto & Windus
  • Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), translated by Megan McDowell and published by Oneworld

Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes

Posted March 10, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Thriller / 0 Comments

Apocalypse Baby by Virginie DespentesTitle: Apocalypse Baby (Goodreads)
Author: Virginie Despentes
Translator: Siân Reynolds
Published: Serpent's Tail, 2010
Pages: 338
Genres: Thriller
My Copy: Library Book

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Provocative French author Virginie Despentes is best known for her debut novel Baise-moi, which was published in 1993 to much controversy. The book was adapted into a film, which was also written and directed by Despentes. This debut novel is often considered the most controversial French novel of recent times, exploring a punk fantasy of two women on a vengeance rampage à la Thelma and Louise. The novel and film are modern examples of a crime thriller genre known as rape and revenge.

Virginie Despentes has had a salacious life, which ranges from working as a maid/sex worker in ‘massage parlours’ to being a pornographic film critic. As a novelist she has written seven novels of transgressive fiction, although only three have been translated into English. Her latest novel Apocalypse Baby (Apocalypse Bébé) was published in English by Feminist Press in 2015. The book is a faced-paced thriller about a missing adolescent girl. Two mismatched private investigators are paired together to find this lost girl.  The two follow the evidence from Paris to Barcelona and back on this epic road trip.

Lucie Toledo is not a great private investigator, her skills typically include watching over her clients, but when the troublesome fifteen-year-old Valentine disappears she is out of her league. Tasked to watch the girl by her grandmother, Lucie is held responsible. She enlists the help of the legendary detective, known as The Hyena to help with this missing person case. The Hyena is a sexist, misogynist; constantly wolf whistling at female pedestrians and grabbing their crotches. Two very different personalities stuck in a car propels the novel towards the inevitable conflict.

Apocalypse Baby is an unflinching thriller that never shies away from graphic descriptions. Though not without its flaws, the novel offers so much more than a psychological romp. Virginie Despentes uses this transgressive story as a platform for social criticism, exploring French politics and society. Between each chapter, there lies a glimpse at different members of Valentine’s family, exploring their own struggles and fears. Her father, step mother, and two sisters are all fleshed out in these sections; not taking away from the novel but rather giving an extra dimension and providing a deeper understanding on Valentine’s motivation.

What really stuck with me in Apocalypse Baby was the way it played with the idea of gender equality. Take for example the misogynist partner The Hyena, when you think about this character, did you envision a woman? I found myself constantly thinking “You are a woman, you should know better” but then I stop myself, a man should know better as well. I like the way Virginie Despentes used this idea as a tool to explore social issues. While this novel is nothing special, this one aspect really stuck with me and I appreciate just how masterfully Despentes made her point.