Month: July 2017

No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel

Posted July 28, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 4 Comments

No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise FrenkelTitle: No Place to Lay One's Head (Goodreads)
Author: Françoise Frenkel
Translator: Stephanie Smee
Published: Vintage, 1945
Pages: 286
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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I have seen a lot of comparisons between Françoise Frenkel’s memoir and Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. They both depict the struggles of living in Nazi occupied France for a Jewish woman and both were works that were found by chance and published. I am yet to read Suite Française, although it sits on my shelf quietly waiting, so I am unable to speak to any more similarities. No Place to Lay One’s Head (Rien où poser sa tête) was originally published in 1945 with a limited run by the now defunct publishing house Verlag Jehebe. Thirty years later it was rediscovered in an attic in the south of France and republished in 2015. Thanks to the efforts of Australian translator Stephanie Smee, an English translation of this book was released this year.

This memoir gives an account of part of her life, from opening Berlin’s first specialist French bookstore in 1921 to her experience with the rise of the Nazi party. Françoise Frenkel, like many other Jewish people, suffered greatly, but what fascinated me about No Place to Lay One’s Head is what she left out of the book. There is no mention of her husband in Rien où poser sa tête at all. The only reason I know about his existence is because of the timeline in the back of the book.

Grief is a powerful emotion and people find their own ways to deal with the pain. Looking at this timeline I know that Frenkel and her husband Simon Raichenstein opened Maison du Livre français (which means House of the French Books) together. He was deported (due to the fact he was a Belarusian) and lived in France from 1933, until he was arrested in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. Françoise Frenkel ran the bookstore alone until she escaped Germany in 1939. I do not know if the two spent reunited in France, but I suspect that they may have. My suspicions are based on this idea of grief; Frenkel started writing No Place to Lay One’s Head in 1943 after she was able to so escape to Switzerland, and I get the feeling that the anger and sadness that comes through in the book might have been related to the one person she cannot bare to talk about.

I picked up this book in the hopes to explore the life of a specialist book seller in a rapidly changing political climate but I got something different. I would have loved more chapters on her time learning the trade in a second hand bookstore in the Rue Gay-Lussac. Or even exploring the idea of opening a specialist French bookshop in Germany and the impact it had. Maybe even something that compared the idea to Sylvia Beach opening Shakespeare and Company (a specialty book store dedicated to English language books) in France two years earlier. I love books about books and thought these would be some interesting topics to explore. However I got something completely different; something so devastating and yet full of beauty.

I am partial to a book that is able to deliver cruelty and shock in such an elegant way and I think No Place to Lay One’s Head was able to do just that. It is a weird feeling to go into a book hoping for one thing but finding something unexpected. This memoir is heartbreaking and to try and understand everything she was not saying, just made this book even more affecting. In the back of the book there is one picture of a dedication she wrote to a priest. “…I would be so grateful for your prayers – I seek inner peace; I am grieving for so many and know not where my family have been laid to rest.” I think that sums up the feeling Françoise Frenkel must have had when writing No Place to Lay One’s Head.


The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Posted July 27, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 6 Comments

The Savage Detectives by Roberto BolañoTitle: The Savage Detectives (Goodreads)
Author: Roberto Bolaño
Translator: Natasha Wimmer
Published: Picador, 2007
Pages: 577
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle
(or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Chilean author Roberto Bolaño may have only gained traction in the English-speaking world shortly after his death in 2003 but he quickly cemented his legacy as a great South American author. In fact, Chris Andrews’ translation of By Night in Chile was the first English translation of Bolaño and it was released in December 2003. Between Chris Andrews and Natasha Wimmer, all but two of his novels were translated into English, not to mention his short story collections, poetry and essays. That is twelve novels translated in which two Roberto Bolaño novels get the most attention, The Savage Detectives and 2666.

The first Roberto Bolaño novel I read was By Night in Chile, a novella that managed to make a big impression on me. The book saw Jesuit priest Father Urrutia reflect on his life while in a feverish daze and open with the brilliant line “I am dying now, but I still have many things to say”. The fever seems to allow Bolaño to explore an idea of the reliability of memory because you could help wondering if it was an unreliable narrator or he just lived an unorthodox life. By Night in Chile is a novel that I still think about and even though I feel like I read it recently, I am keen to return to it.

Because of this novella, I was keen to pick up more Roberto Bolaño and I recently joined in with a group of people to read The Savage Detectives. My experience was different than what I initially expected. First, it is difficult to compare The Savage Detectives with By Night in Chile, they are very different in style and themes. Also, out of the eight-people reading this, five of them never finished, while I think I was the only one that really enjoyed it. At times it was struggle to read, but I think getting to the end gave me a real sense of accomplishment and the novel will stick in my head for a very long time.

To get an idea of what Roberto Bolaño is trying to achieve in this novel you really need to understand a little about his life. He was born in Chile but his family moved to Mexico while he was a teenager. He never finished school because he dropped out to work as a journalist. He left Mexico to return to Chile to help the socialist regime of Salvador Allende but was thrown in prison after Augusto Pinochet’s coup. On his return to Mexico, he started living as a bohemian poet and saw himself as an enfant terrible of literature, his own editor Jorge Herralde recalls him saying that he was “a professional provocateur feared at all the publishing houses even though he was a nobody”. He was a young ambitious poet, what was he to do? Naturally he tried to start a literary movement which was called Infrarrealismo.

What makes The Savage Detectives so interesting is that it is a parody of Roberto Bolaño’s own life. His alter ego is one of the principal characters, and every other character is based off someone in his life. While By Night in Chile reflects on life from the deathbed, The Savage Detectives takes a similar but drastically different approach. It was like Bolaño wanted to reflect on his ambitious ideals and just how cocky he was. It felt like he was never afraid to poke fun of himself and I think if I knew more about his life, I would have gotten a lot more out of this novel.

I do not know enough of Mexican literature (especially the poetry) but I found The Savage Detectives to be a very approachable novel. You get a sense right away that the Visceral Realist are a parody, the name itself conjures up an image of trying hard and failing. I was so glad I finally got to this novel and I know that I will have to pick up more Roberto Bolaño in the future. In fact, I think he is an author that deserves to be read completely (well everything translated into English at least). I will admit that my knowledge in South American authors is lacking but the more I read, the more I appreciate their style. Next up… Jorge Luis Borges.


A Half Yearly Reflection

Posted July 12, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 8 Comments

I have been going through an extended period of self-reflection lately, mainly relating to my role in the world of literature. I love books and I constantly want to talk about them. However, I have struggled to find the motivation to do so. I went into the year with the goal of writing an essay a month; this was meant to push me to become a better writer and a better communicator of literature. I was able to produce a few essays and I am happy with them but I have not being able to push myself into producing more content. I really love my blog and I often see it as a place to store my writing, and normally I am unconcerned if I am not producing content but I went into this year with the goal to become a better writer.

I am not writing this as a way to get compliments; I can see that my writing has improved since beginning this blog, I am just reflecting on my situation. For me, I feel like there is much further I need to go before I am happy with my writing, although by the time I get there I might feel different. I never see this as a problem, I think it drives me to be better. One of my biggest challenges is writing momentum. I can sit down to write an essay with plenty of ideas in my head and they come flooding out, but I tend to get to about a thousand words and I have lost all steam. I would love to write longer pieces but it is a challenge. This is an issue I have had for a while and the situation is improving. When I first started blogging I struggled to get further than five hundred words. Most of my writing comes from a single typing frenzy but I still need to edit and clean up my work. I am trying to work on a way to allow myself to continue on a topic and write over multiple sessions but the beauty in writing essays is that I can practise my craft in short sessions.

I have so many ideas that I would like to get down on paper (or in my case on my blog). I would love to start writing my bibliomemoir, which I am still unsure if I should share with the world yet, but I feel like my reading journey is interesting and maybe writing it down would be beneficial for myself. It does not matter what comes of it but I think a project like this could be a good way to practise editing my own work. I have not talked much about my process but I know where my weaknesses are and that is in the editing/revising.

I also have not been writing many book reviews lately either. Not because I did not read anything, but because I want to step further away from them. I think reviews have become the backbone of my blog and while I know I should do more of them, my new focus is on personal essays. I have a list of books I would like to review at some point but I have shifted away from the need to review everything I read. I want to talk about literature, however I want to do it in a way that is less like a review. It may be that I feel restricted by the review format and I just need to approach them differently. If I call it an essay instead of a book review, I might feel like I have more freedom to write about the literature I have been reading.

Since I have been reflecting on my writing goal, I might as well do the same with my reading goals. In a previous post I mentioned that I wanted to push the percentage of books in translation to 50%. I am currently sitting at 53% books in translation (from 24 different countries) after completing 55 books so far. My other major reading goals included reading the five-book collection of Franz Kafka I have from Oxford World’s Classics; so far I have only progressed as far as re-reading The Trial. I also set out a list of books I would like to complete by the end of the year, which I have been making progress on, I just noticed that I have a tendency to be distracted by other books.

Statistics and goals help guide my reading and help me be focused but I have been beginning to wonder if it is more of a hindrance than a guide. Having re-read The Year of Reading Dangerously, I started to change the way I pick my books, I thought it might be better if I have a list of books to read next. I tried this with the book on my nightstand and it seemed to work until I got distracted by my local library, I think I need to return to this format. The idea was to have a collection of ten book on my nightstand and focus on reading those books. So that I am not being distracted by new books, or books on my shelves, instead just picking a small pile of books that I am interested in getting to soon and focus on those books. I know I am always distracted by other books, I just need discipline as well. My hope is to be able to plan my reading a little better.

Another part of me wants to abandon all reading plans and just read what I want to read. After the pleasure I got from re-reading The Trial, I have been picking up other books to re-read. I recently re-read The Sense of an Ending after watching the movie adaptation. The Bell Jar is sitting next to me as we speak waiting for me to pick up again. There are so many books I want to revisit and maybe if I had no goals, I could drift from book to book, just enjoying where my mood takes me, Project 5000 be damned.

This half of the year has been a great time to discover literature; I fell in love with Marguerite Duras, Muriel Spark, existentialism and books like Back to Moscow. I have had complicated feeling toward Toni Morrison after finally reading one of her books and I cannot stop thinking about a book that mostly bored me. I read some interesting non-fiction, including Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and I disagreed with the winner of the Man Booker International Prize. These are the joys of reading, you can have differing opinions or find joy in reading about unlikely subjects, like people drinking.

Moving into the next half of 2017, I am unsure where my writing or reading will take me. In fact this essay did not help me, it has left me with more questions than answers. In fact I did not even touch on my complex feelings towards booktube. Nevertheless, I hope there will be more content on my blog and more musings about literature in the future. I will leave you with my top five books of the first half of the year.

  1. The Lover by Marguerite Duras (translated by Barbara Bray)
  2. The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
  3. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
  4. Back to Moscow by Guillermo Erades
  5. The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark