The Seep

Now we’re out of my non-English vacation reading and back into English territory with The Seep, the Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club’s selection for October.

Straight off, I really liked The Seep. The only reason I didn’t finish it in one marathon session was because I started reading it in the middle of the night and exhaustion eventually overtook me. To get into slightly more detail, The Seep uses the framework of first-contact and utopia genres to examine grief, how it feels to be left behind by seismic shifts in society, and which struggles are worth having. It’s also very queer, very trippy, and very short: the perfect book for getting out of a reading slump.

Perfect, no notes.

La Gloire de mon père & Le château de ma mère

Marcel Pagnol’s Souvenirs d’enfance were burned into my memory at some point during my French studies—I watched Le Gloire de mon père for class, and I had an abridged or otherwise simplified edition of the book for course literature (that I don’t think I ever actually read, and that I definitely didn’t hold on to). Trying to track them down at the library or at the handful of international bookstores I knew of in Stockholm never got me anywhere. Nor did I think to check at Språkbokhandeln, the absolute treasure trove nestled in Lund, when I was there in 2020. It all worked out, though, because I can’t think of a better souvenir (hah) from Paris: one book from each bookstore we visited!

I packed both books for vacation and assumed that would keep me well occupied, but to my surprise I absolutely tore through each book in little over a day. Usually my reading experiences in French require frequent dictionary breaks just to follow what’s going on (George Sand, Simone de Beauvoir), but Pagnol did me favor and kept it relatively simple—even with all of the terminology for wildlife and hunting, I could keep up with the story. Dictionary breaks could wait until a re-read.

La Gloire de mon père was also a welcome counterbalance to the despair in Världen av i går. Pagnol was Zweig’s junior by fourteen years or so; reading the two alongside each other meant I was getting a bit of a Cubist portrait of turn-of-the-century Europe, two different perspectives presented simultaneously.  The years in Berlin and Paris that Zweig writes about with the nerves of a young man were merely the warm and happy days of Pagnol’s childhood in Marseilles.

I got too cocky, though, and rushed ahead through Le Château de ma mère, which is just as drenched in sunshine and nostalgia as its predecessor…until the very last chapter, which is when it collides with the grim realities Zweig depicts in Världen av i går. A lot of crying, this vacation! Turns out I didn’t really pack as much light reading as I thought I had.

According to English Wikipedia, Pagnol is considered a bit old-fashioned and passé these days, but since I’m not French that context was completely lost on me. To an extent it’s also pretty on brand for me, anyway, considering I’ve been well behind the times for basically my entire life.

The two are collected in a single volume, both translations from Rita Barisse that were more or less contemporary with the original publication in French. Have there been more recent ones? Is it any good? Who knows!

Världen av i går & Amok

It seems I followed much of the rest of the world, or if not the world then just one friend of mine in particular, in reaching for Die Welt von Gestern in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. But since my arbitrary rule of translations is to read German originals in Swedish rather than in English, I had to wait until I came across a Swedish translation (and it never seemed to be available at the library when I remembered to check). Six years later, it appeared in front of me at Söderbokhandeln Hansson & Bruce. I took it with me for vacation reading, and while I was browsing Hubenettes in Östersund I happened to notice Zweig’s novella collection Amok on the shelves. Since they’re the same author and I read them in such close succession, collapsing them into a single blog-thought makes sense.

Amok is not any deliberate assemblage of Zweig’s or time-honored collection that’s seen international release in several languages.  Instead, it’s a collection from Ersatz Förlag, only available in Swedish, featuring “The Royal Game,” “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman,” “Confusion,” “A Girl and the Weather,” and “Amok.”

The World of Yesterday, on the other hand, is available in several English translations: one from titan among translators Anthea Bell, which seems to be the translation put out by Pushkin Press; one from Plunkett Lake Press attributed to B. W. Huebsch and Helmut Ripperger; and finally a translation from Robert Boettcher independently published through Amazon.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Zweig doesn’t really discuss his own writing much in Världen av i går, at least from a personal perspective on the process. The only time he addresses the craft of writing more or less head on, he toots his own horn and talks up how one of his strengths as a writer is his ability to murder his darlings and stick to only the most essential elements of a story. After the five stories included in Amok, I have to disagree, but maybe that’s a factor of changing times and literary conventions.

Women are essentially invisible in Zweig’s depiction of Europe in general and of his life in particular. Not surprising for the content or the times, so I’m not exactly mad about it. Nonetheless, it’s worth pointing out that Zweig’s first wife (who only gets two incidental mentions in Världen av i går, one of which is when Zweig is trying to divorce her) undertook a significant chunk of research and administration for him; his second wife (whose only mention is in the same breath as the aforementioned divorce) had originally been his secretary. Amazing how being able to outsource drudgery and life maintenance frees you up to be a highly productive writer!

The same lack of women more or less applies to the stories in Amok, which are all deeply anchored in a first-person perspective from a male narrator. Even “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman” uses a male narrator to frame the story of the woman in question—a frame that I don’t see much narrative use for. Of course, Amok only contains five novellas out of a substantial body of work; such a limited selection is hardly indicative of an entire body of writing. I just wish there had been more thought on the publisher’s part about which stories to select.

Overall, I was touched by Zweig’s humanity and empathy, which was just as much on show in the above stories as it was in his memoirs. They are all deeply psychological, character-driven narratives rooted in human struggles, suffering, and resilience. But in all honesty, his knack for characterization is actually on better display in Världen av i går than in most of the stories in Amok. Zweig’s sketches of his contemporaries are precise and cutting, unambiguously sympathetic to the person involved but clear-eyed about their flaws or failures. The characters in the stories collected in Amok, on the other hand, are muddier and harder to pin down. I cried at some point in every chapter of Världen av i går, but I shed no tears over any story in Amok.

The reason I was so unmoved by, and ultimately a bit disappointed in, Zweig’s fiction might be the same reason I could lose myself so easily in his memoirs: they are a product of a specific time. Sympathy for an amorous widow scorned by a younger lover, or for a closeted gay English literature professor, might well have been scandalous or at least unusual upon publication in the 1920s, but close to a century later those stories are fairly tame and predictable. So the wheel turns; with any luck, in another hundred years, stories like “I Sexually Identify As an Attack Helicopter” will seem confusing or just banal because we’ll live in a better world where fluid gender identities are a matter of course. While Världen av i går might as well be subtitled “Plus ça change,” stories like “Confusion” with their now-dated and unremarkable plot twists make you realize that things can get better.

Dvärgen

When I did my semester abroad at Stockholm University, I took a course in modern Swedish literature (offered in English, since our Swedish wasn’t much more advanced than “En stor stark, tack!”). It was by far the best literature course of my undergrad career, in large part because of the excellent reading list. The course literature included Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist, which made such a strong impression on me that I started building a small library of his books as soon as I moved to Sweden.

As I write this, I realize that I have to start almost every review here with some kind of explanation as to either how I came to hear of a book, or why I chose to read it, or both. I guess context is important to me. Here, for example, you can (rightly) infer that I went into this book biased and well-disposed towards Lagerkvist, and now you can (rightly) expect that I liked it. Now I can dispense with the pointless formality and hubris of passing judgment on a well-established classic and just ramble a bit. My point here isn’t to encourage—or discourage—anyone from picking up something relatively new and/or obscure. I just want to remember what I read and, in this case, present worthy Swedish books to my English-speaking friends. Lagerkvist was a huge international hit in his lifetime but he seems to have returned to mere domestic fame; these days Sweden’s entries in world literature appear to be limited to Strindberg and Nordic noir, which I feel is deeply unfair. Fortunately, it’s my understanding that there is an English translation of Dvärgen available and that it is of excellent quality, so you don’t have to miss out on this one.

Anyway! Dvärgen is simply the diary of a court dwarf in Renaissance Italy, spanning maybe six months to a year for the bulk of the action. It includes war, assassinations, intrigue, plague, famine and all the rest through the eyes of said unnamed dwarf, a character that literary criticism has near unanimously described as “evil incarnate.” That’s the interpretation I was thinking about after I finished the book. Is the narrator really meant to be as much?

I don’t ask the question to “woobify” him, as the expression goes—to turn a clearly morally corrupt character into a sympathetic and victimized hero. While his role as as servant means he’s often acting on behalf of others, the dwarf also carries out several actions on his own initiative, motivated by rage and sadism. Nor is there any attempt to make him appealing or “likeable,” like a secret fondness for animals or sensitivity to music. He finds all of the nobler human emotions and pursuits abhorrent or ridiculous; the only things he confesses to enjoying are war, violence, and bloodshed. The extent of the sympathy evoked for him is the absolutely dehumanizing treatment he receives from just about everyone around him. Stepping back, we can also of course point out that we are reading his own diary and account of himself, which is naturally how he wants to be experienced and how he is choosing to present himself, but that is an ambiguous point we can, at best, only infer. I’m sure there’s been more than one thesis already about the role of toxic masculinity and ableism in forming his character.

Rather, I ask the question because just as much of the evil in the book—if not most of it—is someone else’s doing. The prince decides to go to war entirely of his own volition, without consulting the dwarf at all. Likewise, when war proves fruitless, he decides to lure the enemy into an assassination with promises of peace and free trade. The dwarf might be the one to serve the enemy poisoned wine at the celebratory dinner, but he does so only at the order of the prince. And while the dwarf decides of his own accord to inform the prince of the tryst between the enemy prince’s son and the prince’s own daughter, the prince is the one who, in a fit of impetuous rage, murders the young man in his sleep.

Moreover, if we are to take the dwarf at his word, the fear and distaste that people express when they encounter him is nothing more than fear and distaste for what lurks inside themselves. Is this an observation that the reader is meant to take seriously? Or are we to understand that this is projection or warped thinking on behalf of the narrator, and that his claims of true insight and understanding are just so much bloviating?

Life is ambiguous, art is ambiguous, there are no easy answers. Even the ending is ambivalent: yes, the dwarf is in prison and peace seems to reign in the kingdom, but the connection between those two situations is unclear. Does the dwarf have such a supernaturally evil presence that peace cannot be achieved until he is disposed of? Or is the prince genuinely a changed man after facing political and personal consequences for his ambition, and the dwarf’s imprisonment merely an incidental fact following the death of the prince’s wife? The text supports both; the text chooses neither. The unanswered question.

Bellwether

I picked up Bellwether entirely on a whim. I was at The English Bookshop in Stockholm with time to kill and I recognized Connie Willis’s name from The Doomsday Book, which I had enjoyed immensely in high school. Chaos theory? Sheep? Sure, why not!

Bellwether by Connie Willis
Image courtesy Bantam Books

I don’t quite regret reading this, since Willis is a wordsmith par exellence and the story itself is breezy and cute. Our narrator is a scientist at your generic corporate research lab, researching fads and their causes. A series of events lead her to meet and collaborate with another scientist focusing on chaos theory. There’s a lot of snark, a lot of mishaps, but eventually our heroine winds up with her hero, wins the grant, and comes to a breakthrough in her fad research, all in one fell swoop. It’s a science fiction screwball comedy.

But Bellwether is also a very dated book. A brash young person once asked Connie Willis to put out her cigarette in the 90s and she decided to write a whole book about it. Okay, I can’t know that happened, but it sure seems like it. Willis’s bile for The Youths and the anti-smoking movement, at first incidental in the story, become pervasive and inescapable through lines that make a lighthearted romantic comedy much less palatable. (I complained about this to my boyfriend, who was willing to cut Willis some slack…but then he picked up the book and opened to a random page and immediately lighted upon a rant about smoke-free environments. “Oh, I see what you mean.”) The Youths see some redemption in the end, from a narrative perspective, but the rage and incidental conflicts stemming from smoke-free workplaces are entirely irrelevant to the plot. And the rage is palpable.

Nor has time been kind to that particular element of the book. The narrator (and, presumably, Willis) write off the anti-smoking movement as a fad on par with Kewpie dolls or prohibition, which is a weird thing to read 25 years later, now that fewer people smoke and that the anti-smoking public health campaign seems to have made a permanent cultural difference. It’s enough to make me wish that someone would put out a revised edition of Bellwether with all the screeds about not being allowed to smoke edited out. More than Power Rangers, fax machines, or Barney, that’s what dates the book the most, and is the one thing that keeps me from recommending the book wholeheartedly. It’s not hurtful or offensive, it’s just embarrassing. Go read Doomsday Book instead, it makes a much better first impression.

The Left Hand of Darkness

Once in a while I like to revisit things I hated when I was younger, usually in the form of either books or food. Sometimes I leave with my aversion even more fully cemented (still hate ham, still hate Nightwood) and sometimes I discover that my palate has sophisticated in the intervening years.

Ursula K. Le Guin was one of those authors, to my shame as a science fiction fan. My first encounter with her was when I was too young and too impatient to really appreciate the complexity of what she was doing: I had to read The Tombs of Atuan for an extracurricular reading event in middle school. I didn’t enjoy the experience, to the point where I gave up midway through the book—unusual for me, especially at that age. A few years later I gave The Dispossessed a try. It was a fancy edition from the Science Fiction Classics series put out by Easton Press, with leather binding and shiny gold trim. Despite the luxurious trappings, once again my brain wasn’t having it.

But this tale has a happy ending! Well into adulthood, the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club picked The Dispossessed and I liked it just fine. Maybe my prefrontal cortex just needed to finish developing. Who knows.

And here’s the happy postscript to the above happy ending. The two founding members of the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club were married in 2021 and, as a sort of long-distance wedding favor, sent all of their originally intended guests random science fiction paperbacks that one or both of them had really liked. This is how I came into possession of The Left Hand of Darkness.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
Image courtesy Ace Books

There is a lot of intrigue in The Left Hand of Darkness, and from what I recall in The Dispossessed as well, and maybe that’s what kept my brain from taking to Le Guin to begin with. I’m a simple creature, naive and without guile. All of the political maneuvering in both books is lost on me, but I can still enjoy the complexity of the societies Le Guin creates, whether it’s anarchist collectives of Anarres or the ambisexual population of Winter. And considering our shifting and broadening cultural understanding of gender, The Left Hand of Darkness is a particularly apt example to revisit right now.

Gösta Berlings saga

It took several months, but I finally finished Gösta Berlings saga. I read it years ago in English; now it was time for Swedish. The only problem is that when you read dense Swedish for most of your work day, there’s not a lot of brain left over for dense Swedish for fun. As a result it took me much longer than it normally would to finish a book of this length and linguistic heft. (Not to compare the quality of writing in a Selma Lagerlöf novel to that of a financial report!)

Cover of Gösta Berlings saga by Selma Lagerlöf
Image courtesy Ansgar Forlag

It’s Gösta Berlings saga, it’s good, the end. What’s more interesting about the book is how many English translations there are. The English translation I originally read was the 1918 edition put out by the American-Scandinavian Foundation, which is essentially Lillie Tudeer’s translation with supplemental material from Velma Swanston Howard, and I remember it as a bit of a slog. I can’t put my finger on it, except to say that it felt very dull and dead. But there have since been three other translations and I thought it would be fun to look at how they all handle that iconic opening line.

The original:

Äntligen stod prästen på predikstolan.*

Or Äntligen stod prästen i predikstolan, depending on which edition you’ve read. Mine is from 1920, so rather than i.

The Lillie Tudeer translation (1894):

The pastor was mounting the pulpit steps.

This is obviously, at a bare minimum, not particularly faithful to the original.

The Pauline Bancroft Flanch translation (1898):

At last the minister stood in the pulpit.

Already we’re much closer to the original.

The Robert Bly translation (1962):

At last the minister stood in the pulpit.

This translation is not a wholly new work but an edited and revised version of the Flanch translation, so not at all surprising it’s identical to the previous one.

The Paul Norlen translation (2009):

At long last the minister stood in the pulpit.

This translation is an entirely new work, and straightaway we have a little extra flavor in the text.

Since I’m writing this in English, I suppose I should leave off with a recommendation for which translation to pick up. Well, it goes without saying that I’d give a pass on the omnipresent Dover Thrift Edition or any other version of Lillie Tudeer’s translation. I’m the most curious now about Paul Norlen’s translation, though I have an all-or-nothing brain and so will probably burn through all three of the other versions in short order anyway.

Wise Child

Someone in one of the more obscure online corners I haunt was waxing nostalgic about Monica Furlong’s Wise Child a few months ago. My interest was piqued, since it sounded like something I would have loved as a middle schooler, and luckily I was able to find a copy without much trouble at all.

Cover of Wise Child by Monica Furlong
Image courtesy Alfred A. Knopf

After the death of her grandmother and without other family who can support her, the eponymous nine-year-old protagonist in Wise Child is taken in by Juniper, the village cailleach. Over the course of the book, Juniper helps Wise Child transform from a bit of a brat into someone more considerate, thoughtful and self-sufficient. She also teaches Wise Child the healing arts and some of the basics of magic to prepare her for becoming a witch, what Juniper calls a doran.

The comparison that immediately springs to mind is to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. There is certainly a fantastical element but, like Cooper, Furlong keeps the magic grounded in Scottish folklore (or at least appears to, I’m no expert). The prose is a delight to read, even as an adult. Furlong also has an informed understanding of everyday life in medieval Scotland, always specific in her description of foods, textiles, and buildings. This isn’t hand-wavey Ren Faire style Ye Olde Europe.

Unlike The Dark is Rising, and most other fantasy novels, the story in Wise Child is fairly low stakes. The conflict is entirely interpersonal—rivalry between Juniper and Wise Child’s mother, Maeve; the village priest’s animosity towards Juniper. That’s all pretty small potatoes compared to the thousand years of darkness, hurricanes a-blowin’ and rivers overflowin’, cats and dogs living together mass hysteria you usually expect in the genre. This probably accounts for the difference between the distinct characterization of Wise Child versus the sort of bland everyman (everyboy?) of Will Stanton in The Dark is Rising. When you’re coming up against the end of the world, the drama overshadows the characters and flattens them. But for interpersonal conflicts and personal development, you need nuanced, layered characters.

I don’t know how I missed this gem as a child. I would have seen a lot of myself in the awkward and precocious Wise Child, I’m sure. As an adult, it was refreshing to dip my toe back in the kind of middle grade reading that wasn’t trying to stealth market to adults (what’s up Young Adult) but that also didn’t condescend to its younger demographic. Wise Child was exactly the light summer reading I needed in a world that’s going up in flames.

Sisters of the Vast Black

Sisters of the Vast Black was a long-time suggestion from one member of the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Club and it finally made it to the agenda for our July meeting last Sunday.

Sisters of the Vast Black cover art
Image courtesy Tor

Science fiction is usually pretty critical of religion, especially contemporary established religions like Roman Catholicism, so it’s interesting to see a book take it seriously. Not so much for its cosmology or morality, but for the importance it plays in people’s lives, the good it can inspire them to do, and the soft power it can wield in the name of international (or in this case, interstellar) relations and colonization.

Sisters follows a small spaceship of nuns who find themselves caught up in political intrigue, with a potent biological weapon (and its cure) at stake. Also, their ship is a giant sentient slug who has suddenly imprinted on a mate and needs to change course drastically. And because they’re nuns, of course there’s at least one crisis of faith and a character on the run from a very sinister past.

This was a fun read because the world was so creative and rife with interesting thought experiments, but in the end there were a few too many ideas crammed into the space of one novella. (Rather mentions in her acknowledgments that this started as a short story, which must have been very crowded indeed!) A longer book, or fewer plot threads, would have allowed Rather to give each idea the consideration it deserves and to tie everything together a bit more seamlessly. Maybe the sequel will do just that.

A Waiter in Paris

I’m back from a whirlwind vacation in Paris, my first-ever trip to The Continent proper. I quickly realized that tourism in The City of Light leans a great deal on its literary history: the exclusive, posh Bar Hemingway at the Ritz Paris; the ascension of Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore into sightseeing destinations; the queue to get into Shakespeare and Company. This isn’t a post about my vacation, though. It’s about a book I bought (and read) in Paris. I mention Paris and my vacation because that’s the only reason this book fell into my lap. I was unaware of it, wasn’t looking for it, and wasn’t necessarily intending to ever read it.

Cover of the UK edition of A Waiter in Paris
Image courtesy Monoray

Even though my travel companions and I stopped by Shakespeare and Company shortly after it opened for the day on a Thursday, the store was already crowded. Between the jostles and the bumps of people, and the knowledge that there was likely a queue building outside, it was hard to get into the mindset of leisurely browsing the books. In the stress of the moment I decided to focus on getting something either in French or about Paris, rather than something I could buy any old time. Et voilà: A Waiter in Paris.

Edward Chisholm and his girlfriend move from London to Paris and he decides, for nebulous “I’m going to prove something to myself” reasons, to become a waiter. A Waiter in Paris is his account of an eight-month stint at a fashionable bistro and a book-length expansion on his 2013 piece for the New York Times, “Notes from a Parisian Kitchen.” (Link is to an unpaywalled PDF version for your ease of reading.) Less generously, it’s an overly self-serious version of Rob McKittrick’s 2005 comedy Waiting.

A Waiter in Paris has glowing reviews everywhere. Publishers Weekly, Radio New Zealand…even the 3-star reviews on GoodReads are still faintly positive. Most of them seem spellbound by one, or both, of the following:

  1. Chisholm’s depiction of the labor conditions in a French bistro
  2. Chisholm’s observations of French (or at least Parisian) society

While I won’t fault reviewers who haven’t lived or worked in Paris, I’m concerned that anyone in the Year of Our Lord 2022 could be genuinely shocked and appalled at restaurant labor practices. Did anyone writing these reviews ever work a service job?

Bereft of the one-two punch of “working class tourism” and “cultural observations,” there isn’t much left of interest in A Waiter in Paris. Chisholm’s writing is fluid and readable, certainly, but there are a couple tics he has that border on purple prose (overblown Greek mythological allusions) or just plain “trying too hard” (too many attempts to work “liberté, égalité, fraternité” references into the narrative). He also cites Down and Out in Paris and London as a major influence, which—never remind people in the middle of your own book that there’s a better one they could be reading instead. You’re only going to invite an unfavorable comparison.

The unfavorable comparison in this case is that Chisholm could learn a thing or two from Orwell about narrative distance and detachment. Down and Out leaves plenty of room for the other people Orwell encounters, while A Waiter is essentially The Edward Chisholm Story, with his fellow restaurant staff as background characters. This reaches its peak in a couple episodes that have a very powerful r/ThatHappened vibe. Not that I doubt they happened, but rather that they serve no purpose in the book except as evidence that the other waiters like Chisholm, maybe even see something special in him.

And that’s kind of where it falls apart for me. Underneath the razzle-dazzle, it’s just The Edward Chisholm Story, and Chisholm is, demographically speaking, exactly the kind of guy I went to college with—the kind of guy reading this book to begin with. A kind of guy with which I’m well familiar by this point. The real interesting part is the other people working in the bistro, but at the end of the day we don’t get all that much about any of them.

Of course, eight months isn’t exactly long enough to build enough trust with someone to find out their life story. Especially in a chaotic atmosphere like a restaurant where there’s not necessarily a lot of downtime to make smalltalk, and when you haven’t yet mastered your French, and when people will come and go at random. But whatever part of personal biography you can’t access or divulge, you can make up for by providing larger context and history, even if a nutshell version, and there’s nothing of that in here. What conflict was our Tamil Freedom Fighter actually involved in? What’s the prevailing French attitude towards the Portuguese? Are there historical or social reasons the Maghrebi waiter is so (seemingly hypocritically) dismissive of les africanes? The intersection of politics and history in the kitchen of just about every restaurant in Paris (and probably in most of Europe, if not the world) is a great lens through which to examine colonization and globalization. Missed opportunity, in other words.

At the end of the day, though, it was the writing that put me off A Waiter in Paris more than anything else. I’ll close out my thoughts by returning to that aspect of it, because this was the most damning aspect of all.

There is a sort of arch tone that expats take in their writing, including yours truly. (I’m the guiltiest of all.) On one hand, we make evident our limitations by conceding we don’t speak the language well enough yet, or loudly bemoaning that this or that thing is utterly opaque or impenetrable to us. But on the other hand, we relish the idea of others considering us insiders or experts, since from their perspective that’s exactly what we are, and so we continue to hold forth. Maybe I recognized too much of myself—or projected too much of myself—in the writing and in my imaginary version of Chisholm to really enjoy the book.

In other words: “It’s not you, it’s me.”