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World fiction reading challenge #6: The Piano Teacher, Elfriede Jelinek

Yes, I know; this is neither the sixth month of the year, nor the sixth book I’ve read for this year’s reading challenge. In fact, the challenge has not been going very well. I got bogged down in Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red back in March, so gave up on it and moved onto Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter, which I read a month late (see here). Then I got bogged down again, but this time in Javier Marías’ Fever and Spear… And that threw me off my schedule completely – so much so that I’ve only just read June’s book, The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, in September…

I know the story from Michael Haneke’s excellent 2001 film adaptation, and reading the novel on which a great film is based is always a hostage to fortune. Typically, books are better than the films made of them, but when the film itself is so good… Happily, the novel proved to be noticeably different to the film; unhappily, it proved a less satisfying read than the film is a viewing experience.

Erika Kohut is a piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory. She lives with her mother, a controlling, shrewish woman. But Erika’s prim and proper demeanour hides a secret – in the evenings, she sneaks about the city, visiting peep shows and spying on prostitutes going about their business. She buys expensive clothing, which makes her mother furious as they’re supposed to be saving for a bigger and more modern apartment, but never wears it.

And then one of Erika’s students, Walter Klemmer, finds himself attracted to his teacher, and sets about seducing her. But she responds by telling him exactly how he is to woo her – it involves bondage and humiliation – but he’s not so sure he can cope with her demands. He wants to be in control, he must be in control.

The Piano Teacher was first published in 1986 in Austria, as Die Klavierspielerin, and first published in English in 1988. The edition I read, published in 2010 by Serpent’s Tail, appears to use the original Weidenfeld & Nicolson translation from 1988, which means a lot of it has been translated into idiomatic American English. It doesn’t feel right. I’ve come across this before, when a novel translated into English uses American vernacular when it’s quite clearly not set in the US nor has American characters. There must be other ways to signal that the original was written in the demotic without resorting to clichés that only apply in the US and which often date quickly.

None of this is helped by Jelinek’s propensity to jump from metaphor to metaphor within a single paragraph. It feels like a lack of control over her material, yet in all other respects Jelinek’s prose is so tightly-written and brusque that it’s plain control is one of her chief strengths. Other elements of her style I found less problematic – dialogue, for example, is not always indicated by speech marks, and is sometimes only reported. The narrative remains tightly-focused on its three main characters – Erika, her mother, and Walter – and makes for a claustrophobic read. None of the central trio are at all sympathetic. The mother is quite horrible, Walter is the embodiment of youthful male arrogance, and even Erika herself feels damaged.

The Piano Teacher is not a comfortable read, just as Haneke’s film is not comfortable viewing. It’s a book that’s easier to admire than to like. I didn’t take to it as I did to Szabó’s The Door (see here), but I do think I’d like to read more Jelinek.


World fiction reading challenge #4: So Long A Letter, Mariama Bâ

The more observant among you will have noticed there’s no third installment in this year’s reading challenge. That’s because March’s book was My Name is Red by Orham Pamuk and I got stuck about halfway into it. At some point I plan to return to it, but for now I’m giving it a rest. I can’t really say why I lost interest so comprehensively in the book, especially since its topic is something that normally interests me: Islamic history (albeit Turkish rather than Arabic). After reading Magda Szabó’s The Door in February, I wrote, “Two books in and already this year’s reading challenge is shaping up to be one of the best I’ve done.” Clearly, I spoke too soon…

Anyway, April’s book, which I read late, is So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ, a Sengalese writer. In fact, So Long a Letter won the first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa in 1980, and was later called one of Africa’s Best 100 Books of the 20th Century by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. So Long A Letter was originally published in French as Une Si Longue Lettre, and was Bâ’s first novel. It was also the only one she saw in print. She died in 1981, five years before her second novel, Scarlet Song, was published.

So Long A Letter is a short book of 95 pages. Ramatoulaye is a schoolteacher and the wife of Modou. He has just died and she is now in mourning. During this period, she writes to her closest friend, Aissatou, and recounts her life – much of which involves episodes involving Aissatou. The epistolary structure allows for greater intimacy, but the fact that Ramataoulaye is telling Aissatou of events which her friend herself directly experienced does seem to spoil the effect somewhat.

Though Ramatoulaye is an educated woman – Bâ herself had to fight her parents to be educated – I’m guessing much of her life is not atypical for a Sengalese wife and mother. Such as, for instance, her husband taking up with a younger woman and marrying her – in fact, not a “woman”, but a school friend of Ramatoulaye’s oldest daughter. Also, the declaration after the funeral by Modou’s brother that he will marry Ramatoulaye – ie, “inherit” her. She turns him down. Which is not typical. In fact, Ramatoulaye is adamant she will remain single now that she is widowed. When Daouda Dieng,a past suitor from before she married Modou, asks for her hand in marriage, she also turns him down. Neither the brother-in-law nor Daouda take their rejections well.

A lot of the novel concerns the family connections of the cast. Aissatou’s marriage was considered controversial because she came from a less affluent family than her husband. Likewise, when Ramatoulaye’s oldest daughter wants to marry an impoverished student, friends of the family try to persuade Ramatoulaye to prevent it. Ramatoulaye, however, knows that her daughter loves the man, and that’s good enough for her.

There are one or two moments of outright racism:

Right from Form One, he had been top of his class in this subject; but this year for every capital letter forgotten, for a few commas omitted, for a misspelt word, his teacher knocks off one or two marks. Because of this, Jean-Claude, a white boy who has always come second, has moved up to first position. The teacher cannot tolerate a black coming first in philosophy. (p 76)

The story is filled with details of life among the Sengalese, both as Muslims and as Sengalese. At one point, Daouda delivers a lecture on the importance of true democracy in a newly-formed nation (Senegal gained independence in 1960), and though he rues the male dominance of the Assembly and admits they need more women in government, his suit to Ramatoulaye seems to expect a much more traditional “partnership”. There is also much about polygamy and its effect on women involved; not to mention their huge families – Ramatoulaye herself has twelve children.

So Long A Letter is, unsurprisingly, a very reflective novel, and it is likely it is partly auto-biographical. Though only a slim book, it does an excellent job of painting Ramatoulaye, her life and the society in which she lives. It’s a classic for good reason. I’m not so sure the story quite leads to the final paragraph – various incidents recounted in So Long A Letter demonstrate that Ramatoulaye has both witnessed the happiness of others, actively worked towards it for yet more, and even experienced it herself during the early days of her marriage:

The word ‘happiness’ does indeed have meaning, doesn’t it? I shall go out in search of it. Too bad for me if once again I have to write you so long a letter… (p 95)

So Long A Letter was a good choice for my reading challenge. I’m glad I read it. I might even one day have a go at Bâ’s other novel, Scarlet Song.


World fiction reading challenge #2: The Door, Magda Szabó

Two books in and already this year’s reading challenge is shaping up to be one of the best I’ve done. The Fat Years (see here) may have been an unsatisfactory novel but it was a fascinating read. The Door by Magda Szabó is from Hungary, and is similar to last month’s read in that its story is intertwined with the history of its native country. It is also a fascinating read and an excellent novel.

The unnamed narrator of The Door is a thinly-veiled portrait of Szabó herself, but The Door is about the old woman, Emerence, who the “lady writer” takes on as a housecleaner. The novel follows this relationship during the years of the Kádár regime, or “Goulash Communism”, from 1956 to 1989. There is a state funeral mentioned at the end of the novel, but the deceased is never named. I did wonder if was Kádár himself, but some of the details mentioned in the novel don’t quite add up, and the chronology is not exact. I know almost nothing about Hungarian history – although I have now read the Wikipedia articles on the topic – but I suspect the identity of the person would be plain to a Hungarian reader.

But all this is by the by. The Door is about Emerence. She is a fascinating character. One newspaper review of the book described her as the sort of person which communism saw as its ideal citizen. She is uneducated but possesses a sharp natural intelligence. She’s unafraid of speaking her mind, and indeed fearless in her relations with the authorities. She is fixed on living her life according to her own rules. She is generous and open-hearted to a fault, but unforgiving of fools or those who disappoint her. The door of the title is the front door of the flat in which she lives and through which only a handful of people have ever passed. Emerence guards her household and privacy with fierceness.

During the twenty years over which the novel is set, the lady writer’s career takes off, though her life-style does not change. She is awarded prizes, appears on television, and is even invited to a writer’s conference in Greece as the Hungarian representative. Throughout all this, her husband – who remains unnamed – also writes but no mention is made of his career. In fact, it is his ill-health which drives part of the plot of the novel.

Emerence and the lady writer argue a lot, and often fly into rages. These sudden attacks of anger were quite strange initially, as the characters felt far too volatile to be entirely credible. Perhaps it is Hungarian character – I’m not familiar with it. But then we British are known for our reserve, so it’s likely just my perspective. Whatever the explanation, as the story progressed the less remarkable it became. As Emerence and the narrator grow closer, so Emerence reveals snippets from her life. Some of this goes toward her explaining her character. It is the lady writer’s betrayal of Emerence which brings the story to a close – and I had to wonder if the relationship is perhaps a symbol of something wider, something a Hungarian reader would recognise.

Emerence is one of those great characters you often find in literature. She is as mysterious as she is carefully drawn, and it is the slow revealing of the pieces which go to make up her personality that are the real strength of The Door. The remaining cast, many of which are not named, are also well-drawn, but The Door is about Emerence and is Emerence. I really liked this book.

Magda Szabó is one of Hungary’s most popular and lauded writers, but Imre Kertész is the only Hungarian to have been awarded the Nobel Prize, in 2002. The British translation by Len Rix of The Door won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize in 2006, and the book was also short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. A film of the book, directed by István Szabó (no relation), will be released this year, with Helen Mirren in the role of Emerence. Here’s the sales reel:



World fiction reading challenge #1: The Fat Years, Chan Koonchung

I know very little about China and almost nothing about its literature or literary tradition. So a book from the country seemed a natural choice for my reading challenge this year. And since Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years had recently been gaining notices, appeared to be sf masquerading as mainstream fiction, and was about, and set in, China, then it seemed the perfect book to choose.

Having read The Fat Years, I now know more about China and her recent history. I suspect I still know almost nothing about Chinese literary tradition, however, because The Fat Years is in many respects constructed like a Western novel. Except it also isn’t. More on that later.

The novel opens in 2013. Old Chen, a novelist and journalist, is a Taiwanese resident of Beijing. He is, like many middle-class Chinese, happy and contented. Suspiciously so, in fact. Further, the entire country – including the rural population – appears to be happier and more successful than they can previously remember. While the rest of the world suffers from a financial crisis, China is the happiest nation on Earth.

But not everyone is so contented. One or two people feel this happiness is artificial. It also seems to have come about after the events of February 2011, when the global economy crashed. Except there is no official record of that month. The economy crashed, and China’s “Age of Ascendancy” began – at the same time, according to the records. Old Chen finds himself dragged into a hunt for the missing month, which eventually leads him to the reason for China’s unnatural happiness. This he learns after he and some friends have kidnapped a Party leader Old Chen knows. The Party leader explains it all.

As a novel, The Fat Years is far from satisfactory. Chen meanders about, meeting friends and acquaintances, but not actually driving the plot forward. And the dénouement is one big info-dump delivered by the Party leader. According to a translator’s note, it is this last section which is of most interest to Chinese readers – chiefly because of its criticisms of Chinese society and government. Myself, I found the frequent asides and info-dumps on China’s twentieth-century history the most fascinating aspect of the book. I was even inspired to read up on some aspects on Wikipedia.

I’m glad I read The Fat Years and it is an interesting novel. But it’s also not an especially good one. It is its subject which fascinates, rather than its story or the presentation of its subject.


The 2012 challenge

I decided last month that 2012’s reading challenge would be world fiction, and particularly fiction from countries whose literature I had not read before. I asked for, and received, a number of suggested titles. Some I already had on my wants list; one or two I even have on the TBR pile. Using those suggestions, and one or two titles I had my eye on, I put together a list of books for the challenge. It went like this:

1 The Fat Years, Chan Koonchung (China)
2 Fever and Spear, Javier Marías (Spain)
3 My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (Turkey)
4 Jamilia, Chinghiz Aitmatov (Kyrgyzstan)
5 Xala: A Novel, Ousmane Sembène (Senegal)
6 Impossible Stories, Zoran Živković (Serbia)
7 Correction, Thomas Bernhard (Austria)
8 The Famished Road, Ben Okri (Nigeria)
9 The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry, Assia Djebar (Algeria)
10 Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina)
11 One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia)
12 The War of the End of the World, Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru)

A good mix, I thought. Three each from Europe, Africa and South America, two from the Near East, and one from the Far East. (I’ve read a number of Arabic writers, so I’m discounting them from this challenge).

And then I looked at the list again and discovered something was wrong with it. There was only a single female writer among the twelve: Assia Djebar from Algeria.

So it was back to the drawing-board. After some research on Wikipedia and Amazon, I came up with an alternative list:

1 The Fat Years, Chan Koonchung (China)
2 Fever and Spear, Javier Marías (Spain)
3 My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (Turkey)
4 The War of the End of the World, Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru)
5 Jamilia, Chinghiz Aitmatov (Kyrgyzstan)
6 The Famished Road, Ben Okri (Nigeria)
7 The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry, Assia Djebar (Algeria)
8 The Piano Teacher, Elfriede Jelinek (Austria)
9 The Door, Magda Szabó (Hungary)
10 The Butcher’s Wife, Li Ang (Taiwan)
11 So Long a Letter, Mariama Bâ (Senegal)
12 The Ship of Fools, Cristina Peri Rossi (Uruguay)

The list is now half female and half male, and still maintains a nice global spread. There are three titles each from Europe and Africa, and two each from the Near East, Far East and South America.

As in previous years, each month I will read one of the books from the list, and then I’ll write about it. Hopefully, I’ll manage to stick to the schedule, which is something I’ve failed to do several times in the past.


2012: a challenge

I have decided on my challenge for 2012. It will be world fiction. Each month, I will read a book written by an author who is a native of a country whose literature I’ve not read before. Unfortunately, these will have to be books published in English. While I might be able to puzzle my way through novels written in some languages, that would a) take me more than a month per book, and b) limit my choices to fiction from countries many of whom I’ve already read…

To date, I’ve read fiction from the following countries:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Egypt
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • India
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Lebanon
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Palestine
  • Poland
  • Russia
  • South Africa
  • Sudan
  • Sweden
  • UAE
  • UK
  • US
  • Yemen

I’m now looking for suggestions for novels from authors from countries not listed above. Any genre. But not books that are too huge. Fortunately, I’ve already at least one Chilean author, so while I do own a copy of Robert Bolaño’s 2666, I can read it at my leisure and not for this challenge.

So, get suggesting away. It would be nice if the books were readily available in the UK – either new or second-hand. And I’d probably sooner they weren’t from Anglophone countries. I’d also like a diverse list, covering as much of the globe as possible.


2012 challenge

It’s time I started thinking about what my reading challenge will be for next year. Put simply, each month I read a book from a list of a dozen and then blog about it. In the past, I’ve done my favourite sf novels, classic literary writers I’ve not read before, the first books of epic fantasy series, sf novels I loved as teenager, and sf by women writers. The point is to introduce me to writers new to me  and/or read books I wouldn’t normally read.

I asked for suggestions on Twitter, and recevied a couple of sensible ones. I like the idea of reading books by Asian writers, but perhaps I might instead expand that to reading books by writers from countries whose literature I’ve never before tried. I’m not an avid reader of world fiction, though I’ve read a number of European and Arabic writers, so it would certainly be a challenge.

Another person suggestion modern crime/noir fiction, but I was less keen on that idea. Having been impressed by the movie Winter’s Bone, I’d like to try one of Daniel Woodrell’s novels, but I don’t usually get on that well with modern crime fiction. I like Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton and Philip Kerr, but I’ve gone off a lot of the crime writers I used to read, such as Reginald Hill, John Harvey or Patricia Cornwell. Having said that, there are many published crime writers I’ve not read that I might enjoy and, I have to admit, they would at least be pretty quick reads…

Alternatively, I’ve thought about sticking to a single author’s oeuvre, perhaps DH Lawrence. To date, I’ve only read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and some novellas. Or Charles Dickens. Joseph Conrad. Graham Greene. I could reread some literary favourites: The Alexandria Quartet, The Master Mariner, Earthly Powers, The Right Stuff… But they’re quite hefty books.

Alternatively, I could make it a watching challenge, and do films. Or even do book then film: read a book, watch the film adaptation, write about it…

Anyone else have any suggestions?