14 by Jean Echenoz

February 25, 2013 § 1 Comment

How do you read a novel in another language? Sometimes people ask me if I translate in my head as I go along. The answer is no: the only way is to read as if you are reading in English, which means reading the words and letting them travel straight to the brain, where they create certain images and ideas. Obviously a certain competence and familiarity is required, which does not come out of nowhere, but perhaps via one of two routes. One option is to translate into English as you go, sentence by sentence. This is not something I’ve ever done, at least not since I was eleven and, after all of two weeks of learning French, my friend and I attempted to read Le train bleu by Agatha Christie. We did not get far. It more or less defeated the point of reading. Would it help you learn the language or would it put you off entirely? It depends on how much you already know. Dictionaries won’t help you if you don’t understand how the different tenses work, for example. Another way to go about it is the method I used (and still use if I’m reading a German book): ignore dictionaries and plough straight through. If the same word keeps coming up and it seems crucial, look it up. If a sentence contains so many unknowns that you can’t guess, look up a couple, or try translating into English just to sort through a complex phrase. Otherwise, for me, the flow of reading is more important than understanding every word.

You might end up with a completely off-track idea of what the book was about, but that won’t bother you so much if you’ve read Barthes first (which, interestingly, is not much more difficult to read in French than in English). And it is how most of us learnt to read in English, I suspect. People who interrupt novel reading to look up words, in English or in another language, in the dictionary are probably not constant readers; the latter will probably assume that even if they can’t figure the word out from its context this time, the next time they come across the same word it will be clearer, and all the more meaningful for being a real encounter. (I’ve got nothing against dictionaries, incidentally; I love reading them.)

That’s all a preliminary to a discussion of a new novel by Jean Echenoz, the English rights to which have been bought, although I can’t seem to find out by whom (rather difficult to Google a novel with a number for a title). The New Press, I suspect, since they have four of his previous novels.

14 opens with a young man, Anthime, out for a bike ride on a summer’s afternoon. As he stands at the top of a hill surveying the land around him, all the church bells start to peal: the First World War has begun. Military preparations begin immediately, and Anthime leaves the village, with four of his peers, to go and fight. 14 doesn’t go in for the usual WWI-novel rich descriptions either of physical environment or mental and emotional trauma, and seems on the surface to be spare and clean. The power of the writing comes from its simplicity, from the lack of extraneous detail, but it also comes, of course, from what we already know about the war—for Anglophone readers, for our accumulated knowledge of the writing of Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and, of course, Pat Barker. That the Great War was an unimaginable psychological catastrophe on both an individual and international scale has become part of the fabric of our history, perhaps even more so now that PTSD sufferers are more likely to receive treatment than to be shot for desertion.

What will happen to the five men? We  more or less know the possible answers already, but the novel follows each man until either his death or until the moment he is invalided out.  Charles and Anthime don’t even make it to the war proper. Charles’s girlfriend Blanche, who Anthime also loves, is pregnant, and the village doctor has used his influence to try to move Charles somewhere slightly safer than the trenches for the duration of the war. This slightly safer place is in the new air department. Charles and Anthime are out on a test flight, learning how to use the plane, learning how to accommodate one another and their shared history, when their plane—unarmed—is attacked by a German plane. It’s all over before they can do anything to help themselves. This rather abrupt incident sets the tone as the narrative then takes a turn with each of the others as they fall one by one.

The unflinching and deeply moving long gaze at brutality is a powerful way to write. Here’s a rough translation of one of the best sections:

For him and for the others, it was their first combat. At the end of it, among dozens of others, Captain Vayssière, an officer and two sergeants were found dead, not to mention the injured, which the stretcher-bearers were still having to evacuate even after night had fallen. Over in the orchestra, one of the clarinettists, struck in the stomach, had fallen; the bass drummer had toppled over, a hole in his cheek, with his instrument; and the second flautist only had half a hand left. Standing up/picking himself up after the confrontation was over, Anthime noticed that his mess tin and cooking pot had been shot through by bullets, as had his cap. A piece of shrapnel had ripped off the entire bottom part of Arcenel’s pack. The pack had also been pierced by a missile, which Arcenel had removed from inside it when it had torn his jacket. After the roll call the company turned out to be missing seventy-six men.

It’s the matter-of-factness that does it, that does the reader in. Reading off the toll as if it’s the football results or a shopping list; laying down blocks of language calmly and precisely. It works the opposite way to a spell: every word is transparent and clear, yet together they produce something horrifyingly incomprehensible.

The story itself, the way it occasionally returns home to follow Blanche, did not entirely satisfy. The immense imbalance between the size devoted to each part—the war and the civilians staying at home—favours the war section. But the novel does fit into Jean Echenoz’s versatile tradition. Despite its very real subject matter, the novel does fit into what we might call Echenoz’s blank tradition—of assuming on a great deal of shared cultural context, often global or at least bigger than just French, and of using clear, spare language and the spaces of what is left unsaid to do much more than would at first seem possible. How does this kind of language translate into English? Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home or Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse might be some sort of equivalent, with their careful, controlled sentences that conceal enormously effortful craft, although I haven’t read Echenoz in English to see how the translations come out. Deceptively simple writing must be exceptionally difficult to translate well, the sort of job that needs to be given to a writer who has paid a great deal of attention to how fiction works in his or her own language.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.


The Three Rs: Théodora Armstrong

February 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

Théodora Armstrong is a fiction writer, poet, and photographer. Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines across the country such as Event, Prairie Fire, The Fiddlehead, Descant, The New Quarterly, and Contemporary Verse 2. In 2008, she won a Western Magazine Award for fiction, and her stories have been included in both the Journey Prize Stories 20 and Coming Attractions 10. Her debut short story collection, Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility, will be published by House of Anansi Press in March. Théodora lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, with her husband and daughter. She is at work on her first novel. Follow her: @TheoArmstrong.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I’m not sure I thought about writing an actual book until I was in grad school. I knew I wanted to tell stories at around age seven. At that time, I went to one of the only all-French schools in BC. They bused kids in from all over the Lower Mainland, so it was a long ride every morning. To pass the time, I’d make up elaborate stories with lots of play-acting to entertain my bus mates.

What does your day look like when you’re writing a book?

My day starts with dropping my daughter off at preschool. Then I come home, make some coffee, and sit down to work. I work best in the morning. On occasion I do good work at night after everyone is asleep. Afternoons are mostly for reading, emails, and anything that gets me away from my desk, usually a run.

Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility

Do you type or write?

I always type unless I’m working on a poem. I scribble story notes, when they come to me, on post-its that I stick all over my office. I like to move them around, arrange them in groups. Once they find their way into the work, I throw them out. I have a small stack of post-it story notes that have never found a home.

What do you read while you’re writing?

I try not to read anything new that might be similar to what I’m working on. I do go back to skim through favourite books that I feel have inspired my work. Right now I keep going back to the The Sportswriter by Richard Ford. I admire his talent for elevating everyday life, for combining lyricism with the vernacular.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

I just finished Malarky by Anakana Schofield. The book explores the depths of grief with a dark, electrifying humour. ‘Our Woman’ is a truly original character, one I won’t soon forget. I’ve also been reading a lot of great BC short story writers lately: The Beggar’s Garden by Michael Christie, Once You Break a Knuckle by D.W. Wilson, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner. All great stuff.

What are your all time favourites?

I have so many. For short fiction, anything by Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Tobias Wolff, J.D. Salinger, Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro. Simple Recipes by Madeleine Thien encouraged me when I started my own story collection in grad school. Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter and Independence Day, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Miriam Towes’ A Complicated Kindness, and Keith Maillard’s Gloria also informed the writer I am today. Roald Dahl for my earliest reading years.

You can either write or read for the rest of your life—but not both. Which do you choose?

If I couldn’t read, I think I would stop growing as a writer. I would be afraid of the writer I would become. So I’ll go with read, but I wouldn’t stay sane for very long.

What’s your third R, and why?

Running. I’m not good or serious about it. I forget to stretch. I don’t have proper running gear. I never have a place to put my keys, so I tie them to my shoelaces. But a long run, as far as I know, is the perfect end to a day of writing. Being outside in the fresh air, hammering the pavement, helps bring me back to earth.

Naomi Alderman, The Liars’ Gospel

February 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

Jesus novels: love them or hate them? With the exception of Jim Crace’s Quarantine, I’ve long given them a wide berth, assuming that they will be cheerleading for one side or the other. But I was keen to read Naomi Alderman’s third novel, The Liars’ Gospel, despite the unexpected material given the contemporary realism of her two previous literary novels and indeed the zombie serial novel she co-authored recently with Margaret Atwood on Wattpad. Although perhaps it’s not as different as it might at first appear: the themes of religion and, particularly, belonging are present in Alderman’s other novels, Disobedience and The Lessons, both of which could broadly be described as extended coming-of-age stories. Like Zadie Smith and Zoe Heller, Alderman writes in the best tradition of people who’ve lived on both sides of Atlantic and let both sides influence their writing, but The Liars’ Gospel takes this wise,  modern voice and applies it to something else entirely.

The Liars’ Gospel begins after Yehoshuah’s death, with four different sections, or gospels, giving a different perspective on his life, in an increasingly broader context. The first section is told from the point of view of Miryam (Mary), Yehoshuah’s mother. Miryam is mourning her son, but also angry with him and the way he treated his family. The whole section originates, I can’t help feeling, in those striking New Testament verses where Jesus tells would-be followers to let the dead bury their dead, that anyone who wants to become his disciple must be prepared to leave his father and mother. These verses have always struck me as out of keeping with the image of a gentle, loving Jesus cultivated by many different Christian churches, and more in line with a jealous God. Alderman’s portrait of a grieving mother is excellently done, and we get a strong sense of Yehoshuah’s character and motivations.

Iehuda takes his turn next. After his betrayal of Yehoshuah, he’s sheltering with Calidorus, a Roman official, and the tale he tells is framed as entertainment for Calidorus’ guests, a neat little narrative Iehuda is obliged to repeat on demand as the price of his safety. Yehoshuah came to Iehuda’s village while he was still largely unknown, just one of many preachers who passed through, but this time Iehuda felt as though the preacher was reaching out to him, speaking to him personally. The two men discussed scriptural matters long into the night, and Iehuda joined the band of men as they moved on, both to escape his grief over his wife’s death and to find his spiritual home; make it if necessary, creating a new world where God’s word is not mediated through the corrupt traditions of the priests who have so obligingly, it seems, accommodated their Roman occupiers.

But Yehoshuah is not an easy man. At first inspirational, he becomes dependent on the growing worship of his followers. Iehuda could trust him when he proclaimed his ordinariness, but not when he will no longer deny the rumours that he is the son of God, the Messiah. The seeds of disappointment have been sown. When Iehuda says “We are not here to glorify you,” and Yehoshuah’s response shows that his humility has disappeared, the former loses his faith. He reports Yehoshuah’s whereabouts to Caiaphas, the High Priest, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The third and fourth sections move further out from these close portraits, giving a picture of the time from Caiaphas’ and then Bar-Avo’s (Barrabas’) viewpoint. Interesting as they are, these sections moved me less. With the first two, Alderman has really achieved something that would probably not have been possible from a Christian or an anti-Christian author. Jesus is here seen through the Jewish tradition, as an ordinary human whose unorthodox preachings led to what later became one of the world’s three largest religions. Not such an unusual thing: ecclesiastical splinterings and splittings, differences of theology and of course of who is entitled to speak with or for God, are commonplace. Even today, where they are perhaps more likely to be internal divisions or arguments between existing factions than ruptures leading to new denominations, ideas about how God should be worshipped (often concealed behind other issues) are central to a great deal of contemporary politics.

It’s this way in to Jesus’ story from a non-Christian background that allows Alderman to write a character that is so flawed without her needing to set out to be iconoclastic. While it is something of a deliberate takedown of an incredibly important figure, Alderman achieves it by way of a behind-the-scenes approach, showing the celebrity at home, off duty, off guard, and allowing us to watch his magic from offstage, from where we can see the tricks. She doesn’t need to point out the obvious but simply leads us by the hand saying, “Look, this simple explanation is behind what seems so mysterious and portentous in Matthew or Luke.” Her Yehoshuah is petulant and sulky, relying on others to feel good about himself, using sleight of hand to produce miracles, and eventually a victim of his own hubris. At the same time, he is also a force for good for some people (not always intentionally) and puts a voice to the popular opinions that the priests are corrupt. In those dangerous times, if dissent grew too noisy or too troublesome it could get you killed. Thousands of people perished for this reason; Alderman’s Yehoshuah was simply one of them.

Alderman’s gift for writing luminously and perceptively about people whose experiences she has not necessarily shared continues from the early novels to this one. Particularly impressive are her descriptions of military strategies and tactics. Where Disobedience and The Lessons might have been exercises in developing style and in autobiographical offloading to make room for new material, The Liars’ Gospel is a fully mature work.

Recently Alderman tweeted ‘Staring at the potsherds of my novel, telling self “better to fail at something ambitious than to succeed at sthing done 1m times before.”’ I couldn’t help but notice the relevance here of one of the book’s best quotes, which comes when Iehuda understands that his teacher has succumbed to the temptations of greatness, to a novel-writing context: “Losing one’s faith is so very like gaining it. There is the same joy, there same terror, the same annihilation of self in the ecstasy of understanding. There is the same fear that it will not hold, the same wild hope that, this time, it will. One has to lose one’s faith many times before one begins to lose faith in faith itself.”

Review copy.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

The Three Rs: Rebecca Campbell

February 15, 2013 § 1 Comment

Rebecca Campbell is a Canadian writer and academic who’s publishing her first novel– The Paradise Engine—with NeWest Press this spring. She’s also hoping to defend her dissertation this year, in the Department of English at the University of Western Ontario.  Rebecca lives in Toronto, where she teaches essay writing to art and design students at OCADU.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

Third grade, when I began an epic story about a dryad looking for lost unicorns. It took me ages to finish, but it clocked in at more than twenty pages of longhand. I think I finished in fourth grade.

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book?

Writing days—the good ones—are the same whether I’m working on my dissertation or on fiction. On good days I write for an hour or two at a time, on my couch, in coffee shops, and at the library. I walk a lot in between these short bursts, and listen to music, and wonder about what’s next.

I think it also varies a lot depending on where I am in the project, too.  Early days with a new idea, whether academic or fictional, are wonderful because everything is still possible. I haven’t made any mistakes yet. I don’t worry about what anyone else thinks, because I can’t imagine anyone else reading it.

Then there are research days. Those are pleasant, too, though in a different way. A lot of grind rewarded with a revelatory moment or two that can transform your story’s direction.

But the last days of any project involve facing the mistakes you made on those earlier, pleasanter days. When I was finishing the Paradise Engine—I mean the last year I spent on it before I submitted it to NeWest, and the time I spent working on it with Anne Nothoff, my editor there—it was about making the connections between characters, events, and images that weren’t clear in earlier drafts. It was also about seeing a lot of structural problems before it was too late to do anything about them. Those days involved less walking, and more lying on the couch trying to figure out what I was thinking two years earlier, when I made a particularly bad narrative decision.

Well, that’s why you write another book, isn’t it? I’m happy to say I’m back to stage one these days, walking and writing. The next project is still perfect.




Do you type or write?


What do you read while you’re writing?

I like research, and I tend to collect material that’s adjacent to my subject, so I’ll spend a lot of time reading texts from the era I’m writing about, and listening to its music. A lot of The Paradise Engine is told from the point of view of a vaudeville tenor of the ’20s and ’30s, so I read about early twentieth-century music: biographies of Enrico Caruso and John McCormack, as well as some histories of sound recording and popular opera.

Other than that I read what I usually read: movie reviews, academic articles about Canadian literature, forums where people talk about Mad Men, fashion blogs.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

Lately I read more like an academic than a novelist. For the last while I’ve been reading The Canadian Brothers, or the Prophecy Fulfilled: a Tale of the Late American War, by John Richardson (I say ‘for the last while’ because it’s very long, and very slow). It’s the sequel to Wacousta, a Tale of the Pontiac Conspiracy. It’s some of the most ridiculous Canadian gothic I’ve ever read, full of apparitions, and wicked-but-lovely American ladies, and stalwart-but-doomed Canadian lads. There’s also a curse, and lots of tragedy (the kind where you say, “how did they not see that coming?”)

Maybe “loved” is too strong a word for the way I feel about it, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

What are your all-time favourites?

Middlemarch by George Eliot is my absolute favourite. Ever. Of anything. In the world. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. For comfort reading I always go back to Carl Sandburg’s The American Songbag and Nancy Mitford‘s The Pursuit of Love.

You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?

Terrifying question! I guess it would be reading, since I get just about all my information that way, and I keep in touch with people through emails and messaging. But it would condemn me to a tragic half-life. I haven’t gone a day without writing since some time in the 90s.

What’s your third R, and why?

First I thought “Rhetoric.” Then I thought “Research.” But I’ll settle for “Re-writing” on account of how terrible my first drafts always are.

The Three Rs: Liz Moore

February 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Liz Moore is the author of the novels The Words of Every Song (Broadway Books, 2007) and Heft (W.W. Norton, 2012), along with  works of short fiction and creative nonfiction that have been published in print and online. She is also a professor of writing at Holy Family University in Philadelphia, where she lives.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I think I tried to write a novel when I was very young, perhaps twelve, and quit after about a page. I actually sort of stumbled into writing my first book by writing a series of interconnected short stories that, suddenly, was long enough to be a novel…so I never had to make that nerve-wracking decision to WRITE A BOOK, per se. I’m glad I did it that way–I’m not sure I would have had the courage to ever write a book, otherwise.

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book?
I’m always at some stage of writing a book; toward the end, I tend to have greater stamina (partly because at a certain point I want to just get it over with!) In the beginning, I write for shorter periods, making lots of false starts and sort of aimless character sketches. My days also really depend on where in the semester I am–I teach full-time at a university, so if I’m fully in the swing of the semester, I don’t write nearly enough. Over the summer I try to get a great deal done.
Do you type or write?
I type. I used to be a great journal-keeper and write long-hand in that, but I fear that what little time I have to devote to writing I now use on whatever book I’m writing, or occasionally articles or short stories.
What do you read while you’re writing?
I try to avoid anything that’s similar in voice or concept to what I’m working on. I try to read “great writing” that I find inspiring. And of course if a book requires research, I read whatever nonfiction aids in that process.
What have you read recently that you really loved?
In January, I read Montauk by Max Frisch, which was given to me by my friend Alex Gilvarry, also an author (and a Frisch devotee); This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff (I love his fiction, but somehow had never read his famous memoir); and Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro, whom I met at a book festival this past fall and whose writing is as lovely as she is.
The Words of Every Song
What are your all-time favourites?
Dubliners by James Joyce; short stories by Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Mansfield, and William Trevor; Edith Wharton; Kazuo Ishiguro; and the short story “Forever Overhead” by David Foster Wallace, which is the best story to teach in the known universe. My students love it, and it explains something about the power of writing, and how evocative it can be, without my having to actually try to articulate it.
You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?
Read. I’d get bored of myself, and there’s so much to learn still.
What’s your third R, and why?
Rigor. That sounds boring, but I have strong feelings about earning things through hard work. I am skeptical of people who don’t.

Where Am I?

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