Hélène Gestern q& a

the-people-in-the-photo

 

As I said when I reviewed the people in the photo last week .I had been given the chance to ask Hélène Gestern a few questions about her book and influences here are her answers .

1 Is the photo that is the key to the story real ? If so how did you get it ? And was it the kernel for the story ?
The photo isn’t real, and no photo described in the book is, except one. The first photo is of course the kernel : it’s the major enigma (who are these people, why they are together in Switzerland at this moment), and the starting of point of Hélène and Stéphane’s investigation.
2 The epistolary novel was almost declared dead a few years ago, but with the increased use of email it has been revived. What made you choose it ?
I read few contemporary books so I know little about epistolary novel revival. But I admire very much great letters writers, as Madame de Sévigné, and novels of the XVIIIth century like Dangerous Liaisons. Recently, my publisher offered me a fantastic one, Guidi Piovene’s Lettera di Una Novicia (translated in French as La Novice, 1941). This genre owes a particular and fascinating rhythm : each letter calls for an answer. It also allows the writer to introduce several characters with “I”, so to get a polyphonic narration, without creating the massive autobiographical effect from a single “I”. Regarding The People in the Photo, two dimensions are interwoven : the past elements Hélène and Stéphane find out together, and the way it influences their present lives. I needed personal voices to express what happens inside, as the journey goes along ; therefore I chose an epistolary pattern. It was especially easy for me as I’m used to communicating by writing letters or emails – I nearly never make phone calls.
3 Your book revolves around affairs and secrets. Given recent events in France do you think the French have a different view on these matters ?
In my point of view, nothing happened in France regarding François Hollande : a man has an affair with a woman, so what ? Foreign newspaper attacks against him on this point seemed exaggerated as well as slightly ridiculous. The general feeling here is that we would prefer hear about his politics, considering the economic and social context. I’m extremely affected by private life violation matters and am scared to observe how quickly internet can destroy a person’s intimacy. A society that requires of each of its citizens, including politicians, an exemplary sentimental life, and that forces him/her to apologize on a TV show each time he/she does something wrong at home – anyway, it should be interesting to define what “wrong” means – seems to me a dangerous nonsense. Maybe the French are more tolerant about politician’s private life, as it involves consenting adults… If your question refers to DSK, what he did is not a matter of “affairs” or “secrets”, but a range of serious offences. Everyone was flabbergasted to discover who he really was, and you won’t find now a single person in France to stand up for him.
4 Which writers have influenced your writing ?
Georges Perec had a major influence, regarding the matter of construction : he elaborated a brilliant system to build Life, A User’s Manual, which is one of the most amazing novels of the XXth century. As far as photography is concerned, I admire very much Anne-Marie Garat, a French writer whose novels and work are almost completely dedicated to photography and memory ; W.G. Sebald, for the same reason – he had a great French translator, Patrick Charbonnier. When I was younger, I was also keen on some novelists like Kazuo Ishiguro, with his amazing stylistic perfection (his sentences give the feeling to listen to a river flowing) or Antonio Munoz Molina, a great Spanish storyteller. But the majority of my reading, for 14 years now, is dedicated to autobiography and personal diaries. I often write reviews in La Faute à Rousseau and some of them are readable on my site.
5 My blog is dedicated to books in translation. Which French books would you suggest for my readers ?
For lovers of epistolary novels and classical literature, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Choderlos de Laclos) ; for lovers of complex and brilliant story-telling, Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec. I would also recommend Sorj Chalandon’s My Traitor and Return to Killybegs, the strong, dark, moving story of lies and broken friendship between the author and Denis Donaldson. One text I would strongly recommend to English readers is Hélène Berr’s Journal. She was a young Jewish student at the Sorbonne and she died in Bergen-Belsen camp at the end of the war. She wrote one of the most radiant, sensitive, lucid and moving texts I have ever read. She decided to stay in Paris during WW2 despite the dangers (her own way to resist to Nazis) and describes how everyday life is turning to hell for her and her family. At the same time, she falls in love. Within the awfulness and the darkness, despite her conviction she will be caught and die in a camp, she remains able to perceive beauty of life, to tell of her love for Jean, her fiancé, for countryside, music and Yeats’s poetry. Everyone should read this text.
6 How easy was it to work with your translator ?
The work was very easy : I had nothing to do ! Actually, one of the translators, Ros Schwartz, is a friend of a friend a mine, but we discovered this extraordinary coincidence after the decision to translate was made by Gallic Books. I’m aware that I am especially lucky, as the book was translated by two people, Ros and Emily Boyce, to give a genuine touch to the epistolary effect. One day, Ros Schwartz sent a mail to ask me three questions about a chapter. They were so precise, regarding some very subtle meanings (even for a French-native speaker), that I knew the translation would be great – and it is. I read the whole book in English and was so moved to see to what extent they succeeded in keeping the original rhythm of writing – nothing is more difficult – and to express how a friendship turns into something else through the way the characters sign off their letters – although there is no equivalent between the two languages. This translation is amazingly faithful, but with its own grace, its own poetry.

Dutch Lit fortnight – Herman Koch Answers some questions

the dinner

I was lucky to be able to Ask the writer of The dinner a few questions via E-mail ,so here are his answers ,you can also see my review Here and A look at the food in The dinner here .
1 Which writers have influenced you ?
I started with reading the Russians when I was sixteen, I think they still have the biggest influence: Tcheckov, Turgenev, Tolstoj and Dostojewski.

2 How did you come up for the idea for the dinner ?
It starrted with a real event in Barcelona where two boys molested a homeless person in a cash machine. The boys looked so nice, so normal, they were laughing and having fun, and I thought: “They are ruining their whole future in five minutes….” So from the starting point I identified with the boys, not with their victim. That was the trigger for the book.

3 How many meals out did you have before deciding on the menu for the meal ?
I tried to remember all the absurd meals I had in the past twenty years. And I thought of all the restaurants where I would never go back again. That was my research.

4 Are the brothers problems meant to be seen in a wider context of Holland itself ?
No, I don’t think their situation applies particularly to Holland. More to Europe, or the ‘Western world’ in general. Although you will find some exaggerated political correctness in our country.

5 I have previously ask both Cees Nooteboom and Gerbrand Bakker to describe what makes Dutch literature so unique. What are your thoughts ?
I am not sure. We live in a rather boring and spoiled country. Maybe Dutch literature is only unique in that it wasn’t noticed in the past 200 years in the rest of the world.

6 What are you favourite Dutch books ?
For me there is only one, I think it has been translated into English: The Dark Room of Damocles by W.F. Hermans.

dlf-1 (1)

I put this up today as part of Iris on books Dutch Lit fortnight 

Gerbrand Bakker interview

The Detour mmp 9780099563679

I ‘m pleased to bring you an interview with the Independent foreign fiction prize longlistee Gerbrand Bakker .His longlisted book The detour (ten white geese in the Us) Has Just come out in paperback in the UK ,So when I was offered chance to ask him a few questions I jumped at the chance
1.Why do you goes such isolated locations for your books?
I like to put people away from distractions, big cities, hustle and bustle. Just to see what happens to them. And in a very strange way I’m – even though I live in Amsterdam – not really able to write about a city and all the things that happen in them. Just like I’m not really able to write about skating, and skating (speed skating) is what I’ve done for 15 years, including competition. It always looks strange, reads strange.
2.Have you a connection with Wales, and is that why you choose it for The Detour?
Because I’ve been there quite a number of times. In fact, I have the strange habit of wanting to climb Snowdon once a year. The land there feels old, ancient, mysterious. I always wanted to use it for ‘something’ and somewhere in 2009 Emily Dickinson, a woman (and a feeling) and North-Wales came together in my head.
3.Did you pick Emily Dickson first as the poet to be the one Emile taught or after as she fitted the character?
No, the book started with this poem, that’s why I choose it as the motto. So the woman (Emilie/Agnes) had to fit in with Dickinson, and not the other way round. And then, when I was writing, I discovered (and the woman discovers) that there are some similarities between her and Dickinson. So there is a sort of love-hate relationship between them.
4.How closely did you work with the translator on this book?
Quite close, closer than on any other book. Because there were some real problems in the translation. For instance: how do you translate a book that in Dutch deals with the translation of an American poem into Dutch? I thought the book couldn’t be translated, but David Colmer is very calm and he said: “Don’t worry, I’m the translator, let me do my job.”
5.What impact did winning the IMPAC prize for The Twin have for you?
I bought a house in The Eifel, Germany. I’m renovating it at the moment and there is going to be a wonderful ‘writing-room’ in it, which can only be accessed via a stairway on the outside of the house. There is going to be a log burner in it, as the whole house is heated with log burners. That is what happened in the end with the IMPAC money. I did (not yet) buy a carthorse with it. It also gave me the opportunity to NOT write for a while. I’ve not been inclined to write for a couple of years now, and the money partly enables me to do this. The IMPAC did not make me think: wow, I’m a real, big writer now, also because I myself have been in jury’s and I know how things work. There is always a bit of luck and bargaining involved…

Bakker, Gerbrand c. Eimer Wieldraaijer (1)
6.I Asked Cees Nooteboom about Dutch literature last year he described it as ‘inward looking’. What is your view?
I presume that he meant this not as a compliment, and that he is not an inward-looking writer? I don’t think one can make such a general statement. There are enough writers who to me don’t write inward-looking, like Anon Grunberg or Peter Buwalda. But it is maybe true that Dutch writers take it on them to write about for instance world politics, maybe because in the end we are a very small country. And not many Dutch writers have the stature of Orhan Pamuk. I cannot think of one Dutch writer who ever became ‘big’ in the UK or the United States. There is also a reverence for especially English and American writers here. If you look at the bestselling books at the end of a year, there’s hardly a Dutch book to be found in the top 10. I don’t think that’s the case in the US or the UK. And nobody can convince me that American or English books are intrinsically better than Dutch books.
7.What you currently working on?
Nothing. I’m working in my house and garden, and sometimes I write articles in magazines. I travel a lot for my work these days. To Germany, but also to Argentina, the US and South-Africa.
8.What is your favourite Dutch book not written by you?
Het Bureau (The Office), written by J.J. Voskuil. A book that consists of seven parts, 5000 pages in total, about a man who works in an office for 35 years and is struggling with that. Only recently the first book was translated into German, it has not been translated into English. That would be a mammoth-task for any translator…

Many thanks Gerbrand and good luck with the IFFP 2013

Here are my reviews of his two novels

The twin

The detour

An Interview with the shadow IFFP winner Sjon

1. In both From the Mouth of the Whale and The Whispering Muse there is a seafaring feel do you sail or have a connection to the sea ?

Being born on island means that from an early age you are very aware of the sea. Throughout history things and people have come floating to your shores and the only way out was over the sea. So, I think sailing, swimming, and sinking will always be a part of the stories told on an island. As well as the great depths teeming with strange beings and everything the sea has swallowed.

2. Myth plays a big part in your fiction. What is your favourite myth ?

In general, I like the mischievous gods: the tricksters. So, Loki’s stories are a favourite: especially the one where he helps the Aesir (the principle members of the pantheon of Norse gods) to get out of the deal they made with a giant about building the fortress walls around Asgard. The gods promise the giant the Sun, the Moon and the hand of the fertility goddess Freyja as a reward if he finishes the job in time. When they realize too late that the giant will be able to do it they look to Loki for help. So, Loki transforms himself into a gray mare and lures the giant’s work horse away. Without his horse the giant can’t finish the walls. Later Loki has an affair with the horse, which results in the birth of Odin’s eight legged horse Sleipnir. Sleipnir, is the Nordic Pegasus, who can easily transport us across the borders of the many worlds that make up our universe …

3 .You’ve been connected to music. As I’ve read your books I feel a rhythm. Do you listen to music as you write? If so, what music?

Each of my novels has a special form and style, a new challenge for me to meet, so I listen to different kinds of music while writing them. I usually try to find something that in one way or another fits the theme or the mood of the novel, either by contrasting with it or by complementing it. With From the Mouth of the Whale it was two particular pieces by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt: Alina and Spiegel am Spiegel; with The Blue Fox it was Schubert’s string quartets and with The Whispering Muse it was Theolonius Monk.

4. We all loved Victoria’s translations. How closely did you work with her ?

And I love them as well! How close she wants me to be depends on the work. Sometimes I get many emails with questions about my intention with this phrase or that, or what outside source I am alluding to in one scene or another. Then sometimes she just asks me to read it over when the work is done. I trust her 100% and am always at her service if needed.

5. Which writers have influenced you ?

Samuel Beckett, Karen Blixen, Jorge Luis Borges, Mikhail Bulgakov, André Breton, Leonora Carrington … To name some of Bs and one of the Cs …

6. As much as your books are historic, are we meant to read a modern context into them ?

Yes, you are!

7 .Which of your books are not yet translated. Should we keep an eye out for any when they come out ?

This year I am finishing the third volume of a trilogy I have been working on since the early 90s. It tells the story of a man in Reykjavik who is telling an eager but sceptical listener the story of how he came into being as the result of the rendez-vous between a Jewish man fleeing the concentration camps and a chamber maid in a guesthouse in northern Germany in the middle of WWII. That he believes himself to have been fashioned from a lump of clay taken from the remains of the Golem of Prague is just one of the threads in the novel. There is also a corrupt stamp-collector, a gender confused archangel, a self-mutilating swimming pool attendant, a government official who believes half of the Icelandic population are descended from werewolves, a girl with four fathers, and many more characters with their own stories and occupations. Yes, I hope you will be on the lookout for those three …

8. For the person that has not read you, can tell them what to expect from you in one sentence ?

The smell of a puffin stew cooking over camp fire flickering in the shadows of gallows built on the ruins of a great library.

9. What’s the literary scene like at home and are there any writers from your
country we should read?

It is quite robust, thank you. Of our contemporary authors, I recommend Kristín Ómarsdóttir. Her novel Children in Reindeer Woods has just been published by Open Letter Books in the US. And for the deceased ones, I recommend our Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness. I am especially fond of his turn of the 20th century novel The Fish Can Sing.

Frank Wynne interviews winstonsdad B.B.A.W SWAP

I wanted to do something different for interview swap so I decided to get the prize-winning translator Frank “terrible man ” Wynne to interview me as I felt he would ask questions to give a deeper insight into me and the blog than a straight forward swap with another blog
1.What is the first book you can remember being profoundly moved by?
oh a tough one as a kid I loved Abel’s island by William Steig a mouse stuck on an island and Charlotte’s web they showed me how powerful emotion can be in books .I remember as a young teen trying Camus and going this is different to everything  else I ve read that maybe was first time I was moved by literature in  translation it was The plague I just found it opened a world of literature where there maybe isn’t a happy ending and yes life is very tough at times as I found out by reading this book .2 What was the last book that frustrated you enough to hurl it at the wall (swearing under your breath at the author will do at a push)?

Oh this is very easy Jonathan Littell the kindly ones I m not a huge novel fan but have tried to read more  large novels over recent years but this one I just couldn’t get on with I felt it was printed in to small a font that was also a little light on the eye that made it hard to read in first place but the main problem was the research He had researched it to well I felt the narrative just got bogged down in acronyms ,ranks and German army terms from the second world war I didn’t throw it but after 300 pages and little progress in two weeks I decide to call it a day and pull up stumps to a sunny day and more time so it has sat on my shelf for last two years  .3 You are a great champion of literature in translation; what draws you to writers in translation?

I always find this hard to sum up I feel I like other places I spent my 20’s reading uk/us literature with a few translations but as years gone by I just feel more drawn to world literature a sense of adventure as an armchair traveler ,but also the different  tones of grammar ,narrative  and description ,A french african novel is so different from a book from  Latin america but in some ways similar ,I like lines of literature how book a knocked on to make book b etc and I like seeing this as a global effect how Cervantes ,Borges, Tolstoy  and say Calvino have had knock on effect in different countries .
4 What language/book/author (if any) would you most like to be able to read in the original?
Know a couple of years ago I would say German I lived there and have a base that maybe could have launched into reading German overtime but as of late I have a real desire to maybe learn and read in spanish one day I feel more and more drawn to spanish and latin american literature and would love to read them in the original language ,I hope one day to have the time to do a Spanish course and start on the path to reading in Spanish .
5 Do you ever read aloud to Winston?
I don’t I hate my reading voices ,hence I never vlog on the blog I ve to deep and northern english accent for my liking .I maybe should practice for when I have kids .
6 How do you decide on which books to read/review? 
I do get sent a number of books I try to review the ones that  appeal on time other than that it what ever takes my fancy from local library or my own collection .I tend to be a butterfly read jumping from places to places .I m terrible at sticking to long-term plans ,so over time I ve  blogged  I found this best way to go a book at a time ,rather than have it all planned out .
6 William Phelps once said “I divide all readers into two classes; those who read to remember and those who read to forget”, do you fit into either category? do you think the categories are valid?
I don’t ,I read to discover new places and times also to escape the every day humdrum of my life ,so on whole I disagree although I suppose escapism is also part of forgetting in a way .I call my self a reader that reads to escape and discover ! .7 Do you prefer the smell of freshly printed books or are you excited by the possibilities of eReaders, iBooks and Kindle?
I love new books I love hardbacks most of all nothing feel better in the hand than a nice new hard back ,I did have a e reader til the screen broke in my work bag ,I m hoping to get a kindle for christmas ,the ability to read  classics is what draws me to e readers lesser known writers are available to read via Guttenberg for free which draws me to getting a replacement as I was enjoying dipping in and out of classics which draws me to getting a replacement also less modern works in translation that are starting to be made available like some of your works are .

8 where as many critics seem to enjoy penning vitriolic reviews, revelling in a stinging putdown, book bloggers tend to enjoy sharing  their passion for literature with the world: would you (do you) feel wary or writing a negative review or would you simply ignore a book you disliked?
I tend to trust my own choices in what I read I can also see the positive aspects in a lot of books I read even if others don’t .I struggle to write negative reviews as I m not a very negative person  in real life  ,I maybe should try to bring some negative points in but at moment I enjoy being positive and upbeat about what I read ,because that on the whole is the way I feel about the books I read .I feel that I know the books I d like accross genres so know if I will enjoy a book before I start most of the time .

9  How has blogging about books changed your life, your reading habits, Winston’s walking schedule?

It takes time to blog ,it hasn’t effect Winston we still go out four times a day for his walks like we always have ,I do read a lot more than I use to and I tend to read for longer than I did a few years ago most evening of i divide time between the blog and reading .It’s all about finding balance  in life and feel I ve got it right at moment with posting a few times a week rather than every day .

10  In “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller”, Italo Calvino gives a wondrous, dizzying list of  “Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them…” Of Calvino’s “countless embattled troops”,  three phalanxes haunt me… Can you give personal examples of:
*Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified
*Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread
*Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read
(mine: Riddley Walker, Confederacy of Dunces, Jane Eyre)
I m always curious about the other side of the fence more commercial fiction ,what makes these writers so popular ,I often tempt to try a Grisham or Picoult to see what the fuss is about but never do lol .
I ve been looking at a lord of the rings collection at local books sale I read it years ago and often feel I d like to go on the journey again Tolkien was such a great story-teller and this is such an epic book I felt as I read Don Quixote a click went in my head ,that this must have been a book that influence in a little way lord of the rings .Well like you I maybe admit to reading some Victorian female writers mine be wuthering heights I ve not read it but always feel I have maybe kate Bush summed it up to well or one of the film versions of the book I ve seen made me feel I d already read the book
at some point which I have not .
11   Are there any books you wish you had read when you were younger, or books where you feel you should have waited?
I always feel I maybe tackled Dickens to young as it was at hand ,when I was young due to us have a complete collection its been many years since I read him and I wonder if I would enjoy him more as a middle-aged man ,as for the flip side Don Quixote is a book that entered my life to late II would be further down the path of translation than I am if I’d had read this book years ago as it is so much a part of spanish and Latin American literature it helps you place modern books in context .12  What, for you, is the most satisfying thing about blogging?

I love the blogger I meet via blogging in the virtual world and also in real life ,I love the fact the I spread the word on translation which is the main aim of the blog I m not the biggest blogger and never will be ,nor the most talented but I feel I found my own niche and am happy where winstonsdad is and I feel that is the place for translation and world literature ,there are other bloggers in this field but I think I bring a lot breadth to this field .
Thanks Frank for some great questions ,I hope that gives your more of an insight into me Stu any thing else you want to know feel free to ask me in comments .

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