book review: Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants by Mathias Énard

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TELL THEM OF BATTLES, KINGS & ELEPHANTS by Mathias Énard
translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
★★★★★
New Directions, 2018
originally published in 2010

 

Michelangelo never traveled to Constantinople, but author and scholar Mathias Énard imagines that he did in the richly detailed novella Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants. Énard draws on the historically verified premise that Michelangelo was invited in 1506 to Constantinople by the Sultan Bayezid II, who wished to commission the design for a bridge over the Golden Horn, having already rejected a design proposed by Leonardo da Vinci. Wishing to surpass his elder and seduced by promises of eternal glory, Énard’s Michelangelo makes the excursion, fleeing from Pope Julius II and an unfinished commission in Rome.

What this slim book lacks in word count it makes up for in atmosphere: lush and evocative, Énard’s writing propels the reader into the past with a tonal confidence and authority that blurs the line between fact and fiction – and even after reading Énard’s note at the end, you would be forgiven for still not knowing which is which. Even the physicality of the pages makes you feel like you’re reading a historical document; with sparse, short chapters, occasional sketches, and an abundance of blank space, Énard easily earns his reader’s trust and convincingly brings the past to life.

While I imagine that Énard is a tremendously gifted writer in French, Charlotte Mandell’s translation is stunning and sensual. The novella opens with the following paragraph:

“Night does not communicate with the day. It burns up in it. Night is carried to the stake at dawn. And its people along with it—the drinkers, the poets, the lovers. We are a people of the banished, of the condemned. I do not know you. I know your Turkish friend; he is one of ours. Little by little he is vanishing from the world, swallowed up by the shadows and their mirages; we are brothers. I don’t know what pain or what pleasure propelled him to us, to stardust, maybe opium, maybe wine, maybe love; maybe some obscure wound of the soul deep-hidden in the folds of memory.”

These words are narrated by an Andalusian singer that Michelangelo spends the night with, whose perspective occasionally resurfaces throughout the book. These chapters were consistently my favorites, but the chapters which focused on Michelangelo’s time in Constantinople and his fraught relationship with the gay poet Mesihi I found almost equally as thrilling.

‘Thrilling’ almost feels like an inappropriate word to use while trying to sell a relatively plotless book, but it feels like an accurate way to describe the constant emotional and intellectual engagement I felt with this story. In only 144 pages, Énard tells a propulsive tale of art, ambition, and a clashing of two cultures that don’t actually meet in a significant artistic way in 1506 – this book instead hinges on the glorious ‘what if?’ It’s also a bracing portrayal of one of history’s greatest artists – genius though he is, Énard’s Michelangelo fears the carnal as much as he reveres the aesthetic of it, and this contradiction is navigated here with grace and tragedy.

Make no mistake: this is very much my kind of book. I’m sure a lot of readers will find it serviceable or even dull, but everything came together for me for the perfectly enchanting and emotionally satisfying read. I can’t recommend it highly enough… but only if the premise intrigues you. This is the kind of book that I wanted to reread immediately upon finishing it, and I can confidently say I will be returning to it in the not too distant future.


You can pick up a copy of Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants here on Book Depository.

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book review: Lie With Me by Philippe Besson

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LIE WITH ME by Philippe Besson
translated by Molly Ringwald
★★★★☆
Scribner, April 30, 2019

 

Lie With Me felt to me like a cross between Call Me By Your Name and Tin Man, but stronger and less heady than the former, and more bitter and perhaps more ambitious than the latter. Translated beautifully from the French by Molly Ringwald (yes, that Molly Ringwald), Lie With Me tells the story of a love affair between two teenage boys in 1984 rural France, narrated years later by Philippe with the kind of mature perception that only time can bring.

Nothing about this story is new; homophobia, class disparity, and shame all chart the course for this short novel, whose inherent tragedy makes itself apparent to the reader in an exchange between Philippe and Thomas, the latter of whom lays their dynamic out plainly the very first time they speak (“you will leave and we will stay”) – but it felt immeasurably fresh nonetheless. Probably most interesting is the sharp contrast between Philippe, whose candid narration reads as more of a confession than a monologue, and Thomas, who remains largely unknown except for the parts of himself that he allows Philippe to see. The character work is deceptively impressive, and Besson’s unrelenting attention to these characters’ similar and disparate vulnerabilities effectively cultivates an atmosphere of longing and regret and anxiety.

There’s something I can’t quite put my finger on that’s holding me back from the full 5 stars (maybe I should have read this in one sitting, I think that might be it), but this is a very strong 4.5, and one of the more accomplished novels that I’ve read recently. Ultimately it’s an intimate, erotic, sparse yet hard-hitting read that ends with one of the saddest sentences that I think I’ve ever read, and if that doesn’t make you want to rush out and read this 160 page book immediately, I don’t know what will.

Thank you to Netgalley and Scribner for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pre-order a copy of Lie With Me here on Book Depository.

book review: Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

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VITA NOSTRA by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko
★★★★★
Harper Voyager, November 2018

 

At the start of this novel, 16-year-old Sasha Samokhina is on a seaside vacation with her mother, where after a few days she finds herself stalked by a mysterious man with pale skin and dark glasses. She is eventually confronted by this stranger, who entreats Sasha to wake up at 4 am every morning, go to the beach, take off all her clothes, and swim to a buoy and back. She reluctantly agrees to this strange task, and as soon as she’s back on shore that first morning, she starts to vomit gold coins.

Thus begins the wildly unconventional journey that the Dyachenkos take the reader on in Vita Nostra, which has safely earned its distinction as the most unorthodox book I have ever read. This doesn’t follow any kind of narrative formula that will be familiar to many western readers – it’s bizarrely lacking in conflict, resolution, plot twists, and structure. But it’s also the most singular and enchanting and darkly horrifying book I have ever read.

Honestly, the marketing team has my sympathy for this one, because I don’t think I’ve ever read another book that so staunchly defies categorization. There are recognizable elements from traditional coming of age novels, but it isn’t a bildungsroman; there are hints and whispers of magic but it isn’t really fantasy; there are some classic Magical School tropes but it isn’t remotely comparable to Harry Potter; and it’s filled to the brim with philosophical references but its maddeningly esoteric approach is strangely alienating even to readers who are interested in its central themes. A large part of this book is just stumbling blindly alongside Sasha and waiting for everything to be made clear, which it never really is.

It’s proving to be quite the challenge to explain what the appeal exactly is of a book like this, and I fully accept that this isn’t going to be for everyone. This isn’t really for readers who need to be entertained by plot or readers who need to be invested in complex character dynamics. This is more for the readers drawn equally to a compelling atmosphere and big ideas; readers who are both thrilled and terrified at the idea that their own worldview is more limited than they ever could have imagined. This book mesmerized me from the very first page and proved to be the most unexpected reading experience I’ve ever had. At times it’s frustrating and incomprehensible but never for a single moment does it fail to stimulate. This is one of the most exceptional things I have read in a very long time, and one of those books that will absolutely reward the effort you put into it.

Thanks so much to Harper Voyager for the copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

Women in Translation Recommendations

It’s Women in Translation Month!  The idea behind this is to use the month of August as an opportunity to read more translated books by women, as the vast majority of books translated into English are written by men.  There’s a readathon you can check out over on booktube (hosted by Matthew Sciarappa, Kendra Winchester, and Jennifer Insert Literary Pun Here, who’s recently decided to end her channel but we’re not talking about that as I’m still in mourning).  But even if you don’t want to participate or follow the prompts, #WITmonth is still a fantastic excuse to prioritize some translated books by women that you’ve been meaning to get to.  So I’m following Callum‘s example and posting some recommendations!

If Not, Winter by Sappho, translated from the Greek by Anne Carson: Most of Sappho’s lyric poetry (written to be accompanied by a lyre) is now lost, and most of what remains is only in fragments, sadly.  But this beautiful collection by Anne Carson is a must-read for anyone interested at all by antiquity, as Sappho provides a look at the daily lives and desires of women on the Ancient Greek island of Lesbos where she’s from.  I’m a huge fan of Anne Carson’s work, and she does a stunning job with this.

Medea by Christa Wolf, translated from the German by John Cullen: This is a stellar and politically-driven retelling of Euripides’ Medea, which focuses on the question of whether the court at Corinth had something to gain by Medea’s downfall.  With clear parallels to her own sociopolitical reality as she grew up in the GDR, Wolf spins this familiar story in an unfamiliar direction, while still staying faithful to the original.  I also think Cullen’s translation is just gorgeous.  This is such a thoughtful and powerful book.

Penance and Confessions by Kanae Minato, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Stephen Snyder (respectively): Both of these books follow a very similar formula, starting with a murder and culminating in acts of revenge.  They’re some of the best examinations of female rage that I’ve read in any contemporary thrillers, and Kanae Minato’s unique style reads with the air of a fable.  Her work is both twisted and darkly compelling.

The Vegetarian, The White Book, and Human Acts by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith: Kind of a #basic recommendation because who hasn’t heard of Han Kang, but I adore her too much to leave her off this list.  The Vegetarian absolutely blew me away when I read it a couple of years ago, as it’s one of the darkest and strangest and most haunting things I’ve ever read.  But it’s her quietly breathtaking Human Acts that’s actually my favorite of her novels, which focuses on the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 and provides a brutal look at humanity’s capability for violence.  The subtly affecting White Book is probably my least favorite of the three, but I still gave it 4 stars.  I cannot recommend Han Kang highly enough.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein: I actually read this in Italian, but I’m sure the translation is excellent as Goldstein is a rather prolific Italian translator, well known for translating the works of Elena Ferrante (who I still haven’t read, shamefully).  But anyway.  This memoir is very close to my heart as I also spent some time living in Italy, which was an incredibly immersive experience in terms of both language and culture, and Lahiri deftly examines what it’s like to live in that country as a foreigner who’s learning the language purely by choice.  But I think it’s a memoir anyone can relate to who’s spent some time living in a foreign country, it doesn’t have to have been Italy.

My #WITmonth TBR is brief and overly ambitious since I’m also doing the Man Booker longlist thing, but if I manage to read any this month, it’ll be some combination of these three:

I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated from the Korean by Sora-Kim Russell.  This is the one I’m currently reading, though I’m not very far at all.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

Cassandra by Christa Wolf, translated from the German by Jan van Heurck.

What are your favorite translated books by women?  And are you planning on participating in #WITmonth?  What’s your TBR?  Comment and chat with me about Women in Translation!

book review: The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

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THE ODYSSEY by Homer
★★★☆☆
★★★★★ translation
WW Norton, 2017
originally composed in the 8th century BCE

 

It usually surprises people who know how much I love the Iliad and the Aeneid that I’m not half as passionate about the Odyssey. There isn’t necessarily one overwhelming reason, but it mostly boils down to the fact that as a reader, I am much more compelled by characters and internal struggles than I am by plot, and consequently, the Iliad and the Aeneid are more thematically compelling to me than the Odyssey is. I don’t meant to imply that Odysseus isn’t a complex character in his own right, because he is, of course, but I’m much less interested in his straightforward desire to reclaim his home from the threat of the suitors than I am in Achilles’ conflict of choosing not to fight because his honor was insulted, or Aeneas’ debate of whether he should continue on his fated journey to found Rome, when he has short-term happiness at his fingertips in Carthage. There’s some fun and excitement in the Odyssey, but ultimately I struggle to stay invested from start to finish.  It’s just not my favorite of the classics, and this re-read didn’t do much to change that.

What I did want to talk about though is Emily Wilson’s brilliant translation. This is only my second time reading the Odyssey – the first time I read Robert Fagles’ translation, which I’m also fond of, but Emily Wilson just raised the bar. Here are just a few of my favorite things about it:

  • Wilson translated the ‘rosy-fingered Dawn’ line differently every time. If you’ve read the Odyssey, you know just how frequently this line appears. What a feat.  The effect I think honors the repetition of the original, but the poetic license serves to enliven the reader’s reaction to it.  (I know the last time I read the Odyssey my eyes started to glaze over this phrase after a while, failing to take it in.)
  • It’s both readable and lyrical from start to finish.  Wilson doesn’t dress up her translation in showy vocabulary that obscures the meaning of the text.  It’s honest, direct, and concise, but still written beautifully.  Here are the opening lines:

    Tell me about a complicated man.
    Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
    when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
    and where he went, and who he met, the pain
    he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
    he worked to save his life and bring his men
    back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
    they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
    kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
    tell the old story for our modern times.
    Find the beginning.

    Gorgeous.

  • This entire translation is written in iambic pentameter. While that was not the meter of the original, dactylic hexameter isn’t a commonly used meter in the English language, so instead Wilson chose to render the poem in iambic pentameter, to lend it rhythm and musicality.
  • Wilson eradicated a lot of the misogynistic language that has been used up until now by contemporary male translators, but which was not present in the original Greek. (e.g., referring to the slave girls in Penelope’s household as ‘whores.’)

Also, I just wanted to share this excerpt from Wilson’s Translator’s Note, which almost made me cry, reading it as a woman with such a huge vested interest in the classics and translation:

It is traditional in statements like this Translator’s Note to bewail’s one’s own inadequacy when trying to be faithful to the original. Like many contemporary translation theorists, I believe that we need to rethink the terms in which we talk about translation. My translation is, like all translations, an entirely different text from the original poem. Translation always, necessarily, involves interpretation; there is no such thing as a translation that provides anything like a transparent window through which a reader can see the original. The gendered metaphor of the “faithful” translation, whose worth is always secondary to that of a male-authored original, acquires a particular edge in the context of a translation by a woman of The Odyssey, a poem that is deeply invested in female fidelity and male dominance.

This meant a lot.  Female translators, scholars, and classicists all deserve to have their voices heard.  I’m hopeful that the recent publications of Caroline Alexander’s Iliad and Emily Wilson’s Odyssey are just the start of a bigger trend of making way for women in such a male-dominated field.

If you haven’t read the Odyssey, this is the translation you should read, and if you have, it’s worth revisiting to experience Wilson’s skill and artistry.