Showing posts with label Dutch. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dutch. Show all posts

Sunday, August 2, 2015

WITMonth Day 2 - Classics Challenge - Isabelle de Charrière's sharp romanticism

I most likely would not have been introduced to Isabelle de Charrière if not for the women in translation project. And this specific collection - a rare title by a woman in translation for Penguin Classics - is a fascinating portrait of Europe at the time, and an even more interesting comparison to significantly more famous writers.

Of course de Charrière is immediately compared to Austen (despite predating her). Penguin Classics resorts to the cheapest of comparative recommendations by noting de Charrière's writing "not unlike Jane Austen" in "[tackling] the intricacies of high society, particularly in matters of love". Really? So any woman writer - since Jane Austen and indeed also before her time - is like Jane Austen for writing about... life? Oh goodness.

This is further made absurd by the fact that de Charrière's writing is nothing like Austen's. Not only does her style itself lean very heavily towards epistolary and conversational (far more than Austen's detached, droll style), de Charrière writes far more bluntly about the problems of the world. The stories rarely end happily, and the nuances of complex existence are not tossed out for the sake of a simple romance. In fact, de Charrière seems to dance around her endings altogether, usually leaving the reader hanging.

And thus does de Charrière's The Nobleman and Other Stories manage to keep the reader intrigued. Not necessarily because each story is flawless - some are distinctly unfinished and fairly dull - but because there's a clear passion in each perspective. The stories follow similar structural patterns (generally epistolary), but often differ in tone or temperament. And de Charrière does a brilliant job of actually making the letters feel realistic. Unlike most epistolary novels (and certainly modern ones...) which lose realism points for talking only of plot, de Charrière goes on tangents and side-stories and rambles about clothing or whatnot. This could be interpreted as sloppy writing (and perhaps it is...), but as a huge fan of the realism side of literature (and realistic fictional webseries, for example), these storytelling quirks actually endeared me quite a bit.

There's a lot more I can discuss as regards de Charrière - her writing, her exciting life, her intelligence, her total lack of naivety and sugar-coating, her approach to storytelling - but I'll focus for a moment on her legacy, and its general lack thereof. de Charrière is not a low-tier writer - she was prominent enough in the day, and her writing largely stands the test of time better than many of her contemporaries (men and women alike). But her placement in the canon is... nonexistent.

I suspect that most readers (like me) have not heard of Isabelle de Charrière. And so consider this your introduction. Penguin Classics has thankfully produced this interesting (if at times unbalanced and repetitive) collection of de Charrière's shorter works, and it's absolutely worth reading through. If the purpose of the Classics Challenge is to showcase classic women writers who have sadly been sidelined, I can think of no better starting point than Isabelle de Charrière's sharp romanticism.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

History across borders - The Twins | Review

Tessa de Loo's The Twins (tr. Ruth Levitt) was another one of those unexpected women in translation finds - I checked it out of the library largely because it had seemed like the most interesting random find of the day. And indeed, the book was both "interesting" and "unexpected" - the latter because of my embarrassingly low expectations of the book (something I'm trying to correct through this project), and the former because the book really does tackle quite a bit.

The Twins has a standard enough literary premise: twin sisters Anna and Lotte are orphaned as young girls in the 1920s and separated, one staying in Germany and the other crossing the border into Dutch territory. The two meet again unexpectedly in a Belgian resort as old women, after decades of disconnect. Just from the initial framing, you could guess where the story is headed, but de Loo doesn't bother to be coy about her story's intentions. Instead of vague, false-subtleties leading up to the war, Anna and Lotte address the schism that the war created right off the bat. Lotte - Dutch at heart, with few memories of her original father and life before her second family - views Anna suspiciously from the start.

This bluntness provides the story with much needed breathing room, but also echoes some of the writing flaws in the book. While the writing is largely clean and engaging, there were moments where I hoped for a quieter story, something a little more subtle and thoughtful-behind-the-scenes. It's a creative choice that I didn't enjoy so much, though there's no doubt it made the story flow more comfortably, without the anxiety that most books of this kind have surrounding the war. It's also the safer choice, opting for a more uniformly enjoyable reading experience than one that challenges the reader directly.

de Loo seems to rely heavily on the frame story, to the point where I often wanted to shake her grip on it. We are subject to a number of descriptions of Anna and Lotte walking through town, shivering, sitting down to eat, sitting down to drink, rehashing what was just told in the flashback... These emphasize the problems with flashback narratives, because as interesting as the frame was at times (largely through Anna's strange status as an anti-hero, and Lotte's constant acquiescence), it didn't hold up.

The frame - as well as the story itself, to a lesser degree - succeeds in showing the reader how easy it is to "forgive and forget". Anna progresses from half-apologies about German "involvement" in the war to emphatically arguing that her SS husband was not actually SS, he did not believe in it, he was not at fault. Anna is a mouthpiece for a Germany at war with itself - she is contradictory, passionate, aware of her mistakes, but also remembers her virtues more clearly. Lotte, meanwhile, spends a large part of the frame arguing this point with Anna, at times baffled by her victimization and disgusted by her nonchalance.

In the flashback sections, we grow to understand both these women. Lotte - with her problematic but ultimately whole family - risks everything to take in Jewish friends and refugees. Lotte is a representation of Dutch resistance, of a musical Europe in which Jewish fiances get taken away and in which a family hides more and more Jews in their countryside home. Anna represents poverty and rejection - her traumatic childhood with abusive family coupled with her simultaneous dislike of the Nazis and later complacency echoes a Germany at large. It's a clever way to tell the stories of larger countries, while making each seem sympathetic within the context of their personal avatar, despite being largely unsympathetic on a personal level.

The Twins thus ends up being a much more interesting World War II narrative than you'd expect. It's a fairly accessible sort of book, with writing and framing geared towards a broad audience (again - safer), but it's not poorly written. There's a solid flow to the story, and both Lotte and Anna end up fully fleshed characters (if problematic ones on an internal level). I will note that I found the ending to be an unnecessary cop-out (particularly if viewed through the representative lens I mentioned above), and a cheap way to end any story. Altogether though, the book is interesting, thought-provoking, and written from a refreshing point of view (how often are women stand-ins for a whole country?). The Twins may not be a seminal literary work or the most brilliant war novel I've ever read, but it does something nonetheless unique with a fairly stock setting and is worth thinking about.