Showing posts with label classics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label classics. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

WITMonth Day 22 | 10 Recommended 20th Century Classics


We've covered older classics, but what about books from last century? Hundreds of thousands of brilliant books by women from around the world were written in the 20th century, so this list will of course be woefully incomplete. But it can be a jumping off point!

  1. The Complete Stories - Clarice Lispector (tr. from Portuguese by Katrina Dodson): A stellar collection of a 20th century icon, spanning works that weird, wonderful, and powerful.
  2. Kristin Lavransdatter - Sigrid Undset (tr. from Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally, among others): The historical epic that remains popular to this day, detailing the lives of ordinary women in late medieval Norway.
  3. The Bridge of Beyond - Simone Schwarz-Bart (tr. from French by Barbara Bray): A transcendent, powerful, and absolutely unique novel about the memory of horror, within a life of beauty.
  4. History - Elsa Morante (tr. from Italian by William Weaver): History, but only of a certain time and place, lingering somewhere between the intimate story of a single family trying to survive fascist Italy, as well as the larger story of Europe during the same period.
  5. Woman at Point Zero - Nawal El Saadawi (tr. from Arabic by Sherif Hetata): What brings a woman to the edge of her life, having murdered a man and remaining unfazed in the face of her impending execution? A stunning feminist exploration of the lives of poor, under-educated women and the struggles that emerge.
  6. So Long a Letter - Mariama Bâ (tr. from French by Modupé Bodé-Thomas): Written in the form of a letter between two friends, a Senegalese woman reflects on her life and her status as a woman.
  7. The Door - Magda Szabó (tr. from Hungarian by Len Rix): A complicated friendship with a complicated woman leads to a fascinating meditation on a writer's relationship with her housekeeper, neurosis, and life.
  8. The Book of Lamentations - Rosario Castellanos (tr. from Spanish by Esther Allen): A fictional account of an indigenous Mayan Mexican uprising, shining light on the racial boundaries, oppression, and violence that dominated the early 20th century.
  9. Masks - Fumiko Enchi (tr. from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter): Two men seek the love of a young widow, whose life remains intrinsically linked to her former mother in law.
  10. Mother of 1084 - Mahasweta Devi (tr. from Bengali by Samik Bandyopadhyay): A mother remembers and grieves for her son, killed in during an attempted communist uprising.
There are, as usual, many more titles that could have made this list. Some have already appeared in other lists this month (The House of the Spirits, to name but one example), others may yet make future lists (The Summer Book), and others still will just have to wait their turn! What are some of your favorite 20th century books by women in translation? What do you think I've missed in this list?

Monday, August 20, 2018

WITMonth Day 20 | 10 Recommended Pre-20th Century Classics


One of the most common (dismissive) responses to WITMonth's existence is that of course there is bias, since women did not historically write as much as men. While true that women often did not have the same opportunities to write as men did, it is simply not true that women did not write at all. Nor is it true that women only began writing from a certain period and onward. In fact, women have been writing and telling stories for literally hundreds (indeed, thousands) of years. The first credited novel was written by a Japanese woman, Murasaki Shikibu. Some of the finest ancient poetry was written by women. Not being a literary scholar or historian, it's certainly hard for me to point to the best classics by women in translation... but it's not impossible! So here is just a taste. (And keep an eye out for the 20th century edition!)
  1. The Tale of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu (tr. from Japanese by Royall Tyler, among others): The literal first novel, a genuine classic and cornerstone of literary culture at large!
  2. The Book of the City of Ladies - Christine de Pizan (tr. from French by Rosalind Brown-Grant, among others): Before feminism was feminism, there was Christine de Pizan, eloquently arguing for women's rights (albeit through a deeply Christian, European, and at-times narrow-minded lens).
  3. The Clouds Float North - Yu Xuanji (tr. from Chinese by David Young and Jiann I. Lin): One of China's early poets, with poems ranging from the personal to the atmospheric.
  4. The Princess of Clèves - Madame de Lafayette (tr. from French by Nancy Mitford): Romance, intrigue, and drama combine in a novel that is clearly rooted to its time period, but also surprisingly modern.
  5. Indiana - George Sand (tr. from French by Sylvia Raphael): A pre-feminist novel exploring the rights of women (and poor women) in a world that simply does not view them as worthy.
  6. Poems, Protest, and a Dream: Selected Writings - Juana Inés de la Cruz (tr. from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden, among others): Nun, writer, proto-feminist, and scholar, Juana Inés de la Cruz is not the name of a leading Mexican prize for Spanish-language women writers for nothing!
  7. The Pillow Book - Sei Shōnagon (tr. from Japanese by Meredith McKinney): Musings on life, poetry, art, and boredom by a writer who would probably feel perfectly at home on Twitter... even though she wrote over 1000 years ago.
  8. The Appeasement of Radhika - Muddupalani (tr. from Telugu by Sandhya Mulchandani): An erotic poem about Krishna and Radha, groundbreaking in the sexual liberties its women have, as well as having been a Telugu classic for hundreds of years.
  9. Birds Without a Nest - Clorinda Matto de Turner (tr. from Spanish by J. G. H., among others): A Peruvian novel detailing the struggles of indigenous South Americans, heaping criticism on existing power structures and demanding a better future.
  10. The Book of Mahsati Ganjavi - Mahsati Ganjavi (tr. from Persian by Paul Smith): A 12th-century Persian poet and court-member, whose surviving works primarily focus on love and emotion).
Here's the thing: This list isn't easy to compile. It's not all novels. It doesn't quite cover the entire world. It's limited in terms of the backgrounds of the writers (almost all of whom were at the very top of their respective cultural classes). But it also is a list of classic women writers, and given another hour or two, I could come up with another 10, 20, or 50 more titles (especially if I let myself include a lot more European women!). There are dozens of brilliant women writers from all eras whose works have been translated into English; there are thousands still more who have yet to be translated.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

History by Elsa Morante | Review

A colleague of mine saw my copy of Elsa Morante's History: A Novel (translated from Italian by William Weaver) at work, lifted it, and whistled. "Heavy!" he remarked, and then read the back cover. "In more than one way..."

And this seems like the simplest way to explain what History is - it's a heavy novel. Of course, any novel that delves into World War II is likely to be on the less-cheery side, but there's something uniquely bleak about History, perhaps because it is so simply written. In the introduction, Lily Tuck discusses Morante's goal of having a novel that is accessible to more than just a literary class; this effect comes across rather strongly, with a rich-blooded novel alongside a devastating war story.

There is an intentional (I presume) irony in titling the novel History when it focuses so precisely on a single narrative thread (and indeed the Italian title of La Storia implies a duality of history/the story). History alternates between a huge, panoramic scale that chronicles the crushing progress of history from the start of the 20th century, and the individual family drama of Ida Ramundo and her two sons (Nino and Useppe). And while many historical novels of this style tend to have the individual story echo the broader historical context, History curiously doesn't really do this. While there's an obvious reflection of Italian and European history in Ida's story, it's sharply limited as compared to the parallel "history". This is even acknowledged in-text, with the occasional reference to additional horrors never mentioned in the main plot.

Ida's story is more than a metaphor for a tumultuous century. Ida is described early in the novel as having these sorts of fits - clearly epileptic seizures - which often coincide with certain more "historical" events and accompany the novel. The story truly begins with Ida's rape (thankfully frequently referred to as a rape in-text, with little sugar-coating or hand-waving, with a rather cold acknowledgement of rape's role within war), in a deeply uncomfortable scene that rather predictably leads to the birth of Ida's second son, Useppe.

Useppe becomes a sort of lens for the story, focusing it and also providing it with a rather chilling context. Poverty becomes just a little more present when it's experienced by a baby. Fear of racial laws for the mixed-race Jewish Ida becomes a matter of life-and-death for her ambiguously fathered son. Survival becomes something so much more.

Ida's firstborn son fulfills another purpose. The teenage Nino starts out as a rather vocal supporter of fascism, but his character morphs and shifts almost according to public Italian opinion. He soon begins to reflect a sort of political chaos, alongside his own drive to survive and selfishness in relation to his family. Nino's story seems to link to the bigger "history" than Ida/Useppe's, but it too is kept relatively personal rather than generalized.

The novel also introduces several other characters, and here it at times stumbles. I found that I rather liked the narrator's effect of filling in two pages of side-story about a half-mentioned character, keeping the reader up-to-date about their (usually tragic) end. At times, however, some of these stories clogged the main narrative (portions of Davide Segre's story, for instance). For a novel that's over 700 pages long (heavy), History definitely had more than one subplots that could have been trimmed or entirely cut. Particularly in the latter portions of the book, Morante's almost pathological need for bleak character development dragged down the story somewhat and distracted from the stronger focus on Ida.

With regards to the writing, I found myself struck early on by the strange sensation that History read like a George Eliot novel. This might have been because I'd been rereading Middlemarch just before, but there was something about History's omnipresent first-person narrator that reminded me of Eliot's writing. This, naturally, is one of the highest compliments I can give, and I truly enjoyed the casual-yet-precise style that History employed. The occasional detours, the personal touch of the narrator that couldn't possibly know as much as she/he did, the often-conversational style... these end up making History accessible in exactly the way I imagine Morante wanted it to be.

But that first impression - this novel is heavy - remains throughout. There is no respite from the horrors of the period, there is no ultimate victory. War has a lasting effect, and History sets out to make sure we do not forget it. This is far from an easy novel, but as many others (and wiser) have said, it's necessary reading. We can all learn something from it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

WITMonth Day 24 | Christine de Pizan | Thoughts

One of my personal victories from WTMonth is discovering Christine de Pizan. You might argue that it's more a sign of my earlier flaws as a reader (that I didn't know of her existence until two years ago...), but I choose to view it more positively. Here was a woman writing of feminist ideas before feminism even existed, exploring gender dynamics and topics of utmost importance to women (even today!) in 1405! And I found her!

I began with The Book of the City of Ladies, which was, in fact, better than I had expected. I came prepared to be somewhat bored, to find the text exhausting in its casual sexism and racism, reductionist and absurd all at once, while intriguing in its concept. Yet while it's obviously an old text and the cultural context is very different from our current one, Christine's writing felt shockingly modern. In fact, parts felt like they could have just as easily been written by a modern feminist blogger today.

The Treasure of the City of Ladies continued along a similar vein. The two books are very different in their message (and thus their morality...), but both had this undercurrent vibe of: You're raising the exact same issues modern feminists raise today, but you're reaching completely different conclusions. Christine's morality is inherently tied to Christianity (and a very specific type of Christianity at that), further influenced by general cultural norms of the time. That means it's lacking much of the inclusive warmth modern feminism has rightly adopted (and intersectionality as a notion is pretty much limited to Christine pointing out that women of lower social classes are not meaningless, though she spends little time arguing the point...), and there is a rigid expectation of conduct that makes little sense in today's world.

This can make for uncomfortable reading in parts, though I found it fascinating. Take, for instance, Christine's advice on how women ought to treat their husbands. On the one hand, she advocates for wives to be docile and adhere to their husbands rule (even when those husbands may be cruel or abusive). But beneath that seemingly anti-feminist message lurks another odd little piece of advice: Wives, be wise enough in the workings of your estate and your husband's work to be able to advise him. While clearly sticking to the existing tradition by which wives must serve their husbands (and suffer in silence), Christine also pointedly fights for women to have basic (and not so basic) education. Don't be passive, she argues. Don't be ignorant. Don't...

Don't let men take advantage of you when you're widowed. Because that's what it appears happened to Christine upon her husband's death. In her memoirs, she writes almost dispassionately about the various men who saw an opportunity to swindle a young widow and about the legal woes she was forced into as a result. It makes you wonder, though, how much of the advice Christine gives in The Treasure is borne of bitterness. She so often dwells on how a wife must be kind and accommodating to her husband's friends, but what happened to her? Was she taken advantage of by friends, or rather did those kinder men help her? Is the advice ironic, through clenched teeth, or is Christine again recognizing a world which would hurt women in every possible way and one tiny way which might help them?

It was the moments of pure feminism, though, that fascinated me most. Imagine the audacity of a 15th century woman writing pointedly that no woman has ever encouraged rape or sought it out. Or discussing - flatly, furiously, ferociously - that women are not inherently less intelligent than men, nor less virtuous, nor more frivilous, nor incapable of learning, nor lesser beings. The Book of the City of Ladies is a treasure-trove of passionate arguments against claims that are still depressingly prevalent, with immediate retorts to things like "women's vanity" (Christine coolly points to the prevalence of deeply vain men in the French court), rape (she was asking for it has apparently been the argument for hundreds of years, but feminists weren't having it then and they won't have it now), women's intelligence (including Christine smugly referencing her own intelligence, in a rather gratifying bit of self-glorification) or education (for which Christine strongly advocates). These are the sorts of topics I still find fascinating today.

And I also loved the way things weren't the same. I loved seeing the differences between Christine's demands for basic rights as compared to modern feminist theory. I loved seeing the way Christine almost predicts the sorts of questions women will be asking 600 years later, or the problems they might face (even if her suggestions seem hilariously outdated). I loved having to put on my 15th-century glasses in order to try to rebuild Christine's truest meaning. I loved her observations, her sharpness, her breadth, her passion and her insistence. Here was a woman who recognized the important role she played. Yes, that is radical.

I've now read 2.5 books of Christine de Pizan's writing (multiple translators and editions); I hope to read everything of hers that has been translated into English. While representing only one perspective (I would love, for instance, to read contemporary texts from other parts of the world!), Christine is a sharp, witty, intelligent writer with a lot to say and her works are well worth reading. Not just her pre-feminist texts either, but also her poetry, her stories, her criticism...

Then I wonder... Why isn't Christine de Pizan on the list of the greats? Why is she not more frequently discussed as a pre-feminist, an important stepping stone to equal rights long before the feminist movement even existed? Or is she actually that prevalent... and only I was unaware...?



*** I also find myself wondering why the academic consensus seems to be to refer to her as "Christine" (and nothing further); if it's just an overly-familiar sexist thing or for some other reason...?

Saturday, August 6, 2016

WITMonth Day 6 | The Lais of Marie de France | Review

I need to open this review by criticizing this edition: As much as I normally like Penguin Classics (and for some odd reason, I've had a strong affinity for them since childhood...), The Lais of Marie de France (translated by Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby) disappointed in one simple regard: There is less than 100 pages of actual content. And the book costs as much as a 500-paged text. As much as I recognize the work that goes into translating this sort of text and I thought the introduction was fascinating, it felt absurd that such a slim volume should cost so much and furthermore that it should come with so little extra material (the end of the edition has padding in the form of two of the lais in the original Old French - super not-helpful for most readers).

Having gotten that out of the way, let's talk about these bizarre, fascinating, modern, ancient, and hilarious short stories.

I love reading old texts, I won't lie. There's something incredible about recognizing how utterly human humans have always been. We hold certain assumptions about cultures past, yet every time I explore literature from those eras, I discover that... nah, people have always been people. Cultures change, but humans don't. And so The Lais didn't actually feel all that old-fashioned.

Men and women fall in love. Women get awkwardly pregnant and try to hide it from their parents. Men and women try to awkwardly hide their affairs from their spouses. Sometimes they get caught. Sometimes "true love" prevails. Sometimes true love isn't so true after all. Sometimes a queen pettily "accuses" a knight of being gay because he brushed her off. Sometimes a young married woman complains about her crusty old husband.

Humans are humans, on full display in these stories. And they're weird stories, to be clear. A good portion lack happy endings (which rather surprised me, to be honest - I was expecting glossed over fairy tales at first), another set have ostensibly happy endings but pretty tragic developments, and then there are those that just... hey! Love story! Happy ending! Have fun!

Like most classic literature, I feel distinctly unqualified to make any scholarly remarks about these Lais. I'm sure wiser readers could comment on the morality tales, on the way sometimes infidelities are rewarded and other times dismissed, on the critique of marrying off young women to old men who hide them away in towers (a recurring theme which I actually found quite fascinating and would love to read more about), or even on the way some stories baffling just end in some horrific imagery.

But I can only point to the parts I liked. I liked when the women resisted predetermined fates, finding their own loves and lives (shockingly enough, right). I liked when parents were reunited with long-lost children, and there was no nonsense about them being "bastards" or any such talk. I liked when the stories ended happily, truthfully, because it often felt justified. Sure, the love stories themselves rarely make sense and there's a lot of descriptions of how handsome the knights are or how beautiful the fair maidens are, but these little stories often build warmly.

This isn't the greatest book I've read in the course of my classics project, nor is it the most consequential. But it's still a curious little collection that paints those familiar romantic epics in a new light. Perhaps not worth buying, but certainly worth reading or exploring if given the chance.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

WITMonth Day 8 - Classics Challenge - Yu Xuanji's poetry

Yu Xuanji's The Clouds Float North - a collection of the poet's entire poetic repertoire, circa the 9th century, translated by David Young and Jiann I. Lin - is a slim volume, and I'm not quite through it yet. But as inexperienced as I am in reviewing poetry (that is, as bad as I am...), I found myself lingering over a few specific lines and wanting just to share the clarity in these very old poems.

The first thing I noticed is the strange diversity of them: The Clouds Float North is an odd mishmash of flowery language, personal and shared poetry. Some poems here are clearly metaphorical, gently referencing all manner of social interactions. Others are introspective, detailing those small feelings that aren't always easy to put to words. And then there are the universal (ubiquitous) poems about nature and the flow of water or whatever. Beautiful and all, but not necessarily particularly noteworthy. I wouldn't have expected them to be noteworthy, at least.

I'm finding myself drawn much more towards the introspective poems sent to friends - tiny fragments of thoughts which have come down through the years and still fully represent humanity:
I alone feel yearning
without any limit
reciting my own poems
staring up through the pines.
 It's often the punchlines which make me pause and smile, some gentle reminder that humans haven't really changed all that much and our desires - to share our thoughts and words with loved ones - are effectively universal. Yu Xuanji's writing has that slightly transcendent quality of something otherworldly, but totally human as well. And reading her poems makes me feel warm inside, moved by more than just the flowery language or the fact that these poems have been around for far, far longer than I have. This is classic literature I probably never would have known of if not for the Women in Translation project, and I'm glad I'm getting this chance to experience it.

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.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

WITMonth Day 6 - Women write classics

Classic literature is a fairly odd genre - it doesn't just mean anything old (hardly anyone would call the early 20th century pulp pieces that Somerset Maugham disparages in Of Human Bondage classic simply because it's old), nor does it necessarily mean the very best. The classics serve as a constant reminder of what the Powers That Be have determined is Important for Literature. And sadly, these lists are often very short on women, and for Anglo-American lists almost always completely lacking in women writers in translation.

But our point this month is not to bemoan, rather to champion. So here are a few truly classic books by women writers in translation (according to both meanings of the word), some of which I have read and some of which I have yet to:
  1. The Tale of Genji! If a list of classics fails to include this - the first novel - you can probably rest assured that the remainder will be unimaginative and stilted in its perception of quality literature. While I have yet to actually read this doorstopper, there is no doubt that as a concept, The Tale of Genji is critical in a broader understanding of literature. It furthermore provides modern readers and historians with unequaled insight to the lives of 11th century Japanese gentry, as well as simply being a novel. The Tale of Genji is without a doubt classic literature, and if the rumors are to be believed, fairly good classic literature at that. Written not in English (which hardly factored as a language at the time), nor by a man, Murasaki Shikubi deserves her place in literary history, no question about it. 
  2. The Heptameron - Marguerite de Navarre is perhaps better known as a princess (not a sentence I ever thought I'd write on this blog, but there you go!), but by all accounts (again one I haven't yet read myself, though I did just buy it) The Heptameron is an important piece of literary history, as well as in interesting aspect of feminist literature. These short stories cover different manners of female sexuality, as well as simply serving as a conversation between a group of women telling each other stories (which as a concept remains woefully underused today, while similar stories with all men are prevalent just about everywhere).
  3. Mercè Rodoreda's In the Time of the Doves - well-written, intelligent, painful and ultimately sharply on-point regarding war, love and peace, this novel deserves a spot on any modern classics list.
  4. Isabel Allende is a writer of several books that have legitimately made their way to the canon - namely The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna (as well as City of the Beasts, which holds a curious status in young adult literature). Allende's books overall defy neat genre definitions (she has literally written a book about Zorro. Which I read many years ago. Because it's literally a book about Zorro.) and she is rarely marketed as a "serious" literary writer, yet there is no denying that she is one of the most prolific, influential and ultimately classic women writers in the world today. 
These are just a few samples - obviously. There are many, many other women writers whose books I have not read, many writers who truly deserve to be on any list of classic literature (Tove Jansson, anyone? Juana Inés de la Cruz? Sigrid Undset?). Pretending like these writers do not exist - like non-Anglo women writers only sprouted up in the 20th century, and even then - is just an outright rewriting of history. These are just a handful of women I've been introduced to (many, I should note, through this project rather than an independent literary exposure!). Who are your favorite classic women writers in translation? Who do you think deserves a spot in our coveted Western canon?