Four for #WITMonth: Jansson, Lamarche, Lunde and Vogt

I’ve managed four novels for this year’s Women in Translation month: a nostalgic, bittersweet picture of island summers poised between childhood and old age; a brief, impressionistic account of domestic violence and rape; the third in a series looking at how climate change and species loss reverberate amid family situations; and a visceral meditation on women’s bodies and relationships. Two of these were review copies from the recently launched Héloïse Press, which “champions world-wide female talent”.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972; 1974)

[Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal]

It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace.

This was only the second time I’ve read one of Jansson’s books aimed at adults (as opposed to five from the Moomins series). Whereas A Winter Book didn’t stand out to me when I read it in 2012 – though I will try it again this winter, having acquired a free copy from a neighbour – this was a lovely read, so evocative of childhood and of languid summers free from obligation. For two months, Sophia and Grandmother go for mini adventures on their tiny Finnish island. Each chapter is almost like a stand-alone story in a linked collection. They make believe and welcome visitors and weather storms and poke their noses into a new neighbour’s unwanted construction.

Six-year-old Sophia, based on Jansson’s niece of the same name, is precocious and opinionated, liable to change her mind in an instant. In “The Cat,” one of my favourite stand-alone bits, she’s fed up with their half-feral pet who kills lots of birds and swaps him for a friend’s soppy lap cat, but then regrets it. She’s learning that logic and emotion sometimes contradict each other, which becomes clearer as she peppers Grandmother with questions about religion and superstition.

As is common to Jansson’s books, there’s a melancholy undercurrent here.

Everything was fine, and yet everything was overshadowed by a great sadness. It was August, and the weather was sometimes stormy and sometimes nice, but for Grandmother, no matter what happened, it was only time on top of time, since everything is vanity and a chasing after the wind.

Sophia’s mother died, and although her grandmother has the greater presence, Papa is also around, dealing with practicalities in the background. Death stalks around the edges, reminding Grandmother of her mortality through bouts of vertigo that have her grabbing for her heart medication. On just the second page we have this memento mori:

“When are you going to die?” the child asked.

And Grandmother answered, “Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.”

And so it doesn’t feel like our concern either; the focus is on the now, on these beautiful little moments of connection across the generations – like in “Playing Venice,” when Grandmother stays up all night rebuilding Sophia’s model city that was washed away by the rain. (Public library)

The Memory of the Air by Caroline Lamarche (2014; 2022)

[Winner of an English PEN Award; translated from the French by Katherine Gregor]

In a hypnotic monologue, a woman tells of her time with a violent partner (the man before, or “Manfore”) who thinks her reaction to him is disproportionate and all due to the fact that she has never processed being raped two decades ago. When she goes in for a routine breast scan, she shows the doctor her bruised arm, wanting there to be a definitive record of what she’s gone through. It’s a bracing echo of the moment she walked into a police station to report the sexual assault (and oh but the questions the male inspector asked her are horrible).

The novella opens with an image that returns in dreams but is almost more a future memory of what might have been: “I went down into a ravine and, at the bottom, found a dead woman. She was lying in a shroud, on a carpet of fallen leaves.” I read this in one sitting – er, yoga session – and it has stayed in my mind in intense flashes like that and the flounce of her red dress on the summer day that turned into a nightmare. At an intense 70 pages, this reminded me of Annie Ernaux’s concise autofiction (I’ve reviewed Happening and I Remain in Darkness). An introduction by Dr Dominique Carlini-Versini contextualizes the work by considering the treatment of rape in contemporary French women’s writing.

The Memory of the Air will be published on 26 September. With thanks to Héloïse Press for the proof copy for review.

The Last Wild Horses by Maja Lunde (2019; 2022)

[Translated from the Norwegian by Diane Oatley]

The third in Lunde’s “Climate Quartet,” with its recurring elements of migration, shortages and environmental collapse. Always, though, the overall theme is parent–child relationships and the love that might be the only thing that keeps us going in the face of unspeakable challenges. Here she returns to the tripartite structure of The History of Bees (much my favourite of the three): a historical strand, a near-contemporary one, and a dystopian future story line. The link between the three is Przewalski’s horses (aka takhi).

In the early 1880s, Mikhail Alexandrovich Kovrov, assistant director of St. Petersburg Zoo, is brought the hide and skull of an ancient horse species assumed extinct. Although a timorous man who still lives with his mother, he becomes part of an expedition to Mongolia to bring back live specimens. In 1992, Karin, who has been obsessed with Przewalski’s horses since encountering them as a child in Nazi Germany, spearheads a mission to return the takhi to Mongolia and set up a breeding population. With her is her son Matthias, tentatively sober after years of drug abuse. In 2064 Norway, Eva and her daughter Isa are caretakers of a decaying wildlife park that houses a couple of wild horses. When a climate migrant comes to stay with them and the electricity goes off once and for all, they have to decide what comes next. This future story line engaged me the most.

I appreciated some aspects: queer and middle-aged romances, the return of a character from The End of the Ocean, the consideration across all three plots of what makes a good mother. However, the horses seemed neither here nor there. There are also many, many animal deaths. Perhaps an unsentimental attitude is necessary to reflect past and future values, and the apparent cruelty of natural processes, but it limits the book’s appeal to animal lovers. Maybe the tone fits the Norwegian prose, which the translator describes as lean.

The fourth book of the quartet, publishing in Norway next month, is called something like The Dream of a Tree; a focus on trees would be a draw for me. After the disappointment of Books 2 and 3, I’m unsure whether I want to bother with the final volume, but it makes sense to do so, if only to grasp Lunde’s full vision. (Public library)

What Concerns Us by Laura Vogt (2020; 2022)

[Translated from the German by Caroline Waight]

Vogt’s Swiss-set second novel is about a tight-knit matriarchal family whose threads have started to unravel. For Rahel, motherhood has taken her away from her vocation as a singer. Boris stepped up when she was pregnant with another man’s baby and has been as much of a father to Rico as to Leni, the daughter they had together afterwards. But now Rahel’s postnatal depression is stopping her from bonding with the new baby, and she isn’t sure this quartet is going to make it in the long term.

Meanwhile, Rahel’s sister Fenna knows she’s pregnant but refuses a doctor’s care. When she comes to stay with Rahel, she confides that the encounter with her partner, Luc, that led to conception was odd, rough; maybe not consensual. And all this time, the women’s mother, Verena, has been undergoing treatment for breast cancer. All three characters appear to be matter-of-factly bisexual; Rahel and Fenna’s father has long been out of the picture, replaced in Verena’s affections by Inge.

As I was reading, I kept thinking of the declaration running through A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa: “This is a female text.” Vogt’s vision is all breasts and eggs, genitals actual and metaphorical. I loved the use of food in the novel: growing up, the girls cherished “silly nights” when their mother prepared an egg feast and paired it with a feminist lecture on reproduction. Late on, there’s a wonderful scene when the three main characters gorge on preserved foodstuffs from the cellar and share their secrets. (Their language is so sexually frank; would anyone really talk to their mother and siblings in that way?!) As in the Lunde, the main question is what it means to be a mother, but negotiating their relationships with men stretches the bonds of this feminine trio. One for fans of Rachel Cusk and Sally Rooney.

With thanks to Héloïse Press for the proof copy for review.

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18 responses

  1. The Summer Book is a favourite of mine – so matter-of-fact yet tender. The Memory of the Air sounds excellent if difficult (a bit like When I Hit You?) And Maja Lunde has been creeping up my radar for some time now, so I might see if our library has The History of Bees to start off with.

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    1. I’m happy to send my proof of The Memory of the Air your way — I did think it would be one you’d appreciate. Definitely recommend The History of Bees.

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  2. There was a Canadian novel about bees that came out around the same time as that Maja Lunde translation and I realised, even at the time, that I was confusing them, but now I see that I never truly sorted it out. Strangely, despite my now-limited library access, all three in that series are available here. Do you think I might enjoy them more than you have? I’m certainly hesitant because of the way you’ve described the third one, and I’m sure that aspect of the story would be upsetting for me, too.

    The covers of the first, second, and fourth volumes seem like they would make a nice collage! The third image is so distinct in this company.

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    1. I remember another reader of your cli-fi review series recommended Lunde’s books and I was happy to second that. You may well enjoy books 2 and 3 more than I did, and it was only in the third that there was the animal death issue.

      Well, I did make a little cover collage for Instagram!

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  3. I struggled with The Last Wild Horses – in fact I abandoned it. It was a moment when I had such a lot of books demanding my attention, and I couldn’t be bothered to find out whether it would finally draw me in. With the exception of the Jansson (can you believe I’ve never read any yet?) I’m not sure there’s much here for me this time. Phew!

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    1. The Lunde was missable for sure. Do try Jansson, though.

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      1. Will do! She’s ben on my list for ages.

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  4. I cried finishing the Jansson; there aren’t many books that have done that. Though your other titles all sound interesting as well as quite diverse I suspect I may never get around to them, and definitely not in August when there are so many other things going on. A shame, but there we are.

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    1. The Jansson was the highlight of this set. I’m pleased to have covered four languages … but it’s still all white women from Western Europe!

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  5. I struggled with The Summer Book and couldn’t finish it, but then I also hated the Moomins as a child, so maybe Jansson isn’t for me even when she’s writing in wildly different genres!

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    1. She has a distinctive bittersweet tone that resonates with me, but I can see why others wouldn’t care for it.

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  6. “All breasts and eggs”, no thank you! This is all why I struggle with translated books – maybe I’m just too conventional! I would read the Jansson though. I like a soppy lapcat myself! I managed one WIT book this year which is one more than I often do, so was happy with that.

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    1. It was quite astonishing the things this mother and daughters said to each other!

      We will stick with adopting older lap cats rather than getting rambunctious kittens. Our cat is 14 now and slowing down, with kidney disease; while we know he wouldn’t ever enjoy sharing the house with another cat, we don’t like the prospect of being without kitty company either…

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  7. […] stories, I’ve already read 13 collections this year. Highlights: Dance Move by Wendy Erskine, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, Antipodes by Holly Goddard Jones, and How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia […]

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  8. I saved this to read over again your lovely description of the Jansson. You introduced her to me, and she just has that elusive, melancholy tone that speaks to me. So glad you liked that one! I will try the Winter Book (again) this winter.

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    1. Oh, did I?! I wonder what that was, one of the Moomins books? I do love the bittersweet tone of much of her work. The Winter Book should be a good companion for the cold months to come.

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      1. Probably, the Moomins. Or, her short stories (which I love!).

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  9. […] from A Winter Book and The Summer Book, I’m still new to Tove Jansson’s writing for adults, having become most familiar with her […]

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