On top of my 20 Books of Summer reading, I read three excellent books for Women in Translation month.
The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg, translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner
Valerie Solanas is best known for two things, being the author of the feminist tract the SCUM Manifesto and for shooting Andy Warhol. In April 1988, she was found dead of pneumonia, in a grubby hotel room in San Francisco. She was only 52, was broke, alone, and surrounded by pages of writing. In The Faculty of Dreams, Stridsberg blends fact and fiction to give a more rounded version of Solanas’ life and to bring some humanity to a woman who became, for many, nothing more than a footnote in Warhol’s biography.
The book opens with her death and what follows in not chronological. Stridsberg depicts Solanas’ trial for attempted murder, her painful and abusive childhood, her time at University when it appeared she had everything going for her, and her days in the mental hospitals where she was interned following the shooting of Warhol. Stridsberg is clear that this is not a straight autobiography. She has Valerie grow up in the desert, despite her actually living in New Jersey and inserts scenes where she, as the narrator, sits with Valerie in her hotel room as she is dying.
The novel has a wonderful dream-like atmosphere and reads at times like a play or a film script. Stridsberg seems more interested in image rather than fact and threads the book through with running motifs – a ringing phone, the colour pink, sea horses – to create an otherworldly backdrop to the grim nature of Solanas’ life.
Much of the novel is written in dialogue and despite making her difficult childhood clear, Stridsberg resists asking the reader to empathise too much with Valerie. She depicts her as blunt, bullying and egotistical but is never without sympathy for her. This was a woman who was intelligent and strong, who had survived childhood abuse to go to University and make something for herself, only to find that the world does not always work out the way you want it to.
The scenes in her hotel room at the end of her life are the most poignant and the device of having the author there with her works extremely well, emphasising the need for compassion and for understanding.
NARRATOR: I can’t stop thinking about you.
VALERIE: It’ll pass, you’ll see. Go home and finish this novel now.
NARRATOR: The novel’s just shit.
VALERIE: That’s fine. Go now, baby-writer. It’s going to be a nice day out there.
Vernon Subutex 2 by Virginie Depentes, translated by Frank Wynne
Virginie Despentes earned a well-deserved spot on the International Booker Prize shortlist for Vernon Subutex 1, which followed the titular ex-record store owner as he fell on hard times and became the unwitting owner of a video tape that a lot of dangerous people wanted to get their hands on. A supporting cast of junkies, musicians, producers and fixers made for a chaotic, colourful and timely look at French society. Vernon Subutex 2 picks up where the first book left off and is a sequel in the full sense of the word – the casual reader could not read this. Despentes provides a droll cast of characters at the start of this book and it is needed in order to follow the dozens of characters that orbit around Vernon and his infamous ‘Bleach Tapes’.
Vernon is now homeless, living in a park in Paris and the Bleach Tapes have been found and watched by Vernon and his gang. Vernon does not seem to care, but his friends do, and Vernon’s plight takes a back seat to the shenanigans that ensue from what has been discovered on the tapes. It’s testament to Despentes that the book becomes more than the sum of its parts because despite not feeling as coherent, or plot-driven as the first book, this is still a highly entertaining skewering of the pomposity of all aspects French society – from homelessness to porn, the wearing of the hijab to far-right Nazis – nothing and no one escapes Despentes’ sharp-eyed gaze. Frank Wynne who, once again, captures the verve and dark humour of Despentes’ writing skilfully translates the novel and the book concludes with a moment of calm, which will no doubt prefigure the storm that will come in the third and final instalment.
Vivian by Christina Hessleholdt, translated by Paul Russell Garrett
A discovery at an auction in Chicago in the late 2000s, of a box of negatives of photographs taken by Vivian Maier, turned out to be one of the most noteworthy artistic findings of the decade.
Maier was born in 1926 in New York City to a French mother and Austrian father. As an adult she earned her living working as a nanny for middle-class families in New York and Chicago and at the end of her life, was supported and looked after by brothers she had looked after as children. She never married, kept to herself, and was a very private woman.
After her death in 2009, she left behind more than 150,000 images, most of which were taken with her beloved Rolleiflex camera. Throughout her life, she made no effort to display her work and indeed thousands of her negatives were never even developed. One wonders what she would have made of the plaudits now placed on her work, or the idea of her being the subject of a novel.
Danish author Christina Hesselholdt has created a polyphonic fiction of Vivian’s life, which is expertly translated by Paul Russell Garrett. Vivian’s story is told by a cast of characters including her employers, her mother, her charges and Vivian herself. Vivian’s famous images are woven expertly into the story. Hessleholdt as narrator also appears to move the narrative along, or question the very choices she has made as the author of the work.
It is a fascinating structure, which seems to exist to keep Vivian at a remove. Like Vivian’s urge to always photograph herself in mirrors, the reader sees only reflections of the real person. We learn about her painful and unconventional childhood, her solo trips around the world to take photographs and her hoarding tendencies. Hessleholdt does not shy away from the more unpleasant aspects of Vivian’s personality – she was stringent, bullying and at times cruel.
This mercurial novel can be as illuminating as it is frustrating –never settling on one point of view for long enough to provide any real insight, but Hesselholdt succeeds at capturing the essence of a woman whose sole source of connection in life seems to have come from that brief click of a moment which exists between subject and photographer.
I’ve really enjoyed reading these books for Women in Translation Month, but must remember to include some in my 20 Books of Summer pile next year and take the pressure off a bit!
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!