Sebastian Barry: A Long Long Way (2005) Literature and War Readalong February 2012

Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way is one of a few WWI novels told from an Irish perspective. Unlike How Many Miles to Babylon or many other WWI novels, its main theme isn’t class which was something I was glad for. Not that I think it wasn’t important but it has become one of the clichés of WWI literature. That and so many other elements. Luckily there aren’t all that many clichés in Barry’s novel.

Nineteen year-old Willie Dunne from Dublin volunteers in the early days of WWI. Like so many before or after him, he has no real reason, or they are at best quite vague and mostly personal. Maybe little Willie wants to prove himself and prove his father that he is worthy despite of his size. His father, a tall and imposing fellow, is a policeman. Something little Willie could never have become because he is barely taller than a midget. The army doesn’t care. They are in such great need of volunteers that they accept almost anyone.

We follow naive little Willie to Belgium where he spends his first months in the relative comfort of the rear camp, hardly seeing any fighting at all. Nothing really bad happens to little Willie and his company until one day, the soldiers see a yellow cloud hovering slowly over no-man’s-land. It takes them far too long to realize what that yellow cloud means, and only much too late, when many of them are already dying a cruel death or maimed for life, do they flee in horror. After this moment the novel takes a turn and becomes graphic and tragic and Willie loses his naivety at a breathtaking speed.

Although he sees many horrible things, it is only after his first leave to Ireland, that Willie is really affected. Not because he doesn’t fit in anymore – Barry doesn’t use this cliché either – but because Ireland is on the brink of the War of Independence and Willie, a compassionate man, is saddened to see the death of a young rebel and to realize that for the first time in his life, he doesn’t see things like his father.

Back in the trenches he tells the other Irish lads what he has seen at home. The newspapers write about it too and the British officers are aggressive and see them even more as cannon fodder than before. The longer the war lasts, the more intense the fighting in Ireland gets, the less the efforts and losses of the Irish are appreciated. In the end there are finally no more volunteers from Ireland. They do not want to fight for the enemy anymore and some would even gladly join the Germans. When Willie takes his second leave to Dublin, the aggression in the streets against his British uniform is open.

It is rare that I resent an author for his narrative technique but I do resent the way Barry wrote this novel. Furthermore I had a hard time with his style, I think it’s far from fluent and the overuse of adjectives at times was annoying. Just one example:

Now they rose up in the violent moonlight and entered bizarrely a huge field of high corn, the frail stems brushing gently against their faces, and because Willie was a small man, he had to grip the coat of the Sergeant-Major Moran in front or he would be lost, set adrift to wander for ever in this unexpected crop. The absurd bombs followed them religiously into the field, smashing all about the darkness, the stench of cordite and other chemicals obliterating the old dry smell of the corn.

As if the violent moonlight wasn’t enough, they have to enter the field bizarrely, followed religiously by absurd bombs? Admittedly, this was one of the worst passages but there were others, equally florid. This doesn’t explain why I resent him but it’s part of it. I felt tricked. This novel works like a trap door. You are lured into a devastated house which is bad enough but the moment you are inside, the carpet is pulled away from under you and the trap door opens. There is a building up of graphic scenes and an intensification of the tragedies that befall poor Willie that felt really mean. I was upset that the book had to end like it did, so absolutely depressing, without the tiniest little bit of hope or light. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because the book describes graphic scenes, it’s because he intensifies them and accelerates it towards the end, when we do not see it coming anymore and, on top of that, has poor Willie experience one personal tragedy after the other.

With the exception of the dishonest structure, and an almost sadistic finishing off of the main character, the novel has a lot of elements that I thought well done. I haven’t read any WWI novel this eloquent on the use and the horrors of mustard gas. Nor any novel that showed the role of the priests so well. Father Buckley was my favourite character in this novel. A Catholic Priest with true compassion and a wide open heart. And I liked Barry’s choice of theme. His look at authority and its major representative, the father is very interesting. The father as a figure comes in many different forms, as the biological father, the King, the Priest. Coming to terms with authority and ultimately becoming a man and independent are important aspects. Little Willie isn’t a boy anymore at the end of the book, he is a man, with his own opinions, his own life. The book stays away from the usual criticism of high command but uncovers all sorts of hidden false authority.

A Long Long Way has been my second Sebastian Barry novel and I was also annoyed by the first. I just don’t like this type of artifice and manipulative writing that is so keen on effect.

I hope others have liked the book better. After all it has won many prizes. I’m looking forward to see what you thought.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Serena (Savvy Verse and Wit)

A Long Long Way is my second contribution to the War Through the Generations Challenge hosted by Anna and Serena.


A Long Long Way was the second book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Jean Giono’s Le grand troupeau – To the Slaughterhouse. Discussion starts on Friday March 30, 2012.

Robin McKinley: Chalice (2008)

Beekeeper Marisol has been chosen as the new Chalice, destined to stand beside the Master and mix the ceremonial brews that hold the Willowlands together. But the relationship between Chalice and Master has always been tumultuous, and the new Master is unlike any before him.

My favourite fantasy authors are Marion Zimmer Bradley, Julliet Marillier, Patricia McKillip, Charles de Lint and Neil Gaiman. I’m not such an avid fantasy reader but I think when it comes to genre writing, psychological crime and high fantasy are my favourites. Of course I was intrigued every time I saw Robin McKinley mentioned but what really pushed me to read her was when I saw the review of Chalice on BookRain’s blog and that she compared her to Julliet Marillier.

I wasn’t disappointed, Chalice is such a lovely book, one of the most beautiful fantasy novels I’ve ever read. It’s like the honeycombs it evokes, with every sentence fitting in its right place and making it a finely constructed whole.

Marisol the beekeeper and woodkeeper has become Chalice of the demesne of Willowsland. Never has there been a honey Chalice. And never has there been a Chalice who hasn’t been an apprentice before. The Chalice is the second most important person of the Circle, the entity who rules over the ritual part of the demesne, responsible for its spiritual and physical well-being.  At the head of the circle is the Master, followed by his Chalice.

Usually there is a bloodline for both Master and Chalice but in this case, the former Master and Chalice have died a violent death and since there was no heir, the next in line, the master’s brother, a Fire priest, had to be called back. He isn’t human anymore, his touch can burn a human to the bones, his face is black with red, flickering eyes.

Marisol, the Chalice and the Fire Priest are both unprepared and struggle to find their way in this highly ritualized environment. The Chalice studies as many books as she can find, looks up on ceremonies and meanings and at the same time invents new rituals, helped by her bees and the earthlines who speak to her.

Not everybody is happy about a pair like these two and so the Overlord, the political head of the demesne, wants the Master to leave and hand over his place to an outblood heir.

Marisol knows that this is the worst that could happen to the demesne. That would mean turmoil and chaos and she hopes it will never happen. But whether he can stay or not, will be decided in a duel.

What I loved so much about this book is the atmosphere. Sweet and floating, like the scent of beeswax candles. The descriptions are beautiful and following Marisol’s journey has something enchanting and almost hypnotic. The world building is exquisite. I was there in Willowsland the whole time. And Marisol is such a great character, so real. She is very insecure and has to find her way in an hostile environment but her strength and her love for her home guide her. I liked how she lived, on her own, outside of the Great House or the village, only with her bees whom she treats like pets. She learns about the tradition of Chalice but because she never underwent a proper training she dares to invent new ways which she combines with the tradition. Every Chalice mixes ritual cups but Marisol adds honey to hers. Even before she was Chalice she knew how to heal with honey, knew that every variety has its own properties.

Chalice is a magical story, a love story as well as the description of a land in chaos that is slowly brought back to peace by a heroine who can accept her weakness and trusts herself completely.

I’m going to read more of Robin McKinley. I’m not sure which one I will read next, maybe Beauty or Sunshine. Any recommendations? Which is your favourite Robin McKinley book?

Peter Stamm: On a Day Like This – An einem Tag wie diesem (2006)

Swiss author Peter Stamm was one of the discoveries of German Literature Month last November. I read and reviewed one of his short story collections In Strange Gardens and was very much looking forward to read one of his novels. I have finally managed to read On a Day Like This – An einem Tag wie diesem.

On a Day Like This tells the story of Andreas, a Swiss teacher who has been living in Paris for twenty years. He goes through the city and his own life like a visitor, never really belonging there nor to anyone. He changes his lovers, sometimes sees more than one woman at the same time. Whenever one of them wants more, he leaves them. He is like a spectator of his own life, someone who doesn’t fully participate. But “on a day like this” things change. He feels even more detached than he used to. His work as a teacher doesn’t make sense anymore. He doesn’t feel at home in Paris, doesn’t like his friends and he is filled by an incredible yearning for his home country and a woman he was once in love with, when he was barely twenty.

The fragile construction that his life has become finally falls apart completely when he goes to see a doctor because of a persistent cough. The doctor sees a shadow on his lung that could be anything, a scar or cancer. Too scared to wait for the result of some tests, Andreas, resigns from his job, sells his apartment and returns to Switzerland to find the woman he once loved.

I thought I knew how this was going to end but luckily I was wrong. It’s not a predictable story and the laconic tone doesn’t leave a lot of room for sentimentality. Like in his short stories, Stamm captures minute details of every day life. The struggle of someone who avoids relationships at any price but is filled with a deep longing to belong somewhere, to find meaning, resonates with us.

You can read this novel without being aware of the intertextuality, without knowing how much references and allusions to other works it contains but it’s still interesting to know them. The title is a reference to Georges Perec’s Un Home qui dort – A Man Asleep. The story of a young man, a bit like Bartleby who withdraws from life and only slowly finds his way back. One could say that Andreas has lived a life like that but has now woken up. Another reference is François Ozon’s movie Le temps qui reste.

But Andreas’ detachment is also reminiscent of Camus’ L’étrangerThe Outsider. Just like Meursault, Andreas doesn’t belong anywhere or to anyone, he is even an outsider in his own life, has never been capable of taking root but unlike Meursault, he wakes up and his life takes a turn.

Reading this novel had something uncanny. Andreas’ coldness is painful and it’s not easy to like him at first, but slowly, Stamm peels off layer after layer and we get a better feeling for his protagonist and why he became the way he was. There is pain and hurt and deep-rooted suspicion of anything “normal”, like families, love, career. Deep down, without knowing it, he was protesting and looking for something out of the ordinary, something more.

Stamm is a great observer, it’s the way he captures brief moments, tiny details, minutiae that make his books so special. There is the beauty of the fleeting moment, right next to the banality of everyday routine. I don’t think that this is his best novel and I preferred his short stories but there were so many wonderful scenes in this book that I still want to read his other novels too.

Muriel Spark Week 23 – 29 April 2012

I recently discovered on Danielle’s blog that Simon from Stuck in a Book organizes a Muriel Spark week in April. I have only read two of her novels so far, The Girls of Slender Means and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I liked them both a lot but think I preferred The Girls of Slender Means which is set in London during WWII. It is more touching and has one of the most memorable endings ever. The Prime of Miss Brodie is excellent too and quite funny.

Going over my piles I discovered that I had two unread books by her. Unfortunately not the one that Simon likes best, Loitering with Intent.

The ones I have got are The Go-Away Bird and Other Stories and Territorial Rights which is set in Venice.

Which is your favourite Muriel Spark novel? Will you join as well? Here are the details Muriel Spark Week

On Indirect Translations and L2 Translations

A few years ago, when Haruki Murakami’s novel South of the Border, West of the Sun was translated into German, I was really surprised to find out – after having read it – that it had been translated from the English and not from the Japanese. I hadn’t even checked before buying it as it didn’t occur to me that something like that would ever be done. Since then I’m more careful and if I read a book that has been translated from a language I don’t speak, I buy the version with a direct translation. In the case of Murakami I could have read it in French.

Meanwhile I’ve seen that this is something that is done far more frequently than one would assume. I’m currently reading David Bellos’ excellent Is That a Fish in Your Ear? and found out that he does exactly that in the case of Ismail Kadare’s work which he doesn’t translate from the original Albanian but from the French. As Bellos writes, Kadare is involved in the process of translation. The reason for this indirect translation is the fact that there are no English – Albanian translators.

This brings me to a slightly different topic, also mentioned in Bellos’ book, the so-called L2 translation. Usually translators translate from a foreign language into their native language which is called L1 translation. If it is done the other way around, it is called L2 translation.

I’m my case, being bilingual, I can translate from German to French and vice versa and it will still be a L1 translation but when I translate into English, which I’ve done quite often, it is L2. My question is really, why is that so bad? A native speaker could go over the translation. In Kadare’s case, an Albanian translator could have translated his work into English. Some people are as fluent in a foreign language as in their own, why would they not make good translations, as good or even better than some L1 translators? There are a few writers, like Nabokov, who wrote excellent books in foreign languages which just illustrates that one can write as well in a non-native language. This may be an exception but frankly, not every L1 translator is a born writer and there are really bad L1 translations out there.

Funny enough, L2 translation doesn’t seem to be acceptable. What is done however is double translation. Hiromi Kawakami’s books for example are translated from the Japanese into German by a German and a Japanese duo of translators.

What if there are really no translators for a given language combination? Biblibio commented for example on a review of Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mother that the Hebrew was translated from the English which doesn’t even seem to be a good translation. What should be done in a case like this? Not translate it at all? My suggestion would be to evaluate different translations in European languages, choose the best and translate from there. If one would choose a completely purist approach there would be no indirect translations and, in this case, that would mean that some readers wouldn’t be able to read Korean books unless they learn the language or are bilingual and read it in another translation.

Of the two options, I think I prefer a L2 translation to an indirect translation.

What do you think? Do you care whether a book is an indirect translation? Do you think it is more problematic to translate indirectly or when a L2 translation is done? Would you rather choose to read it in another language in which you are less fluent but that would at least be a direct translation?

Noam Shpancer: The Good Psychologist (2010)

A witty, absorbing novel on the days and ways of a cognitive behaviour therapist whose life outstrips his theories.

I seem to be drawn to books with psychologists as characters lately. No wonder I picked up The Good Psychologist when I saw it in a book shop. After a few moments of puzzlement I enjoyed it a lot. It’s unusual. One could call it literary non-fiction, if that genre even exists. What puzzled me was that the main character is always just called “the psychologist”. Like some of his patients, he has no name but is referred to via his profession. The other thing that surprised me is that you have a feeling not only to be in the therapy sessions with him but also in class where he teaches his students.  Shpancer, a first-time novelist, is a professor and therapist and both professions are the topic of this book. It is important to know that the specializations of his character are the same he has, namely anxiety disorders and depression. The method is cognitive behavioural therapy. I was completely absorbed by the novel. If you have ever wondered what it is like to be in therapy, this book will show you. If you are interested in psychology, you will enjoy it and should you suffer from anxiety disorders, I think this book may help you or at least show you that there is a possibility to be cured.

Eager therapists, the people-persons who drip with goodwill and sympathy, theirs is a false promise, and theirs is a wounding touch, he will say later in class. A therapist who rushes to help forgets to listen and therefore cannot understand, and therefore cannot see. The eager therapist, the one who is determined to offer salvation, involves himself and seeks his own salvation.The good psychologist keeps his distance and does not involve himself in the results of his work. The right distance allows a deep and clear gaze. The good psychologist reserves the business of closeness for family members and beloved pets and leaves the business of salvation to religious officials and street corner eccentrics.

The Good Psychologist tells the story of a middle-aged, single psychologist who also teaches evening classes. His life is rather lonely but that’s how he wants it to be. He is in love with a woman who is married to a very sick man. They had an affair and because she wasn’t able to conceive from her husband, she asked the psychologist whether he would be willing to let her have his child. After she gets pregnant, she breaks the affair off and doesn’t want to see him anymore. Still they stay in touch professionally and she is the one he turns to when he needs advice with one of his clients.

Tiffany is a stripper who cannot dance anymore. Like most of the people who come for therapy to the psychologist, she has panic attacks. Her biggest fear is that she will never be able to dance again and will not earn enough money to get her child from her abusive husband where the girl stays at the moment.

The chapters alternate between chapters in the therapy room, the class room and at the therapist’s home. We see how he treats with the method of cognitive behavioural therapy, how he teaches his students the principles and how he applies them in his own life.

Tonight we will discuss a common confusion among young therapists, he announces to the class. Mental health – to the extent that there is such a thing as mental  and such a thing as health – is not a destination but a process. It’s about how you drive, not where you’re going. The therapist is like a driving instructor not a chauffeur.

I found this highly fascinating. The psychologist is constantly questioning the “cranky Viennese” (Freud) and introduces other names and concepts. Maybe this sounds very heavy-handed and theoretical but it’s well done. We learn that the biggest difference between psychoanalysis, the way Freud taught it, and CBT, is how different the importance of childhood is perceived. CBT therapists do not think that childhood is that important. They show their clients that it’s their thought processes they have to change. This is illustrated in many different ways and I was more than once amazed or surprised about different insights.

Try this exercise: switch all your daily buts with ands. Jennifer – he turns to her – instead of telling your fiancé, I love you but you’re driving me mad, tell him, I love you and you are driving me mad.

What I loved about this book is the fact that the psychologist never sounds smug. He isn’t a know-it-all. He is a man who struggles in his own life but who is genuinely kind. He does make mistakes and we see how he handles them.

The Good Psychologist is highly readable, informative, fascinating and it introduced me to a fictional character that I would enjoy meeting in real life.

Needless to say that this book is very quotable. Just like in Amor Towles’ The Rules of Civility, there is a great quote on every page. I just picked a very few and hope they give an impression.

Here write this down. The goal of therapy is to provide the client with the tools to nurture and maintain psychological health. We help him practice the correct use of the tools: acceptance of emotions, rational examination of thoughts; to consciously confront erroneous patterns of response and embrace the flow of correct healthy patterns.

Personally I do not think there is one therapy that is right for everyone but this sure sounds like one that makes a lot of sense, at least when it comes to anxiety disorders.

If you do not want to read this novel but are interested in the therapy, here is a site that gives a Mini Introduction to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Hiromi Kawakami: Manazuru (2006)

Manazuru is the first novel by Hiromi Kawakami that is available in English. She has been one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists since her first short story came out in 1994. I have read another one of her novels a couple of years ago. Many of her books are available in German and in French. (If you love literature in translation, especially Japanese literature, and you are able to read German and/or French, you have much more choice. I have for example read Hotel Iris by Yôko Ogawa, that came out last year in English, in a French translation almost ten years ago.).

The first novel by Hiromi Kawakami that I read is called Herr Nakano und die Frauen (Mr Nakano and the Women.) It’s a wonderful novel. A lot of what I liked in Herr Nakano is present in Manazuru too, still I wonder why they chose this novel to introduce Kawakami to English-speaking readers. Mr Nakano would have been a much better choice as it is much more typical for her writing. There are supernatural or dreamlike elements in Manazuru which are not present in her other books and which reminded me more of Murakami.

Manazuru is not easy to describe. It’s a mysterious book, filled with a dreamlike mood, shifting realities. Something very soft and gentle pervades it.  Still it’s very realistic. The story is told by Kei, a young woman who lives with her daughter and her mother in an apartment in Tokio. The three women live a very peaceful live, they share many intimate moments, cooking and eating together, stitching and knitting. They treat each other kindly but each of them leads her own life, of which the others know nothing. Kei thinks a lot about her relationship to her daughter and how unique it is. How she doesn’t love anyone like her with so much awkwardness. She thinks about what it means to have a child, physically. To feel her emotions because they once shared a body.

Kei’s husband Rei has disappeared ten years ago. Although she has been in a happy relationship with a married man, she has never forgotten her husband. She wonders always where he has gone, why he left or what has happened to him. At the beginning of the novel she decides to travel to Manazuru, a little seaside town where Rei has disappeared. When she arrives she feels a strange presence. A woman follows her, a woman who seems to be a ghost, whose density changes constantly. Sometimes the woman is just a shadow, sometimes Kei can touch her. She thinks this woman knows what happened to Rei.

Kei takes many trips to Manazuru all through the novel. Sometimes with Momo, her daughter, mostly on her own. Whenever she arrives there, she is in a dreamlike state that brings her very close to Rei. During her last trip she finds another village that is like a ghost village. Cranes are sitting on the dilapidated roofs (Manazuru means crane btw..) The houses have been abandoned. She thinks about the fact that an empty house is at first just empty but then, after several years, it gets a life of its own. Ivy will grow inside. Weeds  and many other plants will take over. It’s a bit like Kei herself after Rei abandoned  her. At first there was emptiness and loneliness and then she became someone else.

I liked Manazuru a lot because of its mood and because of the importance of moods. Kei doesn’t so much analyze her feelings or thoughts as describe her moods. They shift ever so lightly, just a little bit. They have the subtlety of scents, the same fleetingness.

What I love in Kawakami’s writing in general is her ability to capture those intimate moments in which hardly anything happens or is said, those moments during which people are sitting together, without talking and it still feels intimate and meaningful.

Hiromi Kawakami is one of the best authors  to start with for someone who isn’t familiar with Japanese writing because she is such a gentle writer. Her books are lovely and even tragic elements are toned down. We know her characters will make it in the end, move on, find meaning and all that stays from a tragic event is a feeling of bitter-sweet regret but no despair.

I read the book in German. I really love the cover. The woman is blurred, only the little flowers, (Immortelle, I think) at the bottom of the picture are in focus. It captures the mood of this novel much better than the English one in which the focus is on the woman.