And it could have been any street in the city

Dear Ann, How can one write a naturalist novel and still convey strong symbolic effect? I don’t know the answer, but I think you achieved that. The Street (1946) in your first novel is both a concrete space and a distorting mirror for a perverse version of the American Dream, a thin surface impossible to…

I don’t know what my limits are anymore

Dear Irmgard, The eponymous heroine of your novel Gilgi (2013, tr. Geoff Wilkes. Original title: Gilgi, eine von uns, 1931) is a twenty-one-year-old German middle-class girl who lives in Cologne, during the rise of fascism, in the 1930s. Gilgi, short for Gisela, is independent, matter-of-fact, and ambitious: she is determined to climb the social ladder and…

but thousands of bells clanged inside me

Dear Clarice, Rereading your stories after so long makes me feel as if I were looking through colour-stained glass: each story comes with the shadow of my previous reading of it. The shadow of how it felt like at the time; the stain of what I had not understood properly then, and do now; or…

Everyone was fleeing and everything was temporary

Dear Anna, Do you know this feeling we have when something terrible happens in a dream and we must scream or run, but we find ourselves suddenly unable to do it? We have no voice, or our legs are suddenly unbearably heavy. This feeling of being trapped: that’s the stuff your novel Transit (tr. Margot…

They didn’t dare before; now they do, that’s all

Dear Anna, I was halfway through Manja (tr. Kate Phillips, 2003. Manja: Ein Roman um 5 Kinder, 1938) this past week, when your book acquired a new poignancy for me. Do you know that eerie feeling, when we overhear a stranger on the bus or out passing by us in the street, and, by accident,…

They had taught her to take what she wanted

Dear Vita, I came to your book Aphra Behn: the Incomparable Astrea (1927) because of this thing called Virginia. In the fourth chapter of A Room of One’s Own (1929), Woolf claims that “all women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, (…) for it was she who earned them the right…

And the book had broken right open

Dear Ali, Your most recent collection of short stories, framed around the massive closures of public libraries in the UK, borrows its core from the very idea of borrowing. Each of the 12 stories in this collection can be read as an exploration of what we borrow from what we read. Each story lends us something –…

This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine

Dear Margaret, You ingeniously managed to fulfill the task of writing a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – and, most importantly, you did it precisely by escaping from this task, taking it to its limits, with the help of some tricks of theatrical illusion. Hag-Seed (2016) is, at the same time, an attempt at…

The walls of her home were falling down, there was no refuge

Dear Elisabeth, Your novel The Blank Wall (1947) is a gripping psychological thriller, in which a housewife get entangled in a web of murder, blackmail and pressing domestic demands, while remaining fiercely determined to protect her family from scandal. The novel is set  during World War II in the countryside near New York. Lucia Holley…