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,…

There you go again, narrating through a prism of pain

Dear Tatiana, Your novel The House in Smyrna (tr. Alison Entrekin, 2015; originally published in Portuguese in 2007) was a puzzling read for me. And not a confortable one – which, I may add, I generally take as a good reading experience, like a cup of strong coffee, served without sugar and very hot, and drunk…

wade/ through black jade/of the crow-blue mussel-shells

Dear Adriana, As in your previous books, Crow Blue (2013, tr. Alison Entrekin, originally published in Portuguese in 2010) also depicts  a journey, through which the protagonists – unable to move beyond painful events in the past – are led to undertake some kind of personal rite of passage. After losing her mother at the age…

Let us learn about not knowing

Querida Juana, The recent edition of your Selected Works (tr. Edith Grossman) has kept me company this month. As I found myself immersed in your ballads, redondillas, epigrams, décimas, sonnets, and letters, I was greatly surprised by your sharp portray of female resistance, your rebellious defiance against undeserved authority and your fierce defense of gender…

Who can live with a volcano?

Dear Esther, How can one read a volcano? Your semi-autobiographical novel Deborah (Der Shaidim Tantz, 1936, tr. Maurice Carr) can be subtly misleading: behind its veil of domesticity, we can hear your raging voice against the thwarted dreams of intelligent women forced to consign their lives to housework and motherhood. Deborah, the protagonist, is a…

All this has been described a thousand times

Dear Jean, I am writing to you in haste, just to share my impressions on 1914: a novel (tr.  Linda Coverdale), which I read for Caroline’s Literature and War Readalong 2016. During the Easter holidays, we are leaving for a bike trip to Austria, and I don’t know if I would have the time (or the…

With my difficult eyes

Dear Judith, I came to you through my husband, who is a huge fan of your poetry. Some of the first Dutch poems we translated together were yours (I may post some of them here eventually, if you want). Soon afterwards, he gave me a collection of your early poems, translated into English by Shirley Kaufman. But…