This look of sadness would last perhaps for a minute

Dear Amy, Jill (1884) is a fast-pacing coming of age story with subtle social commentary and strong feminist undertones. The novel centres on the eponymous heroine, Jill, the strong-minded, tomboyish daughter of a well-to-do squire. We follow her, as she narrates her adventurous life, from childhood onwards. From an early age, she has been forced…

I don’t want them to reward me for nonsense

Dear Nadezhda, The Boarding-School Girl, tr. Karen Rosneck (2000. Original: Пансионерка, 1861), very much like your sister’s novel City Folk and Country Folk, tr.  Nora Seligman Favorov (2017. Original: Городские и деревенские, 1863) is as layered as a Russian doll: inside the social satire and comedy of manners, we can glimpse a coming of age story;…

The milk of incomprehension

Dear Nora, Soviet Milk, tr. Margita Gailitis (2018. Original: Mātes piens, 2015) was this odd thing: a butterfly that, going in reverse, moults back into a chrysalis. What had started as a nuanced, enraged depiction of life under Soviet rule, gradually turned into a black and white, poor reproduction of what the book might have been….

Hardness was probably his most distinctive quality

Dear Laura, Reading your novel Breathing into Marble, tr. Marija Marcinkute (2016. Original: Kvėpavimas į marmurą, 2006) feels like being trapped in a room of glass: it’s cold and solid, and we can see everything from a great distance; however, if we try to come near the glass to see more clearly, it gets misty,…

Every abyss has its lullabies

Dear Julián, Tomb Song, tr. Christina MacSweeney (2018. Original: Canción de tumba, 2011) is an elegiac account of a writer who tries to reconcile himself both with a troubled past and with a present marked by imminent loss. We follow a mourning trajectory that begins with the narrator’s personal crisis – triggered by his mother’s illness – and…

It was a family of women buccaneers

Dear Gladys, The Matriarch (1924) is a family saga told in a fragmented way, weaving together vignettes, sketches and anecdotes that read like a series of family legends passed on from one generation to the next. The book follows the Rakonitzes, a cosmopolitan, wealthy Jewish family, from the early 19th century to the early 20th…

The first tear opened up that day

Dear Victor, ‘The Love of Singular Men‘ (2016. Original: O amor dos homens avulsos, not translated yet) reads like a delicate web, a coming-of-age tale of affection, woven in different forms of violence. Camilo, the narrator, is a disabled, middle-aged white man, living alone in a small apartment in the fictional Queím neighbourhood, in the…

Two half drowned things, clinging together in a shipwreck

Dear Elizabeth, Vera (1921) is the story of a toxic relationship which gradually unfolds into a full-blown tale of psychological horror, made ever more disturbing by the restrained way in which it is told. The story revolves around the main character, the naïve, twenty-two-year-old Lucy Entwhistle, whose father has just suddenly passed away, while they…

A strange carousel from which there was no getting off

Dear Daniela, In your novel A Kingdom of Souls translated by Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol (2015. Original: Podobojí, 1991), we have magical realism with an edge: the dead exist alongside the living, wandering across space and time, always in the brink of turning into an allegory, a symbol, a pervading longing. The novel centres…

What two people can make of the same view

Dear Elizabeth, In your novel A View from the Harbour (1947), we are sea watchers, guided by a faint beam. It feels very much as if we were inside a lighthouse, following the light as it shifts from one character to another. The novel centres around the inhabitants of a small seaside town in England…

Beautiful flying things

Dear Carole, In Ava (1993), you throw us inside the mind of a dying woman. We are there, minute by minute, while it all happens. However, we cannot see anything very clearly – we can only follow its rhythm. Rather than a linear collection of images flashing before our eyes, the novel reads more like…

Trust is fine, but control is better

Dear Elfriede, Your novel The Piano Teacher, tr. Joachim Neugroschel (1988. Die Klavierspielerin, 1983) is vile and uncompromising: it dwells on the grotesque, crossed by an undercurrent of violence that, by striping everything of fineries and superficial niceties, almost acts as a cleansing element. The novel centres around Erika Kohut (Erika K.), a piano teacher…

Nothing holds the wind back from its wings

Dear Anna, Moving back and forth between early modern Italy and Nazi-occupied Florence, your book Artemisia, tr. Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo (2003. Original: Artemisia, 1947) unfolds as in a game of hide-and-seek: we are constantly drawn out of your protagonist and into your narrator; out of your narrator and into yourself as an author – and then…

To disentangle true from false

Dear Delphine, Based on a True Story (2017, tr. George Miller. Original: D’aprés une histoire vraie, 2015) is an atmospheric book that revolves around a woman who may or may not have been taken hostage by another – and by her readers. The narrator is a middle-aged woman who lives in Paris with her two…

Memories lie slumbering within us

Dear Winfried, The Rings of Saturn (tr. Michael Hulse, 1998. Original: Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine englische Wallfahrt, 1995) is beautiful, and melancholy, and strange. It is this paradox: a journey that can only be made in solitude; but, at the same time, one that can only happen in a relation between author and reader. The…

All we see is a haze

Dear Carol, As if under the muffled atmosphere of a tense game, the storyline of Sinuca embaixo d’água (2009, ‘Underwater snooker’, not translated yet) circumscribes an absence: the white ball that moves the others and drives the game forward. Antonia, the main character, is at the heart of the story but never directly shows up…

I was giving the glad-eye like blazes

Dear Connie, The Laws (1993, tr. Richard Huijing. De Wetten, 1991) reads like a draft of a draft: the shadow of an idea, hovering over the page without ever really taking off. The novel is set in the 1980’s and centres around Marie Deniet, an Amsterdam-based student who sets out in search of ‘the laws’…

Marriage had been shockingly debased

Dear Amantine, In a strange way, your novel Valentine (1832) made me feel at home. Not a home I currently inhabit, nor a place where I am particularly inclined to come back any time soon, but my first literary home: the books I used to read as a child; tragic stories, full of impassionate heroes who…