Category Archives: Languages

An Austen-free upbringing

After wondering why I didn’t read the books by Jane Austen or the Brontës in my early teens, I suddenly realised why, and who I could blame for this regrettable shortcoming. (Always important, because it certainly wasn’t my fault.)

My Swedish teacher when I was 15, is who. The last year of secondary school we had free reading once a week. I am – with my mature adult hindsight – guessing it was a way to get the non-readers to read. Anything. At. All.

We were allowed to read whatever we wanted, and could bring our own books or use the school library. I generally sat down with an Alistair MacLean, or similar. Generally in English (which is odd for a Swedish lesson, but never mind). Naturally the teacher would have preferred me not to.

So she suggested books I might try. The only one I remember is Pella. I am sure the Pella books were fantastic, and the teacher had most likely loved them when she was young. But I was 15, and I was reading MacLean. Pella would – possibly – have been right for me about three years earlier.

All these years I’ve remembered the teacher’s badly chosen suggested books and I have understood what she was hoping for. I just haven’t thought of what she ought to have pointed me in the direction of instead, because she was quite right in wanting me to better myself with something other than MacLean.

I already loved all manner of romances; the kind where a young governess meets her new employer who is a brooding and somewhat strange man, and where they eventually fall in love and live happily ever after. The Jane Eyre copycats. Reader, I had no idea there existed the real thing and that it would have been much more satisfying. (Not better than MacLean, obviously, but as good…)

We knew of Pride and Prejudice because it had been on television. At that point I was of an age where understanding there’d be a book as well was too much to expect. We knew about Vanity Fair, because that too had been on television. Also, Heathcliff ran around the moors on television, and I knew there was a book, but it didn’t tempt me at all.

I knew about Dickens because we had children’s abridged versions. And yes, he’d been on television.

Mother-of-witch was many things, and for someone of her background she had an astounding number of proper books and books in English. But she had not been brought up on the classic governesses, and so she could not point me in their direction. Which is fine.

But my well educated mother tongue teacher could have. And should have.

Mrs G’s book

I promise. I will not keep going on about the G family and how they influenced me. Not for all that much longer, anyway. But an influence is an influence and cannot be ignored.

It’ll get sadder now. Many years after my year of lodging with them, I was shocked to to be told that Mrs G was terminally ill. And that she’d not been wanting to tell me, because it was precisely the same illness that Mother-of-witch died of five years before. And she knew that, and I bet she knew that she was at least as much of a mother figure as she was friend. To lose two mothers to the same illness could be seen as carelessness.

Towards the end you go a bit crazy. I know I did. Mrs G clearly sensed it, and knew what to do.

A couple of days later a parcel arrived for me. It was a book. One of hers. Not one that I particularly wanted, but one of hers and so very well chosen. It was old and worn. It was Swedish Embroidery, by Eivor Fisher.

Eivor Fisher, Swedish Embroidery

I had been surrounded by embroidery for most of my life, and with it being mainly mid-20th century in style, it was precisely what I’d been surrounded by. Mother-of-witch and all her friends embroidered such things. In short, a little boring. For me.

But to Mrs G it was obviously fresh and exciting, being part of a much earlier craze for things Scandi (same as Sarah Lund’s jumpers) that young people well versed in arty ways liked back then.

What really made her gift special, however, was the card that accompanied the book, explaining why and what. Before they were married, Mr G had to attend classes in the evening for his architect course, which he didn’t care for. I suppose he’d rather have gone out with his girlfriend.

His girlfriend was so nice (well, we already knew) that she enrolled in embroidery classes at the same Art College, so that they could go for drinks afterwards. I find that very romantic.

So, there was the reason for the book. She wanted to leave a little bit of herself for me to keep. It’s amazing how knowing the background to something can change how you look at it.

This was precisely the book I needed. I won’t be embroidering anything from it, the way Mrs G hoped. But I don’t need to.

Marcus Sedgwick on horror and sheds

The Marcus Sedgwick interview is ready for your entertainment today. I wish you could hear Marcus, as well as just read. He laughs a lot and he talks ‘just right’ by which I mean that he is interesting on whatever stupid question someone like me might ask, and he spends time on them, but not too long.

Lagom, as we say in Sweden.

He is someone who has been on my interview radar for years, and it’s mainly coincidence that it was his new adult novel, A Love Like Blood, that caused us to meet and talk (I ‘blame’ the very helpful Kerry at Hodder), which is why I used up some of our ‘adult’ time on talking about his – slightly – younger books as well.

Marcus Sedgwick

And his shed. (It’s not necessary to buy a house that has a good shed. You can actually build a nice shed once you’ve found the house of your dreams.)

Marcus claims not to be obsessed by horror, but he is a man who scares me a lot, through his books. They are the kind of books you read hiding behind the sofa.

Tomorrow Can Wait: Exploring Europe With Our Autistic Child

When Monika Scheele Knight first told me about her book, I was only paying attention to the travelling. I felt it was a very ambitious – perhaps too ambitious – task to undertake with an autistic child. Easier to stay at home, I thought. But, each to their own.

German Monika lives in Berlin with her American husband Scott and their 13-year-old son John. Her book about travelling with John is self published (at least the English version, as I understand it), and exists in two languages. Once I’d begun reading, I had to ask her what language they use at home, feeling it unlikely they could be bilingual with a mostly non-verbal boy. Her reply was that John does understand some English, as it’s what she and Scott use, so she reckons he is a non-speaking bilingual child.

As soon as I had started reading, I also understood why they travelled, and why Monika needed to write about it. After meeting the mother of a 30-year-old autistic son who refuses to go out, effectively imprisoning her in the home, Monika vowed to travel with John to try and prevent that fate for herself. As a toddler John was reasonably willing to go out, if it was on his terms.

So she set off for Rhodes for a week on her own with John, and it went well. What I particularly like is the way Monika and Scott realise they need to take things slowly and not force John (unless absolutely necessary), which means holidays where they occasionally do ‘nothing’ or just a little, like eating lunch bought in the local shop in a deserted children’s playground.

And it’s not just about travelling. In each chapter about a different place they visited, Monika writes about John’s autism in general, how he develops, and what life with an autistic child is like in Germany (much better than in many other countries, I’d say). She muses about various theories, as well as the history of autism, and the murder of handicapped people in the war, and how people treat them when they are out and about. The older John gets, the easier it becomes for strangers to realise he’s behaving oddly because he is not normal, rather than being a badly brought up child.

John auf dem Fahrrad

(This rather lovely photo of a smiling John, in Holland, was taken almost immediately after a major meltdown, which is such an autistic way for things to work out. I have borrowed the picture from Monika’s blog, as it was used for the back cover of the book.)

You feel exhausted following the family round Europe. All the driving, or having meltdowns in airports, or moving things out of John’s reach, or stopping him from hurting himself, seem like an endless lot of hard work with no respite. And I’m sorry their experience of Sweden was so poor.

I find case histories irresistible, and this book is one big case history. Very interesting and very inspiring.

The Letter for the King

Guest review by the Resident IT Consultant:

Tonke Dragt, The Letter for the King

‘Looking for something escapist to read, I came across Tonke Dragt’s The Letter for the King (Pushkin Press). The publisher, and the author’s name, led me to suspect that this must be a translation. And I was right.

Tonke Dragt was born in Dutch Indonesia in 1930, spent several years in a Japanese prison camp and came to the Netherlands with her family at the end of WWII. The Letter for the King was her second book, published in 1962. It was very successful in the Netherlands where it sold over a million copies and was chosen, in 2004, as the best Dutch children’s book of the last fifty years. It has been widely translated but only made it into English in 2013.

Ever since Swallows and Amazons and Treasure Island I have been captivated by books which contain maps. I even drew my own map for Kidnapped, and when I showed it, aged 12, to my English teacher he lent me his personal copy of The Lord of the Rings. But that’s another story.

The Letter for the King starts with a map of the Kingdoms of Dagonaut and Unauwen. I assume it is the author’s as she is credited for the illustrations, and was an art teacher. I found myself referring the to map quite often as I read the book.

Tonke Dragt, The Letter for the King

It’s basically an adventure story set in a fantasy medieval world which owes a greater debt to Le Morte d’Arthur than to Tolkien. Tiuri, the sixteen-year-old hero, finds himself suddenly tasked with the challenge of secretly delivering a letter across half a continent. The story follows his development as he deals with the difficulties along the way and tries to decide who he can trust. He learns that first impressions can sometimes be misleading, that help can come from unexpected directions and that hindrance sometimes arises from misunderstanding.

The fantasy is relatively realistic. There are no mythical creatures and there is no magic. Putting geography, and history, aside it feels more like historical fiction than fantasy. Though I think the characters take baths more often than would have been the case in any medieval period!

One strength is the clarity of the language for which, presumably, the translator, Laura Watkinson must take credit. I found it easy and enjoyable to read and it doesn’t feel dated in the way that English books published fifty years ago often do.

I was pleased to see that Pushkin plan to publish its sequel, The Secrets of the Wild Wood, in 2015.’

Barbro Lindgren

Is any author/illustrator worth an award of five million Swedish kronor (approximately £500,000)? It seems like a lot of money, and if one author is worth it, why not most of them? Except very few people stand the chance of winning the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. And when you think about it, what can you hope to buy with that sort of money? In my neighbourhood you can - possibly – purchase a house. It’s not going to allow you to leave lots of money to your children when you die.

And is a well known author a more worthy winner than the one neither you nor I had ever heard of before the award announcement? As you see I have lots of questions, and they tend to surface at this time of year when the new ALMA winner has been chosen. Also, is it OK to give the award to one of your own? Swedes like their authors, so will probably say yes. How often can you award that sort of money to a homegrown author? Why does it seem better to give the prize to a foreigner? As long as we have heard of him or her.

I gather that this year’s lucky author is actually the first Swede to win the ALMA, so I suppose it’s all right. She is one whose name I can never quite remember, and seeing as Barbro Lindgren shares her surname with Astrid herself, that’s rather stupid of me. I’ll blame my shortcomings on the fact that her first book appeared in 1965, when I was too old to be her target audience.

Barbro Lindgren and Eva Eriksson, The Wild Baby

Although, some of her more recent books are ones I have bought specifically for myself, despite them being picture books. Not for Offspring, but for me. I allowed Offspring to read them – a little – but they are mine. (Unfortunately, at this very moment they are safely packed inside some box or other, and I can’t get at them.)

The thing is, I got them for the pictures, by Eva Eriksson. I like the stories, but it’s the illustrations I adore. And I am guessing Eva doesn’t get any of the five million.

The Wild Baby’s Dog is a very sweet little story, and so are the other Wild Baby books. It’d be very hard to dislike the Wild Baby, and you feel for his poor mother.

Then there is Max, and his potty or his teddy or ball or bowl, or whatever. Short, basic picture books for the toddler beginner. Absolutely adorable.

Barbro Lindgren and Eva Eriksson, Max Nalle

I just don’t know if they are worth five million. Well, they are. Of course they are. But then so are many other books.

Do the people in the jury realise quite how much money they are handing over, in one fell swoop?

My Name is Parvana

Parvana is another displaced young girl. You might have met her in Deborah Ellis’s first two books from Afghanistan, The Breadwinner and Parvana’s Journey. If you have, you will know that this is no ordinary girl, except she is of course a normal girl to whom horrendous things have happened, and she has risen to the challenges thrown at her.

Deborah Ellis, My Name is Parvana

After having to dress up as a boy to become her family’s breadwinner, and after her long trek to find her family again, she lives with her mother and two sisters and the two boys she found on her journey in a refugee camp. Her mother starts a school for girls, and in My Name is Parvana we see the birth of the school, and running parallel with that, we see the end of it as well, with Parvana captured by American troops and treated as a suspected terrorist.

As with so many novels set in WWII, for instance, this book contains a lot of very horrible acts, but like the children in those other books, Parvana almost treats their abominable lives as the norm. She’s not into politics. She simply thinks about actions on her own level.

She tries to keep calm by wondering if the US soldiers are actually taught how to torture prisoners, how to endure their screams, and she wonders for what she herself might behave like they do. She reckons the key to the library might tempt her. (Her mother punishes her with periods of no reading.) And she finds she doesn’t much care for Donny Osmond.

So there are small bits of humour nestling in the tale of her captivity, as well as the rise and fall of her mother’s school for girls.

It had been so long since I read the first two books about Parvana I had almost forgotten quite how marvellous they are. But I remember now. And I will need to catch up by reading Mud City, which is about Parvana’s best friend, who dreams of going to Paris, by way of the purple lavender fields of France.

I usually say that we need the WWI and WWII novels to learn what happened. We need the books about what happens today even more. It is still going on. Too many people are getting away with too much.

Dream Land

You can never go back. Well, you can, but it won’t be the same. Sometimes you have to, or you want to, despite knowing the sad truth. And then you might find you want to return to the place you thought you wanted to leave, and that could also have changed.

Lily Hyde blogged here this week, about how things are for the Tatars in Crimea right now, and it’s not looking promising. In her novel Dream Land we move twenty years into the past, to the time when hundreds of thousands of the forcibly displaced Crimean Tatars returned ‘home.’

Lily Hyde, Dream Land

Based on real life stories, Lily writes about 12-year-old Safi, her older brother Lutfi and their parents, who were all born in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, as they return to Crimea with her grandfather who was 17 when he had to leave in 1944, and who has dreamed of home ever since. He has told the stories and Crimea lives in their hearts, to the extent that they happily sold their Samarkand home at a loss and gave up qualified jobs, to return home to where they’ve never been.

The old Crimea no longer exists. Not only have Russians moved into Tatar houses, but whole villages have been razed to the ground. The paradise they’d heard so much about was long gone. And the current inhabitants don’t want them. They are illegals, and as such they can’t buy or build new homes, they can’t work, or go to school. (Sound familiar?)

Nevertheless, they embark on building a rather sorry excuse for a house, and they quarrel as things don’t go well. Grandfather continues telling them the old stories. The police persecute them and the neighbours aren’t exactly friendly. (To be fair, they feel threatened by the Tatars who might take their homes and jobs.)

It’s a sad story about people’s determination to rebuild a dream country. Safi wants to go home to Samarkand. And she is shocked by her family’s reactions to the Russians; even the few friendly ones are rebuffed, because they want nothing to do with anyone related to those who stole their homes.

If it weren’t for recent events, I’d have finished Dream Land thinking that sooner or later things would work out all right for Safi’s family and the many thousands of others, but it doesn’t look like it will happen, soon, or ever.

People take a long time to learn.

(I’d had this book for a while, and for once I’m actually glad I delayed reading it. Everything felt so much more relevant now, with Crimea in the news, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons.)

 

Who said that?

Translating novels

I vote for osmosis. I’m fairly certain translations just gradually slowly sort of happen. Don’t they?

The translators are on the warpath. Or, at least making themselves noticed. I understand that super-translator Daniel Hahn has written something really good on the subject. It’s just that I haven’t been able to read it. Not because it hasn’t been translated, but because it’s in a publication called The Author, and some of us don’t subscribe to it.

After Hari Kunzru ‘forgot’ to mention – in The Guardian – the man who had assisted his reading of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, there wasn’t one, but two, letters about it in last Saturday’s paper. And quite rightly.

Don Bartlett is the translator in question, and you feel that it would have been worth including his name in some dark corner of the article, even if it was mainly about Knausgaard. It would have been polite. Or maybe Hari reads Norwegian?

One of the letters, from Don’s colleague Kari Dickson appeared in The Review, while the other letter made it onto the letters page in the main section. It’s not bad managing two separate comments on one article.

Kari Dickson letter

Many readers probably still believe translating means taking one word at a time. You pick the ‘same’ word in the other language and write it down. Then you move on to the next word, and the next, and so on, until you’re at the end of the book. Or the mining report. Or the tourist brochure. Or even the death certficate. And there is only ever one way something can be translated.

(That last paragraph contains some sarcasm. In case you were about to believe me.)

A small country

Sweden is a very small country. You are always finding that you know someone who knows someone.

When I was 16 my History of Art teacher at school was a Mr H. I didn’t know much about him, and while his lessons were interesting, History of Art was a compulsory subject all students had to take for an hour every week.

Four years later I found myself with an English teacher at the Post Office. She was a Mrs H, and as a native English speaker the Post Office hired her to train new staff in postal English (if you can even imagine such a thing). It was only for five or ten hours, and most of that time she and I talked about London, as none of the others in my group were remotely interested in languages.

Just over 12 months later, I spent a year in Brighton, studying for the first year of a (Swedish) degree in English at the University of Sussex. One of my classmates was Miss H, daughter of these two teachers. Slightly younger than me, we had just missed each other at ‘Sixth Form’ school. We ended up belonging to the Mock Turtle group of students, who went to the venerable old Mock Turtle tea rooms to drown our sorrows with cream teas and plates of cake after each exam.

It was so enjoyable that we continued this tradition once we were all back in Gothenburg the following year.

I used to think this was proof enough that you will always accidentally stumble across people who know each other or who are related, in our small country. Large on the surface, but small population-wise.

You may have heard in the news this week about a Swedish journalist killed in Kabul. He was the only member of the H family I never met. He was younger still, so there was never a reason to. But I knew Nils Horner was vaguely famous, through his work.

This is the one kind of small country coincidences I don’t like.