by Elvira Dones
Translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford
In Albania’s mountains, there’s a tradition in which it’s possible for a woman to become a man. If a family loses all its men, to blood feud or war or sickness, a woman can step forward, put on men’s clothing, and live the rest of her life as a man. If, that is, she forswears sex, marriage, and children.
Elvira Dones, an Albanian writer, explores this phenomenon (which you can read about here) in the fictional Sworn Virgin, which was originally published in Italian.
We meet Hana as she’s preparing to leave her life in Albania — and her identity as Mark — behind for a new life in America. The transition is a difficult one in many respects, reflecting the terrible challenge she faced nineteen years earlier, when she became Mark.
At the time, Albania was under oppressive Communist rule, and Hana had left her mountain home, and her beloved aunt and uncle, to study literature in Tirana. For reasons that slowly become clear as the novel progresses, Hana puts aside her hopes and her ambitions, and becomes a chain-smoking, heavy drinking shepherd in a mountain village without modern amenities. And she lives as Mark until she simply can’t anymore.
Ms. Dones has a gift for slowly opening up her characters — Hana, her family, her romantic interests, her cousins who take care of Hana in America. Hana’s decision to become Mark isn’t fully explained until the end of the novel (and for this reason I don’t recommend reading the Foreword until you’ve finished the book), and it’s depicted with care and compassion. Equally compassionate is Ms. Dones’s exploration of how Hana adjusts to becoming a woman again, to gaining her independence, learning English, and navigating American customs as a newly-arrived immigrant. Sworn Virgin is a fascinating novel, and highly recommended.
The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914*
by Béla Zombory-Moldován
Translated by Peter Zombory-Moldován
Part of a larger autobiographical work, this slim volume was found, painstakingly edited, and translated by the author’s grandson; it appears for the first time (in any language) thanks to New York Review Books Classics.
The summer of 1914 found Hungarian artist Béla Zombory-Moldován enjoying a holiday with friends. When the war broke, he was summoned for duty, leaving the holiday for home to gather supplies and bid his family and city farewell. Just a few weeks later, Zomobory-Moldován fought in one of the war’s earliest battles, in Galicia, where he and his men had to fashion dugouts in the absence of tools. He was very badly wounded, and returned to Budapest to recover from his injuries and shell-shock; he soon realized that nothing would be the same again.
The Burning of the World was eye-opening for me, presenting as it does an under-read national perspective (Hungarian) and since it recounts experiences on the Easter Front, when I (along with most readers, I suspect) am accustomed to reading memoirs of trench warfare on the Western Front. In addition, Peter Zombory-Moldován’s Introduction gives an excellent thumbnail sketch of Hungarian history and pre-war life, as well as answering the reader’s questions about his grandfather’s eventual fate.
As in many war memoirs, we see the poor decisions of superior officers that lead to senseless deaths, and the quick onset of disillusionment. The memoir has a modernist feel; the author writes in the present tense, and is focused on his own interiority as much as his surroundings. (In one section, his attempt to recover some pre-war spirit in one of his favorite haunts sounds like something from The Sun Also Rises.) Zombory-Moldovan’s descriptions are carefully constructed and highly memorable; he describes shell fire as “the sound of a watermelon being struck with a stick” (44).
The Burning of the World is essential reading for anyone with serious interest in the war, Hungarian history, or memoir. Highly recommended.
So Long, Marianne: A Love Story*
by Kari Hesthamar
Translated from the Norwegian by Helle V. Goldman
As we’ve established, I love Leonard Cohen, and I think the rest of the world should too. So Long, Marianne takes its title from one of his most famous songs; the subject of both the song and the book is Marianne Ihlen. Though Leonard Cohen features prominently in the publicity materials, this book is Marianne’s biography (she doesn’t meet Cohen until halfway through the book). Born into a middle-class family in Norway, as a young woman Marianne had a turbulent relationship with the novelist Axel Jensen, traveling with him through Europe and eventually settling on the Greek island of Hydra. The two married, but not long after Marianne gave birth to their son, Axel abandoned them. Leonard Cohen had met the Jensens before their separation and was immediately smitten with Marianne, and soon the two began a love affair that lasted throughout most of the 1960s.
Though reading about Marianne’s relationship with the self-obsessed Axel was often frustrating, I found this book to be an interesting portrait of life lived without the comforting certainties of long-term plans or even everyday routines. Marianne’s self-confidence, as it emerges after her separation and during her relationship with Leonard Cohen, is something to cheer for.
I also loved the details about life on Hydra during the 60s — the market, the local restina, even the weather. When Marianne and Axel arrived in the late 50s, it was rustic, with few foreigners living there; by the time Marianne moved away, Hydra was home to a thriving expatriate artists’ colony.
For Leonard Cohen fans, So Long Marianne features a small selection of previously unpublished material (letters, poems, photographs), and confirmation that yes, Leonard is the kind of man who treats women with kindness and respect, even at the end of a relationship. But we knew that already.
*I received copies of these books from their respective publishers for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my reviews.