In Brief: Recent Works in Translation

Sworn Virgin*
by Elvira Dones
Translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford

photo 3 (6)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

photo (114)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

photo 4 (6)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.

“Fair she braved War’s gaunt disease”: Edmund Blunden’s “The Festubert Shrine”

As you probably know, World War I began 100 years ago yesterday.

Today, here’s Edmund Blunden’s “The Festubert Shrine,” and old-fashioned sort of poem that features a few arresting images. It’s a glimpse of the war’s destruction of significant local sites, in this case a shrine to Mary in the French village of Festubert. In Festubert, as in many places, buildings that had stood for hundred of years were damaged or destroyed by shelling and shrapnel.

Most of Festubert was rebuilt after the war.

Edmund Blunden survived the war. A prolific poet and critic who became Professor of Poetry at Oxford, he died in 1974. Flanders poppies were laid on his grave.

A Not-Quite Reading List for the Centenary of World War I

All summer long, I’ve wanted to post a World War I reading list, a syllabus, if you will, of literature related to the Great War. Today would be the perfect day to post such a list, since it’s now officially 100 years since the war began.

When my list reached thirty titles, however, it became clear that a long post will have to wait until August. In the meantime, here’s a preview of some of the titles I’ll be talking about.

World War 1 Lit Collage__CarolynOliverIt’s my very first collage (as you can tell, I’m sure). I’m moving into the twenty-first century, Dear Readers.


Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, and The Great War

As most of you know, this year marks the centenary of World War I. Although the war did not officially begin until the end of July 1914, its precipitating event — the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo — took place on June 28, 1914. To mark the centenary, this June, and for the rest of the summer, I’ll be writing from time to time about the literature of the Great War, since it’s a special interest of mine.

This month, weekly poetry posts will feature poetry of the First World War, and so you’ll notice that the Poetry Concierge will take a brief hiatus, appearing sometimes on Fridays before picking back up in July.

photo (84)Today I’d like to point out two of the war’s most famous poems, Rupert Brooke’s “The Solider” and Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” I am neither the first nor the last to place the two poems side-by-side, but it’s an instructive experience, I think.

Both Brooke and Owen were British soldiers, and both were writing poetry before the war began. Both died during the war. Brooke died in 1915 of an infection following a mosquito bite, before experiencing the horrors of trench warfare. Owen, on the other hand, experienced the full terrors of life and death in the trenches. He was killed on November 4, 1918, and his mother learned of death on Armistice Day, just one week later.

Brooke was a writer of pleasant, light verse; had he lived, it seems unlikely that his work would have surpassed the popularity of his short sonnet sequence 1914, in which “The Soldier” appears. Like John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” the poem approaches death with sadness, but concludes that death is noble in the service of patriotism. Here are “The Solider”‘s famous opening lines:

If I should die, think only this of me:
      That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.


“Think only this” — not “think about why I died, and others like me.” Such sentiments, of course — though they capture the  pre-war atmosphere with gracious diction and memorable phrasing — are obliterated by poems like Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est“. Here are its opening lines:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

The juxtaposition of the verse’s formal components with its brutal content is just one part of Owen’s brilliance. The poem describes a gas attack; the speaker is haunted by the vision of the man who couldn’t get his mask on in time. Initially, the speaker is distanced from the dying man thanks to his own gas mask: “Dim through the misty panes and thick green light, / As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.” Then, an incredibly well-placed stanza break, and a switch from the past to to the present tense to bring the sense of immediacy, already created by the detailed language, home: “In all my dreams before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” Drowning without water.

The poem deserves to be read in its entirety, but if you’re squeezed for time, here are its blazing final lines, addressed to the audience — Brooke’s audience — that hasn’t seen war firsthand:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

For those of you who cut Latin class from time to time: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, drawn from one of Horace’s odes, means “How sweet and honorable it is to die for one’s country.”