MacLehose Press

Parfums Week! Day 5: Prison

ParfumsEvery day this week the MacLehose Blog will feature an extract from Parfums, Philippe Claudel’s brilliant “catalogue of remembered smells”, a unique memoir which re-creates the author’s childhood through recollections of the scents he inhaled.

So far we’ve had a first kissa trip to the barber, suntan lotion on a summer’s day and a Sunday morning in church. Our final entry is both melancholy and sublime – the smell of imprisonment.


Prison is an enclosed cauldron in which bodies, souls, dreams, remorse and anger all stew. Weeks, months and years of detention. People eat there. They sleep there. They learn there. They forget there. They brood there. They do away with themselves there. They come to grief there. They recover there. They defecate there. They masturbate there. Sometimes they sodomise each other there. They try to kill time there.

But, for all that, prison is not a vile place. We have created it. It is built in our image. It is to mankind, in short, what quintessence is to fragrance: a concentrated absolute.

For almost twelve years, I used to visit a prison several times a week to give lessons. Up until 2000. Ever since, it has dwelled within the depths of my being, my awareness, and my judgement as well, and it won’t leave them. I don’t have any intention of trying to get rid of it either.

Prison is one of those places that possesses its own odour: the hospital – something slightly refrigerated; the old people’s home – clear soup and inert bodies; the gym – perspiring feet, sweat, the rubbery foam of floor mats. Prison is just such a place. To be witty, an idiot might say that it smells of mould. He would not be entirely wrong. Let us say, instead, it smells of confinement, of being shut away. That state that is totally inimical with the human species, which by definition is nomadic, explorative, itinerant and free. Prison life – and the very principle of imprisonment – produces behaviour that is specific to it, pathologies that you encounter nowhere else, and distinct odours. Everything there is lacklustre, subdued, paralysed and things which, in the outside world, can be indulged in freely stagnate within the thick walls, beneath the high glass roofs, and in the wretched exercise area behind bars.

Restrained, reduced, diluted, the fragrances of life are an octave lower in prison. They fade away and are unable to resonate as they should. Scarcely have they come in, than they decompose and dissolve. They take on the patina of old walls, the grime of floors that are nevertheless constantly washed, the weary sadness of paint that is reapplied in vain every spring. Like the people who live alongside them, the smells no longer make any effort to show off or dress themselves. They surrender their distinctive features, resign themselves and become uniform. And that is probably what most characterises the stench of this place, which is at once a part of our world while at the same time not part of it: the smells refuse to be what they are and to stand out from one another. They let themselves slip into a state of neglect. They give up. The smell of prison is one of surrender.

Enjoy this? You can purchase the book now from the following outlets, and all good bookshops!

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Parfums Week! Day 4: Church

ParfumsEvery day this week the MacLehose Blog will feature an extract from Parfums, Philippe Claudel’s brilliant “catalogue of remembered smells”, a unique memoir which re-creates the author’s childhood through recollections of the scents he inhaled.

So far we’ve had a first kissa trip to the barber, and suntan lotion on a summer’s day. Our penultimate entry is a meditation on the scent of a childhood Sunday in church, and the intangible “odour of unshakeable belief”.


We always try to create keys even when there are no locks.

I have always loved churches. I used to visit them a great deal, when I believed in God, and I still do today, when I no longer believe. I like the curious etiquette of their silence. Their withdrawal from the world too, even in the heart of the noisiest cities. Their walls take you out of yourself, out of time, away from the madness of objects and human beings.

I’m a child again, a choirboy, stirred by the beauty of the “theatre of the Mass”, as Jean Giono described it, inhaling the warm wax that falls in slow tears down the sides of the large candles in the silver branches of the candelabra, and the fumes of incense, acrid, thick, spiralling upwards as they escape from the thurible like the visible soul of some sacrificed Satan, but becalmed later when they rise in a timorous haze to defy the impassivity of the stained-glass windows. Albs, cassocks, stoles, scapulars, lacework, belts made of satin or rough cord. The starched vestments are stored in a tall cupboard in the sacristy, shining with polish and smelling of eau de cologne and lavender. The fabrics are impregnated with the fragrance. We put them on in silence beneath the pious gaze of a thin-lipped, churchy woman who is our sergeant-major: Mother Julia.

Candle, polish, incense, demure materials woven by devoted hands, stone tiles washed in plenty of water by women on their knees, between two “Our Fathers”, the priest’s winey breath after the Eucharist and, above all, the faith of millions of human beings over the centuries who exude that very particular smell that is one of dogged, profound and enduring piety. The odour of unshakeable belief in a marvellous illusion that has lasted for two thousand years, and which has sustained many, and killed many others.

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Parfums Week! Day 3: Suntan Lotion

ParfumsEvery day this week the MacLehose Blog will feature an extract from Parfums, Philippe Claudel’s brilliant “catalogue of remembered smells”, a unique memoir which re-creates the author’s childhood through recollections of the scents he inhaled.

So far we’ve had a first kiss and a trip to the barber; today is the turn of a childhood visit to an outdoor swimming pool, and the inimitable scent of suntan lotion.


My mother mistrusts the sun as though it were a hostile enemy that never lowers its guard.

I’ve been brought up in this constant fear that a body, if overheated, runs the risk of agonising pain if it is brusquely plunged into cold water. A fear of burns, too, of injuries to the skin that risk damaging it irreversibly.

I have to wait until mid-afternoon before going to join my friends at the swimming pool. Actually, it’s a simple bathing area with fresh, peaty-brown, running water – rather slow-running, in fact – that is none other than that of the River Meurthe. A few decades earlier, on one of its tributaries, upstream from the weir, some concrete partitions were put in place to create pools. On the bank, there is a row of solid-looking cabins in which you can get changed. There is a till where you buy your ticket, some lifeguards, and also perhaps – I am no longer certain – a refreshment bar. Large trees, poplars and ashes, the tops of which rustle as they stroke the sky, shade the entire area.

I am itching to go since it’s already late. My mother has forced me to have an unbearable siesta during which I didn’t sleep a wink. Outside, it’s mid-July, there’s a hum of grasshoppers and crickets, and the holidays stretch on endlessly. I’ve slipped on my swimming costume, which she has pulled up to my navel and which accentuates my thinness. I’ve put on my plastic sandals.

From an orange aerosol canister, she squirts out a large white dollop that has the consistency of shaving foam. She sprays this dollop onto my skin. It’s smooth. She rubs it in and it soon becomes invisible, miraculously dissolving all over my body. I read the label on the bottle. Ambre solaire. It sounds like the title of one of those poems I learn every week, written by Emile Verhaeren, Maurice Fombeure, José-Maria de Heredia, Paul-Jean Toulet. I close my eyes. I breathe in.

A rather greasy substance, faintly musky, a scent of Turkish gynoecium. Like an extension of the heat of the day, the warmth of intimacy, a caressing arm. Later on, I shall discover the elderly Ingres’ Turkish bathers. I shall associate this smell with them.

I am ready at last. I get on my bike. I set off. I sniff the wind. I’m ten years old. The present is a wonderful gift.

Enjoy this? You can purchase the book now from the following outlets, and all good bookshops!

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Parfums Week! Day 2: Barber

ParfumsEvery day this week the MacLehose Blog will feature an extract from Parfums, Philippe Claudel’s brilliant “catalogue of remembered smells”, a unique memoir which re-creates the author’s childhood through recollections of the scents he inhaled.

After yesterday’s charming opening installment – a first kiss – we have another wonderfully recollected memory: a trip to the barber.



Père Hens’ salon is on the corner of rue Jeanne d’Arc and chemin des Prisonniers. To get there, I simply have to take rue Saint Don and follow it as far as the crossroads. I go on my own and, as soon as I arrive, I give the barber the warm five-franc coin that I have been clasping tightly in the palm of my hand for fear that I should lose it on the way.

I sit down on one of the four chairs, awaiting my turn. Père Hens smokes and prances about as he trims. He’s an ageless man, dressed in a grey nylon smock, small, slim, with brushed-back silvery hair that he frequently combs, his eyes constantly creased by the smoke of the Gauloise that never leaves the right-hand corner of his lips. He circles around his customer, bouncing about with the gracefulness of a boxer whose strong point is his footwork. He talks a great deal, to men of course. That’s all there are. Old men mostly.

He doesn’t seem to see me until it’s my go: “Your turn, lad!” He makes me sit down on the revolving chair, raises it to its maximum height by activating it with his foot, as though he were blowing up an inflatable mattress with a hydraulic pump. With the flamboyant action of a toreador or a magician, he swirls a flimsy cape around me and, apart from my head and my neck, I disappear under it. Putting a finishing touch to the preparations, he pulls from a large roll on the dressing-table a length of white crêpe paper edged with pink and wraps this elastic collar, which is both soft yet rough and tickles my chin pleasantly, around my neck.

For half an hour, I am left to the mercy of his scissors, which he likes to make chatter and sing as he snips the air here and there as though, at the same time as me, he were cutting the transparent locks of tousle-haired ghosts. The smoke from the hand-rolled and ready-made cigarettes of the customers, thick and acrid, forms a moving ceiling that shifts as he hops around. I like being left to his mercy, just as nowadays I still like being left in the hands of often wonderfully talkative female hairdressers, masseuses, osteopaths, chiropodists and physiotherapists. As my light brown hair falls around me, my bird-like skull is revealed.

The best moment is still to come. The haircut over, Père Hens tears off the crêpe paper that has disguised me as one of Charles IX’s courtiers, rubs it between his hands, tosses it into the dustbin and picks up a bulbous metal flask, with a long slender spout, at the other end of which hangs a large pear of slightly cracked red rubber. Then, still very lively, he skips around me as he squeezes the pear and sprays a cloud of cold water that smells of roses and brilliantine and also, a little, of his old dog. This microscopic rain deposits its refreshing shower in tiny droplets over my close-cropped hair, my eyebrows, my forehead, my closed mouth and my neck. A secular monthly baptism.

You smell nice. You look lovely, my mother says to me when I get back home. I believe her. It’s an age when we always believe what our mothers tell us.


Enjoy this? You can purchase the book now from the following outlets, and all good bookshops!

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Parfums Week! Day 1: Girlfriends

ParfumsEvery day this week the MacLehose Blog will feature an extract from Parfums, Philippe Claudel’s brilliant “catalogue of remembered smells”, a unique memoir which re-creates the author’s childhood through recollections of the scents he inhaled.

First up, a particularly charming extract – the unforgettable sensory experience of a first kiss.


So what is this fragrance our petites amoureuses, our first girlfriends, have, when our lips initially find theirs for the first time, and then, awkwardly, don’t really know what to do?

I am twelve years old. Girls don’t look at me and boys tease me for being skinny. My over-eager heart beats madly whenever dark-haired Natalie or blonde Valérie walk past me. I write poems that I slip into their hands at eight o’clock in the morning when I arrive at the Collège Julienne Farenc. Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Athene, Aphrodite, Diana, Nefertiti: I recycle the history and mythology syllabus. And, shamelessly, I plunder the authors in our French textbook: Valérie, sous le Pont des Voleurs coule le Sânon, Et mes amours, Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne or else Demain dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne, je partirai à l’école Nathalie, je sais que tu m’attends, je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps. But Nathalie does not wait for me.

As though to prove the intensity of my passion, I invent, in honour of Valérie, the verb radadorer, the repetitive superlative of “to adore”. Valérie, je te radadore! All I am allowed in return is a shrug and a disdainful pout. My poems end up as scrunched-up balls of paper in the gutter. They’re thrown there right in front of me. To be sprayed on by dogs and cats. Playing the role of the sentry, that’s all I’m good at, warning François, who is kissing Nathalie, or Denis, who is doing the same with Valérie, whenever an adult approaches and they risk being caught in the act in the narrow alleyways that connect rue Jules Ferry to rue Jeanne d’Arc. I’m the willing little sucker cuckold, keeping watch over the love affairs that others are having with my girlfriends. I ask them afterwards what they taste like and smell of, these kisses mimicking those that can be seen every Sunday on the screen of the Georges cinema, film kisses that are as ardent as they are motionless, and which could pass as advertisements for superglue. They call them patins. But the only patins I know are the slippers we wear at home to polish the floors. They’re old, with a tartan design, and they stink.

A few months later, I learn how it’s done: it won’t be with either Nathalie or Valérie, but with Christine Frenzi. Fat Frenzi. A birthday tea party at the Waguette twins. We eat cake. We drink Sic orangeade and Sic lemonade with psychedelic colours. Someone puts on some music; it’s slow, easy-listening stuff, as syrupy as the drinks. Couples team up. They shuffle around as best they can. Many of the dancers are in shorts. There are only two people still sitting down, her and me. She comes to fetch me, she takes me by the hand. I dare not refuse, and here I am pressed up against her. My arms can barely reach round her body. I feel slightly ashamed. What will Nathalie and Valérie think, both draped over my friends, so near, yet so far away? I close my eyes.

It is she, too, who puts her face against mine, who seeks out my lips, finds them, kisses them. Silky hair washed in the same Dop shampoo as mine, but smelling of something else too – something vegetable and sugary, candied, a whiff of confectionery, of home-made cakes, of plant stems and open fields – that I can’t identify, but which takes hold of me and which I breathe in happily, on her neck, on her lips, those lips that I kiss again, and this time I’m the one who wants it. Nathalie is forgotten, Valérie is forgotten. Their loss. And when, after the dance, Fat Frenzi does what the other girls have done with the boys and comes to sit on my lap, and the pain crushes my bare thighs and the few muscles I have on my bones, I say nothing. I grit my teeth. I inhale her neck, her cheeks, her mouth. We kiss again and for years afterwards these kisses, which are scented with the green smell of angelica – at last I’ve succeeded in naming it – impel me to go and open the jar of crystallised fruit which my mother uses to make cakes and decorate rum babas and which she keeps in the bottom of the kitchen cupboard. I grab a handful of sticks of this sweet and sticky candied umbellifer, pass them under my nose, close my eyes, and munch them as I sit on the linoleum floor, thinking of Fat Frenzi and her kisses – but also of Michèle Mercier, whose delicately erotic adventures are shown on television each summer – while at the same time humming the sickly sweet tune that brought us together: On ira, où tu voudras quand tu voudras, et l’on s’aimera encore, lorsque l’amour sera mort.

Thanks be to Joe Dassin for having helped me far more than Apollinaire and Hugo combined ever did.


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“Read this book!” – a review of Derek Robinson’s Why 1914?

Why 1914?Derek Robinson’s WHY 1914? is a brief and comprehensive introduction to the events that led to the start of the First World War. But why take our word for it – see below for a review from Elizabeth Balmer for the Western Front Association.

For a small book, this one punches well above its weight. In his first 130 pages Derek Robinson, well-known for his earlier fictional works – Goshawk Squadron and Piece of Cake among others – provides a masterclass in the history of pre-1914 Europe and beyond, including the South African War, the Boxer Rebellion and the Russo-Japanese War. The last 70 pages give a summary of the first months of the war on the Western, Eastern and Balkan Fronts, even taking in the Battle of Coronel on the way. If this seems ambitious, he succeeds admirably in answering the question in his title with a clear and readable account, given in short but comprehensive chapters.

As the background to the war, he describes the social and political complexity of Austria-Hungary, the Balkan Wars, the Unification of Germany, Bismarck’s legacy, the family relationships of European royalty, the all-important implications of alliances and treaties, and the volatile character of the Kaiser (in command of the army, but not in control, Robinson says). In discussing the British army, he has succinct descriptions of the Cardwell and Haldane reforms.

War was inevitable, he says, ‘for the simple and depressing reason that many people on every side wanted [it] and they all believed . . . they would win it’. But he downplays the importance of Princip’s fatal shot as the fuse that ignited it by showing the current preoccupations of the contenders as being more immediately important than yet another assassination of royalty in the Balkans. A good chapter follows on the Curragh Mutiny.

He describes the inexorable buildup of the European armies and the naval race, born out of a mixture of aggression and, on the part of France, seething resentment over her defeat in 1870, with Britain drawn in not only by treaty and alliance obligations, but also from a reasonable anxiety over possible German occupation of the Channel ports.

In his coverage of the battles of the first months of the war and the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, he compares French, German and British arms and weaponry and stresses the often underestimated part played by France, pre-Mons, comparing the mobility of Joffre to the difficulties of communication for the British, and Moltke’s lack of grip, his base so far from the front that he gave no orders for the first five days of the Marne. Robinson also reminds us of the huge losses sustained early on – Germany having lost 250,000 men by the beginning of the Marne, and France 800,000 by the end of 1914.

He refutes any idea of the futility of the war, pointing out how Germany’s war aims as defined in the Mitteleuropa statement of September 1914 and the terms of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in 1918 show what would have befallen the Allies had they lost. With 1916 proving the turning-point, he sums up by saying ‘the astonishing courage and the refusal to admit defeat on the Somme made possible the breakthrough of 1918. And there is no futility in that.’

There are many amusing sidelights and sharp pen portraits of statesmen and generals, and if you want to know about blue margarine, the Gurkhas and corned mutton, or the extent of Tirpitz’s Anglophilia – read this book!

Convinced? Buy WHY 1914? now for less than £5!

Happy International Coffee Day!

A Naked Singularity Sergio De La PavaHappy International Coffee Day from MacLehose Press – may your coffee be as perfect for you as this order in Sergio De La Pava’s Folio Prize-shortlisted A Naked Singularity!









“I’m easy, just get me one of those I think it’s called a fatslap-pushpush-in-the-bush-consigliere-capillary-freezy-supremicious or something, extra non-decaf please. Now when the guy pours the espresso into the foamy milk please make sure that he pierces the smallest possible area of the upper foam. The result should be akin to a brown pin prick on a sea of white. Moreover, when he pours the espresso in he should do so at such a deliberate rate that the espresso and the milk, which incidentally should be foamed to no more than a seventy-five percent congealment status, will not mix but rather will form two distinct levels featuring two different colors, with a great deal of wavy quantum action taking place at the border where they conjoin. Once that’s done I shall like a fair amount of cinnamon sprinkled atop of the now pierced milk. Now when I say a fair amount of cinnamon I do not mean that the entire surface area should be covered. Rather the appearance of the cinnamon should be not unlike that of a distant nebula, such appearance with which I’m sure you’re familiar. Remember, a cinnamon nebula is the goal. A cinnebula if you will. As for sugar, enough should be added to combat the inherent bitterness of espresso coffee but not so much added that it overpowers all the other competing flavors the beverage brings to the table. Also do not stir the beverage, as such a stirring would undoubtedly compromise the dual-level system I just mentioned. Instead add the sugar at a rate where each individual sugar granule will have its component molecules sufficiently bombarded by surrounding molecules, traveling at a high rate of speed due to the extreme heat of the beverage, as to occasion the dissolving of the granule before it reaches the bottom of the cup. Lastly, please take care to walk the drink over with minimal bipedal concussion so as to not disrupt the dual-level system. Thanks man.”

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Photograph of Coffee (C) Nevit Dilmen

10 things you didn’t know about the start of the First World War

There’s been a lot in the media this year about the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War. But besides the memorial services, the sombre analysis and the promises that we must not let such a conflict happen again, the story of how the assassination of an Austrian heir led to the world’s most destructive conflict has remained in the background.

Derek Robinson, a trained historian and author of numerous novels, including A Splendid Little War and the Booker Prize-shortlisted Goshawk Squadron, has written a brilliant new introduction to the events of those fateful months, Why 1914?. It’s packed with details you may never have heard before. Did you know, for instance . . .

1.    Gavrilo Princip, Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassin, was only 19 years old, and suffered from tuberculosis.

Gavrilo Princip lego

2.    Anglo-German hostility can be traced back to a telegram from Kaiser William II to President Kruger in South Africa, congratulating him on protecting Transvaal’s independence from Britain during the Boer War. Transvaal was a British protectorate at the time.

Paul Kruger

3.    When Britain created a plan for if Europe went to war, the British Cabinet was never consulted as the government believed war to be strictly a military concern.

British Soldiers

4.    After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria had to delay their military response because half of their army was on harvest leave tending to crops.

Austrian Soliders

5.    In 1914, the monarchs of Russia, Germany and Britain were all cousins. It wasnt until the end of the year that George V struck the German princes off the Roll of the Garter.


6.    Britain accidentally sent an invalidly-worded declaration of war to the German ambassador, and the Foreign Office had to send their youngest member of staff to retrieve it and replace it with the correct version before war could officially be commenced.

(C) Marion Doss

7.    Expecting an easy path through Belgium, the German army was waylaid by hundreds of small gangs of Belgian guerrillas, who ultimately forced a quarter of the German force to be diverted from the front.

(C) DrakeGoodman

8.    Early communication between the British and French was so poor that when the B.E.F. arrived in France they did not know the enemy’s whereabouts, destination or numbers.


9.    Widely credited stories circulated amongst the B.E.F. of angels who had appeared to protect them while retreating from the German advance.


10.    Belgian railwaymen sabotaged their own network to derail the Schlieffen Plan, blowing up bridges and blocking tunnels until 90 per cent of the network became unusable.


Why 1914?Want to know more? Purchase Derek Robinson’s Why 1914? now for only £5.49!

(Only available in ebook, or in print from the author’s website.)

COMPETITION – win all three of our September titles

So it’s September, a chill is in the air, and we’re beginning to think it might be worth abandoning those needlessly optimistic outdoor plans, and settling down with a nice book.

Luckily for you, we’ve got three gems this month. And luckier still, you can win them all! Simply tell us on Twitter, on Facebook or in the comments below which of the three books below you’re most interested in, and you’ll be in the hat to win all three.

September Books competition

The Sermon on the Fall of Rome Jerome Ferrari

The Sermon on the Fall of Rome by Jérôme Ferrari (translated by Geoffrey Strachan)

Of all the author’s we’re publishing this year, Ferrari is certainly amongst the most highly acclaimed. The reviews for this book in France (where it won the Prix Goncourt – comfortably the most prestigious of France’s many literary awards) are quite staggering:  Raphaëlle Leyris of Le Monde proclaimed it “the best novel of the year”,  Claire Devarrieux at Libération declared it ”overflowing with eroticism, sensuality, violence and blinding flashes of wisdom”, while Bernard Pivot of L’Academie Goncourt said “Language that undulates like a serpent in the sun … A brilliant novel”.

We could go on to list the plaudits Jérôme’s last novel, Where I Left My Soul, received in Britain (listed as a book of the year in four national newspapers), but we could equally talk for days about what this new masterpiece is about – the biggest questions of life, the universe and everything are exquisitely distilled into the story of a small Corsican bar, and the various miscreants whose lives sequentially fill it. Funnier, sadder and wiser than his already-wonderful previous work, this is absolutely not to be missed.

Buy now from MacLehose Press | Amazon | Waterstones

Forever Yours Daniel GlattauerForever Yours by Daniel Glattauer (translated by Jamie Bulloch)

Daniel Glattauer came to the world’s attention with Love Virtually, an epistolary romance for the digital generation about two strangers who are brought together by a typo in an email address. By turns funny and romantic, it captured the imagination of an international audience, and also came to be adapted into a radio play by BBC Radio 4, starring no lesser luminaries than David Tennant and Emilia Fox.

This new novel is a wonderfully strange creation. Judith, a perfectly cheery thirty-something singleton, meets Hannes, who proceeds to fall in love with her. She’s a bit thrown by his passion, but he’s charming and witty and intelligent – what could go wrong? Described as being “like a cocktail laced with arsenic”, this is a psychological suspense story like nothing you’ve ever read before.

Buy now from MacLehose Press | Amazon | Waterstones

Olivier Ziegler coverOliver by Philip Ziegler

Widely regarded as being the finest actor of his generation, there are no shortage of biographies of Laurence Olivier in existence. Why read this one? Well, since you asked, The Times described it as Olivier’s “definitive and best-sourced biography”, the Daily Mail described it as “probably the best-focused”, and Tarquin Olivier – Laurence’s son – describes Ziegler’s book as being “the Larry I knew”.

But this isn’t just the best Olivier biography, it’s also a gripping read. It is “compelling” (Simon Callow), “a triumph” (Sunday Times), “joyful and wonderful” (The Times), “outrageously enjoyable (Scotsman) “outstanding” (Literary Review), “splendid” (Economist) and “superbly insightful” (Independent). Whether as an actor, a lover or the founder of the British National Theatre, Ziegler’s Olivier is an astounding creation.

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Women in Translation Month: MacLehose Press Recommends . . . (Part 2)

You’ve already seen the first part of our Women in Translation recommendations – without further ado it’s time for part 2 – with great thanks our wonderful translators and staff for their recommendations, and to the brilliant female authors mentioned for giving us their books!

Joel Richardson, MacLehose Press

Snow White Must DieSince translated fiction is often seen as something of a niche market (all the more so for women in translation), it’s especially gratifying when a translated author breaks into the mainstream. When I picked it up in Frankfurt train station at the start of a long journey home, I had no idea I’d race through Nele Neuhaus’ Snow White Must Die in barely half the journey. Translated by Steven T. Murray, this is not just a page-turning mystery but also a dissection of a small town’s response to trauma, with a huge and eclectic cast, this is one of many books that prove that female authors are at the forefront of European crime fiction.

Margaret Jull Costa, Translator

word-treeTeolinda Gersão’s The Word Tree, which I translated, is set in both pre-independence Mozambique and in Salazar’s pre-revolution Portugal. In her simple but rich prose, Gersão evokes both the heat and ease and lushness of the former and the suffocating primness of the latter, providing along the way an extraordinarily evocative portrait of childhood and adolescence and thwarted ambitions. Even the less sympathetic characters, both Black and White, are drawn with great understanding and subtlety. There are no goodies and baddies, simply flawed human beings struggling to define themselves and to define what “home” and “happiness” mean.

Alison Anderson, Translator

The WallThe House on Moon Lake by Francesca Duranti, translated by Stephen Sartarelli, is an intriguing novel about translation and the imagination, and won prizes on its publication in Italy. I remember being drawn in and captivated by the story with its unclear boundaries between fact and fiction, and have read it several times.

The Dust Roads of Monferrato by Rosetta Loy, translated by William Weaver in 1990, is a beautifully drawn and sensitive chronicle of an Italian family in the 19th century, totally engrossing, superbly translated. Considered her masterpiece, winner of numerous prizes in Italy.

Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky, is an extraordinary “saga” of a house in Germany and its successive owners through war and displacement. I was above all amazed by Susan Bernofsky’s skilful translation, too.

Finally, at the moment I am reading The Wall, by Marlen Haushofer, written in 1963, translated by Shaun Whiteside in 2013, and so far I have been completely blown away by this book. A woman vacationing in the Austrian Alps wakes up one day to find herself completely alone, with a dog, two cats, and a cow for sole companions, in a world that has been walled off from a disaster. A science fiction that is really an examination of solitude, survival, and the human condition.

Euan Cameron, Translator

The DoorOne of the novels I most enjoyed when I worked as a publisher was The Door, written by the distinguished Hungarian poet and novelist Magda Szabó, and translated by Len Rix. It’s the story of the intense and ultimately tragic relationship between two very different women, one an aspiring young writer who in her later life narrates the novel, the other a proud, marvellously eccentric and mysterious older character called Emerence, whom I’ve never been able to forget.

Cristina Viti, Translator

Elsa MoranteProbably best known to English-speaking readers for her novel History (translated by William Weaver), Elsa Morante started writing as a child and published her first works (including a translation of Katherine Mansfield’s Scrapbook) in her twenties. Her books remain in print and are the subject of much debate and study (with Open Letter recently republishing Weaver’s translation of her last novel, Aracoeli); however some of her best work remains untranslated, and her first major novel, Menzogna e sortilegio, intended as a meditation on the novel form itself, has never been given the dignity of a full, new translation after the drastically abridged version published in 1951 by Harcourt Brace (House Of Liars).

Sian Reynolds, Translator

A selection of tragi-comic short stories by the Russian writer “Teffi” (1872-1952) has recently been published in the UK. Born Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya in St Petersburg, she chose her short pen-name partly as a joke. Her witty and ironic stories were published first in Russia between 1900 and 1918, and then in exile in Paris from the 1920s. She has been rediscovered in Russian recently, and the recently released collection Subtly Worded (translated from the Russian by six different translators) covers the years before, during, and after the Revolution.  They include re-worked episodes from her own life, such as when, aged thirteen, she visited Tolstoy to beg him to stop Prince Andrei dying in War and Peace - but didn’t dare; and when she met Rasputin at a strange sequence of parties. More often the stories are about ordinary people trying to cope with what life throws at them, not always emerging with dignity.  The ironic title story (1920) is  about the ” subtly worded” language of “strange letters”  from the early Soviet Union and how to reply in the same code. “Que faire” is an allusive satire on the emigrés in Paris. Some of the great women poets of modern Russia – Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva – are well known now world-wide, but  few Russian women prose writers of this period have been translated. ”Funny on the outside, tragic on the inside”, these stories can quite readily be seen as in the tradition of Chekhov.


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