What affects the way we read books? thinking about authors, gender and translations

In my last post, I was looking at different covers for the same novel in translation across a range of languages, because I was wondering to what extent the cover image affects our expectations of the book inside. If the novel has a different cover, do we actually read it differently? could we even consider it to be a different novel? Think of the ‘adult’ versions of the covers for the Harry Potter series, or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – aside from being a marketing ploy, those different covers also implied that the version inside was a book for grown-ups, whereas the children’s versions weren’t.

Cover images aren’t the only thing to affect how we read books though; extra-textual (or real-life) information also has a bearing on how we approach narratives. One of my (many) side-interests is in the role that gender plays in a text – how characters’ genders are represented and embodied, for example, or how language reflects, configures and reveals gender – and a few years ago I wrote an article* about three novels where the main character or narrator is the opposite sex to the author. In these cases, the authors were women and the characters were male; one of my conclusions was that writing a character or narrator of a different gender was a way for these writers to signal overtly that these texts were fictional, as much women’s writing tends to be read as autobiographical in the first instance, even when it is fiction. Continue reading

Judging books by their covers: Herta Müller in translation

Since Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in 2009, there have been a whole host of re-issues, new publications and translations of her writing. It’s fascinating to see how the books are now being marketed (aside from the ubiquitous stickers saying ‘Nobel Prize winner’, of course), and what their cover images say about the writing inside.

Hanser’s handsome hardback versions have minimal images and muted colour schemes. I particularly like the architectural street view and blue wash on their version of Müller’s 1989 Berlin novel, Reisende auf einem Bein: the focus is on the plane in the sky, with its intimations of departures and arrivals. In the novel, the sky above the city – a frequent theme in texts set  in Berlin – is both a reminder of division and suggests the potential to cross boundaries. Continue reading

And they’re off… farewell to the 2011 graduates

‘Tis the season of gowns and mortarboards. A time of rewards for hard work, hopes for the future, goodbyes and new beginnings…

I’ve blogged elsewhere (in my departmental guise) about the graduation ceremony for the School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies, but wanted to say in my own name too: good luck to all the students I’ve taught over the last four years, happy travels wherever you go!

Highs and Lowlands: desperately seeking Romanian publications by Herta Müller

It might not look like much – the cover is a grainy black and white, with a picture of a rather unattractive toad – but this book, Niederungen, is probably the most sought-after of Herta Müller’s publications… or at least it is from where I’m sitting. There is only one copy to be found for sale on the internet (believe me, I’ve looked hard!) and it’s going for just shy of 1000 Euros – which is a little bit beyond my budget…

The book has a fascinating publication history: it’s Müller’s first book, published by Kriterion in Bucharest in 1982. The book is a collection of short stories which largely deal with life in the rural Banat, in surreal, dark, poetic texts, often from a child’s point of view. Continue reading

Even curiouser: a postscript

My mum read the last post, and phoned me up to remind me that my favourite book from the library was a picture dictionary, in French, by the wonderful Richard Scarry.

I thought I’d share that, not as further proof of my odd obsessions as a child (my other most-frequently borrowed book was a huge origami manual) but in praise of Richard Scarry, on the one hand, whose signature worm-in-a-hat is sadly missing from the front cover. His book Things (which I borrowed from my junior school library) is still a source of truly terrible puns and a little giggle to myself when I think of those squiggly, fingerprint-like Things (going from Bad to Worse, on a bus, but of course!).

And in praise of public and school libraries on the other hand – where else would generations of children get access to reference materials on whatever strange and magical subjects they alight on, and books which will fuel their imagination for decades to come?

Curiouser and curiouser… Or: an autobiography in languages

As yet another editorial on the importance of learning foreign languages does the rounds, I’ve been wondering how it was that I got interested in languages. I’ve got no family connections to German or Germany – which is pretty much the first thing anyone asks when I say that’s what I teach – but even at age 10, before I started learning languages at school, and without ever having been abroad, I wanted to be a languages teacher (though back then it was French that I was most interested in).

I can’t quite explain why. I just did. Maybe it was the fact of moving from one end of the country to another at a young age – Glaswegian is not (quite!) another language, but it’s different enough from the English spoken in Kent/SE London to make you aware of language differences at least. That seems a bit overblown and romantic though – maybe if I were a character in a novel, that would be the underlying cause, but it sounds a bit too autobiographical a reading for real life. Continue reading

Is this the place? book review

The figure of the stranger who comes to a new place is a bit of a cliché in literature (and film, and TV for that matter). But it’s a useful device, allowing an author to describe somewhere as if seeing it for the first time, to explain and comment on the history of a place, and to highlight cultural differences and those little local quirks which long-term inhabitants slowly but surely come to think are the normal way of doing things.

Recently I’ve been reading novels by authors who themselves are (or were) newcomers to Berlin, just like their characters: Chloe Aridjis’s Book of Clouds * (whose main character Tatiana is Mexican),  Anna Winger’s This Must Be the Place, and I’m just about to start Ida Hattemer-Higgins’ The History of History. They are all debut novels, as it happens – coming to Berlin obviously inspires writers!

This must be the place brings together Hope, an American in Berlin, and voiceover artist Walter, who dubs Tom Cruise into German. Hope is traumatised after living through September 11 in New York shortly after losing her child, and only reluctantly agrees to follow her husband Dave to Berlin. Walter once worked at Disneyland – playing Prince Charming with “a little European authenticity” – and he dreams of returning to the US to kick-start his career again, with a little help from his friend Tom. They make an odd couple: Walter is increasingly infatuated with Hope, while she is oblivious to his intentions but keen to escape her isolation and increasingly reliant on her German guide to the strange city. Continue reading