Women in Translation Month: Writing Won’t Save Us, but It May Help Us Survive

By Barbara Halla

Is it intertextuality? Or is it perhaps that, both consciously and subconsciously, the books I pick tend to broach similar themes? Russian poetess Maria Stepanova would say that I am trying to find patterns where there are none—because like all other human beings, I take comfort in meaning, even if I have to supply it myself.

Let me take a step back. When I was invited to do a column for Women in Translation Month, I looked at the list of books I planned to read in August and grouped them by theme. I didn’t want to write listicles, so I tried to find a way to structure each post around a specific concern, or idea. And for this week, the approach worked. Perhaps a little too well, so that I began to question myself. Am I right in seeing the connections between the autobiographical writings of Danish poetess Tove Ditlevsen and French writer Annie Ernaux, or was I fooling myself? Or was I so intent on creating a creative female genealogy that it mattered little to me if the two ever knew about each other.

There are definitely some biographical similarities: both were women born in early 20th-century Europe to working class parents. Both “rose” above their station, had unsuccessful marriages, performed illegal abortions, had conflicting relationships with their parents, who were proud of them, though only after their success had been established. And both use writing as a balm and as a tool.

Before I get to the books in question, I want to give an honorable mention to Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale. In this essay, Stepanova questions the desire to remember and immortalize our lives and those of others. She approaches the problem of there being too much past, and even more future. So how can we sift through all the human detritus that surrounds us to save all that is worth saving? Or rather, is anything worth saving, after all? While I finished this book a few months back, it has been a scathing ghost in my mind ever since, picking apart every autobiographical or autofictional text that I read thereafter.

“Don’t dead people have a right to be unknowable?” I could hear the specter of Stepanova whispering in my ear, as I read A Woman’s Story and A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux (translated by Tanya Leslie). In these two short biographies of her mother and father respectively, Ernaux uses her writing to bridge the gap between herself and her parents. And she is very intentional and methodical with her projects. A Man’s Place is an attempt to understand a man she was never close to, both because of his nature, but more specifically because of his class. It was a chasm that kept on widening, as Ernaux finished school, became a teacher, and joined the ranks of white-collar workers.

With her mother, the impetus is a bit different. A Woman’s Story is not necessarily about understanding her mother, but reconstructing who she was before and after she had Annie. Who was the woman hiding behind the façade of stern motherhood? What were her desires? It is a resurrection that seems to be less about Ernaux herself, then wanting to give another lease on life to a woman who had been far too constrained by her circumstances.

I do not have a more elegant way of expressing my admiration for Ernaux’s writing. The way she manages to weave the larger streams of France’s sociopolitical and cultural landscape into the tale she spins of her parents’ lives and her own. It is a masterful and hard to achieve balance between the broader forces that shape a person’s life, and these small details that make someone their own unrepeatable self. Like the fact that her father still had some coins in his wallet when he died, or how the funeral director told her all coffin prices included tax when she was preparing her mother’s funeral.

Because of Ernaux, but not only, I have acquired certain expectations about writers’ autobiographies. I always expect a level of learned self-awareness about writing as a tool that aids you in achieving self-knowledge, limited as that may be. So, I was unprepared for the romanticized, candid description of writing as destiny that I found in The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen (translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman).

Ditlevsen, born in the early 1900s in Copenhagen to two poor, working class parents, maintains a loving, almost effortless relationship to her writing throughout her life. It stands in such contrast to the self-deprecating, love-hate rapport that I see in other writers. Ditlevsen cherishes her writing; it is, without exaggeration, the thing that provides her with hope, and pulls her back, more than once, from the brink. When I mentioned to others that I was reading the trilogy, everyone commented on how deeply sad the books were. And I understand where they were coming from. The people that Ditlevsen describes in Childhood and Youth live dreary lives of economic precarity, dead-end jobs, and a general feeling of being stuck in one place forever. Whereas, Dependency brings us down with Ditlevsen as she falls deeper into addiction.

And yet, I could never feel sorry for Ditlevsen, because there is always so much hope in her. The hope represented by the poetry book she keeps as a child, and the typewriter she first has to loan as she moves from job to job. The knowledge that the world was bigger than the wearisome characters of her insular neighborhood. But there is also little levity in The Copenhagen Trilogy. Yet as someone who lived it, rather than merely studied it, there is a distinct lack of melodrama in the way Ditlevsen describes the small and big tragedies that suffuse her life. Not least the way that Ditlevsen builds relationship on the principle that people always want something from one another.

Barbara Halla is the Criticism Editor for Asymptote working on soliciting and promoting reviews of translated literature from all over the globe. She works as a translator and researcher, focusing in particular on the writings of contemporary and classic Albanian women authors. Barbara has also written about the cultural roots of sexual violence in Albania for Politikja, Albanian academic journal and is a contributing writer for the online feminist magazine Shota. She holds a BA in History from Harvard and has lived in Cambridge, Paris, and Tirana.

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