Love Novel focuses on an unnamed man and woman in a relationship that has grown toxic, who are kept together by the child they have brought into the world but whose resentment towards one another simmers and grows as the novel progresses. The title is ironic – or, more specifically, acerbic: this is no traditional “love story,” but rather a novel about love gone stale. It is a savage and carnal tale, but also cold and brutal, unfolding in a huis clos where “love kills as soon as it gets a chance” (25).
This is the first of V&Q’s new English-language imprint to be translated from a language other than German: when the imprint was first launched, publisher Katy Derbyshire was explicit that the intention was to bring into English the best contemporary writing from Germany, broadening this beyond works originally written in German. Writer Ivana Sajko and translator Mima Simić both live in Berlin, and so this publication starts to reflect the multicultural and multilingual facets of contemporary Germany. It also sits well within V&Q’s growing catalogue: the suffocatingly intimate family environment recalls the imprint’s first release, Paula, the focus on contemporary societies and characters’ inability to move on complements The Bureau of Past Management, the ambivalence towards relationships and parenthood has echoes of Daughters, and the criticism of a society that leaves behind its most vulnerable is reminiscent of Madgermanes. So Love Novel is consistent with the identity of the imprint, yet is unique in both its social context and its expression.
The main characters are not particularly sympathetic, each caught up in their own personal grievances and blaming the other for their dissatisfaction. Yet they are also a product of their circumstances: they are scraping to get by, overlooked by the system, and left behind as their country and compatriots move grimly forward within the mechanisms of capitalism. She was an actress, and although her career never reached particularly glorious heights, it has now stagnated to the point where she barely works. He is a frustrated novelist who wants to write but finds himself encumbered by circumstance and by lack of inspiration. They used to listen to one another, try to understand each other’s positions on politics, religion, relationships and ideologies, but this was “a thousand years ago, maybe more” (31), and now they are eternally at odds, “resenting each other over promises unfulfilled, over weakness, laziness, selfishness, over stupid trifles and the goddamn rent” (34). They lash out at one another, each so caught up in their own internal misery that they can no longer connect to the other or see them as anything other than responsible for and unsympathetic towards that misery.
Sajko is a playwright as well as a novelist, and her theatre background is palpable in Love Novel. The closed space of the home, and the way in which what can be seen from the windows is narrated, would not be out of place on a stage. The same is true of the limited cast list: the majority of the drama focuses on the intimate lives of the two main characters, and the peripheral characters are often “off-stage” when they are mentioned. The enclosed environment is partially responsible for the heightened drama: the couple live in a tiny apartment for which they cannot afford the rent. She feels trapped there by her parental responsibilities, and he feels inhibited there, unable to find the conditions conducive to writing the novel he is certain lies within him.
There is a great deal of social comment in this book: there are mentions of parliamentary debates that are already a foregone conclusion, and insights into the extreme and perilous poverty in which part of the population exists, “tighten[ing] their belts down the size of a noose” (75). People are struggling to survive, going on futile demonstrations, finding themselves on opposite sides of an invisible line without seeming to know exactly why: life is an ongoing struggle, for which “this shitty government and Jesus … are to blame” (26). Yet even the abjection is stylistically lavish, with particularly glorious sections on the start of the protagonists’ relationship, on the folly of making babies in the middle of a recession, and on the painful co-existence “she” and “he” now inhabit: “her laughter sounded like a screech of a train braking at the sight of damaged rails, whereas his resembled the laughter of a man throwing himself under the same train to stop it with his own body, placing his head in front of her locomotive running at full speed, and her crashing into him, hitting him, and like a ram with its horns trapped, pushing forth even after stopping” (101).
As is evident in this quotation, Mima Simić’s translation is admirable: familiar and informal English expressions abound, as these characters are both intimate with and disdainful of one another, but the vernacular never feels forced. The language is as violent as the context, sentences carved with passion and precision. Words are particularly weighty in this book that has as subtext the frustrated attempts to write a novel (indeed, it is repeatedly hinted that Love Novel is itself the impossible manuscript): they are painful, twisted, or they don’t come at all. There are a couple of uses of lexis or grammar in the translation that struck me as odd, but if I noticed these it was probably because the rest of the prose appears so effortlessly accurate. The most impressive feat, however, has to be the rendering of Sajko’s extremely long sentences. Sometimes these make up the majority of a page, and Simić navigates them stunningly in the translation. She never loses the thread of what is going on, and steers us through the English version to give the impression that we are swept along on a diatribe of undiluted narrative rage, yet never lost within it.
As Love Novel moves towards its dénouement, perhaps the most shocking fate is reserved for the man on the housing development who wants to try to improve the aesthetic standard of the grim façades, irritating the other residents with his suggestions, demands, and reproaches. His violent comeuppance unfolds so swiftly that it caught me by surprise, and represents an excellent example of the kind of savage inhumanity manifest in the novel’s context. Yet Sajko does not moralize: the characters are presented as they are, but without directions on how we should respond to them. Love Novel is not a comfortable read, but it is a timely exploration of socio-economic inequality, a raw confrontation of the pain humans are capable of inflicting on one another, and a fearless engagement with the challenges of poverty and parenthood.
Helen Vassallo is the founder of Translating Women, an industry-facing research project that engages with publishers, translators and other stakeholders to work against intersectional gender bias in the translated literature sector of the UK publishing industry. She translates Francophone women’s writing (with particular focus on North Africa and the Middle East), and has recently published translations of Darina Al Joundi’s The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing and its sequel Marseillaise My Way. She is currently translating Leïla Slimani’s The Devil is in the Detail, and has just finished writing Towards a Feminist Translator Studies: Intersectional Activism in Translation and Publishing, a study of diversity initiatives in translated literature. Helen tweets about books at @translatewomen.
A wonderful review that, first of all, makes me want to read the book, and second of all offers tremendous insight about current postmodern European writing about personal dissatisfaction with love, life, and motherhood. I also deeply appreciate the Vassallo’s revelations about the development of V&Q as a publisher. More from this reviewer, please!