Ten Brilliant Women Writers You May Not Have Heard Of

Okay so my tooth comes out next Thursday, and I don’t want to think about that, so something completely different. A few weeks ago, I saw a post doing the rounds about 11 Brilliant Female Authors You’ve Never Heard Of, and naturally I was interested. I agreed the authors were brilliant, but I didn’t think they were all that obscure. And of course that got me thinking about the sort of list I might put together on similar lines… The following authors are, I think, less well-known than those on the original list, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have heard of some of them, or indeed read them. Mostly these things depend on geography and how keen you are on female authors!

 

Maryse Condé

I titubaBorn in Guadeloupe in 1937, Condé’s native language is French and that’s what she writes in, but most of her career has been spent in America in academia. Her novels are deeply concerned with gender, race and culture and often they are historical, like my favourite, I, Tituba; Black Witch of Salem. She had a particular interest in the African diaspora, especially in the Caribbean, and everything she writes has a sharp political edge. But saying these things doesn’t really connect with the heart of her writing, which is just so vivid and vibrant. Tituba, for instance, is about a young slave girl who escapes her life of hardship to come to America where she gets mixed up in the Salem witch trials because she is black and her cultural beliefs as well as her medical knowledge, are different to the norm. It’s completely engrossing, but it captures the reader’s mind as well as heart.

 

Madeleine St John

The Essence of the ThingMadeleine St John is an Australian writer who’s been shortlisted for the Booker before (in 1997 for The Essence of the Thing) so she ought to be better known than she is. She seems to have this ability to slide off the radar, despite the wonderfully funny, accessible, sparklingly clever novels she writes. She’s got a most intriguing writing history, having spent eight years trying to write a biography of the spirit medium, Helena Blavatsky, and eventually destroying the manuscript in frustration. She finally turned to writing novels in the early 1990s and was successful but found herself deeply uncomfortable with the publicity that brought, which turned her almost into a recluse. Alas, she is with us no more, having died in 2006, but she leaves behind four wonderful novels (though her will stipulates that none shall ever be translated): The Women in Black, A Pure, Clear Light, The Essence of the Thing, A Stairway to Paradise.

 

Anne Hébert

kamouraskaBorn in Quebec in 1916, Hébert had a terrifically successful career in Canada, winning The Governor General’s Award three times, but doesn’t seem to be particularly well known beyond her native borders. She was an equally brilliant poet and novelist though she had to self-publish a couple of her early works in order to break into the literary scene. In her personal life she lost two people she was close to – her cousin and her sister – in sudden and violent illness and this very much shaped her poetic imagination. My favourite of her novels is Kamouraska, set in the 19th century, in which the female protagonist conspires with her lover, a doctor, to kill her husband. It’s based on a true story which possibly adds to the kick it gives, but it’s the atmosphere of the novel I’ve never forgotten, a sort of intense fever dream that manages nevertheless to ask some tough questions about love and morality.

 

Magda Szabó

izasBalladSzabó was a Hungarian writer whose writing was suppressed during the Stalinist rule from 1949 to 1956. She began her career as a poet, her second book of poetry winning the Baumgarten prize which was taken away from her for political reasons on the day it was awarded. During the years that followed she turned to writing novels and from 1958 until her death in 2007 was a revered literary figure. Her novels are gradually coming back into print in English. The Door, the story of the relationship between a writer and her house cleaner, was shortlisted for a number of prizes and turned into a film. Just recently, Iza’s Ballad was translated into English and published, the touching story of an elderly widow attempting and failing to escape the well-meaning but claustrophobic love of her daughter. Her stories are simple, but the depth of characterisation, the psychological insight and the quality of the writing are amazing.

 

Nina Bawden

the birds on the treesNina Bawden is better known as a children’s writer – Carrie’s War or The Peppermint Pig, anyone? – but she also wrote elegant, austere and psychologically piercing novels, too. Circles of Deceit was shortlisted for the Booker in 1987, and in 2010 The Birds on the Trees made the shortlist for the Lost Man Booker Prize. She had a life that seems marred by tragedy, losing a son to suicide, a daughter who died six months before Nina Bawden died herself, and a second husband killed in a train crash in which she was also badly injured. Yet over her lifetime she wrote 55 books. She’s a writer I would rate as highly as Penelope Mortimer or Elaine Dundy yet she seems to be sliding into obscurity at the moment. Time for an enterprising publisher to bring her work back into print.

 

 

Marie NDiaye

ladivineGiven that NDiaye has  been longlisted for this years International Man Booker with her novel Ladivine, I imagine that her name is much better known than it was a few months or so ago. If you live in France, there’s no doubt you’ll have heard of her. NDiaye is a prodigy, publishing her first novel at the age of 17 and winning the Prix Femina in 2001 for Rosie Carpe and the Prix Goncourt in 2009 for Three Strong Women. Her father is Senegalese (and he returned there when she was a baby, leaving her to be brought up by her mother) and one of her concerns is the situation of immigrants in metropolitan Paris, though she writes essentially about identity in the broadest sense. In her most recent novel, the female protagonist’s problems all arise because she can’t bear to admit that her mother was a poor, black housekeeper, and instead claims she is an orphan. My favourite of her novels is Rosie Carpe, though it won’t be to everyone’s taste. NDiaye had a strong interest in a delicate kind of magical realism (not a bit like the Latin American version – you’d have to read her to see why) and I find her novels completely entrancing.

 

Janice Galloway

this is not about meScottish writer, Janice Galloway, is – or at least was in her first three novels – what you might call an experimental or innovative writer. This gives some authors a bad name, like they might be pretentious. But Galloway’s down-to-earth female characters are anything but that. Her first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, is a funny and terrifying account of a descent into mental illness, and that doesn’t sound too appealing either. But if you like Ali Smith, and you get that sharp-edged, black-humoured, rigorous and yet musical Scottish style, you’ll love her. Galloway’s recent volumes of memoir, This Is Not About Me and All  Made Up are excellent places for cautious readers to begin, and I urge you to try her because she has a wonderful voice.

 

Paula Fox

desperate charactersPaula Fox has reached the grand age of 92, which is long enough on the earth to have a great career, get forgotten and then be revived again. She was a highly successful children’s author, but I know her from her novel, Desperate Characters and her memoir, Borrowed Finery. Fox was abandoned at birth by her mother and put in a foundling home. Rescued by her grandmother who couldn’t look after her, she was placed in a series of households, the first belonging to a kindly Reverend who gave her a decent start in life. She worked as a teacher and a mentor for troubled youngsters, so no wonder she went on to write children’s literature, though she was in her 40s before she began to write seriously.  She was also writing novels with mixed success; these were all critically acclaimed but sold poorly. Goodness only knows why, for she’s an amazing writer. In 2011 she was placed in the New York State Writers’ Hall of Fame, and thanks to being championed by Jonathan Franzen, some of her work is now being reissued.

 

Willa Cather

DeathComesNow if you live in America, Willa Cather is going to be a very familiar name to you. However, I don’t think her works have ever become truly widely known outside of the States. And this is madness, because Cather is completely brilliant, probably my favourite prose stylist of all (okay, maybe tied with Colette). She is best known for her ‘prairie novels’, O Pioneers! and My Antonia, but I much prefer the run of novels that followed: Death Comes for the Archbishop, My Mortal Enemy, The Professor’s House, A Lost Lady. Cather really hit her stride in mid-career, and may have continued writing brilliantly right up to her death if critical opinion hadn’t turned against her, something that upset her deeply. Critics have a lot to answer for, in fact, as her work was taken up again by the feminists after her death (Cather was known for cross-dressing and having only significant female friends) and sort of mutilated once again, stuck under yet another label that narrowed her literary accomplishment. If you haven’t ever read her, pick up her novels. She is outstanding.

 

Jane Gardam

crusoe's daughterAnother name that will be very familiar to some, Gardam is a British writer whose recent trilogy of novels, Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends have definitely had some critical and commercial recognition. But Gardam has been writing for donkey’s years, and the novels from the early part of her career are every bit as wonderful and worth your time. I remember reading Bilgewater in my early 20s when it was one of the first coming-of-age novels I’d come across and being hugely impressed by it. She began writing in her 40s when her children had grown up enough for her to have time to herself, and from that moment on she was highly prolific. She is the only writer to have won the Whitbread Prize for best novel twice – for The Hollow Land in 1981 and Queen of the Tambourine in 1991. She was shortlisted for the Booker in 1978 for God on the Rocks. And yet despite the critical acclaim, I don’t think she is as well-known as she deserves to be. It’s like her zenith has passed, but that would be premature; start with Old Filth or Crusoe’s Daughter if you’ve never read her before.

 

And feel free to mention any other brilliant women writers who you think should be better known!

 

 

 

Georges Simenon and Inspector Maigret

cellars of the majesticWhen I was first growing serious about learning French, I was advised repeatedly to read Simenon’s Maigret stories. The French was so simple! I was assured, and they were good stories, too. I have no idea why I resisted, sheer perversity, I expect. When I was teaching French, I was often asked if Simenon was one of the 20th century authors I taught – being, I think, one of the few French authors with whom most people were familiar. I did not teach Simenon. In fact, it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I finally read a Simenon novel for the first time. And now it’s taken me an absolute age to get around to reviewing it, though not because it wasn’t an enjoyable experience to read. In fact, I whipped through it in no time, loved it, and wondered why it had taken me so long.

Inevitably, having finally read Simenon, I became curious to know something about the man. What a life! He published almost 500 novels and hundreds of stories, using many pseudonyms. Born in Belgium, he moved to Paris as a young man where he worked as a journalist, always with a taste for frequenting the seamier side of the city. His love life was particularly energetic. He married and then began a decades long affair with his housekeeper. The second world war intervened and Simenon got himself into hot water over collaboration. I imagine he behaved much like Colette did – with a sort of hard-headed peasant pragmatism. Colette wanted very much to eat, which meant she had to sell her work, and so her basic view was that she would sell it to whoever was buying. Simenon would eventually be sentenced to a five year prohibition on publishing, but it wasn’t observed. Not least because, once the war was over, Simenon took his family to America for a decade. His wife had found out about his affair by now and the marriage was struggling. Simenon promptly began a new affair with the woman he hired as his secretary and they married and had three children during a stormy relationship. In 1955 they all returned to France, and ten years later, Simenon divorced and married again – yet another of his housekeepers. He claimed by the end of his life to have had 10,000 lovers, and that he wrote 60 to 80 pages a day. Judging by his output, the writing claim is probably true.

Inspector Maigret was his greatest creation, his first novel featuring him published in 1931. He would go on to write 75 Maigret novels and 28 short stories. The thing about these novels is that they are very short – 120 pages or so – but they manage to have the same depth as a book of much greater length. I’ve thought for a while that the tendency in publishing lately is to allow books an extra 100 pages more than they need, and there isn’t a better case for concision than Maigret.

In The Cellars of the Majestic, Maigret is called to the discovery of one of the hotel’s guests, strangled and unceremoniously dumped in a locker in the staff changing rooms. The victim is the French wife of a rich American businessman, and certain pressures are brought to bear on Maigret to go easy on the guests. Maigret has no intention of doing any such thing, but once he finds that the husband’s affair with the governess to his children gives him an alibi, Maigret is happy to leave the bourgeois to their own devices. He is, in any case, far more intrigued by the complex workings of the servant underworld in the hotel, and in the sad circumstances of the main suspect for the murder, the hotel’s coffee-maker, Prosper Donge. Prosper is a sad soul, an ugly red-head who lives in a platonic sort of relationship with Charlotte, a lavatory attendant at a nightclub. It turns out that they both knew the murdered woman when they were all working in the South of France. From there, Maigret is hot on the lead of a complicated story of prostitution, blackmail and unrequited love.

It’s hard to put one’s finger on what makes this book tick along so satisfyingly. There’s a wonderful evocation of place and landscape, vivid yet brief; the characters are drawn so sympathetically – at least they are sympathetic in Maigret’s understanding gaze – and the puzzle is convoluted in its unravelling but simple in its solution. The narrative chugs along swiftly, free from padding and all those scenes in contemporary crime novels in which no one learns anything of any note. In a book this size, every scene counts, every encounter progresses the story. And Maigret is a great understated, unshowy performer. Getting older, getting tireder, saddened sometimes by what he has to witness of human lives, but his sharp eye and rapid insight are never in doubt. Yes, perhaps that’s what ultimately makes these stories so comforting – you are never in doubt that Maigret is in control of the investigation and that he will succeed. Much like Hercule Poirot and Perry Mason and Jack Reacher – the foundation stone of the story is Maigret’s unshakeable competence.

Without doubt, I’ll be catching up on more of Maigret’s cases, thanks to the lovely new Penguin reissues. A steadfast hero in a short, vivid, well-plotted story; no wonder they remain classics.

Vertigo

vertigo hitchcockAlfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film, which topped the British Film Institute’s poll in 2012 for best film of all time, is deservedly famous. But how many people have read the book the film was based upon?

Well, Pushkin Press have just released a new crime imprint, Pushkin Vertigo, that features the novel along with other international crime masterworks published originally between the 1920s and 1970s. Vertigo was written by the amazing French crime duo, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who I actually became rather interested in about a decade ago. Their books are often outrageous in premise and yet they pull them off brilliantly. Mostly they turn on a seemingly supernatural occurrence which always ends up with a logical explanation as part of a dastardly crime. So they’re both nutty and completely engrossing, a combination that always hovers around the supernatural in any case, something Boileau-Narcejac exploit ruthlessly in the knowledge that the impossible, the numinous and the inexplicable have a hypnotic effect on us.

vertigo boileauVertigo as written by Boileau-Narcejac is essentially a ghost story – or rather a Geist story, the original term from which ghost derives, meaning the spirit or soul. The story begins when ex-police detective, Roger Flavières is employed by his old friend, Paul Gevigny, to keep his wife, Madeleine, under strict surveillance. According to Gevigny, Madeleine has been experiencing periods of blackout, moments of ecstatic absence that have led him to suspect her of being possessed by the spirit of her suicidal grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac. Flavières is initially skeptical: ‘Either your wife’s ill or she’s up to some game or other,’ he tells Gevigny. However, once he has made Madeleine’s acquaintance and begun his mission of surveillance, Flavières undergoes a radical change of heart. Not only does he become convinced of her ghostly possession, but he also falls deeply in love with her. After thwarting her suicide attempt, he exchanges his role of spy for that of protector; rescuing Madeleine from her own internal estrangement becomes his raison d’être.

However, Flavières has one fatal weakness; his vertigo has already made him abandon his job in the police force after an incident in which a colleague, taking his place in a rooftop chase, fell to his death. The logic of inevitable repetition powers this story and so, when Madeleine rushes to the top of a church tower in a moment of otherworldly possession, Flavières finds himself once again unable to intervene, and once again forced to witness a death by falling.

Flavières is a curious mix of frustrated heroism and full-blown neurosis, a prickly, unstable character whose cynicism is a form of romanticism contaminated by despair.Yet his force is bound up in his determination to overcome his own phobias and to find strength and courage inside a mind tortured by its own uncertainties. When he rescues Madeleine from her attempt to drown herself, he rescues himself from his apathy and aimlessness – small wonder then, that when he loses her, he thinks: ‘She was dead. And he was dead with her.’ What a clever, tight thematic grip this narrative exerts; Madeleine is possessed by the spirit of Pauline Lagerlac, and in going to her rescue, Flavières becomes possessed by the spirit of the woman he adores. Round and round in circles we go, but it doesn’t stop there.

Intrinsic to this story is its setting at the very start of World War 2. When Flavières and Madeleine first meet, it’s the period of the phony war, when everyone is thrilled and terrified and waiting in disbelief for something to happen. And when Madeleine falls to her death, it is, of course, the moment when the war begins for real and the Germans invade Paris. Flavières decides to leave the country and he only returns when the war is over; his years in Africa have left him sick and weak, he is a broken man, returning to a broken, hapless France. It’s more than just a pathetic fallacy at work here; instead it’s a radical lack of boundaries, as the spirits of time and place as well as people, reach out contaminatory fingers, infiltrating one another. Aimlessly entering a cinema, Flavières is astonished to witness a face in the newsreel he thinks he recognises. After all, he’s just spent the past five years being obsessed by her memory. Could it be that Madeleine now lives on in someone else?

Well, we’ll leave Flavières rushing off in search of his old love. Even if you’re well acquainted with the ending to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, you’ll find the second part of the story quite different. There is a much darker, harsher, more unnerving vision at work, and Hitchcock’s movie seems quite light and cheery in comparison. The film of Vertigo is understood to be the place where Hitchcock spells out his relationship to his cool blondes most openly – his desire to control and mould them which always ends in disappointment, because his fantasy is only ever that and cannot really be made real. Whereas Boileau-Narcejac suggest that ghosts are both intrinsic and alien to our sense of the human – that our identity is to some extent a haunted house, people live on inside us, just as we inhabit the hearts and imaginations of others. For Flavières, Madeleine really does complete him, and what might seem romantic is actually pretty scary too. Hence our ambivalence over the ghost – what is psychologically real is denied as being too uncomfortable to our sense of self, and instead we play with the idea of the ghost as something that exists in a troubling way outside and beyond us.

Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac makes a fascinating companion to the Hitchcock film, and is, I think, an amazing book in its own right. I’ve got a couple more of the Pushkin Vertigo series to read and if they’re all up to this standard, it’s going to be a fabulous collection for crime lovers.

Back To Life

spectreofalex‘Of all my memories, of all my life’s innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed.’ So begins Gaito Gazdanov’s haunting and mercurial novella, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. The narrator was a mere sixteen years old when he became caught up in the Russian civil war, and it was after a period of intense and sleepless battle that he found himself cut off from his troop. Fortunately, he came across a riderless Cossack mare and hoisted himself into the saddle, but he had scarcely begun to canter before the horse collapsed under him, brought down by a sniper. Scrabbling in the dirt, the narrator saw a white stallion approaching, carrying his assailant. A pure reflex reaction; he shot back in self-defence and the man fell. In the brief moment after this, our narrator walked over to where the body lay, saw a young man of twenty-three or four slowly dying, and then as he registered the sound of horses’ hooves, he took the stallion and made his escape.

Many years later, in Paris, he comes across a book of short stories by an English author unknown to him. One of those stories is entitled ‘The Adventure in the Steppe’ and it is, of course, exactly the same story as his long-held memory, only from the point of view of the man he killed. From this moment on, the story’s author, Alexander Wolf, holds a magnetic attraction for him. To begin with, he tries to seek him out, approaching his English publisher who does not know where he is and clearly hates him. But then Alexander Wolf seems to have been supernaturally summoned, as the narrator walks into a bar and falls into conversation with an old soak there, only to find he is a friend of Wolf; one who was his comrade in the war, and who took him to hospital when he found him dying of a gunshot wound.

So, our narrator’s victim does indeed live on, and fate seems determined to draw them closer together to finish what they started. When the narrator falls headlong in love with a Russian woman he meets at a boxing match, and she has a mysterious lover in her past about whom she will not speak… well, the narrator doesn’t cotton on, but the reader certainly will.

This is a dense and curious story, psychologically fraught with the devastating power of what it means to take a life. A man who kills, our narrator argues, “is given the opportunity to become, for some short space of time, more powerful than fate and chance, earthquake and tempest, and to know the exact moment when he’ll put a stop to that long and complex evolution…Love, hatred, fear, regret, remorse, will, passion…all is helpless before the momentary power of murder.” Having known this power – in a guilty, stricken, senseless kind of way – the narrator is unable to recover from it. It’s as if a part of his own life has stopped at the moment he shot the rider of the white horse, and in consequence all he has subsequently lived through has been full of “regrets, dissatisfaction and a sense of manifest futility of everything I did.” The resurrection of Alexander Wolf is galvanizing, as is the relationship with Yelena (“Every love affair is an attempt to thwart fate.”), but playing with the power of fate is a crazy thing to do, the novella suggests, as it is jealous, and all too inclined to make puppets out of those who try to rise above its reach.

This is beautifully written and steeped in that glorious world-weary-emigré atmosphere of mid-20th century Europe. Gazdanov was a taxi driver at night in Paris to fund his writing, and this was his fifth novel, published in 1947. I am sorry to say that I put this on my wish list after reading a review of one of Gazdanov’s novels at Karen’s blog which featured a photo of the wondrously handsome author. It’s good to know that being shallow as a teaspoon doesn’t prevent a person from falling into the path of little-known masterpieces.

curtaincallA very different kind of novel, though also one intrigued by what it means to escape death, is Anthony Quinn’s Curtain Call. It’s 1936 and actress Nina Land is in a hotel room with artist Stephen Wyley, a place neither of them should be. Slipping out for cigarettes, Nina hears the most disturbing noises coming from behind one of the doors in another corridor. She knocks and enters and a young woman slips past her, sobbing and distraught. Only later does Nina realise that she has caught a glimpse of the man the papers are calling ‘the Tie-Pin Killer’. Quickly realising that she is probably the only person in London to have witnessed the man, Nina is determined to do what she can to help the police. But the plan she and Stephen cook up between them will end up causing more trouble than they imagine.

This is a novel that comes into being because of an attempted murder, but it is not solely focused on that crime. Instead, it’s more concerned with the lives of a group of people who are brought into contact with one another because of it. These include primarily the theatre critic, James Erskine, an egotistical elderly man whose homosexuality keeps drawing him into troublesome situations, and who is based on the life of a real critic and diarist, James Agate. Also, the critic’s put-upon secretary, Tom, whose epilepsy he attempts to keep secret (again with damaging results) and Madeleine, the young woman whose poverty has forced her to turn tricks, and who is the near-victim that Nina’s intervention saves.

In all honesty, it’s a while since I read this and the details are already hazy. But I did read it with enjoyment, feeling quite safe in the confident hands of this novelist. The fact it isn’t properly speaking a piece of crime fiction but a historical novel makes the ending feel a little odd, when the mystery is hastily solved. But the period detail is beautifully done and the story held my attention effortlessly. Given I’ve had a slightly disappointing run of contemporary novels lately, this was a step back onto higher ground.

Ooh and I nearly forgot to mention – on Thursday the Extra Shiny is out – with more reviews and article, plus our Book Club discussion on Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests, which I have just finished (am longing to compare notes with others). Also, we’ve got a new competition to announce. All this and more on the 20th!