The smell of spoiled words

July 5, 2012

The Loves of Faustyna is a smart, subversive comic novel about life, romance and activism under Communist rule in 1960s–80s Poland. Written by Nina FitzPatrick, a pseudonym for Nina Witoszek and her late partner Pat Sheeran, Faustyna is packed with sly wit, flights of absurdist fancy, and answers to questions you never thought to ask.

I went to conferences and meetings where garrulous men with glamorous stubble agonized over decades of stupidity and blunder. Our country was short of everything except words. Rising above the fug of cigarette smoke, stale sweat and Dettol was the stench of verbiage.

If you rant for days in a room without doing normal things like cooking dinner or playing with a child or washing your hair, words begin to spoil. The smell is a mixture of lead, liquorice and slaked lime. Opening windows and doors doesn’t get rid of it.

Beneath the breezy, biting style there is satirical substance and historical heft. Much is said with little (“Our country was short of everything except words”).

An earlier book by Witoszek and Sheeran, Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia, apparently won the 1991 Irish Times/Aer Lingus Irish Literature Prize for fiction until the book’s unorthodox authorship was revealed. I haven’t read it, but there’s some discussion on the blog Culture Vulture.

In the comments there you’ll find a lovely tribute to Sheeran by Julian Gough, who has also written him into his Jude novels as an enigmatic inventor. My thoughts on Jude in London are here. Both books offer a vivid, anarchic recreation of reality; where Jude‘s is surreal, Faustyna‘s is bittersweet and sometimes troubling.

My impression is that Witoszek was the principal author of The Loves of Faustyna, but that’s just a hunch; I know nothing of how the co-authorship worked. But it worked.

Eva Hoffman: ‘somewhere between tongue and mind’

June 21, 2012

I mentioned Eva Hoffman’s book Lost in Translation here in April when it featured in a book spine poem, ‘Forest of Symbols’. John Cowan sang its praises in a comment, so I bumped it up the unread pile. I’m grateful for the prod – it’s the best book I’ve read in months.

Hoffman was a child when she and her family fled Poland for Canada, and later the U.S.; her book, subtitled Life in a New Language, is a memoir of this migration in three parts: Paradise, Exile, and The New World. In it she writes with grace and deep insight about her happy youth in Poland, her alienation across the Atlantic, and her gradual psychological and cultural integration into an English-speaking world.

Read the rest of this entry »