Summer Ennui: Sun-Soaked Writing from Around the World

Our antidote to the summer beach read listicles.

In May, we welcome summer with long reading lists, ambitious writing projects, and travel plans. But as the temperatures rise, books get abandoned, and drafts get lost. Slowly we leave ourselves to mid-day slumbers, timeless symphonies of cicadas, and a yearning for the early evening breeze. Summer ennui establishes itself around this time, and makes us wonder, when is this heat and everything about it going to end? Our blog editors Sarah Booker, Chloe Lim, and Ilker Hepkaner are joined by our guest contributor William Booker as they introduce their favorite writing about summer’s idleness and slowness.

Manuel Puig (1932-1990) was an Argentine writer best known for his novel Beso de la mujer araña (Kiss of the Spider Woman, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Colchie) in which he showcases his ability to develop a complex narrative through conversation and his passion for film. Dwindling tropical evenings—sticky, never-ending, and buzzing with life and memories—are the setting in Puig’s final novel, Cae la noche tropica (Tropical Night Falling, translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine), for the conversations held between two sisters in the twilight of their lives. Indeed, the novel begins with a recognition of the melancholic nature of this particular moment: “There’s such a sad feeling at this time of day, I wonder why?”

Perhaps reflecting Puig’s own experience as an exile as well as his aging body, this novel focuses on two elderly Argentine sisters living in Rio de Janeiro where they spend the muggy evenings enclosed in their apartment talking about their past, gossiping about the neighbors, and tending to their surroundings. Much like Beso de la mujer araña, this novel is made up of dialogues and letters and it similarly questions national identity while also meditating on loss, isolation, and aging. The intimate, oppressive atmosphere in which the novel unfolds becomes a space for reflection, memory, and gossip and it becomes apparent that this hot climate has the ability to transport the two women beyond the walls of the apartment.

—Sarah Booker

For many of us in the northern hemisphere, summer sees temperatures rising just a little bit too much for work to be productive. We would rather be at a pool party, on vacation, or having a nap… yet when these things actually do happen, they often disappoint. There is simultaneously so much yet so little to do, while feeling as warm and carb-laden as a jacket potato, as magazines scream at you about bikini-bodies and overly-expensive iced coffees. My current antidote to any seemingly endless summer is Haruki Murakami’s Wind/Pinball (translated by Ted Goossen). Most of us will have picked up a Murakami at some point, but Wind/Pinball is a particularly refreshing one, comprised of Murakami’s first two novellas: Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. As companion pieces, the novellas are effective in capturing the ennui of your 20s, with the unnamed narrator and his friend, Rat, struggling to find meaning during university summer breaks, while working as a translator, or while sitting at a bar downing beers. The seeds of trademark Murakami melancholy and his surreal scenes dot both novellas, made widely available for the first time in English in 2015. Equally fascinating is the author’s notes on his method, engineering simplicity and mystery by writing in English (his second language), before translating into Japanese such that “inevitably, a new style of Japanese emerged.” Now that the novellas have been translated, transposed, once more into English, readers can discover the effects of Murakami’s first experiments, while finding consolation for seasonal ennui in his protagonists’ lives.

—Chloe Lim

“Summer will pass, but it will return / Summer will pass, words will heal”

Turkish author Murathan Mungan’s 1992 poetry book Yaz Geçer (Summer Passes) is a eulogy to summer love. Comprised of poems from a lovelorn heart written between 1986 and 1992, Yaz Geçer promises to soothe every bitter break up in the summer, but not before airing the lovers’ dirty laundry. The book starts with a banger. The first poem “Yalnız Bir Opera” (A Solitary Opera), as the title suggests, loudly addresses the lover who left at the beginning of summer. The lover who left asks the poet to remain the same throughout the summer, promising a return in September. The intensity does not decrease throughout the book. Yaz Geçer, which hosts some of Mungan’s best work in poetry, explains why the poet will not remain the same, why a whole season of summers between two lovers will change everything, and, thankfully, how words will heal it all. Readers of Turkish, should you find yourself wondering why your summer loves left before love made it to autumn, look no further. Mungan’s lines will guide you through your heartache in the long summer nights.

—Ilker Hepkaner

Call Me by Your Name, by André Aciman, is a story of intensity molded by summer slowness. Concentrated emotion and connection ushered in by the slow drip of sunny days and seemingly endless nights. As Oliver enters the Italian countryside and Elio’s world, confined by a small town and smaller household, the extended hours compress the blossoming relationship in time and space. With hours spent within arm’s reach, each word, each movement is chosen as a move and countermove, leading them from distaste to complete enmeshment; “You’ll kill me if you stop,” they utter. The summer days assemble their entanglement. Beyond their romance, the beating heat, and obsessive diary entries, Elio delves deep into himself. Like “coming home,” he writes, his sexual awakening comes crashing in. Despite the word gay, queer, or homosexual not appearing once in the text, Elio is brought face-to-face with his own identity. His father morphs from an authority figure to a man with unique insight and agency. And as the summer heat turns to fall coolness and Oliver is whisked away by a life beyond the Italian countryside and beautiful boys, Elio mourns. It was the precious concentration of infinite sun, sweat, and tears that bred their love. But, in turn, as those days die and sentimentality takes the place of euphoria, “in the end, it is because of time that we suffer.”

—William Booker


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