Posts filed under 'female protagonists'

Fascism and Fairy Tales: Ulrike Almut Sandig’s Grimm in Review

A significant project: to rethink the world within a time of political and economic crisis, wherein the female body is particularly precarious.

Grimm by Ulrike Almut Sandig, translated from the German by Karen Leeder, Hurst Street Press

“Is someone shaking the stories”, asks the narrator in the penultimate poem from Grimm, the new collection by the German poet and performance artist Ulrike Almut Sandig, translated by the German scholar Karen Leeder and published by the Oxford-based Hurst Street Press. The collection’s slant retelling of the Grimm tales, considered integral to the German psyche, belies a significant project: to rethink the world within a time of political and economic crisis, wherein the female body is particularly precarious.

Myth, legend, and folklore provide frameworks to writers and readers across all languages and cultures within which they can understand and contextualise crises, serving also as survival strategies for everyday existence and persistence. Grimm focuses on concerns that are central, yet which are by no means exclusive, to Germany, including, the rise of the far-right, misogyny and patriarchy, and the refugee crisis. The collection’s success is that by presenting itself as a poetic cycle, and by its use of language, it suggests that all these phenomena are related. Moreover, if the Grimm tales represent the collective German imagination (indeed, according to the critic Jack Zipes, the Brothers Grimm collected their tales in order to uncover the linguistic “truths” that formed the German people), Sandig reveals its violent, misogynistic, and patriarchal dark side, connecting the tales to the fascism, patriarchy, and racism of the German present and past. If, as Leeder notes, the collection directs a “rage” at this collective consciousness and the injustices it undergirds (‘Grimm’ also means ‘rage’), this rage is inscribed within the broken language of the women to whom Sandig’s retellings give voice.

We can see this at work in the poem “Fitcher’s Bird”, taken from the tale of the same name where a young girl is kidnapped by a man who wants to marry her against her will. During her confinement, the girl discovers the mutilated bodies of her sisters who had previously disappeared from the village. She brings them back to life, escapes disguised as a bird, and then musters the village to exact vengeance on her kidnapper. In the poem, the girl is multiply alienated from herself. Not only does her confinement alienate her from her body and the outside world, so does her disguise as her friends no longer recognise her: “I am an odd/ bird, nobody/ knows me, I/ scarcely know/ myself.” Crucially, this alienation is rendered linguistically. Her imprisonment and her kidnapper’s mutilation of her sisters confine her voice in short, staccato lines, of which the protagonist is well aware: “a globe is/ stuck in my throat/ that I can’t get down […] the beautiful bodies/ of my sisters are/ piled inside.” At the poem’s end, the girl resolves to “make/ all those anew, all those/ who were butchered overnight”, intimating how Grimm in its entirety interrogates the conservative, sexist didacticism inherent in the Grimm tales by exclusively representing female characters that resist patriarchy and sexism.

The collection’s opening poem, ‘Grimm’, connects the girl’s linguistic crisis with a political crisis. Two characters write messages on eggs which smash due to the urgency of their communication, their need to express their concerns. Then, most unnervingly, they “raised [their] sticky arms/ in salute and waved in greeting. then/ lowered [their] heads to a well-nigh limitless/ supply of fragments and rage most grim.” Their rage at the status quo, their political impotence, has broken their language, their selves, and their world-view. In the poem, the girls’ rage, their inability to express their needs or have their voices democratically represented has been misdirected to support the far-right, half-concealed here in the Nazi salute. All they are left within this tragedy are the broken eggshells of their words and a right-wing anger that, thanks to Leeder’s wordplay, is ‘grim’: both evil and implicated within the German cultural consciousness synecdochically represented by the Grimm tales.

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Don’t Look Back in Anger: Virginie Despentes and Modern France

Despentes shows that evil is all too human.

Following our recently published review of Virginie Despentes’ Pretty Things, Barbara Halla takes on the Vernon Subutex Trilogy. In this essay, Despentes’ most recent work is seen to interrogate female anger, everyday life, and the power of community in new, thought-provoking ways.

In a 2017 profile of Virginie Despentes, Le Monde eschewed Despentes’ name, preferring to refer to her simply as Le Phénomène, The Phenomenon, throughout the piece. This epithet is no exaggeration: Despentes has held the French literary scene in her grip since the mid-nineties when she published her first book, Baise-moi (translated into English as Rape me, by Bruce Benderson), and then directed its 2001 movie adaptation, featuring two porn actresses in the lead. Manu and Nadine, the main characters and both victims of violence of some kind, embark upon a road trip where they lure, sexually exploit and kill off men. It wasn’t just the violent acts that made Baise-moi feel radical. It was the lustful pleasure the protagonists took in this violence that stunned audiences, leading to a temporary ban of the film in France. As Lauren Elkin points out in The Paris Review, when the movie came out, there was nothing else to compare it to, so critics fell back on Thelma & Louise, another feminist road film about two women on the run. But Despentes’ nihilistic and sadistic story has little in common with Thelma and Louise.

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On Frantumaglia and the Real Mystery of Elena Ferrante

Nice little stories with happy endings or some kind of moral resolution? Not for La Ferrante!

As an Italophile and an Elena Ferrante fan, I’m thrilled to see her nonfiction work, La Frantumaglia, finally making it into English in the form of Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, published this fall by Europa Editions.

I know the book will intrigue American readers with the backstory of her novels and her life as a writer (I’m also thrilled that the original title has largely crossed the Atlantic intact, particularly given the unusual provenance of the Italian word, “frantumaglia,” which Ferrante culled from her mother’s speech and which she defines as a jumble of ideas or thoughts).

One could nonetheless argue, given the nature of the book—a collection of manuscript drafts, interviews and letters—that it will surely fail to stir up the same excitement as did the Neapolitan series or her earlier novels. This is the author, after all, who launched her novel, The Days of Abandonment, with the line: “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” Boom! Not to mention the creator of the frenzied, passionate scene between Nino and Elena in the bathroom of the house she shares with her husband, Pietro, from Book Three of the Neapolitan quartet (a scene Elena rushes into after rushing out of the arms of her young children). Whoa! How do you top that?

And of course, it’s not like Frantumaglia confirms (or denies) what Italian investigative reporter Claudio Gatti recently sprung on the literary world (if for no other reason than it had already gone to print). Gatti, as anyone remotely following Italian literature knows, believes he has pulled off an expose by studying real estate records and other documents to deduce that Ferrante is actually a translator named Anita Raja. (Edizioni E/o, Ferrante’s Italian publisher, has denied the claims.)

Yet I can confidently say the Ferrante lines that have made the biggest impressions on me are in La Frantumaglia, which was first published in Italy in 2003.

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