Posts Tagged ‘Roald Dahl’

Grand Tour #13 – Slovenia. Games with Greta & Other Stories / Suzana Tratnik

June 17, 2017

I’m now done with the familiar countries until I get to Scandinavia. The Balkans and the Baltic beckon. Slovenia’s uncharted territory. I don’t know the first thing about it; even the football team’s a closed book. And the waters are only going to get murkier: Cyprus, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania…

Still, I thought I’d probably found a winner: a book of short stories by Suzana Tratnik, Games with Greta & Other Stories, translated by ‘Michael Biggins and others’ and published by the brilliant and enterprising Dalkey Archive Press. (The ‘others’ turn out to be the unpronounceables: Tamara Soban, Špela Bibič, Mojca Šoštarko and Elizabeta Žargi.) And Tratnik’s Wikipedia page was most encouraging: she’s translated Judith Butler into Slovene (!) and has been heavily involved in LGBT activism in Slovenia. Onward.

‘Games with Greta’ itself is a good place to start. It takes place at a family gathering, and is told by a girl who is forced together with Greta, the adopted child of relatives who have moved to England. The narrator snobbishly dislikes the parents, and decides to dislike Greta accordingly. Memories came flooding back of my own childhood, and of the handful of occasions when I was thrown together with distant cousins simply because we were roughly the same age. We had different temperaments and different ways of playing. They had a Scalextric (which I dare say I judged them for not being able to pronounce; they even called Tetris ‘Tertis’), and I had a dead tortoiseshell butterfly in a plastic box. (Actually I yearned for a Sega Master System II, but I assumed my parents would never buy it so I didn’t bother to ask.) We compromised on football.

The narrator (apologies for the unwieldiness of repeating this phrase, but Tratnik’s narrators are invariably unnamed; there is one story where she is referred to by her interlocutor as ‘Suzana’, which makes one wonder whether these stories are fictions after all, or rather thinly anonymised episodes from Tratnik’s own life) – where was I? – the narrator finds that Greta isn’t so bad after all, or at any rate that she isn’t an intolerable prospect as a playmate. This said, what evolves between them is a sort of power struggle with elements of the dangerous and the macabre. It can’t be a coincidence that Tratnik has translated Ian McEwan. This story is reminiscent of McEwan’s early writings, hinting at natural but somehow distasteful infantile sex play, and the pushing of boundaries, even the boundaries of some mystical netherworld. I thought it was really something.

More often the focus is adult relationships, particularly romantic relationships between women, and frequently relationships that are going through difficulties, either dying because of them or weathering them, and often because of geography and/or the passage of time. The elegiac ‘Trips Are Cheaper Now, Too’ sees two lovers, Jana and Vivi, reuniting for New Year, one of them still living in Slovenia, the other having moved to the Netherlands, and having problems adjusting to being around one another again. The excellent ‘Letters Without Envelopes’ has one character, living in Slovenia, acting as go-between for two lovers divided by war in Yugoslavia. One of my favourite stories, ‘The Subway’, is about a woman visiting a public model of Ljubljana’s proposed subway system, assembled by her former lover. The two women have contrasting personalities (hence the break-up), and it doesn’t take long for the old animosity to be rekindled.

‘Does this … subway of yours have burek stands?’ I asked Ines, since burek struck me as the only appropriate food for chewing your way through the street scene of Ljubljana.

‘No,’ she came to her project’s defense without batting an eye. There’d be no bureks. ‘No greasy food at all, don’t you see. We won’t be selling any bureks. And at all the larger stations – for instance Bavarian Court, Central Station, Clinical Center, Šiška Cineplex – there’ll only be stands with vegetarian fare. And fitness centers. I wouldn’t even sell Coca-Cola – and I’m not going to allow any Benetton shops or Müller products.’

‘Do you mean those German Müller puddings? Those are the only ones I buy anymore.’

‘Yes, but they support really awful right-wing politics.’

God knows what bureks support.

If a lot of these stories blur into a lesbian miasma (which is hardly a criticism), that has the effect of making the exceptions really stand out. The pick of those, I thought, was ‘Sewing the Princess’, a fable in which a child beaten by bullies enacts a kind of poetical revenge through the creation of a ‘princess dress’. Perhaps the sewing/suturing symbolism is overdone, but I loved the magic of the ending.

The raised roses on my princess dress reflect the light of the blazing sun and the reddish snow simultaneously. They look like streaks of blood on the snowy white dress. I just stand there.

You may be familiar with a Roald Dahl short story about bullying, ‘The Swan’, that is absolutely brutal. It baffles me that it appears in a collection for children, it’s so much more disturbing than his stories for adults. This story is a beautiful counterpoint to that one, and with a happier outcome. And a welcome hint of gender ambiguity at the end, too. I had to read the story twice and I’m still not sure I’ve read it right. It makes me curious about gender in the Slovene language, and of how to translate from non-gendered into gendered languages and vice versa. See posts on any number of linguistics blogs for more on that endlessly fascinating subject.

For a deeper, more perceptive and altogether better review of the book, do read this.


On reading aloud

June 1, 2015

I have very few memories of being read to as an infant, but it definitely happened. I do remember, aged six or seven, begging my mother to abandon The Hobbit on account of its being so tedious, which she kindly did. And she must have read me Beatrix Potter and A.A. Milne and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, because I know that I knew them; only I don’t remember it. (There are exceptions.)

Children love repetition, the same stories told over and over again with the same inflection. Every night somewhere a father is reprimanded by his son because he isn’t doing the voices the way Mummy does them. Well, Mummy’s gone and you’ll just have to deal with it, he resists the urge to reply. And get used to not seeing Uncle Nigel again while you’re at it, he’s no longer welcome under this roof.

It’s important to read to your child, but by the same token it’s quite important to have some wine in the evening, and for that purpose the story tape was invented. The stories I remember best from childhood are the ones I listened to on cassette as I went to sleep, night after night. Alan Bennett’s Winnie-the-Pooh when I was younger, but particularly George’s Marvellous Medicine read by Richard Griffiths and The BFG read by Amanda Root and Jeremy Bulloch. If I read the stories now, I still hear the cadences of their voices in my head.

Playing with tapes, 3 years old

Playing with tapes, 3 years old

I made a few story tapes of my own. The first consisted of me reading out Peanuts comic strips. It must have been an odd thing to listen to without the context of the pictures. I remember reciting one strip in which Lucy puts on Charlie Brown’s T-shirt and cruelly mocks him: ‘Nobody likes me! Everybody hates me! Poor, poor me!’ I think I did it because I wanted to be able to listen to it in the car, not being able to read Peanuts while travelling on account of getting sick. Necessity is the mother of invention.


When I was six I graduated to proper stories.

Laura’s baby brother George was four weeks old when it happened.

Laura, who was seven, had very much wanted a brother or sister for a long time. It would be so nice to have someone to play with, she thought. But when George was born, she wasn’t so sure.

That’s the opening of George Speaks by Dick King-Smith, and this is me reading it.

‘… when George was born, she wasn’t so sure.’ I’d like to claim I had an innate gift for storytelling, but surely I’m parroting the way I’d heard someone else read it. I’m not fluent throughout the recording. Words I struggled with: developed, knowledge, bodily, Guinness Book of Records.

More than anything, I suspect, I liked being a presenter. While other boys were dreaming of being lorry drivers or ballet dancers, I wanted to be a DJ. Not when I was six, but the stirrings were clearly there. The end of the story:

I was fortunate that my parents provided me with a second brother shortly after my eighth birthday. I’d been too young to read to the first one, but the second was much better timed. At the age of two or three, he was old enough to understand stories but too young to be able to escape me effectively, so I had a captive audience.

I would have been about eleven when I made a tape of stories for him, read by me and underscored by appropriate classical music. The music for Quentin Blake’s Patrick, which is about a violinist, was the opening movement of Kabalevsky’s violin concerto. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Ravel piano music; Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad (there’s a book crying out for a queer analysis, but that’s a post for another day), Holst St Paul’s Suite. It was a labour of love, I suppose, but it was also a project, which made it fun. I timed myself reading the stories before I recorded them, so that I could identify movements of an appropriate length to use as backing music.

When he was a bit older, I read him Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected as bedtime stories. I remember ‘Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat’ and ‘Galloping Foxley’. They took longer than your standard children’s book, but I didn’t have the patience to split them into separate evenings, so if we started one we persevered to the bitter end. Tom would have been about ten, tired and invariably falling asleep, so I had to increase my reading speed and become extra animated in my characterisations to make sure he didn’t drift off before the twist at the end.

I got out of the habit of reading aloud after that. There’s not much point in doing it if you don’t have someone to do it to. (That rule may apply to other things as well.) I did recently rediscover this recording of me reading, at sixteen, a bit of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, I think because I had to return it to the library and wanted a record of a few pages I’d enjoyed.

I could have made a photocopy, it occurs to me now, but I was probably in love with my own voice. It’s a crime I never went into radio, this narcissism is wasted in the library.

Dissertation time

May 26, 2010

I have grand plans for this blog. Well, not really. I have slight to moderate plans, but the point is they’re on hold because I have to spend the next three months writing about Roald Dahl. If you’re going to write a dissertation it might as well be on a subject you know a bit about. For my undergraduate degree it was Britten’s Peter Grimes, and the resulting piece of work, while pedestrian in the extreme, did at least display not so great a degree of incompetence for me to be openly derided during the graduation ceremony.

I think this dissertation should be more successful than the last. I’ve got the hang of Harvard referencing now, for one thing, and I think I’m probably better at putting coherent arguments together, though the problem of my brain overflowing still crops up. So it’s an agreeable prospect, though it will probably mean less posting here until September.

Michael Fagan meets the Queen

Dahl was an odd chap. Smart and gifted writer with a brilliant understanding of the child mind though he was, he could be egotistical and cruel, and the old allegations of racism and anti-Semitism still cling to him. A flick through Jeremy Treglown’s unauthorised biography provides this fascinating snapshot of the man, one of many:

In the case of The BFG, Dahl was also rewarded by one of those coincidences in which life imitates fiction. The story takes the giant to Buckingham Palace, where he blows a dream through the Queen’s bedroom window warning her of the bad giants’ attacks on children. When she wakes, Sophie is sitting on the window-sill while the BFG prowls in the garden outside. One night in July 1982, between the book’s completion and its publication, the real Queen Elizabeth II woke up in Buckingham Palace to find a man called Michael Fagan in her bedroom. Dahl delighted in the story and, long after it had died down in the newspapers, he would fantasize ribaldly that Fagan had ‘actually done it’ with the Queen, and had been got rid of by the security services.

This could be fun…