Many of you will be well aware that August is #WITMonth – celebrating Women in Translation, hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. Meytal has been flying the flag for WIT for many years now, and now it has its own website HERE.
My first review for the month follows below, but first I thought I’d check to see how many books by women in translation I’ve read since last August. Here’s my list with links to my reviews. I’ve tried to read more in translation generally in 2021, having read 21 novels in translation (many of which are translated by women translators) of which seven have women writers, which is more than last year. So adding those from autumn 2020 after WITMonth 2020 ended my total is 11 with 7 languages represented.
From Sept 2020
- The Memory of Babel by Christelle Dabos – translated from French by Hildegarde Searle
- Earthlings by Sayaka Murata- Translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori
- Daughters by Lucy Fricke – Translated from German by Sinéad Crowe
- Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg – Translated from Polish by Eliza Marciniak
2021 to end July.
- Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson – translated from Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah
- Hotel Cartagena by Simone Buchholz – translated from German by Rachel Ward
- In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo – translated from French with John Cullen
- Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangal – translated from French by Jessica Moore
- One Last Time by Helga Flatland – translated from Norwegian by Rosie Hedger
- Nada by Carmen Laforet – translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman
- Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk – translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
And now for a short review of my latest read…
No Touching – On Ne Touche Pas – by Ketty Rouf
Translated by Tina Kover
The lovely Daniela at Europa Editions UK, sent a pair of novels to me on spec saying ‘I think you may enjoy both, in very different ways!’ Intriguing? One of the pair was Red Crosses by Sasha Filipenko, a Russian novel exploring memory and Russian history from Stalin to the present. The other book was No Touching, a prizewinning debut novel from Italian born novelist Ketty Rouf, writing in French; it won France’s Prix du Premier Roman 2020 (First Novel award), and it is totally different to the other book Daniela sent – I enjoyed it very much.
No Touching is the story of Joséphine, mid-thirties, a teacher of philosophy at a high school in a non-posh part of the Paris suburbs. I can hear you thinking that this could be the French equivalent of Notes on a Scandal, but it’s not about that kind of no touching!
Joséphine reads erotica on her commute, “Two hours of eroticism, paper-and-ink style: pages and pages of filthy language that I flip through the way you reel off a rosary, my prayer at each station before the Calvary of the high school.” It’s the start of a new term and the principal is doing the normal speech to the staff – she escapes to the loo.
“In a few hours I’ll be back home with my new scented candles, corset laid out on the bed, stockings tucked away in a dresser drawer, high heels on the bedside table. It makes me feel better to think of the moment when, dressed in black lace and stilettos, I’ll swallow a Xanax, or two.”
Joséphine rebels against the stultifying task of being a teacher to lower income class students who are being dumbed down, and then can’t learn. After she faints at school and is put on a week’s sick leave, she goes to a club where she watches a nude dancer. Inspired, and wanting to be able to wear her expensive Rouge Dior No 999 lipstick, she signs up for a trial striptease lesson – it was interesting – so she goes back for more. This is the start of a new nightlife for Joséphine. When she’s ready she gets a job as a lap dancer at a club and her alter ego Rose Lee, after Gypsy, is born.
The side plot follows her day job trying to teach philosophy to the uninterested teenagers, all bar one–Hadrien–who writes her letters in with his essays and she replies with advice from the great philosophers, especially the Stoics.
Joséphine finds dancing liberating, and soon she is making good money at it, and is good friends with the other girls. She barely sleeps, yet has to carry on at school, her nighttime occupation totally secret. Teachers as civil servants in the French system are prohibited from having multiple jobs, and then there is the risk that someone might recognise her at the club – will her worst nightmare happen?
There is a lot to unpack in this novel, and it would make for a great book group discussion. I can remember when our group read Belle du Jour’s Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, (sadly my review is one of my lost posts) which has many similarities, except that Belle doesn’t have the No Touching rule. Is it wish fulfillment for Joséphine? Yes. Does it help her come to terms with her own body? Yes. Does she like the desire that she can arouse in men? Yes. However, she may find that empowering, but she is also conforming to the norm the men she dances for expect, isn’t she? Virginie Despentes in her essays/memoir King Kong Theory (reviewed here) has good take in her unique style on this last point.
Surely it can’t last. Events will force her to make decisions.
It’s obvious that Rouf must have visited clubs extensively to see the girls perform and gone backstage to make friends with them of course. She has a masters in Philosophy and has worked in the Parisian department of education too. The portrayal of the school staff room and the principal may be stereotypical – but those stereotypes are often true and familiar also! Rouf uses the segments set at school to give us a breather from the heady extremes of Joséphine’s alternate life and her fascination with it which, let’s face it, is the more compelling thread of the book. That’s not to dismiss the philosophical discussions, especially those with Hadrien; Joséphine gives him life coaching through the words of the great philosophers, but doesn’t apply them so easily to her own situation.
This is a thought-provoking short novel indeed, but one I enjoyed. It may start off with erotica and sexiness, but in reality it’s more philosophical than that and about finding a way, as Shakespeare’s Polonious said, ‘To thine own self be true,’ as Joséphine finally does.
Source: Review copy – Thank you! Ketty Rouf, No Touching, transl Tina Kover (Europa Editions, Aug 2021) paperback original, 172 pages.
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