Brief thoughts on Mrs. Black – Olja Knežević (trans. Will Firth)

Please note – this excerpt was provided by the translator, Will Firth.  It is a sample from a larger novel, so this is not a review so much as impressions.  Any quotes are from a draft translation and should be considered as WIP.

The following is commentary, thoughts, and asides, and is not intended to be a review or critical examination.

This excerpt has the strange, refracted glass quality that can come from a writer attempting to locate their story in a place that is not natively there.  For myself, that would be me, say, setting a piece in a small American town from my home here in Brisbane, Australia.  For Knežević this is London, and it’s somewhat unbalancing the way the writing attempts to be very British.  I like this; I enjoy how everything seems to be the way a person would imagine Londoners to be, and not necessarily how they are.  It’s not dreamy or aspirational or wrong, but there’s a certain quality of theatre to it, as though everyone is pretending to be who they are, as though their masks are themselves wearing masks.

A nice description, short and to the point – “Val looked like an antique: a rather short, delicate, but historic vase.”

Where’s the piece going?  It’s unclear.  It’s a couple of actors and industry types, and the two moderately wealthy Blacks, all ground down by cigarettes, bad roles, the whispers of adultery, a certain fondness for velvet and thick carpet.  They seem content to genially rot in bars as they grow older – save the ‘antique’ Mrs. Black, who is young and curious.

The mix of high and low culture appeals, as it always does.  Pink Floyd and Emily Dickinson.  A man unironically nicknamed ‘Dikky’, and the socialite who goes by Val.

“I know of a great love just like that,” she continued. “I know a story where the soul chose its own society and, click, shut the door to the rest of the world. Unfortunately it didn’t happen to me . . .”

The love story of Mrs Black?  Perhaps – and how nice the phrasing, the idea of shutting the door to the rest of the world.

This story is partly true; fantasy and intuition have filled in the gaps between the facts, which are almost always unreliable.

Does a narrator who admits to their own unreliability increase or decrease their integrity in the mind of the reader?  Is baldly stating such a thing a help or a hindrance?  For me, it piques my curiosity because it takes confidence to state plainly that one will not be stating things plainly.

A later portion of the except is a letter, which I am always inordinately fond of within a book.  It allows for a certain florescence of personality, functioning as both short-hand development of character and voice, alongside the ability to shift and move the plot forward in time and space – a letter can do anything.

I ought to be like that. I am a teenager and a musician, and an only child to boot. I love my body, and it hurts inside, as if a hundred claws were scratching at my heart, but I exercise my willpower, unlike my mother. Thank God I have English blood in my veins. Here it seems everyone gives in to their body and their instincts.

An interesting woman – not enough context to talk much about her beyond the recognition, above, that letters help drive personality, and here is no different.

So where do I land on this?  Curious.  Pleased to have read it, and curious to know where it might go and how it might get there.  Of the four parts, the second and the last are reasonably straight-forward as they show Val Black living her life.  The first, which is a framing device set in Podgorica, couple with the letter excerpted above, suggest a structurally complex novel, which certainly appeals.

I am unsure when or if this novel will be published in English.  Without doing any research whatsoever, I expect that the number of translated female Montenegrin writers into English is low, so any awareness raising can only help and not harm.  Who knows what may one day come?



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