Elizabeth Jane Howard: a short tribute

It was with great sadness that I heard this afternoon of the death of a wonderful writer whose work I really only got to know well recently through writing an interview for a forthcoming issue of the Historical Novels Review.

Elizabeth-Jane-HowardI first read The Light Years with my book group last year and enjoyed it so much that it led me on to the next books in the quartet that make up the Cazalet Chronicle. It was a real delight then to hear that Elizabeth Jane Howard, then aged 90, was writing a fifth book in the saga and I was thrilled to be given a chance to interview her for the magazine. When a preview book of All Change appeared, I read it with enormous pleasure: this was an author still brilliantly able to capture the essence of human nature, noting intimate characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, and setting it against a postwar world of rapid change, but also new beginnings.  Women and children are portrayed with the greatest sensitivity: the former because Howard always has been a strong female voice, and the latter because with nearly a dozen grandchildren, she is not short of raw material for observation!

“Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Tribute” will appear in the February issue of Historical Novels Review.


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Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy on 2013 Notable Fiction List

It’s that time of year (again) and The Washington Post has published its “Notable Fiction of 2013″ list (here).  A tweet from Arcadia highlighted the fact that Miklos Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy is on the list, quite a feat for a book whose first volume was published, in Hungarian, in 1934.  What is really heartening is that the English version was published by Arcadia, a leading independent publisher of translated fiction. Moreover, the translation was by the author’s daughter Katalin Bánffy-Jelen and Patrick Thursfield, appearing under the title The Writing on the Wall in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

Thursfield met the author’s daughter in the 1990s and together they worked on the translation for several years. Certainly a labour of love and dedication given that the three volumes total some 1,500 pages.  Their translation of the last volume, They Were Divided, won the prestigious Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize in 2002 and the translators received their award in Oxford from Umberto Eco. This is the beautiful cover of that edition.

Banffy-They Were DividedOn the website of the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize I found these memorable and rousing words: Common European thought is the fruit of the immense toil of translators. Without translators, Europe would not exist; translators are more important than members of the European Parliament.’ (Milan Kundera)

For good measure, here’s my review of that prize-winning translation. It appeared in Solander in 2007.

Miklós Bánffy, They Were Divided, trans. by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen, Arcadia Books, 2007 (original text 1940), £12.99, pb, 326pp, 1900850516

The lost world evoked by this classic novel is an epic tale of love and bittersweet nostalgia, washed down with a liberal draught of derring-do.  The setting is Transylvania and Hungary in the decade leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, when a seemingly inexorable course of events culminated in the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the collapse of this once great country.

Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, of which They Were Divided forms the third part (not having read the others was certainly not a drawback), was published just before the Second World War. In his foreword to this reprinted edition, Patrick Leigh Fermor describes the aristocracy as “throwing away their spectacles and fixing in monocles”.  Indeed, they were so pre-occupied with the endless round of parties, shoots, love affairs, gossip and Anglophilia, that they totally failed to notice the “writing on the wall”.

The personalities of Balint Abady, his fatally flawed cousin, László Gyeroffy, provide an extraordinary insight into a society that disappeared without trace, as well as portraying human nature in all its frailty and complexity.  In this, inevitable parallels can be drawn with Lampedusa’s The Leopard. I was fascinated by the descriptions of Denestornya, the Abady residence, and of his mother, the Countess Roza.  Definitely a European classic in a prize-winning translation. [Lucinda Byatt]


Minutes after finishing writing this post, I discovered that Patrick Thursfield died in August 2003, so this revival of interest in this brilliant translation is also a fitting tribute, keeping his work alive.  Much more about Thursfield and about the translated trilogy can be found in this wonderful blog post by Neglected Books.

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The Great Tapestry of Scotland… again

The Great Tapestry of Scotland was completed in the summer and currently holds the record for being the world’s longest embroidered work. It attracted some 30,000 people when it first went on show during August at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, and there are already plans for a repeat display in 2014, between July and September (no coincidence about the timing, surely?!).

Since October it has been housed in a wonderful setting, along the coast, about 10 miles east of Edinburgh. I visited Cockenzie House this afternoon and was again amazed at the quality and detail of the panels. With 160 panels on show, you can’t help but notice something new every time. However, what also struck me was that the tapestry engages visitors so completely that complete strangers start talking to one another, pointing out details and commenting on the events the panels represent.  Surely the sign of a successful exhibit! 

20131116_150700For good measure, here is the panel we helped to embroider, The Great War panel (no. 118). My mother and I were both involved, but so was my grandmother on my father’s side – or more to be more precise, we included the badge of the Women’s Hospital Corps to which she belonged.  Many of the stitchers working on the panels spanned the generations and that, too, made it a very special project to have been part of.

20130615_223130Cockenzie House is a unique late 17th-century manager’s house, now owned by the community and seeking to raise funds to establish it as a wonderful public location for future generations.

Cockenzie-follyThere is an extraordinary Gothic folly in the garden, built by one of the Cadell family – possibly Hew Francis Cadell – in the 18th century. The building material is said to be Icelandic lava fragments, which were used as ballast. The word ‘Hecla’ (on the facade) appears to refer to the Hecla volcano on Iceland.

The tapestry will certainly help to boost visitors to the house and gardens, and it also pays tribute to the skill of the tapestry’s designer, Andrew Crummy, who comes from Port Seton/Cockenzie and whose workshop is literally next door, in what used to be the Cockenzie Schoolhouse.


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Two books in one week!

This week has been a bit like Christmas… two new books arrived, one of which I had translated and the other I edited.

The first parcel came from Lars-Müller, a Swiss publisher with whom I’ve worked before, and it contained three copies (as per contract!) of Antonio Foscari’s third book about Palladio and Villa Foscari, aka Malcontenta.  In this latest addition, the author focused on the frescos in the villa. The book has been turned around at record speed since I only started to translate the texts about a year ago and we were still looking at proofs in early August.

frescosHere is the blurb from the back cover:

Frescos within Palladio’s Architecture: Malcontenta 1557-1575 explores the superb fresco cycle of Malcontenta in the context of key political and cultural events in Venice and the patrons’ family commitments between the late 1550s and 1570s. The author Antonio Foscari successfully proves – in contrast to prevailing opinions – that it was completed in stages over a period of almost fifteen years. Recognition of this long duration allows the fresco cycle to be seen as an aide-memoire that testifies to changing circumstances in the patrons’ lives.  The author reveals ideological discrepancies in the iconography as well as themes that, until now, have been undecipherable and sheds light on the stylistic evolution of Battista Zelotti, the artist who is the protagonist of the whole cycle. Beyond that the book shows the determination with which Andrea Palladio attempted to supervise this artistic project over the years, and how, when it escaped Palladio’s control, it threatened to compromise a clear perception of his perfectly proportioned architecture, and therefore the very essence of his cultural message.

For me personally one of the best aspects of working on this book was that I was able to visit Malcontenta in early May.  It was a wonderful experience and very moving to see the frescos after writing about them at such length. We were lucky with the weather and it was warm enough to be outside on the terrace before and after dinner.

IMG_5703The second parcel that arrived contained a book that I edited earlier this spring.  It is a charming and very unusual memoir by Victor Eskenazi titled Thanks for the Buggy Ride. Memoirs of an Ottoman Jew (Libra Kitap, Istanbul, 2013).  I recommend it for its quaint picture of Istanbul, Vienna and Milan in the years between the two World Wars.  The author moved to London before the outbreak of the Second World War during which he fought for the British.  The tone is never nostalgic but instead immensely uplifting:

Time has passed, but I have no regrets for what I have not done or will no longer do. When life comes towards the end, one stops looking ahead because the road has already been eventful. Old wounds cease to hurt and memories soften and lighten the spirit.

Eskenazi-Thanks for the Buggy Ride
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