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Considering Wretchedness: Covid Conversations with Nichola Smalley

by Elinor Potts

“The road along the end of our street which runs towards Hackney Marshes is busier than I've seen it in over 10 years”

Nichola Smalley is a Swedish-English translator who works for And Other Stories, a Yorkshire-based independent publishing house which champions innovative international literature.

Having recently launched their Northern Book Prize as a sign of their commitment to new writing from the North of England, And Other Stories are dedicated to opening up the Anglophone publishing to counteract the industry’s elitist veneer (“posh freemasonry”), striving to move the publishing industry away from “London, Oxford and their environs”.

We arranged our chat long before "circumstances changed". I introduced myself in an excitedly rambling email, explaining my interests in Nichola's PhD thesis. As a fellow enthusiast of language and its varieties, Nichola's thesis is a richly compelling examination of contemporary Swedish urban vernaculars in a variety of cultural forms: namely rap and literature. Before "strange times", we agreed to meet to discuss Nichola’s translation and academic work over a light Japanese lunch.

Then, the latch dropped. Daily routines shed like dead skin. I spent my days battling a mouse infestation overlooked by an enormous pink moon. Sheltering from outside circumstances I stared hungrily at a white screen, waiting for words to appear. Other times, I baked lemon drizzle cakes for my neighbours and fixed the garden fence with twine. But all of this is besides the point, because I am supposed to be interviewing a Very Important And Lovely Person.


Wretched Living

As with every other exchange I’ve shared with friends, family, supermarket workers and job centre employees in the past month, our discussion is fronted with recognition of the infirm elephant in the room; the "difficult times" floating through emails like sullen rubber ducks.

It would be strange to start a conversation any other way than this. Like me, Nichola is based in London. "It's still really busy in East London," she says, "The road along the end of our street which runs towards Hackney Marshes is busier than I've seen it in over 10 years."

Nichola Smalley

Whilst I've lived in London for half the time that Nichola has, lockdown London feels closer in spirit to countryside ramblings, 'frosty' Londoners thawing with each weakly traded smile.

Nichola’s soon-to-be published translation of Andrzej Tichý’s Wretchedness is a dizzy montage of hedonistic consumption, deftly transferred to the English language with all the intricate details of its polyglot composition.

“It’s such a major aspect of Swedish culture,” Nichola emphasises. “From this multiculturalism comes the amazing creative act of co-opting and sharing languages which in turn, creates a whole new version of the language. Language actively signals that you belong to a group. A different translator might have translated this book and stripped out [these elements].”

Wretchedness, originally published in Sweden as Eländet in 2016, is far from a breezy read. Set in the fringes of suburban Malmö, a well-to-do cellist meets a down-and-out junkie. After this point, narrative and temporal certainties dissolve.

This restless, paranoid, wandering prose is awash with formal transmutations carrying directionless characters. This is fully-formed, experiential fiction interwoven with a strong critique of Swedish media and the inhospitable political climate. I got to the end of the book feeling totally wrapped up in the atmosphere,” Nichola tells me, “It was like something had just happened to me and I had absolutely no idea what it was. There is a lot of creativity and play in translation, even when translating conventionally straightforward novels. It’s like Tetris, moving words around and reformatting the work into the new language.”

Whilst Tichy’s critique of tabloids is embedded in the text’s bricolage construction, our conversation later turns to the differences of arts coverage in the UK and Swedish media. “There's a much bigger readership in Sweden for arts journalism in general” she tells me. “The Swedish press is much more decentralised than the UK and there’s lots of big local presses that have more of an influential, powerful voice than local papers in the UK. The arts are a part of a national conversation. As a result, there's more space for different kinds of writing in Swedish literary markets.”

Coping through Covid

Like all industries, the UK book trade has been economically steamrolled by the pandemic.

For low-wage bookshop workers, there are some silver linings - including the 'Fundraiser for Booksellers affected by covid-19' initiative launched by Gayle Lazda, Željka Marošević and Kishani Widyaratna, which has surpassed its £50,000 target.

In a recent unprecedented turn of events, an anonymous pledge of £250,000 has been added to the funds by Amazon, in the name of “committing to independent bookshops as part of a mixed bookselling economy”. The revelatory weirdness of this development pales in comparison to increasingly unbelievable daily headlines; from sacked hospitality workers sleeping rough to the lack of PPE available to frontline workers, anxiety ad infinitum.

For furloughed workers, spare time is a fortuitous opportunity to dent dusty ‘To Be Read’ piles. As a working Mother, Nichola admits that much of her time has been dedicated to childcare owing to Nursery closures, although she manages to find some rare moments to read. “I’ve been reading Tichý’s short stories, recently published in Swedish as Renheten,” Nichola tells me, excitedly.

“The title story shows a series of short clips of people in dire financial situations, their various scenarios and adventures. There's one or two that are a little bit more experimental and play with form but it's really impressive, powerful writing that’s super comprehensive. I’d recommend ‘Den läsande tjuven’ (the reading thief) which is essentially about how Tichý was a really good thief as a kid, and how he found himself out of it by reading.”

Nichola also recommends Fatherhood by the British Writer, Poet and Academic, Caleb Klaces. “I’ve also been reading some Thomas Bernhardt, as well as Will Harris’ Rendang. There’s a level of intellectualism to UK literary markets, and it's definitely not helped by the fact that the UK media are pressured into covering big titles, leaving very little space for marginal writers. But at the same time, poets like Anthony Anaxagourou and Alice Oswald seem to be reaching a much wider readership at the moment, which is fantastic.”

The world is transforming at such speed that it’s hard to creatively, representatively render contemporary realities. Working in a bookshop before lockdown - sanitising surfaces and selling 1,000 piece puzzles and Infinite Jests - to a nation preparing for mass hunker-downing, felt like rearranging furniture on the Titanic. The parting words my employer asked me, “Do you have enough books?” were laced with a particular literary optimism for forthcoming ‘peaceful reading times’. Forty-three days into the new normal and glee has subsumed into fidgety dissatisfaction. Certain books feel outmoded, insubstantial or overly specific to pre-pandemic global orders.

In spite of this, we can be sure that there will be 'defining' post-covid literatures; timely auto-fictions, isolation lamentations and PhD theses solely examining the muddled psychologies of this particular condition. In the meantime, let us embrace the finest, most exquisitely wretched fictions.


Elinor Potts is a London-based writer and bookseller. Reach her here


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