The Year of Manuel Pedrolo?

Could this be the year of Manuel de Pedrolo, the great Catalan science fiction writer? His best-known novel Mecanoscrit del segon origen (Typescript of the Second Origin) is finally being published in English this April.

As this article shows (link in Spanish), it is going to be The Year of Manuel de Pedrolo in Spain.

De Pedrolo was very prolific, writing poetry, theatre, short stories, novels and articles in the press. He also translated novelists such as John le Carré and Georges Simenon. He was ahead of his time, anti-capitalist and in favour of Catalan independence when neither view was fashionable or, indeed, safe. He only wrote in Catalan, never in Spanish. Because of his themes – sex, violence, anti-capitalism – he was a victim of Franco’s censors.

Now his house is to become a museum, thanks to the efforts of his daughter, Adelais. There will various events to celebrate his work and his life. Much of his writing will be digitised and made available on line. And, as mentioned, English-speaking readers will be able to discover why he is revered in Catalonia.

Vladimir Sharov: До и во время (Before and During)

The latest addition to my website is Vladimir Sharov‘s До и во время (Before and During). This book was written immediately after his Репетиции (Rehearsals) and covers some of the same topics, namely the subverting of Russian history, particularly the Russian Revolution, and the idea of a Christian Utopia. Our hero is Alyosha who, as a result of a fall, has blackouts and is admitted to a mental institution, which has had a colourful history. He had, before admittance, had the idea of writing a Memorial Book, about people who would otherwise have been forgotten (based on an idea by Ivan the Terrible!) and now decides to do the same for the residents of the hospital. However, one of the residents tells him a highly imaginative version of the story of Germaine de Staël who, amongst others things, was the midwife of the Russian Revolution, the biological mother of Stalin and lover of the composer Alexander Scriabin, who was actually born fifty-five years after she died. It is all Sharov’s way of using Russian history in a highly creative way to show his ideal of a Christian Utopia but, at the same time, makes for a really fascinating read.

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 黒白 (In Black and White)

The latest addition to my website is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki‘s 黒白 (In Black and White). This is the sixteenth Tanizaki on my site. It was first published in 1928 in a newspaper but it has never been published separately before, either in Japanese or in any other language. It appeared in his collected works published in Japanese in 1957 and will appear in French ten days after appearing in English. It is a clever crime story about a dissolute crime writer who writes a story about the perfect murder, with the murdered being based on himself and the victim being based on a casual acquaintance. He then worries the model for the victim will really be murdered and he will blamed. He tries to make sure he has a continuous alibi in case the man is murdered but then forgets, as he is distracted by a German prostitute who occupies most of his attention. It is a clever story and it is surprising that it has never been published separately before.

Vladimir Sharov: Репетиции (Rehearsals)

The latest addition to my website is Vladimir Sharov‘s Репетиции (Rehearsals). This is a thoroughly original book which starts in seventeenth century Russia and ends some time after the Russian Revolution. We follow the religious upheavals in the time of Patriarch Nikon and his attempt to put on a mystery play of all the Gospels, to help bring about Palestine in Russia and the return of Christ who, this time, will come to Russia. A French actor manager, Jacques de Sertan, organises a group of amateur (and illiterate) actors but it all goes wrong when Nikon is condemned by the Synod and Sertan and the actors are sent to Siberia. Though Sertan dies en route, the actors manage to keep the idea alive, continually rehearsing, and passing on roles to their heirs, till after the Russian Revolution. It is about religion but it is about a lot more than that and it is wonderful that, twenty-five years after its publication in Russian, it is now available in English.

Esther Kinsky: Am Fluss (River)

The latest addition to my website is Esther Kinsky‘s Am Fluss (River). This is a beautiful book, narrated by an unnamed narrator but clearly based on the author. She has temporarily moved to London – she has no clear reason why – specifically to the very unfashionable area of Hackney, through which flows the River Lea. Part of the book is about the appeal to her and effect on her and her memories of both the Lea and several other rivers, including the Rhine by whose banks she grew up as a child. However, she also portrays the local community, many of whose denizens are immigrants and foreigners like her and shows their individuality. She photographs the river, recalls other rivers she has seen and brings back memories. Above all, her writing is superb and we cannot fail to be entranced by her ability to make the ordinary less ordinary.

Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès: Là où les tigres sont chez eux (Where Tigers are at Home)

The latest addition to my website is Jean-Marie Blas de RoblèsLà où les tigres sont chez eux (Where Tigers are at Home). This is a massive novel (over a thousand pages) set in Brazil and mixes several stories, including the probably not entirely accurate life of Athanasius Kircher (recently seen in Daniel Kehlmann‘s Tyll [Till]), a paleontological expedition to a remote part of Brazil, involving Paraguayan bandits and shamanistic natives, a corrupt governor, a handicapped man obsessed with the famous Brazilian bandit Lampião and our hero, a Franco-German journalist, who is an expert on Kircher and whose ex-wife is on the paleontological expedition and whose daughter is a bisexual hard drug user. All these various stories more or less intersect. However, while it is certainly an interesting novel, I found it dragged a bit in places

Muharem Bazdulj: Tranzit, kometa, pomračenje (Transit, Comet, Eclipse)

The latest addition to my website is Muharem Bazdulj‘s Tranzit, kometa, pomračenje (Transit, Comet, Eclipse). This consists of three related novellas essentially about the situation in East Europe. The first is set in the eighteenth journey and tells of the journey of the scientist Ruđer Bošković to Saint Petersburg (he does not make it but gets a long way, before falling down a well in Poland). Twice he tries to see the Transit of Venus, once before and once after his journey but fails both times. Bazdulj uses his journey to comment on various aspects of Eastern Europe, including the relationship with the Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of the region, Christianity and how the region is seen from East Europe and vice versa. The other two are set in modern times, one about an innocent Moldovan woman whose innocence and lack of opportunities in Moldova is taken advantage of and the third telling how The Writer came to write this book. It is certainly an interesting approach but it is the first story that works best for me.

End of the year review 2017

Like many of you, I have been browsing the best of the year lists. (If you missed them, Large-Hearted Boy has a huge list.) As regards best novels, I have been very disappointed. I did not come across a single novel I had not heard of. There were also relatively few books originally written in languages other than English. Worse still, there were relatively few books from small presses. Indeed, in those lists which consisted of B- and C-list celebrities naming their best books, there were almost none. As a well-known man who does not read books might have said: Sad!

A book on Bomb’s list I have not read

One of the few lists that I found of particular interest was 3 a.m.Magazine’s. You will notice that none of these books actually exists. The other best-of(?) list I really enjoyed which was not an end of the year list but just happened to be published this month was Helena Fitzgerald‘s 20 Authors I Don’t Have to Read Because I’ve Dated Men for 16 Years. I agree with many of her choices (but not all). Finally, I did enjoy Bomb magazine’s genuine and serious list.

A 1000-page novel I didn’t read

There were, as always, a load of books I intended to read but never got round to. These are mainly books originally written in English. You know the ones I mean: Lincoln in Bardo, Moonglow, The Sparsholt Affair, Jerusalem, Commonwealth, Mothering Sunday, My Absolute Darling, Solar Bones, etc. Maybe I will read them next year but, then again, maybe I won’t. I was also going to read some of the literary prize winners: Lincoln in Bardo again, Robert Menasse’s Die Hauptstadt (German Book Prize), Jonas Lüscher’s Kraft (Swiss Book Prize), Paolo Cognetti’s Le otto montagne (Italian Strega Prize and Prix Médicis étranger), which will appear in English as Eight Mountains next March, so I hope to read it soon, Alice Zeniter’s L’Art de perdre (Le Goncourt des Lycéens)… Not surprisingly I have a sweatshirt that reads So Many Books, So Little Time.

A Giono novel first published this year in English

I did, however, manage to read a hundred and thirty-two books, fewer than last year and clearly not nearly enough. Mexico was top as, in accordance with my usual custom, it was selected as the country where I read twenty books in a row, earlier this year. It was followed by fourteen from France (mainly Jean Giono and Julien Gracq), eleven from the United States, ten from Argentina and seven from Ireland (all but one by Joyce Cary). Smaller (as in less-read, not in necessarily in size) countries from which I read a book include: Barbados, Belarus, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Czech Republic, Dagestan, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, South Korea, Norway, Occitania, Palestine, Peru, Puerto Rico, Romania, Scotland, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Turkey, Ukraine and Wales.

A lot of these books were published by small presses so I would like to pay tribute to Actes Sud, And Other Stories, Charco, Coffee House Press, Contra Mundum Press, Dalkey Archive, Deep Vellum, Fitzcarraldo, Glagoslav, Maclehose, New Directions, Parthian, Seagull and Unnamed Press, all of whom published some first-class novels, which I read this year. I can only urge you to browse their offerings and read their books. You won’t be disappointed. Apologies to those wonderful small presses whose work I did not get round to reading this year or (possibly) did but have forgotten to include. Without the efforts of small presses, my reading and your reading would not be nearly so interesting and they deserve your full support.

There were so many good books I read this year that it is going to be difficult to single out only a few. I did very much enjoy reading eight books by Jean Giono, all but one of which have been translated into English. He clearly has not been forgotten in English as his somewhat strange Pour saluer Melville (Melville: A Novel) was only published in English this year but his other books are all well worth reading. I very much enjoyed discovering what is happening in Mexico, a country, I think, that has been underestimated by English-speaking readers, and found some wonderful novels, not all of which, sadly, have yet appeared in English.

I continue to slowly make my way through the extensive oeuvre of César Aira and have rarely been disappointed. He is a thoroughly original writer who is more and more appearing on possible Nobel Prize winner lists. English speakers are fortunate that New Directions has published quite a few in English. And, talking of Argentinians, I finally got to grips with Martín Caparrós‘ monumental La Historia [History], a cult novel that has been very hard to find but has now been published in a new edition, though not, sadly, in English. It was worth the wait. It was also one of two books I read this year over a thousand pages in length. And, still on Argentina, Luis Sagasti‘s Bellas artes (Fireflies) was a wonderful original and quirky book from new publisher Charco Press.

I only read thirty-five works by women, not as good as last year’s forty-four. Let me mention a few. Carmen Boullosa remains one of my favourite writers. It is such a shame that only a few of her books have been translated. I will almost certainly read at least one more next year. Valeria Luiselli‘s La historia de mis dientes (The Story of My Teeth) was a very clever book. Rosa Beltrán‘s Efectos secundarios [Secondary Effects] was a first-class work on the violence in Mexico.

Of those women writers who are not Mexican, I very much enjoyed Teolinda Gersão‘s A cidade de Ulisses (City of Ulysses) which Dalkey Archive Press published in English. I have read two other books by her, neither of which has been translated into English. She really should be better known, which means more of her books should be translated into English. Doubtless being both a woman and Portuguese has kept her off the radar. Despite the lack of attention from the English-speaking world, her website is partially in English. (She studied English at university and tweets in both English and Portuguese.) Another Portuguese woman who has not received the attention she deserves in the English-speaking world (or, for that matter, in her own country) is Maria Gabriela Llansol whose Geografia de Rebeldes (Geography of Rebels trilogy) was the first book of hers published in English, by Deep Vellum. It was a strange and difficult book but well worth reading.

I was also impressed by Lize Spit‘s very dark Het smelt [The Melting], a wonderful debut novel. I am sure that you will be hearing more of this book when it finally makes it into English (not till 2019), though you can read it now in the original Flemish or in Catalan, French, German, Italian or Spanish translation. Cristina from Barcelona, for example, had it in her best of the year list.

I read a fair amount of books from Eastern Europe – Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Ukraine – every one of which I enjoyed. This is partially because UK and US publishers (primarily small presses, of course) have been publishing books from this part of the world. They have realised and I have realised that Eastern Europe is now matching Latin America as the source of some of the most interesting writing being produced. I would particularly mention Slovenia. I have visited the country twice now (once this year) and will probably do so again in the near future. It is a lovely country with lovely people. I read three books from Slovenia this year and have quite a few more to read. It is wonderful that such a small country is producing so many worthwhile novels and that they are appearing in English.

I was glad to have discovered Pierre Senges, a most original writer, whose work is starting to appear in English. Three are already out in English and I hope more are to come. I hope to read one or two more soon.

Speaking of writing in French, I was particularly impressed with Kamel Daoud‘s latest Zabor ou Les psaumes [Zabor or The Psalms], which will be appearing in English in 2019 from And Other Stories, after they have published his Chroniques: Selected Columns, 2010–2016. I thought it a better book than the well-received Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter Investigation).

Javier MaríasBerta Isla appeared in Spanish this year and will doubtless appear in English soon. It is, in my opinion, his best, about one of his favourite topics, British spies.

Yoshio Aramaki‘s 神聖代 (The Sacred Era) was published by the University of Minnesota Press, his first book in English. It does not seem to have got much publicity but that is a pity. This is perhaps because he is seen more as a science fiction writer but this one is less sci-fi than his later ones though it is set on a planet that is not Earth but resembles Earth in many ways and deals with the highly topical subject of climate change. I know someone who should perhaps read it but he won’t. Sad!

I could go through all of the books I read, as all of them are worthwhile. Indeed, there was only one bad book – Angus Robertson‘s An t-Ogha Mór: No, Am Fear-Sgeòil air Uilinn (The Ogha Mor) – and it was interesting as the first novel published in Scots Gaelic to be translated into English and the only the second novel written in Scots Gaelic.

On the technical side, I moved both the main site and blog from http to https. This is seemingly becoming more and more important as this article shows. However, apart from favour in the eyes of Google, I cannot think that readers are going to be any safer from blogs they know and trust but it does, I suppose, make you feel safer for a blog or site you do not know. When checking links, I found that a significant number of other sites have moved to https. In practical terms, it makes no difference in accessing sites. If you type in http://www.themodernnovel.org, you will be automatically and immediately forwarded to https://www.themodernnovel.org.

Next year I am looking forward to new books by Hamid Ismailov, Eugene Vodolazkin and Sara Stridsberg though I have no doubt that there will be new authors I will discover whom I shall enjoy as much. I do know that many of the most interesting translations I read will be published by small, independent presses. Long may they survive and continue to give us first-class books to read.

I also joined Twitter which I have enjoyed more than I expected, with lots of interesting info about new books and authors and publishers, not to mention photos of people’s breakfasts and unseemly and highly critical remarks about the President of the United States. It is interesting to me to note that the most active and most interesting publishers on Twitter are the small ones. The larger publishers do tweet but they are not so interesting. I have felt tempted to add the latest Trump jokes but have resisted so far.

I must close with thanks to my fellow bloggers. You can see the links to many of them on the right and up a bit. As always, I have learned a lot from them. They have read many interesting books, some I have read, many I have not. While I may not always agree with them – which is good – I have enjoyed their points of view, their pointing me to interesting books and authors and, of course, their lively interest in fine literature.

A Happy 2018 to all of you and your families and read lots of books. There are some really first-class ones that have come out recently and are coming out next year.

Ali Smith: Like

The latest addition to my website is Ali Smith‘s Like. This is Ali Smith’s first novel and a very accomplished novel it is. It tells two related stories. Amy was destined for an academic career at Cambridge University. She had had lesbian relationships and, in particular, she was having an on-again off-again affair with Aisling McCarthy, a Scottish woman. It all went drastically wrong. Amy has had a breakdown and now is living in Scotland with her seven-year old daughter, Kate, working on a caravan site and apparently unable to read. Aisling McCarthy went on to become a famous actress but seems to have dropped out. We follow her lesbian relationships at school, culminating in her meeting Amy, and later following Amy to Cambridge, where she causes the downfall not only of Amy but another woman with whom she had had an affair. The story is narrated from the present day, first by Amy and Kate and then by Aisling. Smith tells an excellent story and pulls us into the story of the two women and young girl.

Daniel Kehlmann: Tyll [Till]

The latest addition to my website is Daniel Kehlmann‘s Tyll [Till]. It is based on the legend of the trickster Till Eulenspiegel though Kehlmann has moved him from his traditional 14th century date to the Thirty Years’ War. We follow Till’s childhood – his father is executed by the Jesuits for witchcraft – and his escape from his village with Nele, his girlfriend who is not his girlfriend. They become travelling players and their reputation spreads far and wide, so much so that Till becomes the official fool of Frederick V of the Palatinate. We follow political events through the eyes of Frederick’s wife, the Scottish Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, known to history as the Winter Queen. Frederick dies of an infection while seeking help in his war from Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Kehlmann is eager to point out the horrors of war, and this war is bloody, messy and very badly organised. It is not Kehlmann’s best – jumping from Till and his adventures to Elizabeth Stuart and her problems and the problems of her husband, but is still worth reading.