The latest addition to my website is Olga Tokarczuk‘s Prawiek i inne czasy (Primeval and Other Times). This is the second of Tokarczuk’s novels published in English. It tells the story of a quasi-mythological village in Poland called Primeval. The village has fairly precise geographical coordinates but does not exist in real life. We follow the Niebieski family and their relatives from 1914 to approximately 1980. In some cases we get realistic accounts, e.g. of the two world wars and their effect on the village, and in other cases, Tokarczuk uses fantasy or magic realism to show other aspects of the village, in the way that Gabriel García Márquez does in Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude). The whole story mirrors the suffering that Poland has experienced during the period, from the two world wars to Communism and its corruptions. It is a superb introduction to Tokarczuk’s work.
The latest addition to my website is Patrick Modiano‘s Villa Triste (Villa Triste). Set primarily in 1960, in a town near the Franco-Swiss border which seems to be Annecy, it follows the story of an eighteen-year old man who might be called Victor Chmara (but might not) who has fled Paris, possibly to escape the Algerian War. He seems to have no employment and does very little during the book. He meets Yvonne Jacquet, a would-be film star, and they get together under the watchful eyes of a mysterious doctor, René Meinthe. Nobody is who they seem and everyone seems to have something to hide and little is revealed, even when Victor returns twelve-thirteen years later.
The latest addition to my website is Lucy Ellmann‘s Ducks, Newburyport. This is a very long (1020 pages), post-modern novel. Much of it consists of a single sentence, detailing the thoughts of a middle-aged woman from small town Ohio. She ranges over all the obvious topics – her life and her family (four children, one current and one ex-husband), but also current events, including Trump, guns, pollution and many other current topics. She gives us lists, word associations in their thousands, lots of comments about her life and life in Ohio and the US and her concerns about where her life is going and not going. At the same time, we follow a separate, more poignant story, told in a more conventional way, i.e. with sentences, about a mountain lioness, raising her cubs and struggling with humans, the bane of her life. It is very well told and a joy to read, as Ellmann is such a superb writer.
The latest addition to my website is Soledad Puértolas‘ Burdeos (Bordeaux). The novel tells three stories, with several of the characters appearing in two or all three stories. The first two are set in Bordeaux, with the third set in Bordeaux and elsewhere. The characters are nearly all all well-to-do bourgeoisie. The main theme of the stories is that marriage/close relationships are not a good thing, particularly for women, with the men being controlling, patronising or simply taking their wives for granted. Despite this, the solitary life, which several of the characters lead, is not really a good thing either. In the third story, Elizabeth Parker gives some advice, namely marry anyone as long as they love you. Perhaps this is the message Puértolas wishes to share.
The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s El volante [The Flyer]. This is another novel from Aira which starts in a fairly straightforward manner and then veers off, concluding with something of an apocalyptic ending.
Norma Traversini is a teacher of dramatic arts, who is writing a flyer to be distributed around the neighbourhood (in Buenos Aires) offering her services to teach her neighbours how to be more sincere in their daily dealings with lovers, bosses and children. Unfortunately, she gets carried away in explanations and, even when she starts again, does not seem to be able to do anything but waffle. She then changes tack and starts summarising a novel she has recently read, the name of whose main character, Lady Barbie Windson (sic) is the name she has chosen for her studio. Lady Barbie is being educated in Kent while her parents are in India. When her mother suddenly dies, she, aged twenty, is summoned to India to be her father’s hostess. She gets caught up in a wild adventure, involving Catholic vs Protestants battles, kidnappings, crocodiles, polo ponys, Indian mystics, teleportation, silk worms, the ruined city of Kali, resurrection from the dead and a strange character called The Mask. It is all great fun but does not help Norma with her flyer.
The latest addition to my website is Irina Odoevtseva:‘s Изольда (Isolde). This book was first published in 1929 and was condemned by Odoevtseva’s fellow Russian émigré writers, including Nabokov, as it dealt with teenage sex and nihilism and was therefore clearly immoral. It tells the story of a Russian émigré family in Biarritz in the 1920s. They are irresponsible mother Natasha, more concerned with her love life than her children (her husband was killed in the Revolution) and her two teenage children, Liza and Nikolai. Liza meets a young Englishman, Cromwell, who christens her Isolde before he knows her name and falls in love with her. When they are joined by Liza’s nominal boyfriend, Andrei, and Natasha disappears in pursuit of her boyfriend, things get very much out of hand. It was published the same year as Jean Cocteau‘s Les Enfants terribles (Children of the Game (UK); The Holy Terrors (US); Les enfants terribles), to which it bears some resemblance.
The latest addition to my website is Sara Stridsberg‘s Drömfakulteten (UK: Faculty of Dreams; US: Valerie) . The US title – Valerie – gives a much better idea of the subject than the UK one (a literal translation of the Swedish original), as the novel is about Valerie Solanas, who is known for two things: the SCUM manifesto (SCUM stand for the Society for Cutting Up Men) and for shooting (but not killing) Andy Warhol. In her introduction, Stridsberg says All characters in the novel should therefore be regarded as fictional, including Valerie Solanas herself.. While Solanas is real, many of the other characters are not and much of what we are told about Solanas is imaginary. We follow her early life, her sexual abuse by her father, her successful college career and then Scum and Warhol, leading to a mental hospital, followed by prostitution and, finally, death in a seedy San Francisco hotel. We do not learn why she shot Warhol, but we do learn about a woman who could have been a success but who ended up dying a miserable death. Stridsberg gives us a superb, feminist novel about the underbelly of fame and success in the US.
The latest addition to my website is Paul Gadenne‘s Les Hauts-Quartiers [The Upper Districts]. This novel was published seventeen years after Gadenne’s death and has not been translated into any other language. It is long (800 pages) and rambling. It tells the story of Didier Aubert, a young man clearly based on the author. We start with Dunkirk, as Didier and his mother flee the advancing Germans and escape to South-West France. Like Gadenne, Didier suffers from tuberculosis and like Gadenne is an ascetic intellectual. Didier struggles with finding suitable accommodation, struggles in his relationships and struggles with the bourgeoisie (whom Gadenne continually mocks), those who live in the Hauts-Quartiers, the posh part of town. He really wants peace and quiet for his studies but that is just not possible, as life gets in the way. It is considered by many critics to be a classic of twentieth-century French literature but perhaps needed a good editor.
The latest addition to my website is Mircea Cărtărescu‘s Orbitor Vol 1, Aripa stângă (Blinding – The Left Wing), the first book in a trilogy (and the only one of the three translated into English). This is an intensely visionary book, far more intense than any other book you are likely to read, Dante included. The basic outline is a mixture of Cărtărescu telling his own story – the main character is a writer called Mircea – as well as the story of his family, including his ancestors, his attempts at writing and his view of Bucharest where he has always lived, both with his family and in his own as an adult. However, the main feature of the book is undoubtedly Mircea’s dreams, visions and images of his life, of the city and, in this book, of his hospital stay for facial palsy, which creates a work which has deservedly become a classic of modern European literature.
The latest addition to my website is Yuz Aleshkovsky‘s Николай Николаевич (Nikolai Nikolaevich) and Маскировка (Camouflage), published in the same volume in both Russian and English. Both are distinguished by vicious anti-Soviet satire and the extensive use of obscenities. Николай Николаевич (Nikolai Nikolaevich) is about the eponymous hero, a former prisoner, who finds work first as a laboratory assistant and then as the laboratory guinea pig, which requires him to masturbate every day, with his semen to be used to create a new race of humans to be sent into space. Unfortunately the laboratory gets caught up in the Lysenkoism issue and is closed down.
Маскировка (Camouflage) is about a fictitious town where nuclear arms are secretly made. The activity has to be disguised so camouflagers are used to pretend to be normal Soviet citizens, which is what the US spy satellites will see. Being a normal Soviet citizen means being permanently drunk and Fyodor Milashkin, our hero, does that very well, till he and the other members of his brigade are found by the police one morning having being anally raped. While mocking the Soviet drink culture, Aleshkovsky goes on to eavesdrop on a meeting of the Politburo Brezhnev, Kosygin and Co – and mercilessly mocks them. Both books are very funny, very obscene and very anti-Soviet,