Rafael Chirbes: La caída de Madrid [The Fall of Madrid]

caida

The latest review on my site is Rafael ChirbesLa caída de Madrid [The Fall of Madrid]. This follows on from his La larga marcha [The Long March] but this time telling the story of a group of Spaniards, who are all connected to each other, on 19 September 1975, hours before Franco dies. The various participants have their own concerns about Franco’s imminent demise and what it will mean to them. Chirbes tells his story very well, ending it that evening, shortly before Franco actually dies. Sadly, like La larga marcha [The Long March], it has not been translated into English, though it is available in French, German, Croatian and Serbian.

Laos and Bermuda

Mekong

Continuing my reading of novels from countries from which i have never read a novel before, here are two from Laos. The first is Oubone-lat Papet‘s Au-delà du Mékong [Beyond the Mekong], an autobiographical novel by a half-French, half-Laotian woman. She has clearly struggled with her life. She is unsure of her sexuality, having relationships with two men and two women during the course of the book, and she also has several stays in mental institutions. The fact that she has met her biological father three times in her life and has moved between France and Laos clearly has not helped her. The book was written in French and has not been translated into English.

97

Louang Phou‘s Les gars du 97 (The Men of 97) was either written in Lao and then translated into French and then into English or written in French and then translated into English. Though it has been translated into English, it is not easily available. It is a straightforward propaganda novel telling the story of a heroic Laotian military unit fighting against the evil Yankee aggressors. Though it is fun, with lots of tale of derring-do, it is hardly impartial, as our heroes can do no wrong and seem to be virtually impervious to US weaponry. However, it does have the advantage of being short.

Sailor

My Bermudian novel (apparently it is Bermudian and not Bermudan) is Brian Burland‘s The Sailor and the Fox. Burland is probably Bermuda’s best novelist and this is his best-known work, a short but powerful novel, that was nearly made into a film, starring Sean Connery. It tells the story of a boxing match – the first championship fight between a black and white boxer in Bermuda’s history. We follow the fight through all of its rounds while also learning about the two boxers and how they came to this match. It is very brutal, as Burland spares no details, but a very well-told story and deserves to be better known.

Women writers Part 3

godwin

After promising in both the first part and then second part of this topic, here is my mea culpa as to why I have so few women writers on my site. Many years ago, soon after it came out, I read Gail Godwin‘s A Mother and Two Daughters. The book, at least in the United States, had done very well both critically and commercially. A couple of women friends said that I had absolutely had to read it and, being aware that I had not read enough women writers (though not suspecting that I would be doing a website and blog on literary matters), I did read it. It really did not work for me. In fact, to be quite honest, I hated it. I tried to read Elizabeth Taylor (the British writer not the British actress. You didn’t know that the actress was British? Born in Hampstead Garden Suburb, kept British citizenship all her life.) The Guardian, in the link, may call her brilliant. Loved the actress, found the novelist, well, boring. Barbara Pym? Same thing. I just did not get it.

A novel by a woman writer which should be better known
A novel by a woman writer which should be better known

When I started doing my website, I made a (very long) list of the writers I wanted to include, many of whom I had already read, many whom I had not. Though I never bothered checking, it is clear, with hindsight that the majority were men. This was not a conscious decision but just that the writers I thought most interesting were mainly men. No Godwin, no Taylor, no Pym, no chicklit. Since then, of course, I have added many, many writers to the list. I do now make something of conscious effort to seek out women writers but still find that most of the writers I want to read are men. This is partially for the reason explained in the previous post , namely that most canonical novelists do tend to be men (rightly or wrongly and, yes, I know, the canon is mainly set by men). As I also showed in my previous post this (unconscious) bias is also shared by women bloggers. Quick anecdote. We had a visit from a woman friend who works for a publisher. She complained that I had too few women writers on my site and said she would send me a list of women writers I should read. She sent the name of just one writer – a man.

Another novel by a woman writer that should be better known
Another novel by a woman writer that should be better known

When I became aware of my failings here, I tried to expiate my sins by having a women writers page on my site, with direct links to the women writers on my site. Setting up the links for this site helped me to find out about other women writers that I was not aware of. I have created a list of the best novels written by women on my site. There are some very fine works there and, I hope, some that not everyone is familiar with and that people coming to my site might be tempted to try and read (sadly a few are not available in English). However, knowing how infrequently I add a new name to the list of women writers on my site only brings home to me how few women writers there are on the site.

Maria Velho da Costa - not yet on my site
Maria Velho da Costa – not yet on my site

I spend a certain amount of time seeking out interesting new writers, mainly though not exclusively from other websites. I do try and to find interesting women writers on these sites and certainly I sometimes succeed. But I am not going to continue apologising for failing to do so. So there is no doubt that the ratio of men to women writers on this site will remain about the same. Quality is a highly subjective matter but, for me, many of the most interesting writers are male and while I will continue to read and enjoy women writers and will continue to post women’s novels on this site, men will predominate.

Kazakhstan and Madagascar

abai

Continuing my reading of novels from countries that I have not yet read a novel from, the latest addition to my website is Mukhtar Auezov‘s Абай жолы (Abai). This is a novel by one of Kazakhstan’s foremost novelists, telling the story of one of Kazakhstan’s foremost poets. It is an excellent novel, recounting not only the story of Abai the poet but also giving an excellent introduction to Kazakh customs and culture in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Abai is the son of the head of a group of nomadic tribes and his story is about how he becomes a great poet and a great leader but also how his tribe and other Kazakh tribes change with the arrival of the Russians.

bain

From Madagascar, I have added Michèle Rakotoson‘s Le Bain des reliques [The Bath of Relics]. Sadly, this novel is not available in English translation and is even difficult to obtain in French. It really is an excellent novel, though at times somewhat harrowing, depicting the filming of a ceremony involving royal relics but also aiming to show how bad the situation is in Madagascar under the Marxist government, with famine, poverty, disease, death and decay rife throughout the country.

Adam Thorpe

ulverton

In last Saturday’s Guardian, Rachel Cooke had an interesting article and/interview with Adam Thorpe. I read Ulverton about a year after it first came out, when it started to get some publicity, and was very impressed with it. Firstly there are very few worthwhile novels about the English Civil War (though lots about other civil wars). Secondly, and more importantly, it was and is a very fine book, telling the story of an English village through the ages, from the Civil War to the present day. As I said in my review it is a loving portrait of the rural proletariat in England over a long period and the changes and misfortunes that they have had to suffer and is in the tradition of English rural writers, of which, sadly, there are fewer and fewer. Cooke does mention a few, though none of them is a novelist. As Cooke points out in the article, it has now become a modern classic but his subsequent novels have not fared nearly so well. Both Cooke and Thorpe are baffled by this. Cooke states They are inevitably superb … and always well-reviewed, and yet you look for his name in vain on Booker and bestseller lists alike. To me, this is as baffling as it is unfair, and I wonder how he accounts for it. Thorpe himself has no explanation and comments One can hardly say I’ve been unambitious. Cooke picks up on this and feels that, as each book is different, this may account for his lack of sales. He’s uncategorisable, and perhaps such unpredictability is simply too much for some readers.

hodd

But then she inadvertently reveals the real problem, by comparing Thorpe to Hilary Mantel. He goes on to compare, at least as regards sales, Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels to his own Hodd. Hodd, as you can see from the review in the link, is a version of the Robin Hood tale. Thorpe tells a very clever tale, demystifying Robin Hood, and, to use his own words, being fairly ambitious with his use of comments and the various characters who are similar to the characters that we know from the traditional Robin Hood legend. But, and this is the key, here, as with Ulverton and Pieces of Light, and even in Still, where he uses a stream of consciousness approach, frankly we not only do not identify with the main character, as I said in my review of Pieces of Light, we tend to find his main characters irritating or just not very sympathetic.

Thomas Cromwell, the Dick Cheney of his day
Thomas Cromwell, the Dick Cheney of his day

Compare this approach to that of Hilary Mantel. Thomas Cromwell has not fared well in history books. He was something of the Dick Cheney of his day – devious, ruthless, committed to an ideology that was not one shared by most people (in Cromwell’s case, that of whatever it was that Henry VIII wanted), serving an unpopular master and not averse to torturing his enemies when he felt it appropriate. He was responsible for the deaths of Thomas More, later canonised, and Anne Boleyn, both of whom fared much better in the history books. Yet, when we read Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, we cannot help but feel a certain identification with Cromwell. Mantel is not interested, as Thorpe seems to be, in telling a faux history, as he does in Hodd. She is not a historian but a novelist and well aware of that. As a result she is telling the story of her character, based on a historical character, of course, but very much her own creation as well. As one of our foremost novelists, if not the foremost novelist writing in Britain today, she does it very, very well. We know that Cromwell is supporting the evil Henry VIII. We know that he has his political opponents tortured. We know that he is going to send Thomas More and Anne Boleyn to the scaffold. And, yet, we cannot but feel a grudging admiration and sympathy for him, as though his problems were ours and his course of action one we would feel bound to take or, at least, strongly consider. This is why Hilary Mantel has twice won the Booker Prize and may well win it again and why she is such a superb novelist.

black

Yes, Thorpe has been ambitious, not too ambitious as he and Cooke imply, as that is not necessarily a drawback. Mantel has written other novels which are not about famous historical characters and done them very well too. Think of Beyond Black where she has us thinking that spiritualists may not be the slightly deranged people that many of her readers would normally think. Thorpe, meanwhile, produces a succession of characters who, frankly, are distinctly less than appealing and he makes little attempt to have us identify with them. If, as he claims, he is a friend of Hilary Mantel, he could perhaps read her books more closely and learn from them. He is clearly a writer of talent and imagination and it would be nice if he could produce another great book.

Best books of the year

fuentes

I am not going to do a best books of the year post for the very simple reason that most of the best books I have read this year (and other years) were not published this year. Indeed, most were not published in this century. As you can see from my chronological list, I have read fourteen books published this year, an unusually high number for me and the best thee are all by women – Bring Up the Bodies, NW and In the Shadow of the Banyan. Several of the books were quite disappointing though I did quite enjoy Carlos Fuentes’ last novel (see cover at left), which won’t appear in English till next year. As for other people’s best of lists, I always turn to Large-Hearted Boy’s list. I have waded my way through several of the lists he links to, where I have found several intriguing lists, some odd choices and some books that I wonder why are included. As he limits himself to English, I was going to do a post of a few non-English lists but, inevitably, Michael Orthofer at the Literary Saloon beat me to it. Nevertheless, I will try and supplement his lists.

A book that made Bill Gates think
A book that made Bill Gates think

But let’s start with Bill Gates. Yes, that Bill Gates. Bill has published his list of ten books that made me think. I must confess that I have not read any of them nor am I likely to do, though my significant other read the Pinker and very much enjoyed it. There are, sadly, no novels in his list but Bill also kindly gives us a list of his reading for the year. This is also a fascinating list of worthy works. It also includes four novels and here, I am afraid, Bill somewhat lets us down. The four are: The Hunger Games, Michael Ondaatje‘s The Cat’s Cradle, which I have not read yet but probably will, John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, a book I read many years ago, and which was first published in 1959 and A Catcher in the Rye, first published four years before Bill was born. Didn’t he read it in high school? Well, he read many worthy non-fiction books so he can perhaps be forgiven for not putting much effort into his novel reading.

Moving on to the foreign book lists… As Michael Orthofer points out in the post linked to above, best of lists tends to be an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. In the English-speaking world these lists all too often appear early in December when there is still time for some worthy books to appear but other nationalities do some of their lists later. So here are some other lists I have found:

French

    Lire's best foreign novel of the year
    Lire’s best foreign novel of the year

  • The respected French literary magazine Lire does not have a list on its site of the best books of the year, though it does have a list of the ten books you should read before the end of the world (this post being written three days before the world ends on 21 December). However, Nicole Volle publishes the list that appeared in Lire magazine in her blog. It is divided up into categories and there is only one book per category so there are not many novels. I do have a copy of the foreign book (Antonio Muñoz Molina‘s La noche de los tiempos, which I hope to get round to.
  • Tribune libre offers a sort of a list, with selections by Internet readers as well as by critics. Kathryn Stockett’s Help is the best foreign book
  • L’Express also likes the Muñoz Molina but likes Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time even more
  • Not much else. Various bloggers have their lists though a few seem to like 50 nuances de Grey

German

Maria Paola Colombo's Il negativo dell’amore, an Italian favourite
Maria Paola Colombo’s Il negativo dell’amore, an Italian favourite

Italian

Portuguese

Catalans like Josep Pla
Catalans like Josep Pla

Spanish

No, not a very exciting list but I do hope Bill Gates will read more novels next year. There are a lot of good US ones, Bill.

Brunei, Cambodia and the Maldives

ratner

My current reading is novels from countries that have yet to appear on my website. Of the three I have read this past weekend, the Cambodian, Vaddey Ratner‘s In the Shadow of the Banyan, is by far the best. I came across it when doing some research for a family member who is going off to Cambodia (and who is now there). I own another Cambodian novel but it is in French, translated from the Cambodian. This novel was written in English and very good it is, too. It is a semi-autobiographical story about a girl who is seven when the novel starts. She is the descendant of a previous king. The story recounts what happens to her and her family (and many other Cambodians) when the Khmer Rouge take over. Much of it is inevitably unpleasant but Ratner writes really well and manages to show the inner strength she and her mother have which enables them to survive.

hiyala

The Brunei and Maldives novels I found thanks to Ann Morgan’s superb blog A year of reading the world. She has managed to find novels in English from all sorts of exotic places with diligent research and gentle persuasion and I doubt if I would have found these two without her efforts. The Maldives novel, Abdullah Sadiq‘s Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu, is a recounting of a traditional Maldives legend, replete with magic, dreams, violence, sex, trickery and all the other features we associate with fables. It is also available on line for free, so there is no excuse for not reading it. There are other Maldives novels but they are in Dhivehi and have not been translated into any other language and, in any case, are very difficult to obtain outside the Maldives even if you could read Dhivehi.

sun

Christopher Sun‘s book Four Kings s definitely the worst of the three. Indeed, were it not for the fact that it is the only novel in English from Brunei, it would not be here. As with the Maldives, there are other Brunei novels but only available in Malay. Sun’s novel is a not very good thriller in the The Da Vinci Code style, i.e. one involving religion. If you like that sort of thing, you may enjoy it but I cannot really recommend it unless, like me, you feel that you should have read a Brunei novel. More exotic (to me) countries to come.

Liam O’Flaherty: Famine

famine

The latest addition to my website is Liam O’Flaherty‘s Famine, a harrowing account of the Great Irish Famine of the mid-1840s, which resulted in at least one million deaths and that number or more emigrating, primarily to the United States. There have been several excellent historical books on the subject and the complete failure of the British government and the landowners to do anything to mitigate the famine but O’Flaherty’s personalised account is a very powerful novel and one well worth worth reading, even if it does make for distinctly unpleasant reading, as he spares us few details. This is the third of his books to appear on my site and others will follow. He is very much a realist writer and many of his books recount fictionalised episodes of Irish history.

Women writers Part 2

María Luisa Bombal - one of the many neglected women writers
María Luisa Bombal – one of the many neglected women writers

In my previous post on this topic, I said that I would say more in a subsequent post about my own failings in this area. However, I first want to look at other literary blogs. There are loads of wonderful literary blogs out there but I have picked a few favourite ones – you will find all but one on my list at the left and down a bit and the one not there has been mentioned in a previous blog post. However, I have decided to select only blogs written by women. (Quick mildly relevant aside. In my previous life, I worked for a large international organisation, which struggled with the issue of promoting and encouraging women and which had a large majority of men at the top. I was very much involved in this issue and my sad experience was that some women could be just as discriminatory against women as men (I had to make it to the top the hard way, why can’t they?)). This in no way implies that any of these women bloggers are the same. Choosing them is, of course, terribly unfair as they are often constrained by what is out there, I am almost certainly looking at a very limited and arbitrary subset of their output and they have no obligation whatsoever to promote women writers but, what the hell?, the blogosphere is unfair.

  • Blog of a Bookslut is one of the foremost literary blogs out there and is essential reading for all interested in things literary. It is edited by Jessa Crispin. I looked at the entries for the first eleven days of December and the score (depending how you count) was about 3-2 in favour of men.
  • A German (actually Austrian) writer you should not miss
  • Katy Derbyshire’s Love German Books is a superb blog on, well, German books. As she had only had four posts in December, I went back a little bit further and, limiting myself only to writers and not translators and others mentioned, the score was around 1.8-1 in favour of men, despite the fact that the first post started off mentioning seven women writers.
  • Lizzy Siddal’s blog is Lizzy’s Literary Life and, in the recent period, has focussed on German books. Even counting the Brothers Grimm as one, the men led the women 3-1, though she does link to 14 German Women Writers You Shouldn’t Miss (of which, I am ashamed to say, I have only read three of the authors, though own a few of the others).
  • Liza Hayden Espenschade’s Lizok’s Bookshelf is the best blog on Russian literature (at least in English). Again, focusing only on the writers of books, the score is around 3-1 in favour of men.
  • Marcia Lynx Qualey has the best blog in English on Arabic literature. Her score for the period was about 3-1 in favour of men, though that presumably reflects the situation in the Arab world.
  • I mentioned Ann Morgan’s A Year of the Reading the World in a previous post . She has done an excellent job of trying to track down women authors and has partially succeeded. However, her entries at least for countries beginning with A & B, show a 1.8-1 ratio in favour of men.

So, just let me repeat. I am in no way criticising these bloggers but merely pointing out the probably sad reality that male writers of literary novels are more abundant/get more attention/are deemed to be more important – choose your own argument. Let me illustrate it further. Let us take the best-known literary novelists of France, Germany and Italy of the middle of the last century, i.e. around 1930-1970, when the Victorians had died off but who have been round long enough for critics and readers to decide whether they they are worthy of being included in the canon or not. I am well aware that taking canonical writers presupposes that the selection of the canon is objective when it clearly is not and almost certainly has a bias towards male writers or, at least, writers writing in what may be deemed to be a more male style (and, yes, there is a difference). Nevertheless, many of us take note of the canon, even if to reject it. So here is what I consider the canonical novelists for this period and these countries:

Colette - a canonical French novelist
Colette – a canonical French novelist
  • France: Alain-Fournier, Bernanos, Camus, Céline, Cocteau, Colette, de Beauvoir, Duras, Gide, Giono, Malraux, Mauriac, Montherlant, Perec, Robbe-Grillet, Saint-Exupéry, Sarraute, Sartre, Tournier, Yourcenar. Fifteen men and five women. No Aragon, du Gard, Duhamel, Romains or Sagan but to include them would not alter the ratio that much. You could argue that de Beauvoir should not be included as a novelist but more for her non-fiction. (Wikipedia’s article on the novel of the 1915-1945 has no women (no Colette!) and, in its article on the post-war novel mentions only Duras and Sarraute and eight men.)
  • Germany: Andersch, Bienek, Böll, Döblin, Graf, Grass, Jahnn, Johnson, Koeppen, Lenz, Thomas Mann, Arno Schmidt, Walser, Wolf. Thirteen men and just one woman. No Andres, Gaiser, Hesse, Heinrich Mann, Nossack, Remarque, Renn, Rinser, Seghers. Even if we added Rinser and Seghers to the total, the figures would still be grim. (Wikipedia has a far lower ratio of women writers.)
  • Italy: Bacchelli, Buzzati, Calvino, Fenoglio, Gadda, Natalia Ginzburg, Lampedusa, Levi, Manganelli, Maraini, Morante, Moravia, Ortese, Pavese, Pirandello, Pratolini, Sciascia, Silone, Svevo, Vittorini, Volponi. Seventeen men and four women. (Incidentally, see the Wikipedia suggestions if you consider that I am being biassed. Not a single woman.) No Cialente (almost entirely out of print in Italy), de Céspedes (only a collection of four of her novels in print in Italy; the individual novels have long been out of print), Manzini.

It is not a pretty picture and, even if you disagree with my estimate of who should and should not be in the canon, you can see that Wikipedia’s estimate is even worse. Yes, we know that Wikipedia has a strong male bias (see also here) and it is quite likely that these articles were written by men but I find it hard to believe that any but the most ardent feminist could substantially disagree with my estimate of the canon. Yes, there might be disagreement on who should and should not be in it but I would estimate that the male-female ratio would be unlikely to alter much. I am well aware that the canon has almost certainly been determined by mainly male critics and that there has been a lot of effort in recent years by critics such as Elaine Showalter and publishers such as Virago and The Feminist Press (for more publishers of women’s writing, see the Women page on my website (scroll down)) to help bring neglected women writers into the canon. While we can only welcome these efforts, as we can see above, male writers still tend to dominate in many areas.

I got too carried way on this post so the next post (really) will deal with my failings.

Andrés Neuman: El viajero del siglo (Traveller of the Century)

I am continuing my reading of Spanish-language novels. The latest addition to my website is Andrés Neuman‘s El viajero del siglo (Traveller of the Century) though, unlike the previous two, it has been translated into English and well reviewed. Though I did enjoy it, I don’t think it quite lived up to the reputation it has, not least because much of the novel consists of interminable discussions between the main characters on a variety of topics. It is set in the early-mid nineteenth century so discussions of contemporary literature, art, politics, religion, philosophy and other topics occupy these characters. Though they do discuss these topics from a contemporary viewpoint, they also seem to, now and then, to have a twenty-first century sensibility. I also wonder if the sexual fantasies of Latin American male novelists do not sometimes get the better of them. Would a mid-nineteenth century, well-brought-up, upper middle class young German woman really jump into bed with a man the first opportunity she gets? Would she discuss the twisty penises she has seen? Similarly, would a 1990s very religious Argentinian woman, who was opposed to sex before marriage, perform oral sex on a man she had just met, as happened in the Benesdra novel? I have my doubts.