Joanna Scott: Arrogance

arrogance

The latest addition to my website is Joanna Scott‘s Arrogance, another superb novel by Scott, this one being about the Austrian artist Egon Schiele, who died aged twenty-eight during the influenza pandemic at the end of World War I. Schiele was not a man to observe conventional morality and was in trouble with local communities and the authorities for his ‘pornographic’ art and allegedly seducing underage girls. Scott aims to show the controversial man, but she also brilliantly describes the artist – how he thought, felt and reacted to life around him and how he transposed this into his art. The story is not told chronologically but in an impressionistic style, moving backwards and forwards through his life (and after his life, as we hear the accounts of two women involved in his life, who survived him). Scott gives us a wonderful portrait of an artist and his artistic struggles and concerns.

Munnings as portrayed by Harold Knight
Munnings as portrayed by Harold Knight

By coincidence, while reading this book, I happened to see the film Summer in February , about an episode in the life of the artist Alfred Munnings. What a contrast with the Scott book! The film was badly written, badly directed and badly acted, particularly by Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey fame. Munnings, played by Dominic Cooper, is portrayed as your typical caricature eccentric artist, with no depth, no feeling and no indication at what drives him as an artist, except drink and women. The story concerns a woman, Florence Carter-Wood, herself an artist, who is loved by both Munnings and Gilbert Evans (Dan Stevens) and it is all raging storms, rough seas and the like to show passion, with the obligatory nudity, Cooper trying hard to be mad and eccentric and Stevens doing the stiff upper lip or wan smile (and nothing much else) he had in Downton Abbey. Forget the film. Read the book

Xiaolu Guo: 我心中的石头镇 (Village of Stone)

stone

The latest addition to my website is Xiaolu Guo‘s 我心中的石头镇 (Village of Stone). She is one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. This novel was the last of several that she wrote in Chinese and the only one of those that has been translated into English. Her subsequent novels have been written in English. It tells the story of Coral Jiang, both in her childhood (from the ages of seven to fifteen) and in the present time, aged twenty-eight. She had been born and brought up in the Village of Stone, a remote village by the sea in the south of China, where people made their living from the sea, and which was constantly buffeted by typhoons, so much so that roofs were weighed down with stones. Her mother had died soon after giving birth to her, while her father had left before she was born. She was brought up by her grandparents, who had barely spoken to one another for many years. Life was hard and made harder for Coral, who was harassed by a mute who sexually assaulted her. In the present time, she is living in a flat in Beijing with Red and working in a video rental shop. Her life seems to be going nowhere. Btu then a large dead eel arrives in a parcel for her from the Village of Stone and things start to change.

François Mauriac: La Fin de la nuit (The End of the Night)

fin

The latest addition to my website is François Mauriac‘s La Fin de la nuit (The End of the Night). This is a follow-up to his Thérèse Desqueyroux (Therese; later: Therese Desqueyroux), written eight years earlier. In his introduction, Mauriac makes it clear he wanted to continue the story of Thérèse. It is now fifteen years later and she is living alone in Paris, She is facing both financial and health problems. One evening, there is a knock at the door. It is her daughter, Marie, whom she has not seen for three years. She is naturally glad to see Marie but finds that the seventeen-year old has an ulterior motive. Marie is in love with Georges Filhot, son of a neighbour, and has left home to follow him to Paris, where he is studying. Thérèse persuades her daughter that she must return home to her father but, before departure, the two women go and see Georges. They spend some time with him and, once Marie has left, Georges comes to visit Thérèse, where he tells her that it is she rather than Marie he loves. The rest of the novel is how Thérèse deals with this declaration and tries to bring Georges and her daughter together. It is an interesting novel, if not quite as fine as its predecessor, and something of a departure for Mauriac.

A. M. Homes: Jack

jack

The latest addition to my website is A. M. HomesJack, her first novel. It is certainly an enjoyable novel, though the humour is not nearly as black as her recent prize-winning May We Be Forgiven. Jack, the hero/narrator, is a fifteen-year old boy, whose parents get divorced and who subsequently discovers that the reason for the divorce is that his father is gay and living with his gay lover. Jack is devastated as, like most people at his school, he despises anything associated with homosexuality. The book is how Jack, his mother and others close to them try to come to terms with this and how the model heterosexual family he admires may also have its weaknesses.

Marcu Biancarelli: 51 Pegasi astru virtuali (51 Pegasi, astre virtuel) [51 Pegasi, Virtual Star]

pegasi

The latest addition to my website is Marcu Biancarelli‘s Pegasi astru virtuali (51 Pegasi, astre virtuel) [51 Pegasi, Virtual Star], the first Corsican novel on my site. Frankly, it is not a very good novel. The narrator, Marco, is a writer/professor, who has left Corsica for ten years and, when he returns, Corsica has become autonomous. One of his former students (of literature) has developed a virtual reality system based on the star 51 Pegasi, a real star which was the first to be identified with a planet orbiting it. However, this plays a relatively small role in the novel, despite the title. Marco is a thoroughly obnoxious character, putting everyone down (including himself), swearing, getting drunk, abusing people, fighting and so on. Apart from his behaviour, his brief relationship with the presenter of a TV literary programme and his drunken behaviour, there is not really much of a plot, except for Marco and his friend, the inventor of the virtual reality system, complaining about the disappearance of the Corsican language. Fortunately, I do own other Corsican novels, including one more by Biancarelli, and I hope that they will be better.

Maurice Nadeau

nadeau

I do not subscribe to many magazines but one I read avidly is La Quinzaine littéraire. It has been edited and published by the first-class publisher, Maurice Nadeau, since 1966. It is currently facing financial difficulties and Nadeau has been fighting to save it. Sadly he died yesterday, aged 102, fighting for his magazine till the end. He has been associated with many famous names – writing a history of surrealism, while friends with André Breton, publishing Roland Barthes, defending Henry Miller, condemning torture in Algeria with his friend, Jean-Paul Sartre but, above all, discovering or first publishing in France a whole host of names. Obituaries in French in Figaro and Le Monde. He will be sorely missed.

David Szalay: The Innocent

szalay

The latest addition to my website is David Szalay‘s The Innocent. Szalay is another of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. This novel is written from the perspective of a committed MGB (precursor to the KGB) agent, Aleksandr, who Szalay cleverly makes us think of as a reasonable person, despite his firm commitment to the Soviet Union as it was under Stalin (he thinks Khrushchev too soft). He has been given a routine task of checking on Anatoly Yudin, a former concert pianist, who may have been a Nazi sympathiser but is now, in 1948, in a mental hospital, having had part of his brain blown away during the war. We follow Aleksandr both in 1948 and and in 1972, as he looks back at what happened. The director of the hospital proves to be a stumbling block and Aleksandr has to fake a charge against him, resulting in his arrest. Aleksandr feels guilty and volunteers to assist the director’s wife. This will have all sorts of consequences, personal and professional, for Aleksandr which still have repercussions in 1972. Szalay’s idea is interesting, even if he seems to start plot lines and then leave them dangling. But one of the best British young novelists? I am not sure.

Charles Montagu Doughty

arabia

The other day we went to an exhibition of the superb paintings of the very wonderful Anne-Catherine Phillips. We have two of her paintings in our house and would have more if we had bigger walls! As we were leaving, the owner of the house told us that Charles Doughty used to live there. Doughty is an interesting figure in British literature. He is most famous for Travels in Arabia Deserta, a fascinating if somewhat strange account of his travels in that part of the world. It is written in a very literary style that makes reading difficult, though it is rewarding to do so. As this link shows he was arrogant, humourless, self-righteous and mulish. In particular, when travelling in Arabia, instead of disguising himself as a Muslim, as other travellers did or, at least, playing down his origins, he played up his origins and what he saw as his superior religion. Throughout the book, you can read accounts of how he was attacked, vilified, beaten, spat upon and generally reviled by people for whom Islam was everything and everything else nothing. Only his (very basic) knowledge of medicine saved him, as he was able to treat some of the local populace.

dawn

Despite his wanderings and his classic book, his first love was English literature and he intended to become a great writer of English literature. Much of his life was devoted to writing a six volume epic called The Dawn of Britain. It starts

I chant new day-spring in the Muses’ Isles
Of Christ’s eternal Kingdom. Men of the East,
Of hew and raiment strange, and uncouth speech,
Behold, in storm-beat ship, cast nigh our Land!

It doesn’t get any better. It is, essentially, unreadable. If you are a braver person than I, it is still available, thanks to Forgotten Books and you can download the six volumes of Dawn of Britain, the two volumes of Travels in Arabia Deserta and other of his books from the Internet Archive.

Where Doughty lived
Where Doughty lived

The house to the left is where he lived. In fact, it was because I admired the magnificent wisteria that I learned about Doughty, as it was Doughty who planted it. (Incidentally, if you want to own a piece of English literary history, the house is now for sale.) Doughty’s daughters Dorothy and Freda were both designers for the Royal Worcester china company. There are two biographies of him. The more recent one is by Andrew Taylor, called God’s Fugitive but the original one, published in 1928, is by the Arabist, D G Hogarth. (Interestingly, till I just edited it, the Wikipedia entry linked here did not mention the Doughty biography in the Hogarth bibliography.) Both are out of print but both are obtainable used from the usual sources, though the Hogarth one is not cheap.

Peter Handke: Kali [Potash]

kali

The latest addition to my website is Peter Handke‘s Kali [Potash]. This book, which has not been translated into English (though has been translated into Danish, Dutch, French and Italian), is another of Handke’s almost dream-like stories of an individual travelling to a strange land which may be, in fact, Handke’s view of Austria. In this case, it is a woman singer, who has just finished her season, who heads off to her home region or, at least, as she says, the region next to her childhood region. There she meets a series of people, some of whom work in the salt mines (there are huge deposits, left behind by a long since extinct large sea). These people tend to speak in statements or in philosophical terms, somewhat like people in serious fairy tales or legends, showing a land that seems to be peopled with emigrants and with a permanent pre-wintery feel to it. Is she, as one character says, the personification of death? Is this country Handke’s grim view of his own country? Everything is left somewhat ambiguous but it is still an interesting tale and worth reading, as long as you do not expect to read it in English.

Patrick Roegiers: Le Bonheur des Belges [The Happiness of the Belgians]

bonheur

The latest addition to my website is Patrick RoegiersLe Bonheur des Belges [The Happiness of the Belgians]. It is both a response to Hugo ClausHet verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium) as well as to the political and economic crisis Belgium has been facing in recent times. Belgium is the only country where I have visited every town in the country so I have a certain sympathy with and interest in the country and its plight. Roegiers gives us a roller-coaster of a ride through Belgium’s (relatively short) history, its institutions, its culture and its problems, telling his tale with great humour, happy both to mock as well as celebrate and peopling his novel with a whole host of living and dead Belgians, most of whom you have probably never have heard of. It is narrated by an eleven-year old boy who has no name and no parents, who wanders through Belgium, both geographically and chronologically (he is at the Battle of Waterloo and in World War I, for example) meeting people from Victor Hugo to Jacques Brel to Pieter Brueghel and hearing their tale and views while, in the background, Roegiers throws in his comments, witticisms and views. He is not afraid to confront problems, e.g. the Walloon-Fleming issue, and not afraid to gently mock such issues, all the while celebrating Belgium and Belgianness. It is wonderful book, full of joie de vivre. Sadly, given that language (the use of Belgian French and French vs Flemish) is of such importance, I wonder whether it will ever be translated into English. However, if you do read French, I can heartily recommend it. Bonne lecture!