Jacques Roubaud: Le Grand Incendie de Londres (The Great Fire of London)

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The latest addition to my website is Jacques Roubaud‘s Le Grand Incendie de Londres (The Great Fire of London). I have mentioned before that one of the minor pleasures of reading novels is to find strange similarities between two books read consecutively. I first noticed this when, many years ago, I was travelling to work with a friend and we both happened to be reading books featuring spontaneous combustion. I was reading Bleak House and he was reading Madison Smartt Bell‘s Waiting for the End of the World. While there is little similar between this book and the last book I read, Efraim Medina Reyes: Técnicas de masturbación entre Batman y Robin [Techniques of Masturbation between Batman and Robin], both have titles which are almost entirely irrelevant to their books and both are about an attempt but ultimate failure to write a novel, though ending up with the novel we are reading.

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You will notice from the cover photos – the French edition top left and the English one to the right – that they feature the Great Fire of London. Clearly the cover designers in both cases had not read the book because, whatever it is about, it is not about the Great Fire of London. In fact, if we wish to sum up it simply, it is about an attempt to write a novel called The Great Fire of London which fails. Roubaud had had a dream nineteen years previously which involved him coming out of a London tube station and that he was about to have a new start in life. When he awoke, he knew that he would write novel called The Great Fire of London. This dream and the death of his wife, Alix, are what led him to write this book but not the book he was going to write, which he could not write. The book describes, in great and often boring detail, his post-Alix writing life, his struggle with this book and his various ideas about writing, as well as his own life – his childhood, his married life, his love of poetry, his travels. It is a clever and interesting idea, though we know that he is not going to write The Great Fire of London because he tells us so at the beginning, but it is not a particularly easy read. However, I am glad to have read it, as it gives a perspective on the writing life and inner life of a writer that we do not normally get to see. And it is a lot better book than Efraim Medina Reyes: Técnicas de masturbación entre Batman y Robin [Techniques of Masturbation between Batman and Robin].

Efraim Medina Reyes: Técnicas de masturbación entre Batman y Robin [Techniques of Masturbation between Batman and Robin]

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The latest addition to my website is Efraim Medina ReyesTécnicas de masturbación entre Batman y Robin [Techniques of Masturbation between Batman and Robin]. Having just read La vita erotica dei superuomini (Erotic Lives of the Superheroes), this book seemed a natural follow-up. However, masturbation, Batman and Robin barely feature in this novel and the two superheroes are merely two women in disguise at an imagined fancy dress party. Efraim Medina Reyes has been hailed as one of the new voices of Colombian literature but, on the basis of this novel, García Márquez has nothing to fear. It tells what would appear to be a semi-autobiographical story about a novelist known as Sergio Bocafloja (=Loose Mouth) who tries and fails to put his difficult childhood behind him, find himself, find true love and become a successful novelist. He starts off in Cartagena, with a group of friends, where he meets and falls in love with Marianne but she eventually moves away. He heads off to Bogota but is called back when his mother becomes ill and he returns to his former life but sans Marianne. Medina Reyes throws in a guide to seducing woman, a few mini-screenplays, including one called Técnicas de masturbación entre Batman y Robin [Techniques of Masturbation between Batman and Robin], Instructions for Training Mammals and other non-narrative asides, none of which really work. I really hope that this not the future of the Colombian novel. They have shown that they can do well at football (for those not following, this is a reference to the World Cup) and I am sure that they can write better novels.

Marco Mancassola: La vita erotica dei superuomini (Erotic Lives of the Superheroes)

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The latest addition to my website is Marco Mancassola‘s La vita erotica dei superuomini (Erotic Lives of the Superheroes). Don’t be put off, as I nearly was, by the title. This is not a silly, pastiche of superheroes. It is a serious book, where the main characters just happen to be superheroes. We follow the stories of a few superheroes, who have aged and lost some of their superpower prowess but still very much have sexual desires, which, in part, leads to their downfall. The main plot involves threats to various superheroes, who receive notes saying Goodbye, Dear … and, soon after, tend to die a violent death. The police are baffled as to who is killing them and why, though the superheroes themselves are more sanguine about it. However, the main interest of the novel involves following the stories of a few superheroes and their anxieties, brought on, in part, by ageing and, in part, by their increasing irrelevance. Superheroes are not important in a TV age, says one of them. Mancassola could have made this a jokey novel about superheroes but he does not. The superheroes seem to have all the foibles – and more – of the rest of us, particularly when it comes to sexual matters. It is an excellent book and deserves to be better known, particularly as Mancassola lives in London and the book has been translated into English (and French).

Stefan Andres: Wir sind Utopia (UK: We Are Utopia; US: We are God’s Utopia)

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The latest addition to my website is Stefan AndresWir sind Utopia (UK: We Are Utopia; US: We are God’s Utopia). This is a short novel but a very fine one and Andres’ best-known novel. It was published illegally in Germany in 1942, while Andres and his wife were living in Italy. It takes place in the Spanish Ciivil War, in a monastery. The monastery has been converted to a prison, not least because the monks’ cells are suitable for prisoners’ cells. A new intake is brought to the monastery at the beginning of the novel and it turns out that one of them, Paco, used to be a monk there, called Father Consalves. He had had the idea of a utopian society which his superior, Father Damiano, told him was totally unrealistic and, eventually, he had left the monastery and spent much of the rest of his life as a sailor. The lieutenant, Pedro, in command of the prison has a guilty conscience, as he has ordered all the monks killed and now wants absolution and asks Paco to give it. Paco says that, as he is defrocked, he cannot do so so but the lieutenant insists. The two men – one, Pedro, a man who has been unhappy much of his life and is, by his own admittance, a devil and a beast and the other, Paco, a defrocked priest who has lost all hope of finding his utopia – face each other, with death approaching, as the war draws near and we know that the lieutenant will soon be preparing to retreat but he cannot leave all the enemy men to rejoin their army. Death can be the only victor, as Andres must have felt in 1942.

Frédéric Werst: Ward: Ier-IIe siècle [Ward: 1st-2nd century]

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The latest addition to my website is Frédéric Werst‘s Ward: Ier-IIe siècle [Ward: 1st-2nd century]. This is a stunningly original work, which purports to be an anthology, with extensive notes, of the literature of the Wards, an entirely imagined people, who write in Wardwesân, an entirely imagined language. Indeed, Werst wrote the texts in Wardwesân and only then translated them into French. Werst has created an entire people and culture. He gives us their history – from their mythical origins on Ward Island to the year 200 in their chronology, telling us how they left the continent Boran and migrated to Nentan, in a manner which reminds us of the Jewish transmigration to the Promised Land, and how King Zaragabal consolidated their territories, till his direct descendants died out and there were further wars. But the purpose of the book is a comprehensive anthology of various texts produced in the early years of Ward – these include historical, philosophical, geographical, medical, mythical, literary, legal and grammatical texts, all written by Werst in Wardwesân and translated by him into French. He also includes a grammar and vocabulary of Wardwesân, a language, he claims, is quite unlike any real language, though there are, inevitably, some similarities to real languages. While others have invented worlds and languages, particularly writers of fantasy (Tolkien) and science fiction (Okrand for Star Trek), this work is not a complement to a story of good versus evil or a mythical quest but a history and cultural anthology of an entire people in its own right. As such it is a stunningly original work. It has yet to be translated into any other language (except, of course, French) and it will be interesting to see if anyone tries to do so. For now, unless you read Wardwesân, you will have to read it in French.

Marina Warner: The Lost Father

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The latest addition to my website is Marina Warner‘s The Lost Father. Warner is best known as a cultural critic, writing primarily about myth, fairy tales and art. She has recently, for example, criticised Richard Dawkins for dismissing the power of fairy tales. However, she is also a fine novelist. This novel is told by an unreliable narrator, an English woman, Anna, whose father was English and mother Italian (like Warner herself), who is trying to find out and write about her grandfather, Davide, who was apparently killed in a duel. The book follows her narration of the story of Davide and his family in Italy, starting in the first decade of the last century and carrying on after his death, well into the Mussolini era. The book is also very much concerned with the role and concerns of women, starting with Davide’s two sisters, Rosa and Caterina, who are both attracted to Davide’s somewhat rough friend, Tommaso. Indeed, it is this that leads to the duel. The family later emigrates to the United States, but Davide, a trained lawyer, does not fit in and returns to Italy with his wife and four children (Anna’s mother is born after their return to Italy), where, as we learn early on, he dies as a result of the duel. I felt that the novel did jump around a bit, giving different perspectives and also jumping around in the chronology but, overall, it is an excellent novel. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1988.

Rita Rahman: Liefdesgeuren (Love’s Perfumes)

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The latest addition to my website is Rita Rahman‘s Liefdesgeuren (Love’s Perfumes), the first Aruban novel on my website. Myrna is from an unnamed former Dutch Caribbean colony and is a professional environmentalist, attending the World Food Summit in the Hague. There she meets Arno, a junior minister in the Dutch government, who has problems sleeping. She has learned from her beloved grandmother, Dina, how to help people sleep and she agrees to help Arno. In return, he agrees to show her around Europe and answer her questions honestly. She then tells him a story about a woman called Sandra who, unlike Myrna, was from the rich part of the island but had joined the Popular Front, at the instigation of her boyfriend, John. The group discusses anti-colonialism as the island was still a Dutch colony at the time. However, Sandra falls for Erik, the leader of the group, though he is only interested in a casual affair not the committed affair that she wants. As the island moves towards independence, ethnic tensions flare up, which had been kept suppressed under central, colonial control. Rahman makes her points about the colonised-coloniser and black-white relationships, though the two stories, while interesting enough, tend to drift away. However, it is worthwhile reading about the colonised from the Aruban point of view.

Lawrence Durrell: Quinx or The Ripper’s Tale

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The latest addition to my website is Lawrence Durrell‘s Quinx or The Ripper’s Tale, the last book in his his Avignon Quintet. We might have hoped for a great summing-up but what we, in fact, get is a somewhat feeble attempt to tie up loose ends – what happened to Livia and the Templar treasure – and a sort of flaccid drifting away to the end as the various characters still alive seemed to have lost their spirit and really just want to go to bed. We do get a couple of Durrell’s set-pieces – a colourful gypsy festival at Saintes-Maries and the final attempt to open up the tunnels where the Templar treasure is buried but which has been booby-trapped by Austrian sappers. However, the rest of the book is quite dull and disappointing. This was Durrell’s final novel and it shows.

Jacques Roubaud: L’Enlèvement d’Hortense (Hortense is Abducted)

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The latest addition to my website is Jacques Roubaud‘s L’Enlèvement d’Hortense (Hortense is Abducted). One of the minor pleasures in reading novels is finding commonalities between different novels. The last two novels I have read are both by French authors but they are very different novels, yet both feature a main character called Hortense (a name I have never come across in real life) and have more than one reference to Margaret Thatcher. I suspect that they may be the only two novels I am ever likely to read to have both of these features. This is by way of introduction to a novel which is resolutely playful or, if you are more paranoid, subversive. Roubaud was a member of Oulipo and therefore did not write conventional novels. This one subverts the standard detective novel. The detective has just solved a case concerning a broken vase and is now on the hunt for the murderer of a dog, aided by a Poldavian detective called Sheralockiszyku Holamesidjudjy. Of course, the dog murder is linked to the abduction of Hortense (which only takes place late in the novel). Meanwhile, Roubaud treats us to tangents, speculations and divergences. He communicates with his publisher on more than one occasion (he is not entirely happy with him). He introduces us, the reader, into the book. The various animals in the book can think and even act like humans. Rival pop groups, six princes from a fictitious country, speculations on infinity, a writer being sued for not using a real-life person in his book, advice on how to write a novel and, of course, Margaret Thatcher all pop up in the book. It is great fun, mildly subversive and, most importantly, available in English.