Kamel Daoud: Meursault, contre-enquête [Meursault, Counter Investigation]

meursault

The latest addition to my website is Kamel Daoud‘s Meursault, contre-enquête [Meursault, Counter Investigation], part of my effort at reading literary prize winners/shortlisted writers other than the Man Booker. This book has already won the prix François Mauriac, not to be confused with the prix François Mauriac and the Prix des cinq continents de la Francophonie but is also on the shortlist for the Goncourt and the Prix Renaudot, the winners of which will be announced 5 November. Please note all links to prize sites are in French.

This is a superb novel and is an Algerian response to Albert CamusL’Etranger (UK: The Outsider; US: The Stranger). The story is narrated by an Algerian, called Haroun, talking nominally to a French academic (who turns out not to be an academic) in a bar in Oran. Haroun is the brother of the Arab murdered in the Camus novel and this murder has affected his entire life. He is bitter not only at the murder but by the fact that the book does not mention the victim by his name or any other details, except that he is An Arab. The murdered man is called Moussa and was murdered when Haroun was only seven. He is bitter also by the neglect of Moussa’s suffering and the focus on the problems of Meursault, the murderer, that his mother was never given Moussa’s body to bury (an empty coffin was buried, forty days after his death) and that his mother has spent the rest of her life trying to find out more about the murder, neglecting her younger son. We also follow his life, which has not been a great one. Daoud does throw in one interesting twist, which livens things up. It really is an excellent book, showing both French racism towards the Algerians, damning Camus and Meursault, yet, at the same time, being somewhat critical of Algeria and Algerians (Daoud has made his living by being an outspoken journalist, often critical of his own country). As it has only recently come out in French, it has not been translated as yet but I would be disappointed if this book did not make it into English. Update: the English-language rights have apparently been bought by OneWorld.

Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping

house

The latest addition to my website is Marilynne Robinson‘s Housekeeping. This is, of course, a book I should have read years ago but, with her new book just out, now was the time to do it. Apart from the fact, that this is one of the foremost US novels of the latter part of the twentieth century, there is another reason why I should have read it. Unusually, I know the exact date I bought this novel – 3 February 1981. The reason I know this is that I bought it when she gave a talk and had a book signing. (My copy has a dedication to me and is signed by Robinson, from that date). Apparently, I took notes about her talk as, when I finally came to read this book this week, I found inside my copy the notes I took, with date, of her talk. She said that she had written the book straight off, with only a few reference points, with no structure and no idea of the ending while she was writing it. She wrote it in longhand and her husband typed it. There was only one draft. Her main influences were, she said, the early US writers such as Thoreau, Melville and Emily Dickinson as well as Dickens. She said that she did not like contemporary US writing and that she was not in the mainstream of the modern US novel but more of the older US novel. Before writing this novel, she had little experience of writing, though had wanted to be a writer since the age of fifteen. She had written poetry at high school but it was, she said, bad. She did major in US literature and was taught by John Hawkes, though she avoided reading his work till later to avoid being influenced by him. Her Ph. D. was on Shakespeare. She concluded by saying that she found the whole experience of being a published novelist as a bit unreal

The book itself concerns an eccentric family that live in Fingerbone, a small town in the Far West of the US, built on a lake that was assumed to have disappeared but reappears every now and then to flood the houses. The story is told by Ruth, a teenage girl. Her grandfather had been killed when a train derailed and sank in the lake. Her grandmother brought up her three daughters, by then teenagers. All three left the same year, one to go as a missionary to China, one, Helen, who became the mother of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, and one, Sylvie, who married but had no children. Helen and her husband live in Seattle but the husband disappears, never to be heard of again. One day, Helen returns to Fingerbone with her daughters, leaves them on her mother’s doorstep and then proceeds to drive her borrowed car into the lake, killing herself. The girls are brought up first by their grandmother, then, when she dies, by her grandmother’s two unmarried sisters-in-law and, finally, by their aunt, Sylvie, who returns without her husband, to look after her nieces. Sylvie shows herself to be somewhat eccentric and this eccentricity increases, though not to a dangerous point. At first the two sisters tolerate their aunt’s strange (to them) behaviour but gradually, Lucille finds this behaviour unacceptable, though Ruth accepts it and grudgingly welcomes it. However, things start getting more and more difficult and the benign local sheriff feels that he has to intervene. This is a superb book about eccentricity and being different, about loneliness, about our relationship to nature and about transience and impermanence. It is wonderfully written and is rightfully considered one of the best US novels of the latter part of the twentieth century.

Geoff Nicholson: The City Under the Skin

city

The latest addition to my website is Geoff Nicholson‘s The City Under the Skin. I notice that this is the sixteenth novel by Nicholson I have read and I can safely say that I have enjoyed them all. This follows the usual Nicholson pattern – a mysterious plot with twists and twists within twists, the rich and powerful behaving badly, the situation saved by the fairly naive and innocent ordinary person (or persons, in this case), the dark side of the city (an unspecified New York-like city in this case) and plenty of black humour, with a dose of violence and cars. It involves maps, particularly a map tattooed on the back of women, without their permission, which may or may not mean something and which our hero and heroine are determined to find the meaning of, despite the hitman, the property developer/map shop owner and the hit man’s assistants. We plunge into the bowels of the city as well as on roof tops and in a former revolving restaurant at the top of a hotel (Wikipedia has a list , of course) before all is more or less explained. It is, as usual with Nicholson, great fun and a good read, though seems to have received little attention in the UK, which is a pity.

Idris Ali: دنقلة : رواية نوبية (Dongola)

dongola

The latest addition to my website is Idris Ali‘s دنقلة : رواية نوبية (Dongola). This a novel by a Nubian. Nubia was a separate kingdom, in the south of Egypt, and north of Sudan. Indeed, as the book tells us, it was a Christian kingdom, till conquered by Egypt in the late Middle Ages. For a long time the Nubians resisted Egyptian invasion, thanks to their archers but eventually succumbed and converted to Islam, forgetting their Christian past. Awad Shalali, the hero of this book, has been fighting for Nubian independence and has paid for it by being sentenced to ten years imprisonment in Egypt, where he was beaten up and saw his cousin beaten to death. He is now free but his troubles are not over, as the Egyptian authorities still think he is fighting for Nubian independence. He realises that he might be re-arrested so manages to flee to Sudan, with the help of friends and sympathisers. He is away for nine years, during which time he does not contact his mother. She is a widow. Her husband had left her to live in Cairo and taken up with an Egyptian woman, who had poisoned him for his money. Awad eventually returns, having managed to obtain a good job as a steward on a cruise ship, and become engaged to a French woman. His family and village are outraged and persuade him to marry Halima, the woman looking after his mother, which he does. However, he then goes off again and again they do not hear from him. While not a great novel, it is interesting to learn about Nubia and its problems, not least because this and his later novel Poor seem to be the only Nubian novels translated into English.

Heather O’Neill: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

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The latest addition to my website is Heather O’Neill‘s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. This is another book in my reading of literary prize shortlist books that aren’t the Man Booker, this book being on the Giller Prize shortlist , with the winner to be announced 10 November. This novel tells the colourful story of nineteen-old Nouschka Tremblay, who lives in the less fashionable part of Montreal. She is very attached to her twin brother, Nicolas. Both are drop-outs but she has just started going back to school at the beginning of the book, while he makes his living from petty crime. Their father is Etienne Tremblay, a man who was a very successful folk singer in Quebec (but unknown outside the province). Etienne seduced a young woman at a party, had unprotected sex with her and then found that she was pregnant with the twins and was only fourteen. He went to prison, the mother was spirited away and the twins have been brought up by their grandfather. Etienne used them as props for his act but they rarely see him now. They have never seen their mother since though, during the course of the book, Nicolas tracks her down. Meanwhile, Nouschka, unwilling to be without a boyfriend, leads a varied sex life till she marries Raphaël, a man even she admits is the most unsuitable husband, as he has had a history of mental illness (threw himself off the Jacques Cartier Bridge and survived, has tried to kill his father and was arrested for having over a hundred dogs in his house). All this is told against the background of the Quebec separatist movement, culminating in the (just) failed referendum in 1995. It is a lively novel, as we see the seamy side of life in Montreal but it is witty and great fun, even if the characters are seriously flawed human beings.

Wilson Harris: Black Marsden

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The latest addition to my website is Wilson HarrisBlack Marsden. This is another enigmatic novel from Harris which I cannot claim to have fully understood or to have enjoyed. It concerns a man called Clive Goodrich, who is rich, having won the football pools, and who has bought a house in Edinburgh with the proceeds of his winnings. He meets a strange man called Dr Black Marsden (doctor of the soul, as Marsden describes himself) and invites Marsden and his troupe of strange people to stay with them. They are nominally going to put on a performance of Salomé at the Edinburgh Festival, with a chaste Salomé, but they seem to have another role, that of performing in Goodrich’s own tabula rasa drama. Goodrich wanders around Edinburgh, old and new, visits (perhaps in his mind) the town where he was born, called Namless, with one of Marsden’s troupe called Knife, who seems to be variously black, white and brown and tries to fathom out who or what he is. I am not sure that we ever do.

Clara Dupont-Monod: Le roi disait que j’étais diable [The King Said I Was a Devil]

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The latest addition to my website is Clara Dupont-Monod‘s Le roi disait que j’étais diable [The King Said I Was a Devil]. This novel is on the shortlist for this year’s Goncourt Prize (link in French), with the winner to be announced 5 November. This is a first person account by Eleanor of Aquitaine, the most powerful woman in Europe during her lifetime, who became Queen of France when aged thirteen and then, after having her marriage to King Louis VII of France annulled (despite their having two daughters) married King Henry II of England, by whom she had eight children, including Kings Richard I and John. However, even before her marriage to Louis, at age thirteen, she was very powerful, being Duchess of Aquitaine, a territory ten times the size of France. Dupont-Monod shows her as a tough, forceful, highly competent and very intelligent woman, as it is she who initiates various military actions, which she and her husband then carry out forcefully and, if she had her way, brutally, though the religious authorities are able to limit her some of her actions. Louis had not been destined to be king (his older brother died in a riding accident) and had wanted to be a monk and is pious (a synonym for hypocritical, for Eleanor), though, under her guidance and seduced by her sexual charms, he becomes more forceful. Dupont-Monod admits in an afterword that, in real life, Eleanor was perhaps more pious than she is painted in this novel but she is clearly writing a feminist novel, showing that a woman can be as tough, as competent and as intelligent, if not more so, in most cases, than any man, even in the Middle Ages. It is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, as we follow Eleanor’s views of her husband, Paris, France, religion and men, most of which is far from flattering. It is by no means the only novel about Eleanor of Aquitaine – there have been several in both English and in French

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 瘋癲老人日記 (Diary of a Mad Old Man)

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The latest addition to my website is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki‘s 瘋癲老人日記 (Diary of a Mad Old Man). This is, in fact, the diary of seventy-seven year old man who, while he might have one or two mental issues, is more of a dirty old man than a mad old man. The narrator is suffering from ill health and, by his own admission, impotent but, despite that, he is still aroused by the sight of a pretty woman (or even a pretty man dressed as a woman, as in a traditional Japanese play). In this book, his lust is directed towards Satsuko, wife of his son, Jokichi. It is clear to him that their marriage has lost its early romanticism with Jokichi travelling a lot on business and going out on his own when at home. Satsuko helps his wife and nurse with caring for him but this gets him excited and when he tries to take it a bit further (mild touching) she cleverly take advantage of this, both to allow her lover access to the shower on a daily basis (which means access to her) as well as getting the narrator to buy her jewellery. Tanizaki tells the story of how the narrator’s lust continues and how he tries to satisfy it while Satsuko strings him along. At the same time, the erotic excitement has an effect on his health, raising his blood pressure. Yes, it is a bit Lolitaish though Nabokov and Tanizaki have different aims, with Tanizaki interested in the reaction of the old man and what others think of him. This is not his best novel but still a worthwhile read.

Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlist

On the shortlist
On the shortlist

After a longer wait than usual, they have announced the shortlist for the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. The fiction shortlist is:

A World of Other People, Steven Carroll (HarperCollins)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Vintage Australia)
The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane (Penguin: Hamish Hamilton)
Coal Creek, Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin)
Belomor, Nicolas Rothwell (Text Publishing)

The only one I have read is the Flanagan which, of course, has already won the Man Booker Prize but, as I own all but the Carroll, I shall try and read at least one of the others as part of my reading of books from prize shortlists other than the Man Booker.

Gertrud Leutenegger: Panischer Frühling [Panic Spring]

panischer

The latest addition to my website is Gertrud Leutenegger‘s Panischer Frühling [Panic Spring]. This book was nominated for both the Swiss Book Prize (link in German) (winner announced 9 November) and the German Book Prize for which the winner has already been announcedLutz Seiler’s Kruso, which I reviewed last week. It is something of a low-key book, in marked distinction, for example, to Kruso. An unnamed female narrator is staying in London (even she is not sure why) in 2010 (we know the date only because it is the period of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption in Iceland, which means London is much quieter with no planes flying overhead.) She seems to spend her time wandering around London, enjoying unusual historical sites (such as where pirates use to be hanged), the plants and the immigrant culture. One day, she comes across a young man on London Bridge who is selling what is presumably the Big Issue, the magazine sold exclusively by the homeless. She talks to him and then returns most days to continue the discussion, eventually finding out that he is called Jonathan.. She learns of his childhood in Newlyn, Cornwall, son of a fisherman who is lost at sea, while she replies with stories of the house where her aunt and uncle lived in Switzerland, in which she, her parents and her sister used to visit every summer. Sometimes the stories have similarities, sometimes they do not. Though their relationship remains formal (they continue to use the formal German Sie [=you] and there is no physical contact), the relationship becomes something of a platonic love story. Not a great deal happens, though the sister of Jonathan’s Jamaican friend has her wig shop mysteriously burned down, and he tells the story of Gillian, an evacuee from London during the war, whom his grandmother had befriended, though she never learns what happened to Gillian. This is a superbly well-written story, full of poetical depictions of London, the summer house in Switzerland and life in Cornwall, framed by an unusual love story and it is easy to see why it made the shortlist of two literary prizes. It has not, of course, been translated into English (nor have any of her other works) and, sadly, probably will not be.