Amélie Nothomb: Le crime du comte Neville [The Crime of Count Neville]

crime

The latest addition to my website is Amélie Nothomb‘s Le crime du comte Neville [The Crime of Count Neville]. This is her twenty-fourth book in twenty-four years. She regularly produces a novel during the French rentrée and this one is this year’s offering. It will doubtlessly appear in English ere long. It is something of a change in approach for Nothomb in that it is a fable. It is set in the Belgian Ardennes and tells the story of the aristocratic Nevilles. (Nothomb herself is descended from Belgian aristocrats.) Henri and his beautiful and twenty-year younger wife, Alexandra, have three children. Orestes and Electra, in their twenties, are the perfect children. Sérieuse, aged seventeen, is sullen, morose and solitary. One night, Sérieuse is out wandering in the forest after midnight when she is spotted and taken in by the local clairvoyant. When Henri picks her up, the clairvoyant forecasts that he will hold a sumptuous party (which he knows, as he does so every year) and at this party, he will kill someone. Henri, who prides himself on being the perfect host, is very perturbed by this. He particularly wants to give a good party this year, as it will be the last. The Nevilles are completely broke and will have to sell the château. While he considers whom he might kill of the guests, Sérieuse makes him a proposition. He should kill her, as she is fed up with life and wants to die. It is a fairly simple fable, but, as ever with Nothomb, light-hearted, well-told and humorous.

Jonathan Franzen: Purity

purity

The latest addition to my website is Jonathan Franzen‘s Purity. Inevitably, this book has caused much controversy and has been condemned for being sexist (which it partially is but no more than thousands of other novels), problematic, self-indulgent and probably all sorts of other crimes. Ignore the buzz and read the book. It is not a great novel but it certainly is a novel worth reading, with an interesting plot and lots of idea, ranging from the nature of the Internet to implied incest, from the value of money to the role of journalism. The focus is Pip Tyler (whose real name is Purity but, naturally, she tries to keep that hidden). She is the only child of a single mother, Penelope, who works as a check-out clerk in a supermarket and lives in a trailer. Penelope has changed her name (and Pip’s name) to escape Pip’s father and resolutely refuses, despite Pip’s best efforts, to reveal the identity of Pip’s father. Pip has, of course, tried to track him down on the Internet, to no avail. Obviously, this is going to be a feature of this story. Pip has a lousy job selling dubious renewal energy products, a huge student loan debt and no boyfriend. She lives on a sort of commune and is in love with Stephen, who loves only his wife, even when she leaves him.

At the commune she meets a German woman, Annagret, who puts her in touch with Andreas Wolf, a Julian Assange-type figure (but not Assange, who is condemned by Wolf and others) and his Sunlight Project (not Wikileaks but similar). Pip is persuaded to join the Sunlight Project but then moves to Denver to work for an investigative journalism project (we only learn why later in the book) where she is involved in investigating a missing nuclear warhead and becomes close to the head of the project, Tom Aberant (sic). Much of the book is about the back stories of Wolf and Aberant, as well as about Pip’s involvement with them. At times I felt that Franzen went into too much detail, particularly with Aberant’s story but, on the whole, he tells a good story and raises a host of interesting ideas. A book worth reading but certainly not the Great American Novel.

La rentrée

A novel from last year's rentrée
A novel from last year’s rentrée

‘Tis the season for la rentrée, which, in France, refers both to going back to school at the beginning of the new school year but, more importantly, for us, the host of new books that are published around now, in time both for the prize-giving season and, presumably, the Christmas market. This is not unique to France. Lots of books are published in the UK at this time of the year, for example, but they tend to be more of the celebrity memoirs/silly books that people give as Christmas presents. In France, most of the rentrée books are of a more serious nature and, in particular, many of the most interesting novels published in France are published during the rentrée. Last year, there was no big scandal, though Frédéric Beigbeder wrote an imagined novel about the disappearance of J D Salinger, Emmanuel Carrère felt slighted as his novel Le royaume, a novel with a Christian theme, did not win any of the major prizes and Amélie Nothomb produced her usual annual novel.

This year, we apparently have 589 novels to enjoy. Some highlights:

bijoux

Eric Holder (no, not that Eric Holder) is one of those writers always expected to make the breakthrough. Indeed, many think he already has. But he has not really. So can he do it with La saison des bijoux [The Season of the Bijoux]? The Bijoux (it means jewellery) are a family of travelling street peddlers, selling, of course, glass beads. They hope to make a season of it at the famous market of (the fictitious) resort of Carri. But they have reckoned without Forgeaud, local café owner, who really does not like strangers.

boussole

I did enjoy Mathieu Enard‘s Zone (Zone). His new book is called Boussole (it means compass). The compass in question was bought by Beethoven in Vienna and indicates not North, but East. Our hero is Franz Ritter, a musician (composer, player but, above all, academic, who is studying the Eastern origins of music). Franz cannot sleep so he lies awake in bed, thinking about all things Eastern and the novel is his thoughts.

amour

Christine Angot is another regular and this year’s offering is Un amour impossible [An Impossible Love]. Pierre has a fling with Rachel. They have a child but he will not marry her and she brings up Christine alone. When Christine is grown up, she learns that Pierre has had a fling with Christine. (This could be the subject of the year, as it is also an issue in Jonathan Franzen’s Purity.)

eva

Simon Liberati provides this year’s scandal, writing a novelisation of the life of his wife Eva Ionesco (no relation to the playwright), called, of course, Eva. Her mother, a professional photographer, had taken nude photos of her daughter when young. All is explained in The Guardian. A good lawsuit is just what the rentrée needs but I will give this one a miss.

crime

And where would the rentrée be without a Nothomb? Twenty-four novels in twenty-four years. This year’s offering is Le crime du comte Neville [The Crime of Count Neville]. The Nevilles are Belgian aristocrats who have fallen on hard times. However, every year they give, as tradition demands, a sumptuous party and then spend the rest of the year on bread and water. However, things are getting worse and they might to have sell the family château. The daughter of the Count, wittily called Sérieuse, is fed up with life and she proposes to her father that he kill her.

2084

The Algerian writer, Boualem Sansal, has had one book translated into English. His six previous novels are being republished in French in a single edition. His new book is called 2084. It is about radical Islam and takes place in the fictitious country of Abistan, which has largely been desertified, following a mysterious war. The hero is Ati, who opposes the ruling religious authorities.

vladimir

The radical Muslims are not the only ones to be mocked. Bernard Chambaz’s Vladimir Vladimirovitch tells the story of an ordinary Russian who happens to be called Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin. He writes about his namesake in his notebooks, after he saw the sadness in the eyes of the president. Naturally, he also writes about Russia generally.

The 589 are not all French. Toni Morrison‘s God help the Child, Richard PowersOrfeo, Nick Hornby‘s Funny Girl, Michael Köhlmeier’s Zwei Herren am Strand [Two Gentlemen on the Beach] (not yet translated into English) and, finally David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest are all to appear. But 589? If I manage to read five over the course of the next two years, I shall be happy.

Elena Ferrante: Storia del nuovo cognome (The Story of a New Name)

name

The latest addition to my website is Elena Ferrante‘s Storia del nuovo cognome (The Story of a New Name), the second in her L’amica geniale (My Brilliant Friend) series. This novel starts exactly where the last one ended, at the marriage between Stefano and Lila, with Lila incandescent with rage at seeing the shoes she designed and then made with her brother, on the feet of the hated Marcello Solara, instead of on her husband’s. Though she later calms down, this sets the tone for the marriage and, indeed, the rest of the book, as the marriage both begins and ends during the course of this book. Lila is a fiercely independent young woman (she is only just seventeen when she marries) and is not going to tolerate any opposition to her point of view. The second major conflict occurs on the wedding night, when she refuses Stefano sex and he beats and rapes her. Most people seem to think that he was justified. The conflict between Stefano and Lila, which worsens throughout the book, is just one of the many conflicts and fights during this book. Indeed, it is fair to say that this book is a soap opera of an extended dysfunctional family, with no-one coming out of it happy or even vaguely content.

storia

In a previous blog post, I I commented on the success of Karl Ove Knausgård and was somewhat mystified by it. While I think Ferrante is by far the better writer, and that she has a far more interesting story to tell, I still do not fully concur with the general view that her books are of unsurpassed brilliance. I still prefer imaginative fiction to autobiographical fiction and, while I certainly enjoyed this book, it certainly will not feature on my all-time great novels lists or even my all-time great Italian novels list. This is undoubtedly a weakness on my part but one I certainly will not apologise for it. As I said in the Knausgård post mentioned above, give me real fiction any time.

Elena Ferrante: L’amica geniale (My Brilliant Friend)

friend

The latest addition to my website is Elena Ferrante‘s L’amica geniale (My Brilliant Friend). This novel has had considerable success, both in English and Italian and, with the fourth in the L’amica geniale (My Brilliant Friend) series) coming out in English next month, I felt that it was time I read it. The first reason for its success may be because of the mystery surrounding the author. Her identity is unknown and she has made it clear that she intends to keep it that way. It would appear, from what information we have, that she is from the Naples area, grew up there in the 1950s/1960s and is a mother. Of course, all this is supposition and she may well be a twenty three year old man from Florence or even Silvio Berlusconi. Authors whose identity are not known are not unheard of. We do not know who wrote the Gospels or who Sir Thomas Malory is. For some time there was a lot of speculation about the author of the novel Primary Colors, though his identity has now been revealed. Similarly, we now know who wrote Robert Galbraith is. We have an idea who B Traven is but it is not certain. And who is James Church? The second reason for the book’s success is the excellent publicity that the English-language publishers, Europa Editions, have given the book.

amica

The third reason is the story itself. The book is about the friendship between two girls – Lila and Elena (the narrator). They met when they first went to school and have remained friends till later in life. (The book is a flashback from when they are much older.) Elena remains in awe of Lila. It is Lila who is brave and tough as well as being very clever. As a young child, Elena follows Lila in somewhat brave and occasionally foolhardy adventures, even if it may be against Elena’s better judgement. At school, Elena does very well but Lila does better. She teaches herself to read and write and later will teach herself Latin and then Greek, primarily in order to help Elena learn. While Elena reaches puberty earlier and has large breasts and therefore is initially able to attract boys before Lila, Lila soon reaches puberty and it is she who has more success with the opposite sex. This story is told against a background of continuing conflict, which often breaks out into violence, as families and individuals assert themselves, control their children and openly fight. Somehow the two girls triumph and, by the time the book ends, when they are sixteen, have more or less come through.

100 best English-language novels

Is this really one of the 100 greatest English-language novels?
Is this really one of the 100 greatest English-language novels?

I am a glutton for a good list but I like my lists complete. In The Observer, Robert McCrum has been giving us one a week, which is a really unsatisfactory way of doing it. When you limit yourself to 100 (or any other arbitrary figure) you have to play juggling games, putting this one in and leaving this one out. However, by showing only one a week, it has been difficult to get a sense of what is in and what is out. Yes, we could refer back to past editions of the paper but, as no running count was kept, it is was awkward and, anyway, who could be bothered? It is not as though we have been short of such lists. However, we have finally reached No 100 and, finally we have the complete list. For what it is worth, I think it is a not very good list. The early ones are more or less predictable, though I am not sure that Emma is Austen’s masterpiece nor David Copperfield Dickens’ masterpiece. I am not going to go through his complete list – you can do that and will probably have different ideas from mine but, frankly, Lolly Willowes, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Babbit, Tropic of Cancer, The Big Sleep, Wodehouse. I don’t think so. BTW, I have read eighty-four of them but I shall not say which ones I have not read.

This really is one of the 100 greatest English-language novels
This really is one of the 100 greatest English-language novels

Rachel Cooke has condemned his choices, primarily because of the lack of women writers but her proposals are, I feel, worse than McCrum’s – Mollie Panter-Downes’s One Fine Day, Nancy Mitford!! Obooki has also thrown in a few of his own quirky suggestions. Marie Corelli? Aaargh! I won’t add my suggestions but you can see some of them on my website. Ballard, Butts, Byatt, Cather, Ellison, Gaddis, Gerhardie, Pynchon, Zadie Smith, Welty and Henry Williamson are some of the obvious omissions. Weak effort, McCrum, weak effort.

Anna Smaill: The Chimes

chimes

The latest addition to my website is Anna Smaill‘s The Chimes. I have been sitting on this for several months but am inspired to read it as it made The Man Booker longlist and, as I have only read two others on the list (both, interestingly enough, by women), I felt that I should get round to this one. It is a post-apocalyptic, dystopian novel, something which seems quite popular at the moment. It is set mainly in London (though later moving to Reading and then Oxford), which has been damaged by something called the Allbreaking, whose nature is not entirely clear but seems to have involved some powerful sounds that destroyed buildings and killed people. The new ruling class, called The Order, seem to be a quasi-religious group, that use sounds to control the people, who must listen every day to the Onestory and The Chimes, sounds played by some form of musical instrument, with the latter having the effect of destroying people’s memories. Memories, except for bodymemory, i.e. the normal functions of the body, tend to be illegal, though people sometimes have memory bags containing objectmemories, i.e. objects that remind them of their past.

London destroyed
London destroyed

Our hero is Simon Wyvern, a young lad who has a gift (highly illegal) of reading people’s memories, inherited from his late mother. After the death of his parents, he comes to London from Essex, where he joins a pact (i.e. a gang) which hunts The Lady, i.e. palladium, which the Order needs. The story takes a reasonably predictable path, as Simon and Lucien, the leader of the gang, concoct a plan to bring down The Order by clever means. However, what makes this novel different is Smaill’s use of music. Smaill has had formal musical training and she puts that to good use in this book. Since The Allbreaking, communication is as much by music and singing than by words. We see how the gang use music to set a path and follow where they and others are going. People use it to communicate everyday issues and of course, the Order uses it to control the populace. I am not sure whether that is enough to win her the Man Booker Prize – I suspect not – but it does enliven an interesting post-apocalyptic story.

New design New site

I first started working on my website nearly twenty years ago, having taught myself HTML from a book and the then relatively few websites on the topic. When I discovered Javascript, a few changes were made. In particular, the country and author boxes were originally written in Javascript. I then discovered CSS, which made it easier for me to set an overall design and allowed me to write the country and author boxes in CSS. Apart from a few minor tweaks and this blog, that was the situation when the site finally moved from my computer onto the web some five years ago. I have never been particularly happy with the design and recognise that I have very limited design skills. My nearest and dearest, in particular, both said that the site needed a better design.

My technical expert said that I should move to WordPress. This had an advantage, as this blog is WordPress and I was therefore familiar with some of its advantages (and some of its peculiarities). My technical expert, who is both technologically and politically attuned, said that WordPress was like democracy – a terrible system but the only one we have. I initially shied away from WordPress, as it is a completely different system and would mean that every page would have to be converted manually which would have meant, with some 4000 pages, a lot of work, so I did nothing. However, it was also becoming apparent to me that the site was not responsive. (For those who do not know the term, it means able to resize when used on different screens. This is particularly important with the rise of tablets and mobile/cell phones.) This was bad for the user. It also meant lower Google rankings as Google now ranks responsive sites higher than non-responsive ones.

I finally contacted a local web designer to assist me but they were, unfortunately, less than helpful, wanting a lot of money without any clear idea of what they could do. Fortunately, I soon found Apple Green and Stephanie Boucher was able to design a far better WordPress-based site. I anticipated that transferring the data would take a month or so but, unfortunately it has taken much longer, with the usual distractions that life brings, such as lawns to be mown, places to be visited and books to be read. However, finally the new site is finished and up and running.

Apart from the effort in transferring the data and WordPress’ occasional annoying quirks, the other disadvantage is that it is a PHP-based system and not an HTML-based system, though, of course, PHP uses HTML. That means that the URLs all change. I hate sites that change their URLs so I am very sorry to have to do it. My apologies to anyone who has the old site linked or bookmarked. Forwarding individual pages to their equivalent on the new site would have had to be done by hand and I certainly am not not going to do that. Another disadvantage of WordPress is that if you load it into the root of a directory, it deletes everything else in that directory. This means that you either have to load it into a sub-domain (and then later transfer it) or find a new domain. Fortunately, I own a couple of other themodernnovel domains. Given that the URLs were going to change anyway, changing the domain did not seem to pose any additional burden for me or for users.

The old site is still up but with a warning to go to the new site. The old site will not be updated and will quietly disappear in a week or two, with a redirect to the new site. I hope you enjoy the new site. With so much cutting and pasting there may well be a few glitches but I shall iron them out over time. Navigation should be fairly self-evident and, if it is not, please refer to the FAQ. BTW, this blog will keep the same URL.

Thanks for reading my blog and website.

Oh, by the way, you will find the new site at themodernnovel.org.

Kathryn Davis: The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf

loaf

The latest addition to my website is Kathryn DavisThe Girl Who Trod on a Loaf. This is a first-class novel about the nature of art (in this case music) and how it intertwines with life. The story is told by Frances Thorn, a woman who, accordingly to her family, disgraced herself and is now a single mother of twin girls, bringing them up in Canaan, in upstate New York, working as waitress. She meets Helle Ten Brix, a Danish composer, who is living in Canaan with her niece and the niece’s husband. The two become close, not least because Helle is a lesbian and attracted to Frances. When Helle dies (at the beginning of the book), she leaves Frances an unfinished manuscript of an opera, a feminist rewriting of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf as well as various documents, diaries, etc about Helle’s early life. We soon learn that Helle is an unreliable narrator, inventing stories about herself and her family or, at least, exaggerating them. However, she uses these stories, both factual and otherwise, in her work. Frances gradually pieces together Helle’s life, while struggling with her own life (an adulterous affair). It is a superbly well-told story, which deserves to be better known.

Mikheil Javakhishvili: კვაჭი კვაჭანტირაძე (Kvachi)

kvachi

The latest addition to my website is Mikheil Javakhishvili‘s კვაჭი კვაჭანტირაძე (Kvachi). This is a book I have long been wanting to read, even since I read about it in Donald Rayfield’s essential The Literature of Georgia. We must be grateful to Dalkey Archive Press for publishing it (in a translation by Rayfield) in English, in their excellent Georgian literature series, which has revealed already several first class novels. This one tells the story of a loveable but thoroughly scurrilous rogue. His birth is auspicious – the obligatory thunderstorm – and he is precocious. His first activities consist of sleeping with women and charging them, starting with his (married) landlady but he soon gravitates to more sophisticated scams. He builds up a gang, which helps and accompanies him, and they are happy to rob poor widows and rich men alike. They move away from Kutaisi to Tbilisi, then to Odessa and onto St Petersburg, where our hero becomes friendly with Rasputin and, thus, with the Tsar. This, naturally, gives him access to a whole range of sophisticated scams. The gang moves on to the rest of Europe – Warsaw, Vienna, Paris and London – before returning to Russia to mastermind the murder of Rasputin and both the February and October Russian revolutions. He is imprisoned numerous times but manages to escape, he is almost killed on many occasions but escapes. He falls in love with far too many women (his major weakness) and makes and loses fortunes with monotonous regularity but we cannot help liking him. It is a wonderful book and long overdue in English.