Ellis Sharp: Quin Again

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The latest addition to my website is Ellis Sharp‘s Quin Again. Though subtitled and other stories, it reads as a novel as all but one of the stories is about the same character, albeit with a different name on a couple of occasions. He is Elijah Doodles McMaster aka Douglas Moog. He is a habitual drug and alcohol user and not too successful either in his personal or professional life. Not surprisingly, as with most Sharp protagonists, he has a grim view of life. We follow his bleak view of London and elsewhere in the UK. We follow his failures in life. And we see life through his eyes and it is not a pretty view. The final and by far the longest story is called Quin Again and is about Clifford Tollinger, the protagonist of Sharp’s To Wetumpka. While he does have seemingly real though not very successful relationships with women, this is mainly about his imaginary relationship with the late novelist Ann Quin. Indeed, the story starts with his current girlfriend (who will later realise that she is a Lesbian) telling him of Quin’s death. His imaginings, which are inevitably anything but conventional, involve a sexual, intellectual and adulatory relationship with Quin. though, as he says at the end, in the meantime, I wait for Quin and death. This is the usual Ellis Sharp strangeness but, as long as you accept that he is not a conventional novelist, you will find that he is a thoroughly original writer and well worth reading.

Ellis Sharp: To Wetumpka

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The latest addition to my website is Ellis Sharp‘s To Wetumpka. This is, inevitably, another experimental novel from Sharp, with a bleak view of the contemporary world, albeit touched with some humour. Clifford Tollinger has decided to escape from London and go the dreary seaside town of Lowestoft, on the East coast of England. One day, he decides to take a bus out to Kessingland (which is mentioned W G Sebald‘s Die Ringe des Saturn. Eine englische Wallfahrt (The Rings of Saturn)). He walks on the beach when he sees what looks like an eel, in a rock pool. He throws a few stones at it but then is surprised when the eel – which he now calls a sea-snake – leaves the pool and starts to follow him. He tries to run away from it but the snake keeps pace with him, eventually attacking him and sliding its whole body down his throat. He manages to get to a doctor the next day and is taken first to Lowestoft Hospital and then is taken away to a military hospital in an underground bunker. He is operated on but when he wakes up, the snake has been removed but there no-one in the medical facility and his stomach has not been sewn up. He manages to get away and is finally taken to another military hospital where he is detained. This is, however, no science fiction story. There are no answers to what the snake is, what happened in the two hospitals and what happens to Tollinger, except that he ends up in Wetumpka, Alabama. It is a completely original novel about the grimness and strangeness of life which gives us no easy explanations and no tidy solution. I can thoroughly recommend it.

Anak Agung Pandji Tisna: Sukreni Gadis Bali (The Rape of Sukreni)

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The latest addition to my website is Anak Agung Pandji Tisna‘s Sukreni Gadis Bali (The Rape of Sukreni), the first Balinese novel on my website. Men Negara owns a food stall in a small Balinese village and uses her very attractive daughter, Ni Negari, to attract male customers. The police chief, Madé Tusan, who has come to charge Men Negara for illegally slaughtering a pig, falls for Ni Negari and forgets the charge, to the disgust of his local spy, brother-in-law of the owner of a rival food stall. Madé Tusan continues to woo Ni Negari but she is more interested in Ida Gdé, supervisor of the coconut pickers, who frequent Men Negara’s stall. However, when Sukreni, a relative of Ida Gdé, arrives, Madé Tusan finds her even more beautiful and, eventually, as the title tells us rapes her, with the connivance of Men Negara. The rape is devastating not just for Sukeni but has an effect on several of the main characters and eventually we end up with a Shakespearean battle royal, leaving most of the main characters dead, apparently an effect taken from traditional Balinese theatre. It is a simple but enjoyable tale of the price to be paid for greed, lust and treachery.

Enrique Vila-Matas: El viaje vertical [The Vertical Voyage]

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The latest addition to my website is Enrique Vila-MatasEl viaje vertical [The Vertical Voyage], one of his books that has yet to be translated into English though it has been translated into Catalan, Chinese, Hebrew and Norwegian. This is very different from his usual novels, in that it has few literary references and fewer post-modern touches. It tells the story of Federico Mayol, a man in his seventies, who had run a successful insurance company which he has handed over to his eldest son. At the start of the novel, his wife, Julia, on the day after their golden wedding anniversary, tells him that she wants him to leave their house and that she wants to live the rest of her life on her own, so that she can find out who she is, instead of just being his wife. He is naturally devastated and things get worse when his adored eldest son, tells him that he is tired of his wife and, worse, is tired of running the insurance company. Where is Federico to go? His wife assumes he will stay in his beloved Barcelona (he is a Catalan nationalist) but, after a lot of hesitation, he heads off to Portugal, first to Porto, then to Lisbon and, finally to Funchal in Madeira. He struggles, not very successfully, with trying to find who he is and how he is to spend the rest of his life, as he does does not like being on his own and knows only one person in Portugal, Pablo, his wife’s nephew, whom he has not seen for thirty years. Vila-Matas and his narrator, who suddenly introduces himself and becomes a character two-thirds of the way through the book, dig deep into Federico, cleverly showing him not only as he sees himself but as his family and others see him, and comparing him to others who are struggling even more with who they are and where they are going. A different book from Vila-Matas but still very worthwhile, though sadly not available in English.

Enrique Vila-Matas: Historia abreviada de la literatura portátil (A Brief History of Portable Literature)

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The latest addition to my website is Enrique Vila-MatasHistoria abreviada de la literatura portátil (A Brief History of Portable Literature). This novel (?) follows a format similar to several of his other works, in that he takes a literary idea – in this case portable literature – and sets off on a bizarre and often seemingly random journey through literature, often with only minimal connection to the subject at hand, bringing in a range of writers, many obscure and quite a few fictitious, though the fictitious ones are mixed in with the real ones. Portable literature involves a portable desk that some writers used, which can fold up to look like a case and then open up to be used as a desk, e.g. on a train. However, while this theme appears in the book, the society that is created by the Shandies (named after the novel Tristram Shandy) as the portables call themselves, is really a society of outcasts and misfits, ranging from the well-known such as Robert Walser and Salvador Dalí, the less-known such as Paul Morand and Jacques Rigaut and the fictitious, such as Werner Littbarski and Berta Bocado. They are haunted by doppelgängers called Odradeks (named after a character in a Kafka novella). They travel around. They have rules (no marriage, high sexuality, innovative and disinterest in grand statements, a tireless nomadism, a fraught coexistence with doppelgängers, a sympathy for negritude, and the cultivation of the art of insolence.) The author himself puts in a brief appearance. It is all great fun and will increase your knowledge of literature. it is, in my opinion, one of his better and more enjoyable books.

Lesia Daria: Forty One

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The latest addition to my website is Lesia Daria‘s Forty One. This is a novel by a woman born in the USA, of Ukrainian parents but currently living in the UK. Her heroine, Eva Holden, is, however, Polish, albeit with Ukrainian grandparents and living in the UK. Eva is an intelligent and educated woman but stuck at home with two young children while her husband, Harry, a lawyer, spends most of his time working in Eastern Europe. When he does phone, they often argue. They have a Plan, for Harry to make money with the good salary he is getting, free of UK tax, and then for him to come back to the UK as a partner in the law firm so that they can all live happily ever after. However, life is not so simple and Eva is resentful of being stuck in a house in Surrey. When her former French boyfriend appears on the scene, still interested, even though he is married, she is tempted. When they go to Poland for Christmas, another ex-boyfriend appears, also still interested and also married. At this point, things change dramatically for Eva and she struggles to cope with finding out what she really wants in life and how to get it. Daria tells her story very well and, from a slow start, we follow Eva as the randomness in her life (as she calls it) drags her further down and various unexpected life events disrupt her further.

Cyprian Ekwensi: Burning Grass

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The latest addition to my website is Cyprian Ekwensi‘s Burning Grass, a well-written and lively novel about a Fulani family in Nigeria. The patriarch, Mai, is afflicted with the wandering sickness, which means that, without warning or being able to stop himself, he suddenly disappears, wandering about, often chasing a bird. During his wanderings, he has various adventures, including coming across a village, deserted (because of sleeping sickness) except for one somewhat insane man; finding his oldest son, Jalla, who now has a thousand head of cattle and has done very well for himself, except that his younger brother Hodio, has stolen his wife (though he does not seem too concerned about this), and meeting a lion. Meanwhile, his youngest and favourite son, Rikku, learns to grow up as he deals with tax collectors, a cattle stampede and being kidnapped by a woman who claims to love him. Added to this is a conflict between Mai and a man who thinks he would be a better as a chief than Mai, and Shehu, known as The Killer, from whom Mai and his sons rescue a slave. It all makes for a colourful tale and a very enjoyable read.

Jonathan Coe sells better in France

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Jonathan Coe‘s novels apparently sell better in France. Coe claims that British people can see how current politics is impacting on the country every day in the papers and on TV rather than look for it in his novels. Ignoring his rather dubious grammar, I would argue that Coe is one of those English writers who, frankly, has got a bit stale. To be fair I have not read his last one Expo 58, let alone his new one Number 11, though I expect I will read both sooner or later. I thought What a Carve-Up! a brilliant satire on Thatcherism and I would have thought you would have to be British or have a detailed knowledge of things British to fully understand what he was getting at. However, his later works have been readable and no doubt give an interesting picture of Britain from a white middle-class perspective but I do not think that they offer any great insights nor are they great works. Helena Chadderton, a university lecturer in French says in the article Coe represents what the French expect from across the channel: storytelling, a mixture of the personal and the political, and that famous British humour. I would have thought many British people would look for that, too, but I am not sure that Coe is the first author they would go to find that. Indeed, for many British people, they would probably expect to find it on TV rather than in books. Of course, the whole article is more likely to be to drum up a bit of publicity for his new book.

Claude Ollier: Déconnection (later: Obscuration) (Disconnection)

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The latest addition to my website is Claude Ollier‘s Déconnection (later: Obscuration) (Disconnection). Ollier was one of the French writers associated with Editions de Minuit and the nouveau roman but he drifted away from them and set his own course. This novel consists of two stories told in parallel which may or may not be related, though it is not clear how, except both deal with war. The first concerns World War II. Martin is an eighteen-year old Frenchman who has been sent to work in Nuremberg as part of the Nazi forced labour programme. The work is hard but those forced labourers from the West have a certain amount of freedom to wander around the town and even get some pay. Those from the East do not have the same privileges. Apart from the work, Martin does have his problems, including persistent bombing raids by the Allies and being arrested for subversive activities.

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The other story tells of a man who has survived World War III – though neither he nor we know exactly what World War III involved. He was writing a radio play before the war and continues to do so, though he knows full well that it will never be performed. He gradually sees things change – he cannot get butter or meat and the phone and mail stop functioning. There is limited radio and TV but they give no information about the war. He observes, he writes and he waits. Ollier tells a story of two men caught up in a war, with no control over their situation, and shows how they adapt to it. Martin explores Nuremberg, while the unnamed narrator observes and looks at his immediate environment, the rural French countryside. Neither gives in.

Herta Müller: Herztier (The Land of Green Plums)

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The latest addition to my website is Herta Müller‘s Herztier (The Land of Green Plums). This is a remorselessly grim story of life in Ceausescu’s Romania, told by an unnamed female narrator. At the beginning of the book, she is sharing a room at college with five other young women, including Lola. Much of what she writes in the titial part of the novel comes from Lola’s diary. We learn that Lola comes from a very poor part of Romania. Her behaviour is often strange, borrowing things from her room-mates without permission. Lola often goes out to the factories at night, and has sex with men coming off the night-shift. She is also having an affair with the gym teacher. When she gets pregnant, she hangs herself. The narrator then becomes friendly with three young men. They have a hiding place in a summer house in the park, where they hide Lola’s diary, mildly subversive poems and photos, including those of the prison bus. After college, all four go to different parts of the country, where they have grim jobs and where they are pursued by Major Pjele, a secret service officer, who suspects them of subversion and harasses them. Life is unremittingly grim for the four but also for most other Romanians and Müller does not hold back in describing it, including the secret service agents at every corner, eating green plums. Eventually, three of them emigrate to Germany but their mental state does not seem to improve that much. This novel, perhaps Müller’s best-known of her novels about the horrors of life under the Ceausescu regime, is relentlessly miserable and humourless but very effectively told.