End of year review

I have never really understand why others have their annual reviews early in December. Don’t they read any books between then and the end of the year? I certainly do. Like others, I have been browsing the end of year reviews – you can catch up with them at Large-Hearted Boy. I was surprised to read many reviewers saying what a good year it has been – at least in the English speaking world as other cultures seem not to do this sort of thing so much. Frankly, I have not been too impressed.

Ellis Sharp - an author I enjoyed
Ellis Sharp – an author I enjoyed

On this side of the pond, we have had Kazuo Ishiguro‘s disappointing The Buried Giant, Jonathan Coe‘s OK but not much more than that Number 11, Rupert Thomson‘s OK but not much more than that Katherine Carlyle and Jeanette Winterson‘s interesting but certainly not brilliant reimagining of Shakespeare – The Gap of Time. I shall probably get round to Pat Barker‘s Noonday, Tom McCarthy‘s Satin Island, David Mitchell‘s Slade House and Kate Atkinson‘s A God in Ruins but none is high on my list. I did, however read three books by Ellis Sharp, all published this year and enjoyed all three. I am well aware that they are not everyone’s cup of tea but they are certainly more original than most works coming out of this country. All power to the two small publishers, Zoilus and Jetstone, that published them.

Across the Irish Sea, I enjoyed Anne Enright‘s The Green Road. I will probably get round to Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone and Paul Murray‘s The Mark and the Void.

Another book I enjoyed
Another book I enjoyed

Over the pond I read Jonathan Franzen‘s Purity and quite enjoyed it. I did not enjoy Mark Danielewski‘s The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May but I don’t think many people did. I did, however, enjoy Alexandra Kleeman‘s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. Not much else from over there has seemed particularly exciting this year. I might get round to Man Booker favourite Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life but I probably won’t. I might also get round to the winner, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, from Jamaica but I might not. I have read three on the longlist but none on the shortlist. Nothing really inspired me.

A book that was called Woman when I read it
A book that was called Woman when I read it

I have managed to avoid any book with the word girl in the title. No Girl Gone , Girl on the Train, Luckiest Girl Alive, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Girl Online, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, The Good Girl, The Boston Girl, The Girl from Krakow, Not That Kind of Girl and A Danish Girl, though last year I read Ismail Kadare‘s E penguara: E penguara: Requiem për Linda B. (A Girl in Exile) in French and translated the title as A Banished Woman (woman, not girl) but now see that Vintage will be publishing it in May 2016 as A Girl in Exile. What happened to women?

As for books in other languages, things have been a bit more impressive.

Another worthwhile book from Enrique Vila-Matas
Another worthwhile book from Enrique Vila-Matas

I did not see much praise in the end of the year lists for Enrique Vila-MatasKassel no invita a la lógica (The Illogic of Kassel) which appeared in Spanish in 2014 but in English this year. Not his best but another fine work. Some people enjoyed his Because She Never Asked but that is only one of the stories in his Exploradores del abismo [Explorers of the Abyss], which I did read this year and particularly enjoyed Because She Never Asked. I read Kamel Daoud‘s Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter Investigation) last year in French but it came out in English this year and was certainly worthwhile.

I tried – I really did try – to enjoy Elsa Ferrante. Not bad but what was all the fuss about? I managed to read the first two but gave up at that point. Am I missing something? It would appear so but there seem to be so many better books. Knausgaard I have long since given up. I think he produced another book in English this year. If so, I did not read it and almost certainly never will. I don’t get him, either.

One of the books from a small publisher I really enjoyed
One of the books from a small publisher I really enjoyed

Inevitably, it is the small publishers that most impressed me. I read and enjoyed Alisa Ganieva‘s Праздничная гора (The Mountain and the Wall), Leila S Chudori‘s Pulang (Home) and Fiston Mwanza Mujila‘s Tram 83 (Tram 83), all from the very wonderful Deep Vellum. Cuban Books gave us a few Cuban translations and I read and enjoyed Mirta Yáñez‘s Sangra por la herida (Bleeding Wound). Twisted Spoon published Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic‘s Gotická duše (Gothic Soul) this year. Hardly a new book – it first appeared in Czech in 1900 – but worth the wait.

A first-class Georgian novel
A first-class Georgian novel

I would like to mention five books that particularly impressed me this year. The first is a book that I had been wanting to read for some time and it finally appeared in English this year: Mikheil Javakhishvili‘s Kvachi. It was a real treat to read and we can only heartily thank Dalkey Archive Press for bringing out so many Georgian works, which do not seem to be getting the publicity they deserve.

Eugene Vodolazkin‘s Лавр (Laurus), was a wonderful tale of medieval Russia, superbly translated by Lisa Hayden (of Lizok’s Bookshelf , the essential blog on Russian literature) and published by another publisher worthy of attention: OneWorld, who also published Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter Investigation) and the Man Booker prizewinner, Marlon James’A Brief History of Seven Killings.

I read Héctor Aguilar Camín‘s Morir en el golfo (Death in Veracruz) in Spanish a while ago and I thought it an excellent novel. Thirty-five years after it was first published in Spanish, it has now appeared in English from Schaffner Press, a small Tucson-based publisher. I know very little about their other authors but I am glad to see that they have published the Camín. Sadly, it has been barely noticed.

I was very glad that another small press, the Dorothy Project, published the first novel by Austrian writer Marianne Fritz to have been published in English, Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse (The Weight of Things). Inevitably, it only got a few reviews and barely a mention in end of year lists.

And finally, Máirtín Ó Cadhain‘s Irish-language classic Cré na Cille (The Dirty Dust) made it into English. Read the book! See the film!

An excellent Russian novel yet to be published in English
An excellent Russian novel yet to be published in English

In late winter/early spring, I did my annual one-nationality-readathon which, this year, was Russia. It confirmed to me that there is a lot of interesting work coming out of Russia. I particularly enjoyed Vasily Golovanov‘s Остров или Оправдание бессмысленных путешествий [Island or A Justification for Meaningless Travel], which has yet to appear in English. I hope an English-language publisher does pick it up.

One book I read this year that has not been translated into English but almost certainly will be is Mathias Enard‘s Boussole [Compass]. It was not the same as Zone (Zone) by any means but you can see the similarities.

Not too much excites me of the announced books for next year. You can see some examples here, here, here and here. Two books that I have read in the original are coming out in English next year and I can recommend both. Clemens Meyer‘s Im Stein (Hearts Like Diamonds) has been translated by Katy Derbyshire of the blog LoveGerman Books and one of my favourite books of last year, Rafael ChirbesEn la orilla (On the Edge) is coming out in January.

For me, the biggest effort of the year has been converting my website to WordPress which has been an interesting experience. WordPress has lots of advantages but some strange quirks which I am slowly learning and/or adapting to. One advantage has been a link checker plug-in. I am well aware that you can get a link checker for any site but a built-in one makes it much easier. To my surprise/horror, I have 22219 links on my site. This is not as much as it may seem, as many of them are internal. For example, every page has a set of links at the top of the page to show you where you are and how you can move up to a higher level. Even so I have a lot and, to my greater surprise, quite a lot (several thousand) were either broken (i.e. led nowhere) or were redirects. Redirects mean that the link was automatically redirected. This might be a simple redirect to the same page but with a different URL, e.g. because the site has moved from http to https or they have changed their main page (guardian.co.uk to theguardian.com) or generally redesigned their site but had a redirect to the new page. However, it could also be a redirect to an error page (as you will get on my site if you enter an invalid URL), to a different page, often but not always the front page or a page which it tries to guess may be the right one, which sometimes it is and sometimes it is not (thank you, salon.com).

Several things surprised me. First of all, I was surprised at the number of sites which, like me, have not only redesigned their site but changed their URLs. Secondly, I was surprised at the number of sites that have died, from the interesting Finnish literary site www.kirjasto.sci.fi to, the past week, essortment.com, an encyclopedia-type site. Thirdly, I was surprised at the number of sites that have simply removed very interesting page from their websites. Fourthly, I remain surprised that every day, yes, every day, some site disappears, some site removes some pages, some site changes its URLs and/or some site has temporary difficulties (e.g. bandwidth exceeded, we are aware of the problem and are working on it). It is often ten-twelve sites a day. We have all known that the Internet is fluid and that sites come and go. Hosts like Geocities disappear or, like Yahoo, remove massive amounts of personal sites. Bloggers get bored, move on, die. However, seeing this every day brings home to me how impermanent the Internet is. Most books, I imagine, get saved somewhere, unless produced by a very small press, a vanity press or a self-publishing press, though this is presumably less so in this day and age of e-books. But websites, unless picked up by archive.org (which has a very English-language and, indeed, very North American bias) or something similar just disappear. Lots of good stuff is going.

Can Donald read?
Can Donald read?

I hope that you have enjoyed my main site and my blog and found some interesting books to read and that you have discovered lots of worthy gems here and elsewhere. I maintain that it is something of a golden age for quality novels, particularly if you are lucky enough to be able to read books in other languages. This end of the year review would not be complete without a big thank you to all the excellent bloggers out there, who provide me with much of the interesting information about and knowledge of books and authors, far more than I obtain from more mainstream sites. And, of course, a thanks to the authors for writing them and publishers for publishing them and, where appropriate, translators for translating them. May I wish you a Trump-free, posturing-Putin-free, World War III-free 2016 and, above all, lots of good reading of books from all over the world.

Marianne Fritz: Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse (The Weight of Things)

weight

The latest addition to my website is Marianne Fritz‘s Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse (The Weight of Things), the first novel by the Austrian writer Marianne Fritz to be translated into English, thirty-seven years after it was first published. The novel tells the story of Berta Schrei nee Faust. During World War II, she loses her three brothers and Rudolf, the father of her unborn child. Wilhelm Schrei, friend of Rudolf, brings her and her friend Wilhelmine the sad news. We soon learn that Wilhelm will marry Wilhelmine in 1960 but only later do we learn that he has first married Berta. Wilhelm was the chauffeur to a rich man and was often absent, leaving Berta with the two children, Rudolf, son of Rudolf and Berta, daughter of Wilhelm and Berta. Berta finds life and her children difficult to cope with. Rudolf has all sorts of problems and soon drags down Little Berta with him. By the end of the book, the two children no longer go to school but stay at home with their mother. We later learn that Berta is in a home, unable to speak. Wilhelmine and Wilhelm will visit her on their third wedding anniversary, which is also Berta’s birthday. This is a well-written tale of a woman who cannot cope with life and who is doubtless affected by her wartime sufferings and gradually simply gives up. We must be grateful to the Dorothy project for finally giving us a Fritz novel in English.

Amsterdam

DSCN0245

We spent the couple of days after Christmas in Amsterdam. As you can see at the left, much of our time was looking at works of art. This painting is, of course, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, from the Rijksmuseum. and I would estimate that there were around five hundred people in the room when I took it and I only just managed to take it when the woman next to me briefly stopped waving her arms around, pointing out details to her friend. Indeed, the whole city was packed as were the Van Gogh Museum and the Hermitage. The secret is to buy your ticket on-line before you go, otherwise you have to queue to buy your ticket, which can take up to an hour.

Schelterna

However, I did manage to visit what I was told was the best book shop in Amsterdam, Schelterna. You can see some of their books in the photo to the right. New books that the Dutch are reading include:

A F van de Heijden’s De Ochtengave (= The Morning Gift), a historical novel set in 1672, commissioned to commemorate the Treaties of Nijmegen, 330 years ago. As far as I can see only one of his books has been translated into English. Tonio, Een requiemroman was published this year as Tonio. A Requiem Memoir by Scribe in Melbourne. It is a tribute to his son who was killed in a car accident, aged twenty-one.
Dimitri Verhulst’s Bloedboek (= Blood Book) is his rewriting of some of the stories from the first five books of the Bible, which a Dutch newspaper described as a gruesome bible. Verhulst, a Belgian writer, has four books translated into English, with a fifth, De laatkomer, coming out this year as The Latecomer.
Jeroen Brouwers’ Het hout (= Wood) came out last year but has appeared in paperback this year and was being promoted. It is about sexual abuse in a Catholic boys’ boarding school. His Bezonken rood is available in English as Sunken Red.
Connie Palmen’s Jij zegt het (= You Say It) is about the Ted Hughes/Sylvia Plath relationship from the Hughes’ point of view. Two of her novels have been translated into English: her first, De Wetten as The Laws and her second De Vriendschap as Friendship.
Gustaaf Peek’s Godin, held (= Goddess, Hero) is about the long-term love affair between Tessa and Marius. They met at school and continue their affair, despite both marrying other partners. The story starts with Tessa’s death and works backwards. Apart from one story, he has not been translated into English. This book also came out in 2014 but appeared in paperback this year.
My Dutch friends tell me that Thomas Rosenboom’s Publike Werken (= Public Works) is one of the best recent Dutch novels. It actually came out in 1999 but was released as a film this year so is in the news and in the book shops. It is a complex story, set in the late nineteenth century, involving two cousins – one a violin maker in Amsterdam whose houses developers want to buy and the other a pharmacist involved in certain shady dealings – who get together, nominally to help some peat diggers emigrate to the United States. I do not need to tell you that neither this nor any of his other works have been translated into English.
Ernest van der Kwast’s De ijsmakers (= The Icemakers) is about an Italian family that spends the summer in Rotterdam but the winters in an Italian valley where much of their time seems to be spent in having sex. But then one of them Giovanni, has to choose – poetry or ice cream? Of course, it is not available in English but is coming out in German next year.
Nicolien Mizee’s Toen kwam moeder met een mes (= Then Came Mother With a Knife) came out ten years ago. The sequel, De Halfbroer (= The Half-Brother) came out this year and it is a complicated saga of Marly Sanders’ family.
Maarten ‘t Hart’s Magdalena, a novel about his mother, also came out this year. Four of his novels have been translated into English.

They are also reading foreign books: Javier MaríasAsí empieza lo malo (Thus Bad Begins) (out in English next year), Almudena Grandes‘s Las tres bodas de Manolita (= The Three Weddings of Manolita) (not availabe in English), David Mitchell‘s Slade House, Rupert Thomson‘s Katherine Carlyle, Leila S ChudoriPulang (Home), Colm Tóibin’s Nora Webster, Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone, Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s L’île du Point Némo (= The Island of Nemo Point) (not yet in English), and even Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire and Jordi Llobregat’s El secret de Vesalius (also not available in English). I do not have to mention Franzen, Ferrante, Knausgaard and Harper Lee, though I will.

It is amazing that there are several novels available in Dutch which are not available in English but I have said this sort of thing before and will doubtless say it again. And, of course, wouldn’t it be nice if more Dutch novels came out in English?

Paola Capriolo: Il nocchiero (The Helmsman)

nocchiero

The latest addition to my website is Paola Capriolo‘s Il nocchiero (The Helmsman). This tells the story of a helmsman, Walter. The job consists of driving a barge from a port, nominally containing animals, though he has never seen the cargo and does not know what is really in the hold. He takes it to an offshore island, where there is a villa, which once had been grand but is now boarded up and closed to visitors. There, he is given charge of an empty barge, which he takes back. This happens every night. In the evening, before work, he goes and sits on the terrace of a café and has a drink, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. One day, when alone, he notices through the window of the café, the arm of a woman wearing a bracelet that looks to have the form of a snake. He sees the arm again and, eventually, enters the café but the woman has gone. The waiter tells him that she has been sitting with a man and he called her Carmen. She does not reappear for a few days. When she finally does reappear, he again enters the café. This time she is there but he is not convinced that it is Carmen, particularly when she says that she is called Linda. They talk, then meet regularly and, finally, he proposes and is accepted. The marriage does not go well but, at the café, he meets a man claiming to be a count and the nephew of the former owners of the villa. He had been at the café previously with a woman called Carmen, but he has lost track of her. But is he really a count and their nephew? Is Linda Linda or is she Carmen? And who is Carmen? What is really in the hold of Walter’s barge and what is on the Island and in the Villa that the company is so determined no-one should see? Capriolo keeps us guessing and gives no easy answers but she tells a good tale of mystery.

N. Scott Momaday: The Ancient Child

child

The latest addition to my website is N. Scott Momaday‘s Ancient Child, another superb novel about Native American culture from Momaday. The story focuses on two quasi-outsiders. Grey is half Kiowa and half Navajo but has been brought up by her Navajo mother. She returns, aged nineteen, to her Kiowa family to assist her ageing great-grandmother, Kope’mah, and the two soon establish a bond, in particular both having visions about Billy the Kid and Set-angya, a Native American who resisted the whites and was killed doing so. Locke Setman, known as Set, was an orphan, with his mother dying giving birth to him and his father dying when he was seven. After some time in an orphanage, he was adopted by a white couple. He has since become a celebrated painter. When he gets a telegram about the impending death of his grandmother, Kope’mah, he is surprised as he knew nothing about her. He does go but arrives too late but does meet his family, including Grey. We then follow Set as his career develops while his relationship does not. We also follow Grey as she continues to have visions of Billy the Kid, about whom she writes, and develops as a medicine woman, medicine she will use to summon Set back to her. Momaday tells an excellent story, against a background of Native American myth and legend as well as the legend of Billy the Kid, as well as raising important issues about identity and belonging, and about art and artists.

Eugene Vodolazkin: Лавр (Laurus)

laurus

The latest addition to my website is Eugene Vodolazkin‘s Лавр (Laurus), a superb Russian novel telling the story of a fifteenth century healer, mystic and quasi-saint. Arseny, as he is initially called, though he changes his name a few times, and ends up being called Laurus, lives with his grandfather, Christofer, from the age of seven, when his parents die in the plague. Christofer is a healer and a spiritual man and Arseny follows in his footsteps. When Christofer dies, we follow Arseny’s career, from his relationship with Ustina, who has escaped the plague and who dies in childbirth to his self-sacrifice in deliberately helping plague-stricken villages. He goes to Pskov, where he becomes a holy fool and then travels to Jerusalem with an Italian clairvoyant. Back in Pskov, he resumes his healing before becoming a recluse, first in a monastery and then in a forest, away from people. However, he cannot escape his role of helping people. Vodolazkin tells a first-class story, showing full sympathy to and understanding of Arseny and his ways, his close contact with nature but, more particularly, with God. He also gives us a colourful picture of late fifteenth century Russia but never mocks it or puts it down, but shows it as it was.

Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud: القرصان (The Corsair)

corsair

The latest addition to my website is Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud‘s القرصان (The Corsair), the first Qatari novel on my website. It essentially tells the story of the pirate Erhama bin Jaber, born in what is now Kuwait but brought up in Qatar. The action takes place in the early nineteenth century when the British are trying to control the Persian Gulf area, to make it safe for trade between India, Iran, Southern Arabia and Africa. The book tells the tales of Erhama’s exploits. He is cruel and ruthless but one of the few honourable people in the book. Virtually, everyone else – the British, the Persians, the Egyptians, the East India Company and its employees, the Al-Khalifas (then as now rulers of Bahrain), the Wahhabis, who are just coming into power, and other assorted Arabs – are, on the whole, dishonest, corrupt, venal and entirely focussed on their own narrow agendas, with no concern for the sufferings of others, particularly the poor native inhabitants. Erhama has a personal vendetta against the Al-Khalifas who, he feels, cheated him out of money but is happy to make deals with others, including the British. However, when they all betray him, even including his own son, he takes his revenge. It is an excellent swashbuckling tale, almost entirely plot-driven, and introduces us to a character and period and place of history of which most Westerners will be ignorant.

Why haven’t I been invited to the party? or why is British publishing so posh and white

The first part of the title is what was used in the print edition of the Guardian in this article while the second part, as you will see, is what has been used in the online version. It was prompted by the fact that World Book Night’s 2016 selection was entirely books written by whites. It consists of a series of contributions by various people as to why British publishing is so posh and white and what can be done about it. Not surprisingly the contributors invariably take the view that this is a very much the case and something needs to be done. While I certainly do not dispute the basic premise of their arguments, I think the situation is more nuanced than they suggest.

Let us look first at the Word Book Night books. The organisers point out that the books were chosen by the publishers, not them. If I am a publisher asked to contribute books to World Book Night (which involves giving books away for free) there are going to be three reasons why I am going to give away these books.

1) I have a whole stack that I cannot sell and might as well give away
2) I have a new author whom I want to promote
3) I have an existing author who is not selling as well as s/he should/used to and maybe this will give a kickstart to sales of this book or, at least, bringing the author’s name back into the limelight

I highly doubt that there will be any other motive, be it racism, sexism or anything else that drives the decision. Looking at the books, I have read one – The Rotters Club. It was first published in 2001 so I am guessing is not selling very well at the moment. You can get a used copy for 1p from a well-known online book shop, where it is ranked number 212,252 in sales. In other words, the publisher had a whole load spare. Of the others I have heard of Band of Brothers but not read it. It is also available for 1p and also was published in 2001. I have heard of Carol Ann Duffy but not read her. However, poetry, as we know, does not sell well. I have not heard of the others. So no conspiracy here, just a desire by individual publishers to offload a bunch of books. Indeed, the contributors should be flattered that no BAME (the term they use – it stands for Black, Asian and minority ethnic) writers are included, as this implies the publishers are not trying to offload them.

That the publishing industry is dominated by posh white people is probably true. We have seen this issue raised in a whole range of other fields: Parliament and the police, for example. You could, of course, also point out the lack of representation of other groups: women, LGBT, state school-educated, disabled and so on. But with books it is more subjective.

80% of the population of England and Wales is white British but the remaining 20% are not all BAME. Indeed, this report suggests it is more likely around 12%. The big issue with UKIP is EU immigration and most of them will be white. There are, for example, nearly 700,000 Poles in the UK. White people, if they read books at all, are going to read books by and about white people. That means that publishers, many (though, thankfully, not all) of whom are in the business to make money, are going to publish books that appeal to the largest audience, which is white.

I read more books than most and have probably read more books from other countries than most people. I read books that I want to read but, I must admit, I do at times read books that I feel that I ought to read, some of which I enjoy and some of which I do not. I have just added the 500th English book to my website. Yes, I have read and enjoyed books by Monica Ali, Hari Kunzru, Hanif Kureishi, Helen Oyeyemi, Zadie Smith and other BAME writers but the overwhelmingly amount of English books on my site were written by white authors and will continue to be so. I will not deny that I feel more comfortable reading white writers from the UK, as their experience and concerns are more akin to mine. I can enjoy, for example, African or Arab writers from African and Arab countries but then I can appreciate them as exotic and different. When I read BAME writers from England, writing about England, I recognise that they are writing about my country but I do not fully recognise their experience, which is removed from mine but not removed enough to be exotic. Is this a form of racism? Almost certainly, but it is almost certainly one all but the most saintly are guilty of. And if I, who consciously makes an attempt to read those writers, feel this way, I suspect many people do. I shall continue to make an attempt to read such writers and will enjoy many of their works but I am certain that I will read more white English writers.

Xenophobia is not, I suspect, a minority experience. Donald Trump may have taken it to a new level but 35% of Republican voters share his views and I have no doubt that many other Republicans and, indeed, Democrats feel a certain degree of xenophobia i.e. opposed to the mainly Hispanic immigration, uncomfortable with other ethnic minorities and so on. This is not, of course, unique to the USA. Marine Le Pen has just gained a large number of votes in France. Nigel Farage’s UKIP gained four million votes at the last election in the UK, far more than the Scottish Nationalists. The rise of ISIS and the refugee crisis have led to increased and more overt racism across Europe. I would point out that the most anti-Black racist comments I have heard were not made by white thugs but by ordinary Indians. In short, if we are honest, we are nearly all racist to some degree or other.

I fully share the aims of the writers in this article. It would be great so see more works by BAME writers, to have more BAME people in the publishing and literary establishment and for more people in this country to read works by BAME writers. However, as I have shown, it is more complicated than some of them imply. Many of the initiatives mentioned will be preaching to the converted. Others might interest readers who are more adventurous, probably a small minority. I read a lot and still find that there are thousands of books, yes, thousands, that I would love to read but will almost certainly never get around to reading. Friends who read less seem to stick to certain core books/authors or pick up recommendations from like-minded friends. They read Knausgaard or Ferrante or McEwan because their friends have read them and they read about them in the weekend newspaper reviews, not because the reviewers are racist but because they know that that is what their readers will be comfortable with. Yes, they review Monica Ali and Zadie Smith, because they are very good writers but can you see the Daily Telegraph reader even wanting to read Marlon James? No, nor can I?

So I wish all these people good luck with their initiatives and I shall certainly try to read BAME English writers, but they will have to take their place in the queue with the 217 other nationalities and the white English writers and, I am afraid, it is a long queue.

Jeanette Winterson: The Gap of Time

gap

The latest addition to my website is Jeanette Winterson‘s The Gap of Time. This is the first in a series of reimaginings of Shakespeare’s plays by well-known novelists. Winterson has chosen to do The Winter’s Tale, because, as she says, it is about an abandoned baby and she was abandoned as a baby. Winterson certainly reimagines the play. She sets it in the UK and the US in the present time. Leontes, the bad king, becomes Leo, a banker turned hedge fund owner. Hermione, his wife, becomes MiMi, a singer. Antigonus, who carries the baby to Bohemia (here New Bohemia, a New Orleans-type town) becomes Tony González, a gardener. Polixenes, the friend and later the enemy of Leontes, becomes Xeno a video game designer.

A succesful Shakespeare adaptation
A succesful Shakespeare adaptation

The book starts with the death of Tony González, killed by thugs (Exit, pursued by a bear in Act III of the play) and Shep (an African-American piano player) and his son, Clo (Shepherd and Clown in the play) rescue the baby, Perdita, and bring her up. Meanwhile, in London, Leo is insanely jealous of Mimi, thinking that she has been having an affair with Xeno and is pregnant with his child. This is the child that will become Perdita. Winterson has said that she wants to fill in the back stories and she does both with more of Leo’s jealousy and the happy life of Perdita, Shep and Clo. As in Shakespeare, it all ends more or less happily. However, as this is not one of Shakespeare’s best plays and Winterson’s attempts to fill in the gaps do not amount to much, it is not, in my view, a great success. An interesting attempt, perhaps, but not much more.

Anne Tyler's reimagining of The Taming of the Shrew
Anne Tyler’s reimagining of The Taming of the Shrew

This is by no means the first time this has been done. Numerous novels have used Shakespeare’s plots. The BBC produced four modern retellings of Shakespeare plays a few years ago. And Kiss Me, Kate remains one of my favourite musicals. Future novels in this series include Howard Jacobson doing The Merchant of Venice, Anne Tyler doing The Taming of the Shrew (but, presumably, not like Kiss Me, Kate – see cover at left), Margaret Atwood doing The Tempest, Tracy Chevalier doing Othello, Gillian Flynn doing Hamlet, Edward St Aubyn doing King Lear and Jo Nesbø doing Macbeth. Some seem more interesting than others. Now if they had someone doing Macbeth, with Alex Salmond as Macbeth and Nicola Sturgeon as Lady M or Michel Houellebecq doing Hamlet, that might be worth reading. Just a thought.

This is the five hundredth English novel on my site, a figure which is totally unjustified in terms of the relative value of the English novel compared to the novel of other nationalities but I make no apologies for it.

Cyprian Ekwensi: Beautiful Feathers

feathers

The latest addition to my website is Cyprian Ekwensi‘s Beautiful Feathers. This tells the story of Wilson Iyari, a man who runs a successful pharmacy and is head of the Nigerian-based Movement for African and Malagasy Solidarity but, as the Igbo proverb says, if he is not respected inside his own home, he is like a bird with beautiful feathers, wonderful on the outside but ordinary within. Wilson is married to the glamorous Yaniya and they have three children but the couple barely speak to one another. He feels that she neglects her wifely duties while she feels he neglects her and does not assist her relatives enough. At the start of the book, the Movement is about to have a major, peaceful demonstration on Nigerian Independence Day to call for greater African solidarity but Yaniya, feeling neglected, is having an affair, primarily to annoy Wilson. When he runs away with the children and the demonstration turns out to be anything but peaceful, things go very wrong for Wilson. Can he reconcile his public and private life, both to the satisfaction of Yaniy and himself? It is interesting that an African novel from 1963 does, sort of, raise the issue of women’s rights, i.e. the right to have her life of her own, beyond being just a wife and mother.