Thea Astley: An Item from the Late News

item

The latest addition to my website is Thea Astley‘s An Item from the Late News. This is another first-class novel from Astley on the theme of the different outsider arriving in a closed, small community and not fitting in. The outsider is known only as Wafer (we learn that his real name is Lionel). He saw his father killed by a doodlebug during World War II in London and since then he has had a mortal fear of The Bomb. He has come to the remote Queensland town of Allbut in order to build the perfect bomb shelter, which he sets out to do. But he does not fit in. He is friendly towards the despised aborigines, he is helpful to strangers and does not really drink. He even becomes close with other outsiders, Smiler Colley and his thirteen year old daughter and Moon, who may be from Louisiana and who is a fossicker, i.e someone who indulges in amateur and often illegal gem hunting. It is Moon that recognises the gemstone that Wafer has found as a valuable corundum and he wants to know where he found it. Wafer can neither remember nor does he even care. However, the rest of the townsfolk, who want to revive the town, a former successful mining town, are determined that Wafer should show them where he found it. The story is narrated by a wayward young woman, Gabby Jerrold, and we know from very early on in the book that this is not going to turn out well. Astley gives us a first-class novel on the outsider vs the community theme.

Azza Filali: Les intranquilles [Uncertain Times]

intranquilles

The latest addition to my website is Azza Filali‘s Les intranquilles [Uncertain Times]. While not a great novel by any means, it is certainly a fascinating portrait of Tunisia after the Revolution, showing that the revolution has essentially failed and replaced one lot of crooks/oppressors by another lot. We follow a small number of Tunisians who are caught up in the events during and immediately after the revolution. With the exception of the prostitute with the heart of gold, most of the other characters are in some way compromised, either by being associated with the old regime, by being outright crooks or being Islamists, wishing to make Tunisia a strict Muslim country under sharia law. We follow the main characters in a bank – the CEO, the personnel director and chief accountant – who have been pillaging the bank for their own benefit and now have to pay the bills. We also meet the daughter of the personnel director who, initially, is in favour of the revolution but becomes disillusioned, an Islamist who has been in prison for fifteen years just prior to the revolution, but seems to be no happier outside prison and an old phosphate miner who is compromised by having been associated with the people in power under the old regime. It is not a happy picture and shows a sad state of affairs in Tunisia, with the revolution having achieved little for the benefit of the Tunisian people.

The best-selling novel of all time

Not the best-selling novel of all time - maybe
Not the best-selling novel of all time – maybe

What is the best-selling novel of all time? According to this article in the TLS, till recently, Wikipedia said it was A Tale of Two Cities. As the article states, this was added to Wikipedia, removed, add, removed… It now seems to have been removed and Wikipedia offers us Lord of the Rings, with the qualification that it is impossible to verify for many books as there no reliable sales figures. While it may been removed from the English Wikipedia, it still remains in others: Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, for example (I have not checked them all.) However, this is not going to stop others from making claims. The Guardian suggests Fifty Shades of Grey may the UK’s bestseller but maybe not. It may be The Da Vinci Code . No mention of Dickens. This list and this one go for A Tale of Two Cities, with no source given.

But what do other countries think? FNAC in France has Don Quixote as the best-selling novel of all time, followed by Harry Potter and Dickens in third place. This list favours Dickens, however, as does this one.

Dickens seem to win in Germany and here as well, beating out Le Petit Prince. The Spanish, probably copying English-language sources, favour Dickens: here and here but this Peruvian site favours Harry Potter and this Spanish site favours The Lord of the Rings. Interestingly, this site lists the 10 most read books and the top novel is Don Quixote followed by, interestingly enough, Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude).

The Portuguese favour Don Quixote here (though putting The Count of Monte Cristo second) and here while the Brazilians are Dickens fans. The Italians also like Don Quixote: here and here, probably from the same sources as the Portuguese ones, though Dan Brown tops this list.

So what are we to conclude from this? The answer is simple. We do not have a clue what is the best selling/most read novel of all time. With the possible exception of Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude), none of the candidates is or is likely to be on this site. The best-selling novel will be one that has been translated into many languages, pirated numerous times (and well before e-books), appeared on many school/college required reading lists and is still much read. But which one of those mentioned, we do not know.

Azza Filali: Outann [Outann]

Outann

The latest addition to my website is Azza Filali‘s Outann [Outann]. This is a Tunisian novel set shortly before the Tunisian Revolution and showing a country ripe for change. Virtually all the characters in the book are miserable. Many of them are engaged in dubious, usually criminal activities. Many of them are divorced or heading that way. The heroine is Michkat, a woman lawyer, who works for a corrupt and rich lawyer. When they argue over a divorce he has asked her to take on – his own – she loses her temper and walks out on him. As he is the head of the Tunis lawyers’ association, she is unable to find another job. Meanwhile we meet Rached, also a lawyer, who hates his job, his wife and his life. He meets an old school friend, Mansour, who offers him a very well paid job. He accepts and his task is to find a suitable temporary rented house in a village near Bizerte. The one he does find is not available for rent and is owned by Michkat’s father. However, the caretaker is prepared to rent it illegally as Michkat’s father never visits and Michkat only comes occasionally. The house turns out to be a temporary refuge for a man, Naceur, who has been engaged in criminal activities and is to be smuggled out of the country on a false passport and Schengen visa. Michkat does turn up and recognises both Mansour and Naceur from her time as a criminal lawyer. Inevitably things go wrong. Filali, however, is more interested in showing her country and its sad state, with corruption rife, the poor getting poorer (virtually the only activity in the village near Bizerte is smuggling, both of goods and people) and everyone thoroughly miserable. The country is ripe for revolution but we know how well that went.

Espido Freire: Melocotones helados [Frozen Peaches]

melocotones

The latest addition to my website is Espido Freire‘s Melocotones helados [Frozen Peaches]. This is a complex multi-generational novel which won the Premio Planeta in 1999. The first generation focuses on Esteban, who fought on the Franco side in the Spanish Civil War. At the end of the war, he goes to Desrein (all town names are fictitious)to visit and console the wife of his fallen comrade, José, and falls for the wife’s fifteen-year old daughter, Silvia. They ask him to stay to help set up the café they own, which he does but he finally returns home to Antonia, the woman he had met back home in Duino. They marry, run a bakery in nearby Victo and have three children: two boys, Miguel and Carlos, and a daughter, Elsa. When she is nine, Elsa disappears. She is never found. We are given various suggestions for her disappearance and only find out at the end of the novel what happened to her. Freire make a big point about how she has been forgotten, despite the fact that both Miguel and Carlos have daughters called Elsa. We follow these two Elsas – big Elsa, Miguel’s daughter, and little Elsa. Little Elsa is a misfit and joins a cult while big Elsa is very conventional and becomes a portrait painter. When big Elsa is seemingly targeted by the cult, she leaves and go and stays with her grandfather (now a widower) in Duino, where he now lives. She struggles to adapt, particularly as her faithful but boring boyfriend is not much help. Meanwhile little Elsa has fled from the cult and is prepared to testify against them, a very risky business. The novel is far too complex to begin to explain in a short paragraph but Freire’s ultimate point is that we are turning in on ourselves and the sense of community, of family and remembering those we have lost is disappearing. It is a very fine novel which sadly, has not been translated into English.

C. E. Morgan: The Sport of Kings

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The latest addition to my website is C E Morgan‘s The Sport of Kings. This novel has already received lots of rave reviews, generally deservedly so. It is a first-class novel about sex, racial politics, horse racing, incest, South vs North (in the USA), families, the failure of the American Dream and the striving to be or get the best, at whatever cost, particularly if that cost is borne by others. We follow two families. The first is the Forges, a family that came over to Kentucky shortly after the Revolutionary War and which has since done very well for itself, owning lots of land. At that start of the novel, in the early 1950s, the patriarch, John Henry, is totally convinced of the inherent superiority of himself and his family and looks down on others, including the poor whites, African-Americans and women. He has one son, Henry, whom he intends to follow in his footsteps. Henry, however, is interested in breeding horses, a task John Henry considers fit for only white niggers. When John Henry dies, Henry gets his wish. Though his marriage is as unsuccessful as his father’s, he does have a daughter, Henrietta, who shares his love for horses. She also has a love for sex with virtually any man she can find. This includes Allmon Shaughnessy who represents the other side of the tracks. He had a white father, who had disappeared, when he was young and a black mother, who died of lupus. He had been in trouble, twice serving prison sentences, but had received training in horse grooming as part of a prison rehabilitation programme, so is hired by the Forges. When a filly is born who looks like being a champion racer, Henry makes a deal with Allmon which will get Allmon some money and a couple of the filly’s future foals, in return for keeping away from Henrietta. The filly does well. Allmon, Henrietta and Henry do not. This is a superbly written novel, full of passion, intensity, sex and horses which, while not quite the Great American Novel that has been suggested, is certainly a very fine novel and will propel Morgan to the forefront of US novelists.

James Salter: All That Is

allthatis

The latest addition to my website is James Salter‘s All That Is. This novel was published shortly before his death but thirty-four years after his last novel. The main character is Philip Bowman, born, like Salter, in 1925. Like virtually all the characters in the book – and there are a lot – he is not very successful at relationships and does not tend to stay very long in the same residence. His only marriage, to a posh girl from the Virginia horsey set, soon ends when she realises what we and her parents (divorced, of course) have long realised, namely that they are very different and incompatible. His subsequent relationships are no more successful but then nor are those of anyone else in this novel. He goes into the publishing business, starting as a publisher’s reader and then becoming an editor in a small but prestigious house, after having served in the navy during the war. Most of the novel is about the transience of his life, even though he essentially stays in the same job for most of his career, leaving us with a novel, while certainly not a bad one, seems itself to be a bit transient.

Antal Szerb: Utas és holdvilág (Journey by Moonlight)

moonlight

The latest addition to my website is Antal Szerb‘s Utas és holdvilág (Journey by Moonlight). This is a wonderfully written book about a man, Mihály, who struggles to cope with life and is obsessed with death. As a child, he had been part of a small group – a brother and sister, Éva and Tamás, who played strange, often sexual games, were generally unconventional, though they went through a religious phase and were obsessed with the idea of suicide, as well as two other boys, Ervin, a Jew who later became a Catholic priest, and Janós. All four boys and, later, young men, were in love with Éva, including her brother, who later committed suicide. Mihály goes to work in his father’s firm, which he does not enjoy, and marries Erzsi, whom he has lured away from her husband, the philanderer, Zoltán. The book opens while they are on their honeymoon in Venice. There he encounters Janós which brings back his past and he – possibly accidentally, but probably not – abandons Erzsi and drifts around Italy, struggling to find both Éva and himself, while becoming obsessed with death and quite unsure of who he is and what he wants to be. He meets a series of strange people, including Ervin, now a very holy priest. He even meets Éva a couple of times but that relationship is never going to work. It is a first-class book about a man struggling with his life and essentially failing to come to grips with it.

Han Kang: 채식주의자 (The Vegetarian)

vegetarian

The latest addition to my website is Han Kang‘s 채식주의자 (The Vegetarian). This book won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. It is a disturbing but superbly written novel. Yeong-hye, a Korean woman, married to Mr. Cheong, is seemingly a good and conventional wife. Suddenly, as the result of an unpleasant dream (she will have several more) gives up all animal products and becomes not just a vegetarian but a vegan. She loses weight, her complexion turns sallow and she refuses to have sex with her husband, as he smells of meat. A serious fight over the issue at a meal at her family’s house leads to her hospitalisation. The next section takes us two years forward, and the focus is on Yeong-ho, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, who is sexually attracted to Yeong-hye and wants to paint her naked body. Naturally this does not work out well. The final section finds Yeong-hye in an institution, refusing to eat as she thinks she is a tree. The novel is not, I think, sending any message about vegetarianism, lack of conformity or even insanity but, rather, is a superb attempt to portray, in a novel, a series of images which may be disturbing but are also original and forceful. It definitely deserved the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

Paola Capriolo: Il doppio regno (The Dual Realm)

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The latest addition to my website is Paola Capriolo‘s Il doppio regno (The Dual Realm). This is another strange novel from Capriolo. It is a diary written by an Italian woman aged around thirty who does not remember her name and has something of a hazy recollection of the events that led to this situation. She does remember that she was at a seaside resort towards the end of the season when she saw a tidal wave approaching the shore. She fled the town, up a hill, and came to a large, single-storey building, which turned out to be a hotel. She finds it difficult to communicate, because of her stress and cannot report the tidal wave. She is offered a room and lies down on the bed, not waking up till the next morning. Then she finds that she is the only guest at the hotel, that no-one seems to know what happened in the town, there are no newspapers and none of the staff seems to know where the exit is. She stays there for what seems a long time, gradually losing her memory of her previous life and her sense of self, till, one day, three other guests arrive. She eventually tells them of her situation and when they plan to leave, they offer to take her with them. But can she leave and will they be able to do so? It is a fine if disturbing novel about identity and reality and who we are and how we communicate and has actually been translated into English.