The latest addition to my website is Zofia Nałkowska‘s Granica (Boundary). This is a superb Polish feminist novel, first published in 1935, which surprisingly has only just been translated into English, eighty years after publication. It is considered a classic in Poland and should now be recognised as one in the English-speaking world. We learn from the very first paragraph that Zenon Ziembiewicz has been killed, murdered by Justyna Bogutówna, his former lover. The novel tells us the story of how this came to happen. Zenon had been a serious young man, somewhat in love with Elżbieta Biecka, who helped her twice-widowed aunt run her large house, which had been turned into flats. Zenon goes off to Paris to study but, on return, falls for Justyna, the nineteen-year old daughter of the cook on the estate where his father works as an overseer. The affair continues on and off but Justyna gets pregnant, while Zenon, now a successful newspaper editor, is more interested in Elżbieta. The novel shows many of the women as victims of men’s cruelty, drunkenness, irresponsibility and womanising as well as showing the often desperate situation of the poor, while telling an excellent story of love gone wrong.
The latest addition to my website is Michal Ajvaz‘s Zlatý věk (The Golden Age). This is a superbly original novel about an island off the coast of Africa, which though it has had contact with the rest of the world, has a completely different way of doing things. The narrator, an unnamed Czech, gives us a description of a people who generally shun technology, have no crime and whose main activity is enjoying the play of light on water. They mine precious stones from the back of their houses, set into a hill, which they sell to visitors. They have only one book (and only one copy of that book), which anyone can write in and which is thoroughly post-modernist, in that it seems to be a series of nested stories which goes off on all sorts of tangents. History, law, culture in the broadest sense and even relationships seem all relatively unimportant to them. The narrator uses the term effervescent chaos to describe their way of life but, whatever you call it, Ajvaz is clearly showing that there is a different way to look at the world from our conventional way and gives us a first-class novel to show this.
The latest addition to my website is Jean Boudou‘s La Quimèra [The Chimaera], one of the classics of the Occitan novel. Jean Boudou, as he is known in French, is known as Joan Bodon in Occitan. He wrote all his books in Occitan. None has been translated into English. This book is a historical novel set in the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century, about the Camisards, Occitans who revolted against the French government over high taxes and religious freedom. The revolt was linked to the treatment of the Huguenots, though many Catholics took part. The story is told by a young Occitan man who is initially called Pierre (Peter) but later renamed Simon. At the start of the story, he is a slave in Algeria, and tells his story of how he got there. He had trained as a teaching assistant but after the death of his girlfriend, fled to a monastery where he became a commensal, i.e. someone who ate and worked with the monks but was not a monk. He gets to know the commendatory abbot, Antoine de Guiscard. and it is de Guiscard who helps foment the revolt. It all ends badly, with Simon captured off a ship when fleeing France when the revolt goes wrong, but we have followed his long and complex adventures, a story Boudou tells very well, albeit with a strong Occitan bias, showing how his people have been badly treated over the years by the French and the contribution of Occitan culture to European culture.
The latest addition to my website is Thea Astley‘s Drylands, her last novel written when she was seventy-four. It is a bitter novel, whose main theme is how standards have fallen in Australia, with rampart sexism and brutality towards women, racism, corrupt politicians, wanton vandalism, the loss of a reading culture and a hard life for the poor, the aborigines and half-castes, the unconventional and women. Janet Deakin, a widow, who runs the local newsagent’s in the remote and small town of Drylands, has decided to write a book called A Book for the World’s Last Reader, which is the subtitle of Astley’s novel. We follow the stories of people in Drylands, particularly the ordinary people who are struggling to cope. Women are routinely beaten and abused. The young people tend to be rude and violent. Men, when they are not abusing women, are drinking and watching sports on TV. People’s dreams are shattered by life, by circumstances and by the cruelty of others. It is not a pretty picture and a sad legacy for Astley to leave.
The latest addition to my website is A L Kennedy‘s Serious Sweet. This is another first-class novel from Kennedy, telling the story over the course of one day of two people who are having serious difficulties coping with life. The first, Jon Sigurdsson, is a fairly senior civil servant. He is divorced, does not get on with his daughter as well as he would like, does not like his colleagues or his boss and has taken up as a hobby a handwritten letter-writing service to lonely women, whom he has no intention of meeting. Meg Willams is a lonely former alcoholic, a bankrupt accountant and recovering from cervical cancer. She now works in admin for an animal shelter. She subscribes to Jon’s letter-writing service and inevitably tracks him down. Apart from the letter-writing service, what makes this novel interesting is that we follow the thoughts of the two as they go about their daily business and these thoughts reveal two people who seem to be very unhappy with their lives and, on a couple of occasions, close to breakdown. Kennedy tells the story very well, really giving us an insight in Jon and Meg and their struggles with life.
The latest addition to my website is Max Aub‘s Campo de sangre [Field of Blood], the third in his Magic Labyrinth series about the Spanish Civil War. The book opens in Barcelona on New Year’s Eve 1937. Barcelona is under bombardment by the Francoists. As in the previous book, we follow the lives of a few ordinary people on the Republican side, as they struggle with life and with the war. There is a doctor, a judge, a failed writer and a communist, who meet on New Year’s Eve. We also meet others, including an actress, a prostitute and a woman who has fallen on hard times, when her rich father was arrested and shot. The second part is about the Battle of Teruel, which the Republicans will take with great difficulty and again we follow a few individuals involved. Finally, we are back in Barcelona, where the bombing is now much heavier and the situation is looking difficult, if not desperate. Aub once again tells a first-class story of the ordinary people on the Republican side caught up in the war and their struggle to cope.
The latest addition to my website is Susan Daitch‘s The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir. Daitch wrote two excellent post-modern novels in 1986 and 1990. Since then, she has written only one novel, till the appearance of this one, a wonderful, long and complicated post-modern take-off of the Indiana Jones/lost city novel. The novel is initially narrated by Ariel Bokser, whose father had been a mineralogist in Iran and who had obtained the notebook of a Russian émigré, indicating the existence of a lost city in the Iranian desert. We follow not only the adventures of Bokser as he tries to find the city but also of the Russian woman and her husband and their predecessors, two Englishmen. Mysterious deaths and disappearances, dubious identities, escapes from moving police cars, Soviet spies, bumbling English officials, the Shah’s secret police, the Ayatollah’s secret police, ships sunk by the Nazis, scrolls in strange languages and pots, statuary and so on are all part and parcel of Daitch’s action-packed but definitely post-modernist tale. It is a great read, the action never lets up and just as you think you know who is who and what they are up to, things change, generally not for the better.
The latest addition to my website is Paola Capriolo‘s Una di loro [One of Them]. This is another excellent novel from Capriolo, sadly not translated into English. The unnamed narrator has gone to stay in an idyllic Alpine village, in order to wrote his book on aesthetic theory. While initially, everything meets with his expectations, when out walking he starts noticing strange people who are clearly very poor and who seem different form the locals. He also meets his chambermaid, who is called Iasmina but clearly foreign and not very talkative. However, he watches her every evening as she leaves and becomes somewhat obsessed with her. One day, out on a long walk, he is surprised to find a sign to the Grand Hôtel d’Europe, a hotel of whose existence he was unaware. He follows the signs and sees a group of the poor people near a bridge, including a woman playing with children who is completely naked. The woman is Iasmina. He is so perturbed that he heads back to his hotel. However, he visits the Grand Hôtel d’Europe another day and tries to find out who the poor are, who Iasmina is and what the hotel is. Capriolo tells her story very well, undoubtedly influenced by her knowledge of the German novel.
The latest addition to my website is James Robertson‘s To Be Continued. This is a very funny novel about Douglas Elder, a man who reaches his fiftieth birthday on the day the novel starts and who has all that a man newly turned fifty can reasonably desire, other than a job, a settled relationship and confidence in the future. He has taken voluntary redundancy from the Edinburgh newspaper where he worked, his partner, Sonya has more or less kicked him out and he has to take care of his increasingly senile father. However, the editor of his former employer, worried that post-the Scottish independence referendum, the paper needs to do more to appeal to the core Scottish populace, asks Douglas to interview Rosalind Munlochy, former radical socialist, M.P., novelist and poet, who is about to turn one hundred. Unfortunately she lives in the remote Scottish Highlands and Douglas has no car. As a result he has a series of adventures, somewhat reminiscent of Richard Hannay, before he finally arrives there and his adventures do not end once he has arrived. It is a fairly light-hearted tale, but very well told, very funny and a a very good read.
The latest addition to my website is Ivan Vladislavic‘s The Folly. This novel, set in Vladislavic’s native South Africa, tells of a strange man, Nieuwenhuizen, who arrives to claim an overgrown plot which he seems to have inherited. He collects the rubbish and stores for it for possible future use. He sets up a two-person tent, in which he lives. The neighbours, Mr. and Mrs. Malgas, are bemused. Who is he? What does he want? Eventually, Mr. Malgas, who owns a hardware store, introduces himself and soon he is helping Nieuwenhuizen clear the land. Nieuwenhuizen then gets Malgas to get him some three hundred very long nails and he nails them into the ground and winds string around them, laying out a complex plan. Malgas initially does not understand the plan but then gradually seems not only to grasp it but sees the house completed and even goes into it with Nieuwenhuizen. This is a seemingly conventional novel which turns into a novel about an outsider arriving and completely changing the perception of another person. Absurd possibly but it is also a very original novel.