Emile Habiby: فاء سعيد أبي النحس (The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist)

saeed

The latest addition to my website is Emile Habiby‘s فاء سعيد أبي النحس (The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist). The novel tells the story of Saeed,a Palestinian man, who works for the Israelis. He is almost killed during the Nakba in 1948, when Israelis fire at his family but, fortunately for him, a donkey got in the line of fire and was killed instead. The family flee to Lebanon but, as a young man, Saeed returns to Israel, where he works for the Union of Palestine Workers, an Israeli-fronted organisation. Saeed is something of a naive and innocent, a cross between Voltaire’s Candide and Schweik. He is always getting into trouble but, just about, manages to extract himself. He meets and falls in love with Yuaad, loses her, and finds her again but it does not work out. He marries another woman and they have a son but mother and son disappear when the son joins the fedayeen. Above all, this is a very humorous book and satirical one, mocking the Israelis, above all, but not averse to mocking the Palestinians and, of course, Saeed himself.

Wright Morris: The World in the Attic

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The latest addition to my website is Wright MorrisThe World in the Attic. This book follows on from The Home Place. The two books are very similar, except that The Home Place contained photos. The book is about a visit of just under two days by Clyde Muncy (based on Morris), his wife, Peg, and his two young children to Junction, Nebraska, where he grew up. Clyde essentially abandons his family and visits old friends and old haunts, though he finds, in some respects that the town has changed, though in others it has not changed much. The Muncys spend the night with his old friend Bud. However, early the following morning, Bud’s aunt, from whom he is estranged, dies and Clyde again abandons his family and becomes very much involved in the funeral arrangements. This is an exercise in nostalgia, about the charms of rural Nebraska and how different it is from New York where they now live and, as such, is very well written by Morris.

J M Coetzee: The Schooldays of Jesus

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The latest addition to my website is J M Coetzee‘s The Schooldays of Jesus, a follow on from his previous novel The Childhood of Jesus. As with this previous novel, the link with the biblical Jesus is not always apparent. Davíd, the presumably Jesus character, has been taken by his guardians, Inés and Simón, from Novilla to Estrella, in an escape reminiscent of the biblical Flight into Egypt, not least because they are escaping both the authorities and a future census. They initially work on a fruit farm, to keep a low profile, but then Davíd is admitted to a dance academy run by a couple, who share names (albeit hispanicised) with the composer Bach and his wife. He already seem to be drifting apart from Inés and Simón and the academy accentuates the drift, as he maintains that Inés and Simón do not understand the role of numbers in dancing. Indeed, one of the key themes of this book that he is clearly becoming more independent from the two of them, despite the fact that he only reaches his seventh birthday at the end of the book. It is a strange book, not least because it is not clear where Coetzee is going with the Jesus comparison, though no doubt future books will make things clearer.

Max Aub: Campo del Moro [The Moor’s Camp]

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The latest addition to my website is Max Aub‘s Campo del Moro [The Moor’s Camp]. This novel, the fourth book in Aub’s Magic Labyrinth series on the Spanish Civil War to be published, though the fifth in the series, is set during Fall of Madrid, which will end the Spanish Civil War. It opens on 5 March 1939. We follow the stories of several characters, some real and some fictitious, most of whom have a colourful background or who have had a colourful war. However, the main focus is on the dispute between Prime Minister Juan Negrín who, together with the Communists, wants to carry on fighting till the bitter end, and Colonel Casado and the politician Julián Besteiro, who want to make a deal with Franco. They essentially carry out a coup d’état and Negrín, not wanting anti-fascists fighting anti-fascists, goes. However, the result is that the remaining republicans – socialists, communists and anarchists – spend their time fighting and, indeed, killing one another, while Franco waits for the city to surrender. He will only accept unconditional surrender. For Aub, the actions of Casado and Besteiro were betrayal and they do not come off well in this book. We are left with a sad and nasty end to a sad and nasty war.

Santiago Gamboa: Perder es cuestión de método [Losing is a Question of Method]

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The latest addition to my website is Santiago Gamboa‘s Perder es cuestión de método [Losing is a Question of Method]. This is a detective novel, set in Bogota. Our hero is Victor Silanpa, a journalist. He learns of a body being found outside of Bogotá. The victim has been impaled. The police seem to be incompetent and it is Silanpa, aided by the brother of the possible victim, who investigates, uncovering a plot involving a complicated land deal, which certain powerful people stand to make a lot of money out of. Silanpa becomes totally obsessed with the case, neglecting his job, his girlfriend and, indeed, his whole life, to uncover the truth. He runs around Bogotá, pursued by thugs, caught up in a car chase wearing only a towel, drinking heavily, hiding out wherever he can, while the police seem indifferent. While many of the standard detective novel clichés are there, it is not a bad novel, as we follow Silanpa’s obsession, even as his life seems to be falling apart. The book has been translated into nine languages, including Basque and Czech, but not English.

Rober Racine: Le Mal de Vienne [The Vienna Sickness]

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The latest addition to my website is Rober Racine‘s Le Mal de Vienne [The Vienna Sickness]. The author of this novel, Rober Racine, is primarily known as a visual artist. He is also a composer and dramatist but has written five novels. This work is an entirely absurdist and anarchic novel, written by a man for whom images and sounds are clearly more important than the written word. It tells the story of four people. Studd, fifty-three at the start of the novel, spends his time making mixtapes of various sounds but he also suffers from thomasberharditis, which means he lives and see the world through the eyes of the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard (and partially through the eyes of Krapp from Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape). Bernhard, who died three years before this novel was published, is a key character. He is writing a huge novel which, at least, initially, is called The Daughter of God is No Longer the Sister of Christ (it changes its name several times), influenced by a photo of the composer Anton Bruckner. We also have Kevin O’Bryan who wants to display Bernard’s novel Beton (Concrete) in Letraset and Studd’s god-daughter who continually reads the same two books, though no-one, including the reader, knows what they are. The book is full of complicated lists, total nonsense, lively images, plays on words and lots of humour. I enjoyed it immensely but I doubt whether it will ever make it into English or, indeed, any other language.

Elena Ferrante has won the Nobel Prize!

No, she hasn’t but I needed a catchy title that combined the two key literary events of the past couple of weeks and Bob Dylan unmasked definitely seemed like second best.

So let’s start with Elena Ferrante. Many people have been very critical about the unmasking of her by Claudio Gatti. Jeanette Winterson, for example, was particularly bitter. I can entirely sympathise with Jeanette Winterson and others who are bitter and, of course, with Anita Raja, who has had her life disrupted, probably forever. However…

1. The Internet is prurient. It was, I think, set up to exchange information and still does that, to a certain extent. However, its main function now seems to the wilful display and enjoyment of what other people are doing. You know that. I know that. And Elena Ferrante knows that.

2. As Joe Louis may or may not have said, You can run but you cannot hide – from Google. In the EU, there is now “the right to be forgotten”. This stemmed from a case brought by a Spanish man. He had been forced to sell a property to pay off social security debts. When his name was searched the announcement about this sale came to the top of the search listings. He did not like that and sued at the Court of Justice of the European Union. He won and he and all other EU nationals now have this right to be forgotten, i.e. removed from Google search listings. Despite this, I found the link above to the case – by Googling. Moreover, if you search for his name both in Google UK and Google Spain, you still get the story of his crusade and, therefore, the information about his social security debts.

3. In the UK, we have something called a superinjunction. If you are very rich, you can go to a judge and s/he will issue an order saying that a specific story about you cannot be published, either in the printed press or online. I will mention three cases. The first involved Ryan Giggs, who, at the timed, played football (i.e. soccer) for a low-life football club called Manchester United. He was having a sexual affair with his brother’s wife. Perhaps understandably, he did not want the world to know about this and, presumably, particularly did not want his brother or his wife to know about it, so he took out a superinjunction. However, a Member of Parliament, using parliamentary privilege, revealed all in the Houses of Parliament and the press was able to report this. Thus, he wasted his money and everyone, including his wife and brother, knew what he was up to.

Jeremy Clarkson is an obnoxious TV presenter, formerly of a popular car programme called Top Gear. When his ex-wife wanted to publish details of their life together, he took out a superinjunction. He soon realised that it was a) pointless and b) expensive, so dropped it.

A celebrity couple has taken out a superinjunction to prevent publication of a story about a three-way sexual romp they had. The injunction still holds. However, it only applies in England and Wales, so anyone, even people in England and Wales, can find out in seconds who is involved, by going to non-English/Welsh websites. I am fairly certain that anyone in England and Wales who wants to know now does know but the English and Welsh press cannot report it.

4. Wayne Rooney, another footballer who played (and sometimes still plays) for the low-life football team mentioned above, allegedly had an affair with a prostitute (while married). He was thinking about getting a superinjunction but he was told not to bother, as it would likely be declined as he previously shared details of his private life with the media.

5. Elena Ferrante is not, of course, the first author to write under a pseudonym. Many women writers used to write under a male pseudonym, in order to increase their chances of getting published. The Brontë sisters and George Eliot are just a few of the many examples. Many authors have chosen to use pseudonyms for one reason or another, from Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain to Flann O’Brien and J K Rowling (Wikipedia has a list). Some writers, such as Cecil Day-Lewis and Julian Barnes have used a pseudonym to write different types of books. Some, such as B Traven have managed to carry the secret to the grave. Other writers, while not adopting a pseudonym, have kept a very low profile In recent times, Thomas Pynchon and J D Salinger are famous examples. But this does not top people from tying to find who they are and where they are. I know, you know and Elena Ferrante knows that if you do try to hide your identity, people are going to try and find it and all too often will succeed. Just ask J K Rowling.

6. In Italy considerable effort was expended to find the real person behind the Ferrante name. In his article, Gatti mentions various candidates. In particular, a textual analysis suggested that Ferrante was Domenico Starnone, Anita Raja’s husband. She herself had also been suggested.

(Interesting aside. Software has been developed to enable us to identify the sex of the author of a text. This is one example. Putting the first chapter of Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend into this software gives the result that the author is likely to be female and likely to be European. I wonder why the textual analysis of Starnone did not give the same result. Is it is because it works differently in Italian? Only one of his works has been translated into English (and published, incidentally, by Europa Editions, who also publish Ferrante in English) and this work does not appear to be available in e-book format, so I have not tested to see if he comes out male, according to this software.)

7. Conclusions? Ferrante was always going to be unmasked. Given the nature of the Internet, the nature of people’s curiosity, the difficulty of keeping anything hidden from Google and the nature of the literary business, I am sure that even Ferrante herself did not expect to remain anonymous forever. I would add that Ferrante and her publisher very much benefited from the publicity she received. The reviewers, the bloggers,the readers, social media, all helped her sell more books and helped her buy the properties, which were her unmasking. Yes, she may be sad and/or bitter at her unmasking but I do not think that she can really complain. I know that, you know that and Ferrante knows that.

Which brings me to Dylan.

8. Various commentators (all right hundreds, maybe thousands) have speculated on why he got it. Here are my theories, which may or may not be correct. Apart from the obvious one – they really did think he was a very deserving writer – I have four possible ideas:

  • Publicity. Whatever you may say about the decision, it has generated a huge amount of publicity for the Nobel Prize. You may argue that they do not need publicity but you would be wrong. it is the Internet. Everyone needs publicity.
  • There have been numerous complaints from commentators, particularly those from the US, that the award keeps going to an obscure Austrian novelist no-one has heard of or an obscure French novelist no-one has heard of. Moreover, the Academy, it is alleged, is prejudiced against US writers, based on remarks by Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize jury. The fact that there have been two secretaries since that remark was made has altered nothing. So now the award has gone to a US writer, who writes in English and whom everyone has heard of. What’s to complain about?
  • Related to the above, this means that the Swedish Academy does not have to/will not give it to a US writer for some while, which will mean that all the supporters of Philip Roth can stop bleating about how he should get it as there is a good chance he will be dead by the time it is the turn of the US again. Same applies to Oates, Pynchon, DeLillo and McCarthy.
  • Trump. Trump? Yes, Trump. A few years the Nobel Peace Prize went to President Obama. What had he done to deserve it? He was fighting two wars at the time and had not brought about peace, despite vague promises. However, he got it for one simple reason. He was not George W Bush. You may argue that you are not George W Bush either, which is undoubtedly accurate, as I am fairly sure that he does not read this blog. But then you are not President of the United States. If you have ever visited Sweden, you will be aware how many people hate the US right. They hated Bush with a passion and they hate Trump. So what better than to give the prize to the writer who best embodies values opposed to those of Donald Trump. Whatever you may think of Dylan musically, politically or otherwise, you cannot deny that he has stood up for causes such as immigrants, African-Americans and the poor and downtrodden in a way that is the antithesis of Donald Trump and his views. It may be that Roth, Oates, Pynchon, DeLillo and McCarthy have similar views. I do not know but, if they have, they are certainly not as well known as Dylan for these views.

9. It has been argued that a mere singer does not deserve the prize. If you isolate his words from his music, they do not, many say, stand up with the literary quality of more deserving writers. But, in my view, you cannot and should not isolate the words from the music. Just as with drama, for example, you cannot entirely isolate the text from the performance, the stage directions and even the actors, you cannot and should not isolate the words from the music in songs. Words with music have a long tradition. It is highly likely that, in the Middle Ages, the exposure of most people to poetry would be by songs sung by troubadours. Songs such as The Song of Roland (which would have almost certainly won an eleventh century Goncourt Prize or Nobel Prize, had they existed then) were highly influential. Dante and Petrarch, themselves huge influences on later European literature, were very much influenced by troubadours and their songs. In more modern times, there have been numerous cases of words set to music, including, of course, opera, oratorios, masses and lieder. From Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to John Taverner’s The Whale, classical musicians have made extensive use of words to go with their music.

10. Dylan is not a monolithic composer. He has written satirical political songs, such as Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues and Talkin’ World War III Blues, songs about the unfair treatment of African-Americans, such as George Jackson (sung here by Joan Baez), Hurricane and The Death of Emmett Till, love songs such as Sara, religious songs such as Gotta Serve Somebody, songs telling a story such as The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest and a whole host more songs on any number of different topics. He has almost certainly influenced more musicians than any other artist and has probably been covered by more musicians than anyone except, possibly, the Beatles and they were not just one artist.

11.Recent discussions have put forward the claims of other singers, such as Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon, both of which are valid claims but I will still go for Dylan over Cohen and Simon. I will also throw in another artist, who was not Jewish but had a lot of sympathy for the Jews, namely Pete Townshend.

12. Conclusion? I am not shocked at the award to Dylan (not as shocked as Dylan himself seems to be, as he does not seem to have, at the time of writing, acknowledged the award.) I applaud the Academy’s brave decision to look beyond the novelists, the occasional poet and the occasional dramatist. Could they have picked a novelist who would have been more worthy than Dylan? Of course they could. We can all come up with names. However, I do definitely consider him more worthy than Philip Roth. It would certainly have been nice to give the award to some relatively unknown novelist (unknown to the public at large, I mean) and, no doubt, they will revert to type next year. Two predictions (no, not the winner, which I will invariably get wrong). Philip Roth won’t win it and Elena Ferrante won’t win it. As for me, I am going to listen to Dylan singing Queen Jane Approximately (but not this version).

Ivan Vladislavic: Double Negative

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The latest addition to my website is Ivan Vladislavic‘s Double Negative. This is Vladislavic’s most recent novel and, while a fine work, not quite of the same standard of his earlier work. It is divided into three sections, the first set during apartheid in South Africa, the second just after the end of apartheid and third somewhat later. It tells the story of Neville Lister who eventually becomes a photographer. In the earlier part, he meets Saul Auerbach, who takes Neville on a photographic expedition with a British journalist. In particular, they visit a street where poor blacks live and photograph two people in their houses. These photographs become famous and the whole experience has a profound influence on Neville. He will later become a successful photographer and return to the same houses. The two issues – photography and apartheid – are used to show the two key themes of the novel. These are the nature of art and the role of the good man in a bad situation. Vladislavic tells his story well and makes his point but I still preferred his earlier two novels.

Bakhtiyar Ali: Ghazalnūs wa bāghakānı̄ khayāl (I Stared at the Night of the City)

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The latest addition to my website is Bakhtiyar Ali‘s Ghazalnūs wa bāghakānı̄ khayāl (I Stared at the Night of the City). This is an absolutely brilliant, complex, long, magic realist novel, set in an unnamed Kurdish city but, presumably, the author’s home town of Slemani (Sulaymaniyah) . The basic theme if that kings need poets but poets do not need kings. On the one hand there is a group of highly imaginative people who are wring a massive book paying tribute to the recent dead – the women set on fire, those murdered by the evil barons that control the country and many others – and, on the other, there are the evil barons, with titles like the Baron of Imagination and the Baron of Courgettes, who rule the country, though most Kurds are unaware of their existence. Our three heroes – Ghazalnus (writer of ghazals), Trifa who dreams up highly imaginative and original carpets, and a man known as the Imaginary Magellan as he travels the world, often with a group of blind children, but entirely in his imagination – travel the world of imagination and, with others, oppose the barons. The barons can rule the world and they can and do kill their opponents but imagination must triumph if the world is to survive. This is one of the best novels I have read for a long time and I urge you to read it. We must be grateful to Periscope Books for giving us the first novel translated from Kurdish into English and can only wish for more.

Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize for Literature

I won the Nobel Prize!
I won the Nobel Prize!

No, this is not a joke. Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2016. A lot of people are really not going to like this but I have always been impressed by Bob Dylan’s lyrics. Whether he is worthy of winning it over other US writers, such as Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates or Thomas Pynchon, I am not sure but he is certainly more worthy than Philip Roth. US commentators have bitterly complained that the US has not had a winner since 1993 with Toni Morrison. Now they cannot complain, as they frequently do, that the winner is obscure, unknown and read by no-one. So here are three Dylan songs to entertain you. Listen to the lyrics: My Back Pages, as sung by the Byrds, but written by Dylan, All Along the Watchtower sung by Jimi Hendrix but written by Dylan and Like a Rolling Stone, sung by Dylan and The Band and written by Dylan. Congratulations Bob!