Wright Morris: The Works of Love

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The latest addition to my website is Wright MorrisThe Works of Love. Morris is very much an underrated writer . This is a first-class novel, which does not get the recognition it deserves. It tells the story of Will Brady, from the time his father first sought a wife till Will’s death many years later. Will’s father dies when he is only four months old and he is brought up by his mother. When she dies, when he is a young man at working as an assistant stationmaster, he leaves Indian Bow and travels to Calloway. Stepping off the train, he is almost immediately offered a job as night clerk at the local hotel. When the owner dies three years later, he takes over and marries the widow. His next business opportunity also falls into his lap the same way. However, Will finds it difficult to communicate. He has a succession of relationships but they are invariably both initiated and ended by the woman. He drifts through life, though a hard worker, unable to find his place and unable to work out who he is. He even brings up a boy, a boy he did not father, and struggles with that. Morris tells Will’s story very well, showing us a man who prefers the company of wackos and who knows how to give but not how to receive.

Daniel Kehlmann: Du hättest gehen sollen (You Should Have Left)

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The latest addition to my website is Daniel Kehlmann‘s Du hättest gehen sollen (You Should Have Left). This is a short (ninety-six pages) novel and a slightly different approach from Kehlmann, in that it is something of a horror story. A family – unnamed narrator and comedy scriptwriter husband, his wife, a beautiful actress, called Susanna, and their four-year old daughter, Esther – rents a holiday home in a remote part of the country, with a view of mountains and two icebergs. The marriage is under strain as the two are always squabbling. One or two odd things happen in the house – strange dreams, a picture that has not been seen before, getting lost in the house. While out for a walk in the rain, both decide that they have had enough and decide to leave at once. As she made the booking, he goes to her phone to get the number of the owner and finds out why she has been texting so much. A big row ensues and she leaves with the car. The narrator is left in the house with their daughter and strange things start happening, not helped by the weird local shopkeeper telling him that Devil had once built a tower there and that most people who rented the house left early, one even disappearing, never to be found. Gradually, it gets worse. The book got mixed reviews in Germany but I thought that, while not Kehlmann’s best work, it wasn’t too bad, somewhat reminiscent of Mark Danielewski‘s House of Leaves. It will come out in English in June 2017.

Norman Manea: Vizuina (The Lair)

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The latest addition to my website is Norman Manea‘s Vizuina (The Lair). This is a superb novel about exile, focussing on four Romanian exiles but, in particular, Peter Gașpar. His father had been in Auschwitz, where his wife and daughter had been gassed. He had survived and met Eva, another survivor, and they married. Peter has written one and only one story and had eventually (post-Ceaucescu) emigrated to the United States where, after various jobs, he ends up as an assistant professor, married to his cousin Lu (Ludmila). He had been preceded by Professor Gora. He had also been married to Lu but she declined to follow him when he emigrated. Both men and the fourth, Mihnea Palade, look up to Cosmin Dima, clearly based on the famous Romanian writer, Mircea Eliade, despise Dima’s alleged association with the Fascists during and before the war. All four men struggle with exile in their own way. Palade is murdered, possibly by the Romanian Secret Service. Peter writes a review of Dima’s memoirs and is sent a death threat. It is Peter who struggles most and who ends up disappearing for a while. While the novel deals with many issues, it is above all a wonderful portrayal of the difficulties of exile and the struggle with an illogical and complex world.

Yamen Manai: La Sérénade d’Ibrahim Santos [The Serenade of Ibrahim Santos]

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The latest addition to my website is Yamen Manai‘s La Sérénade d’Ibrahim Santos [The Serenade of Ibrahim Santos]. Though a Tunisian novel with clear references to the political situation in Tunisia (the book was written just before the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution of 2011), the book is actually set on a fictitious Spanish-speaking Caribbean island. Santa Clara is a remote village on the island. The inhabitants make a very good rum. The President-General of the (unnamed) country tastes the rum and then tries to find out where it came from. Santa Clara is on no map and no-one has heard of it. The army is sent to find it and, eventually, a troop does find it. To their horror the streets are named after General Burgos, who was overthrown twenty years previously. The troops educate the inhabitants but have to sing the new national anthem so that Ibrahim Santos, the town band leader and weather forecaster, can transcribe it. But then the Minister of Agriculture decides to send Joaquín Calderón, top of the class in agricultural engineering in the whole country, to teach the ignorant inhabitants how to improve their output. Not surprisingly this does not meet with the approval of the inhabitants and the inevitable dispute happens. As this is (sort of) based on what happened or, rather, what Manai would have liked to happen, violence ensures. Manai tells his story well, a mocking satire damning those in authority and proclaiming freedom for his people.

Max Aub: Campo de los almendros [Field of the Almond Trees]

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The latest addition to my website is Max Aub‘s Campo de los almendros [Field of the Almond Trees], the sixth, last and by far the longest in his Magic Labyrinth series about the Spanish Civil War. The war is almost over at the start of this book, with the Republicans barely holding on to Valencia and Alicante, and Franco about to enter Madrid. Much of the book is about the ensuing chaos as the Republicans endeavour to converge on Alicante, where they expect French and British ships to take them into exile. The French-Spanish border is now virtually blocked by the Francoists. More and more arrive and more and more wait as Aub superbly describes the chaos as well as the rumours. A British ship does come but refuses to take criminals and murderers. A French ship is rumoured to be arriving but is frightened off by the Francoists. In the end, most of the Republicans end up in the Field of Almond Trees of the title, a concentration camp. It is a sad story to the end of a war and Aub keeps the story going with, inevitably, the endless discussions by those waiting about the war, what went wrong and what will happen to them, as well as about any number of other topics. It is also a fitting end to the whole series, if not the greatest Spanish Civil War novel, certainly one of the the longest.

Leïla Slimani: Chanson douce [Sweet Song]

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The latest addition to my website is Leïla Slimani‘s Chanson douce [Sweet Song]. Slimani, born in Morocco and resident in France, won the Prix Goncourt for this novel. We know what happens from the first paragraph – two young children are brutally murdered and their apparent assailant who has tried but failed to kill herself, lies next to them. She is their nanny, Louise. The book tells the story of how this situation came about. Paul and Myriam Massé hire a nanny when Myriam goes back to work (as a lawyer) after having two children. Louise comes with impeccable credentials and she seems a dream come true. Not only does she take care of the children, who adore her, she does a whole range of other household tasks, including cooking for their guests. However, we gradually sees that Louise is not a happy person. Her own daughter has disappeared. She had an unhappy marriage and is now a widow. She desperately wants another child of her own. She does not seem to have any life of her own outside her babysitting job, with a variety of financial problems. Slimani addresses a range of issues such as racism and sexism, but also the role of the respective parents in the upbringing of children, mothers juggling work and family concerns and the associated guilt that they are neglecting one or the other (or both); the exploitation of staff; the issue of illegal aliens and how they are exploited by employers; living alone in a big city and, of course, a range of mental health issues. Though we know the ending, she tells her story well, leaving us wondering how it all went wrong.

Santiago Gamboa: Vida feliz de un joven llamado Esteban [Happy Life of a Young Man Called Esteban]

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The latest addition to my website is Santiago Gamboa‘s Vida feliz de un joven llamado Esteban [Happy Life of a Young Man Called Esteban]. This is a quasi-autobiographical novel (i.e. told in an autobiographical style, with some autobiographical references). We follow the life of Esteban Hinestroza, a young man who is currently working as journalist for the French government in Paris, but who tells us of his life in Colombia (with stops in Rome and Madrid). What makes it somewhat different are the extensive stories of others, who have a perhaps more colourful life than Esteban, with one joining the Colombian guerrillas and another involved in reincarnation. However, we also follow Colombian history, from the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, well before Esteban was born, to the fall-out from that event, which eventually led to the guerilla war in Colombia. Esteban generally has a happy life, as the title tells us, with the usual ups and downs, so, while Gamboa tells the story well, I felt that this book lacked that certain je ne sais quoi, despite its reputation in Latin America and the fact that it has been translated into French, German and Italian (but not, of course, into English).

Gaël Faye: Petit pays [Little Country]

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The latest addition to my website is Gaël Faye‘s Petit pays [Little Country]. Gaël Faye was born in Burundi of a French father and a Rwandan mother. He now lives in France and has been a successful hip-hop artist. This is his first novel. This is an autobiographical novel of his life in Burundi. On the whole he had a happy childhood, though his parents separated when he was a bit older. At about this time, the situation in Rwanda, which had been bad and then improved, suddenly got much worse. His mother, who had had to leave soon after independence, tried to find her family but nearly loses her life. Meanwhile, after the first democratic election of a president in Burundi, the president is assassinated. This leads to terrible violence in the country. Initially, they are relatively protected in Bujumbura but the violence spreads there and the family is involved, witnessing a brutal murder and they are at risk from attack. Eventually, they are evacuated to France. Faye tells an excellent story about the horrors of the two wars and how the country he loved so much become a country he has to leave. Despite the haven that France offers, he continues to feel a foreigner there and misses Burundi. This novel won two French literary prizes.

Sibilla Aleramo: Una donna (A Woman at Bay; later: A Woman)

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The latest addition to my website is Sibilla Aleramo‘s Una donna (A Woman at Bay; later: A Woman). This is an early Italian feminist literary autobiographical novel, written nearly a hundred years before Elena Ferrante. The narrator tells of her upbringing in a house with a dominant and, at times, bullying father, whom she dearly loves, and a mother with severe mental problems. When she is older, the narrator goes to work in the office of the factory her father manages. While there, she gets to know a male colleague who is clearly attracted to her and eventually rapes her. As a result, she feels that she has to marry him and, though they do have a son, the marriage remains unhappy, not least because he does not have her intellectual interests. She goes to work in Milan for a feminist magazine and becomes involved in the early Italian feminist movement. What makes this book so worthwhile is her deep self-analysis and her analysis of the poor position of women in Italy. And, yes, I thought it was a better book than Ferrante but Aleramo would have undoubtedly considered Ferrante a worthy successor.

Ali Zamir: Anguille sous Roche [Eel Under Rock]

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The latest addition to my website is Ali Zamir‘s Anguille sous Roche [Eel Under Rock], a Comorian novel published this summer, which has received a certain amount of acclaim in France, with added publicity when the author was initially refused a visa to enter France. The story is told in a stream-of-consciousness format by Anguille (French for eel) who, at the start of the novel seems to be drowning and is recounting her life story before she drowns. She and her twin sister Crotale (French for rattlesnake) live with their father Know-All (he is an assiduous reader of newspapers), a fisherman). Their mother died giving birth to them. Initially, it seems that Crotale is the badly behaved one, arriving late to school and hanging out with boys but, once Anguille meets Vorace (French for Voracious), she ceases to be the good girl and takes up drinking, smoking, missing school and, it would seem, unprotected sex with Vorace. When her father finds out that she is pregnant and she finds out that Vorace is far from faithful, things go very wrong. What makes this novel is Anguille’s lively and colourful account of her life and the life around her, her comments on others, including her father and sister and her determination to get her own way.