Minae Mizumura: 母の遺産 (Inheritance of Mother)

The latest addition to my website is Minae Mizumura‘s 母の遺産 (Inheritance of Mother). This is a feminist novel, about the changing role of women in Japan. We follow three generations of Japanese women, who all have their own problems, caused or exacerbated by their sex. We mainly follow Mitsuki and her older sister Natsuki who are dealing with the illness and then death of their mother, Noriko. Mitsuki, in particular, feels the responsibility she has for looking after her ailing mother, even while she learns that her husband is having an affair and planning on leaving her. But we step back to Noriko and to Noriko’s mother, who both struggled against the contemporary mores regarding the role of women. Things may have improved, but it still is not easy for women in Japan. This is another first-class work by Mizumura.

Jean Stafford: The Mountain Lion

The latest addition to my website is Jean Stafford‘s The Mountain Lion, a semi-autobiographical novel with the two main characters, brother and sister Roger and Molly Fawcett, being based on Stafford and her brother Dick, who were very close, as are Ralph and Molly. The Fawcetts live in California. Mr. Fawcett is dead but his family are well-off. His widow, Rose, also lost her father when she was young and her mother remarried a rough cattle rancher, Mr. Kenyon, who visits annually. When he dies on one visit, the family get to know, Claude, the only child of his marriage to Rose’s mother, and Molly and Ralph spend the summers at his ranch. The story is mainly about how Ralph drifts away from Molly, wanting to become more manly in imitation of Claude, culminating in the hunt for a mountain lion, while Molly becomes more interested in literature. In many respects, it is a very sad story but very well-told.

Cherchez la femme

Here is another interesting article on that perennial issue of (lack of) women in translation. I am as guilty as the next man on this. I note that, of the seventy-eight books I have read so far this year, twenty-one are by women, i.e. 27%. That figure is quite high by my normal standards. In her article, Dr. Castro points out various reasons for this. One of the reasons is that relatively few women are translated in the first place.

In English but not well-known

Dr. Castro is Galician. Books originally written in Galician tend to be translated into Spanish before they make it into any other language. I do not claim to have any knowledge of Galician literature but, it seems to me, that the best-known Galician authors that have been translated, are Manuel Rivas and Álvaro Cunqueiro, both, of course, men. If you look at the Wikipedia page on Galician authors, they are virtually all men. Of those that wrote in Galician, the only woman died in the nineteenth century, of those that wrote/write in Spanish, one died in the nineteenth century, one in 1921, and only one is still alive and has been translated into French and Dutch but not English. I do not know whether this reflects the reality of contemporary Galician literature, whether it reflects the male bias of the Wikipedia writers or whether there is some other reason. The only modern woman Galician writer I am aware of translated into English is María-Xosé Queizán (who is not on the Wikipedia page) and she is hardly well-known. Dr. Castro make this same point as regards two recent anthologies.

If we look at Spain as a whole, the situation is marginally better but not much. The best-known modern Spanish writers in the English-speaking world tend to be male: Cercas, Chirbes, Juan Goytisolo, Luis Goytisolo, Marías, Marsé, Muñoz Molina and Vila-Matas. There are, of course, women writers. Some of Esther Tusquets‘ books have been translated into English but they are not very well-known. The same could be said for Almudena Grandes and Ana María Matute, two very fine writers. Espido Freire has one work in English, her first. Soledad Puértolas and Carmen Laforet have not fared much better. Lucia Etxebarría, Marina Mayoral and Lourdes Ortiz have yet to be translated into English. With the possible exception of Rosa Montero, the same applies to a whole host of other fine Spanish women writers.

I have focussed on Galician and Spanish writers, as Dr. Castro is Galician and Spanish. However, I do not think the situation is very much different for other nationalities, as Dr. Castro points out. Of course, some of the responsibility lies with publishers but some lies with bloggers. I am fortunate enough to be able to read a few languages other than English and do try to look out for interesting works written by women that have not been translated but have to admit that of the fifteen books that I have read this year that have not been translated into English, only three were by women. There are several other literary bloggers who read other languages and review books they have read in these languages who, I hope, also look out for women writers.

Like many bloggers, I look out for books that I think that I might enjoy. Yes, I do look for women writers and I also look for for writers from lesser-known countries, but the majority of books I read, I read because they seemed interesting. The brutal reality is that the majority of books that I come across that seem interesting are by men. This may be because of my innate male bias (indeed, almost certainly is) but also because of availability, what I read about on other blogs and other sites and because what publishers are publishing.

This chart shows the percentage of MPs that are female by country. (It is out of date. The figure for the UK since the last election is 32%). Dr. Castro mentions the record number of MPs in the UK Parliament but it is still below one-third and behind such countries as Belarus, Burundi, Grenada, Mexico, Namibia, Nicaragua, South Africa, Tanzania, Timor Leste…. and Spain, and only just ahead of Sudan and Tunisia and the same as Algeria and half the amount of Rwanda, though well ahead of the United States. As with MPs, so there is still a long way to go with translated literature as Dr. Castro clearly points out. Part of the problem is that most readers in the English-speaking world do not read translated literature, except for things like Scandi-crime. Many of the most interesting works coming out in translation are published by small presses, who are constrained by what they can afford, what they think will sell and any subsidy they may get.

There is no easy answer, just as there is no easy answer concerning parliamentary representation and other areas where women fall behind. In the UK this week, the big scandal is that the BBC pays its male talent more than its female talent. The only real surprise is that people are surprised. I will certainly continue to try and identify good women writers but I know that men will likely continue to dominate as they do in the blogs of most other men bloggers.

Julien Gracq: Un balcon en forêt (A Balcony in the Forest)

The latest addition to my website is Julien Gracq‘s Un balcon en forêt (A Balcony in the Forest). This novel was based on Gracq’s own experiences in World War II and tells of Grange, a young lieutenant, put in charge of a bunker by the River Meuse, near the Belgian border, to stop advancing German tanks. For much of the novel Gracqq and the three men under his command are waiting while nothing much happens. Grange has an affair with a young widow living nearby, the men hunt and, all the while, they feel that the war is unreal, even as we see small signs of it creeping closer. Of course, it eventually does arrive and, for the last few days, they watch the smoke in the distance and see the planes. As we know, it does not end well for the French and Belgian defenders.

Enrique Vila-Matas: Mac y su contratiempo [Mac and His Problem]

The latest addition to my website is Enrique Vila-MatasMac y su contratiempo [Mac and His Problem]. Mac is a bankrupt builder who plans to rewrite the (very poor) novel, in the form of interrelated stories, written thirty years ago by a Barcelona neighbour, now a moderately famous writer This novel is narrated by a ventriloquist and, to show the ventriloquist’s different voices, the author has written each story in the style of a different famous short-story writer. Things get more complicated when the stories start overlapping with real life, including one story which turns out to be about Mac’s wife from the period before he met her. As usual from Vila-Matas, there is lots of literary learning, a fair amount of post-modernism and a witty and imaginative story.

Joyce Cary: To Be a Pilgrim

The latest addition to my website is Joyce Cary‘s To Be a Pilgrim. This is the second in the trilogy, which started with Herself Surprised. This one tells the story of Tom Wilcher, last of his generation of Wilchers, an old man with heart problems. It is set just before World War II, as he is living at Tolbrook, the family estate in Devon, with his niece, Ann, and nephew Robert. Much of the time, Tom is looking back at his family and their lives together, but also comparing the Britain of forty years ago with current Britain, particularly as regards religion and agricultural and land management practices and, not surprisingly is not happy with modern ways. But he also looks at the varied lives of his family, their complicated romantic relationships (most of which seem to have been less than successful) and what they did with their lives. This is a very fine novel, which deserves to be better known as Cary tells a first-class story.

César Aira: Las conversaciones (Conversations)

The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s Las conversaciones (Conversations). This is another brilliant long story/short novel from Aira, about his favourite subject of the boundaries between fiction and reality. It starts with two friends talking about a trashy Hollywood film they saw the previous night on TV, with the narrator mocking the fact that a poor Ukrainian goatherd was seen wearing an expensive Rolex watch and leads on to a discussion about the plot of the film, which goes from a fairly straightforward Hollywood view of Eastern Europe to an incredibly complex film about toxic algae, flying goats, giant Cossacks and the CIA doing what the CIA do, made more complex by the fact that nether of the two saw all of the film (though both saw different parts of the film). This whole issue leads to a long (and very interesting) discussion about the border between fiction and reality and ever-changing fiction and reality, in a way that only Aira can wrote about. Another first-class work from César Aira.

Robert Walser: Geschwister Tanner (The Tanners)

The latest addition to my website is Robert Walser‘s Geschwister Tanner (The Tanners). This was Walser’s first novel and a strange one it is, clearly based on himself and his family. The main character is Simon Tanner, a young man who drifts around from job to job, from town to town, from relationship to to relationship, unsure of where he fits in but not too concerned about it either. Like Walser, he likes long walks, the joys of nature and writing. His eldest brother is concerned about his siblings, but one brother (whom we never meet) has been institutionalised, the other brother, a painter, is almost as out of touch with reality as Simon and their sister, Hedwig, feels there is a thin wall between her and the real world. The novel, like the characters, is rambling but an interesting first novel all the same.

Peter Härtling

I an surprised that the English-language press has not picked up on the death of German writer Peter Härtling yesterday (10 July 2017), aged 84. He will be remembered for his poetry as much as for his prose fiction. His novel Eine Frau (A Woman) was translated into English and is well worth reading. I also enjoyed Niembsch, a biographical novel about the not very well-known Austrian poet Nikolas Lenau, which has not been translated into English.

Steven Moore: My Back Pages

Steven Moore is the author of two essential works on the history of the novel: The Novel: An Alternative History , the first one covering the beginnings to 1600 and the second one 1600 to 1800. Both will tell you far more than you ever knew about the history of the novel, not in an academic, dry-as-a-dust manner (that bloodless, wooden mode as he describes it) but with a well-written, clear approach, (colourful, lively writing, prose that is witty and actually fun to read rather than a chore, as he calls it) while, at the same time, giving a whole host of fascinating information about the early novel. I (and many other people) rather hoped he would continue into the modern era in his novel series but he has declined to do so, saying he is more interested in reading books than writing them.

However, all is not lost. We now have another large work which, as the title suggests, is a collection of his various occasional writings. In his past life, he worked for the Dalkey Archive Press and its associated publication (now defunct) The Review of Contemporary Fiction (RCF). Many of the articles in this work are his reviews of book published in the RCF, as well as those published elsewhere, particularly in the Washington Post where he was a long time freelance book reviewer. The book also includes quite a few essays, both published and unpublished, on topics literary.

Moore starts the book with a brief description of his life – running a bookstore in Denver, writing a book, reviewing and working for Dalkey. Where it becomes interesting is in discussing his interests, which seems to be mainly though certainly not exclusively centred around 20th US fiction, particularly more experimental fiction. While Joyce may have been his first love, it is clear that William Gaddis is his second. As I was, he was stunningly impressed by Gaddis’ The Recognitions. The book contains both reviews of Gaddis’ works and a collection of essays on him. His other great interests are authors like Gaddis, often called difficult, experimental and certainly not best-sellers. Some of them he has discovered as I and many other readers have done, by following a trail from one writer to another.

His reviewing philosophy is one I can wholeheartedly endorse and one I hope that I practise on my website/blog: I’ve always regarded book reviews as consumer advisory reports more than nuanced evaluations. Naturally, he has used his reviews to promote authors he considers worthy of promotion.

Reading a book like this, you look out for books that seem worthy that you do not know, books that you do know to see if his opinion is (more or less) the same as yours and to be reminded of books that you have read and forgotten (or almost forgotten) or, in my case, that you have bought and somehow never got round to reading. There are all too many in all categories. Inevitably, I found mention of novels that I was unaware of but also quite a few buried in the recesses of my library that I should bring out into the sunlight. Some of his recommendations, particularly of US novelists, are of works that seemed very relevant and interesting at the time, so I bought them, in some cases read them, but have since forgotten them. Reading his reviews makes me realise that many of them are worthy of closer attention.

Moore does not hold back his views. There is a review of Richard Ford’s stories, for example, which all have an old-fashioned tone, as if they had been written 50 years ago. He quotes Paul West who has no patience for what he variously calls “mercantile novelists”, “literacy greengrocers”, “antiquarians who keep on trying to invent the nineteenth-century novel in the age of quasars”. it is clear that Moore shares West’s views.

The final section, consisting of his essays, covers several authors that he clearly seems to admire, including Gaddis and Joyce but some less well-known writers who should be better known. I have several books by Alexander Theroux and Brigid Brophy but have yet to get round to them. Slaughterhouse Five: A Poor Man’s Remembrance of Things Past, is something of a provocative title (you have to read his essay to see his rationale, though I am not convinced that I entirely share it). I know of W M Spackman (Moore has edited his Complete Novels), Carole Maso and Edward Dahlberg but have yet to read them. I must admit that I had not head of Alan Ansen, a Beat writer and that Sheri Martinelli and, Chandler Brossard and Jack Green are little more than just names for me. I have read David Markson and Richard Brautigan and did not take to either. Like Moore, I loved Adán Buenosayres (Adam Buenosayres).

The book ends with three essays. One is on his nympholepsy (no, I hadn’t heard of it either). The second is something you will be aware of, if you have read his two books on the novel. It tells us that, just as he used to think Columbus discovered America, he used to think (was told) that the novel was invented by Samuel Richardson in the eighteenth century. It was not, of course. It is just that many critics had a very narrow view of what the novel is. In this essay (and subsequently in his first book on the novel) he gives numerous examples of novels written (and known) well before Richardson was born. The final essay is on publishing Rikki Ducornet, another writer I know of but have never read. (Oh dear, my TBR pile has grown substantially again.). Whether you know of or have read Ducornet, it is a fascinating essay on the publishing process, at least as regards a small press.

Whoever you are and however much you have read, it is almost certain that, in reading this book you are going to learn about new authors and learn a lot about the twentieth/twenty-first novel. I spent a long time immersed in this book. Sadly, very sadly, Moore is not going to write another book in his history of the novel series but, at least, this is a really worthwhile book and anyone who is interested in the modern novel should buy it at once.