Víctor Català: Solitud (Solitude)

The latest addition to my website is Víctor Català‘s Solitud (Solitude). Víctor Català (real name: Caterina Albert i Paradís) published this novel in 1905 but, though she lived to 1966, only published one more novel. It was this novel that made her name. It is both a feminist novel but also a fine story. A newly wed couple, Matias and Mila, have to go up into the mountains to run a hermitage, used by hunters and the like when the weather is fine but also associated with St. Pontius, the local saint. Mila is befriended by the shepherd, Gaietà, a good man. She is attracted to him and to a younger local man, who is engaged to someone else. Her attraction to these men is helped by the fact that her husband is lazy, runs up debts and, eventually, takes up gambling. However, there is another problem – Anima – the wild and very nasty mountain man. He is also attracted to Mila. It all ends badly but it is a fine tale and if there is a moral, it might well be Be careful who you marry!

Clarice Lispector: O lustre (The Chandelier)

The latest addition to my website is Clarice Lispector‘s O lustre (The Chandelier). This is Lispector’s second novel, written when she was in her early twenties, and now published in English more than seventy years after publication in Portuguese. Much of the novel takes place in the head of Virginia, whom we first meet as a girl under the sway of her controlling brother, whom she adores, and her bullying father. In the second part of the novel, she is an adult. Her brother has married and she has a boyfriend, Vicente. However, she is not sure whether she loves him and still lives very much inside in her head. She heads off back home where nothing has changed and still does not know where she belongs. Most of the novel takes place inside her head and we get a detailed and superbly well written story of a complex and insecure girl/woman.

Gloria Guardia: Tiniebla blanca [White Darkness]

The latest addition to my website is Gloria Guardia‘s Tiniebla blanca [White Darkness]. The unnamed narrator, like Guardia, is a Panamanian student at Vassar College. One evening, while in New York, she has forgotten her money and tracks down an uncle and aunt, Antonio and Carmen. They are very friendly but she soon discovers that Antonio is perhaps too friendly. However, Carmen is eager to assure her that she is like the daughter they never had (they have no children) and hopes that she will help repair their failing marriage. However, when she is staying there one evening, Carmen is absent and uncle and niece behave in a decidedly un-uncle-and-niece like manner. Guardia was only twenty and still at Vassar when she wrote this. I hope it was not autobiographical.

Rana Haddad: The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor

The latest addition to my website is Rana Haddad:‘s The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor. This is the first novel by a Syrian woman who has spent her adult live in England. This novel tells the story of a Syrian woman, daughter of an English woman and a Syrian heart surgeon, Dunya Noor who, growing up in Syria, does not behave either in the way a young woman is expected to behave in Syria nor does she uncritically support the (Hafez) Assad regime. When she refuses to attend a voluntary demonstration, her mother takes her back to England before there are serious problems. There she meets another Syrian, Hilal, who is a physicist, studying the Moon. They live together but, when Hilal learns of his father’s death six months after the event, they decide to return. Hilal disappears and Dunya, with the help of a singer she meets in a men-only café, tries to track him down. This is a fascinating feminist, anti-Assad love story.

Esther Kinsky: Am Fluss (River)

The latest addition to my website is Esther Kinsky‘s Am Fluss (River). This is a beautiful book, narrated by an unnamed narrator but clearly based on the author. She has temporarily moved to London – she has no clear reason why – specifically to the very unfashionable area of Hackney, through which flows the River Lea. Part of the book is about the appeal to her and effect on her and her memories of both the Lea and several other rivers, including the Rhine by whose banks she grew up as a child. However, she also portrays the local community, many of whose denizens are immigrants and foreigners like her and shows their individuality. She photographs the river, recalls other rivers she has seen and brings back memories. Above all, her writing is superb and we cannot fail to be entranced by her ability to make the ordinary less ordinary.

Ali Smith: Like

The latest addition to my website is Ali Smith‘s Like. This is Ali Smith’s first novel and a very accomplished novel it is. It tells two related stories. Amy was destined for an academic career at Cambridge University. She had had lesbian relationships and, in particular, she was having an on-again off-again affair with Aisling McCarthy, a Scottish woman. It all went drastically wrong. Amy has had a breakdown and now is living in Scotland with her seven-year old daughter, Kate, working on a caravan site and apparently unable to read. Aisling McCarthy went on to become a famous actress but seems to have dropped out. We follow her lesbian relationships at school, culminating in her meeting Amy, and later following Amy to Cambridge, where she causes the downfall not only of Amy but another woman with whom she had had an affair. The story is narrated from the present day, first by Amy and Kate and then by Aisling. Smith tells an excellent story and pulls us into the story of the two women and young girl.

Women are better writers than men

This provocative headline comes from an article by Irish writer, John Boyne. It is, of course, absolute nonsense. Women are not better writers than men. I can only assume The Guardian published it to be provocative and get more hits on their page (they are rather desperate at the moment). I would, of course, point out that men writers are not better than women writers. Some men writers are better than some women writers and some women writers are better than some men writers but to categorically say that all of one sex is better than all of the other sex is rubbish or even that most of one sex is better than most of the other sex is wrong.

Of course, I am well aware that publishing (including publishers, agents, critics, bloggers and so forth is sexist (and racist). Sadly, as we have been reading in this Harvey Weinstein/Donald Trump era, so is the world. I have now touched on this issue on several occasions in this blog: here, here, here and here. Others worthier than me continue to rightly point this out. In my end of the year review (appearing, unlike many others, at the end of the year, i.e. 31 December) I will show that, despite a conscious effort, women writers still lag massively behind men on my site. Unlike Boyne, many of the writers I enjoy are male (though quite a few are female).

Amazon’s most-read book this year

If you look at Amazon charts and scroll down, you will see Top 10 Most Read Fiction Books in 2017. Half of them are by women. Admittedly most of that half is taken up by J K Rowling and the remaining one by a book that sold well because of the TV adaptation. The Most Listened to on Alexa book was also by a woman (yes, J K again). However, the top five a books were all by men. This is not, of course, what Boyne was discussing.

He starts off with the literary tea-towel, an ubiquitous tea-towel – Twelve writers, supposedly our greatest ever, and not a vagina between them. He then somewhat ruins his case by suggesting Molly Keane, Edna O’Brien and Maria Edgeworth (but not more worthy Irish women writers such as Lady Gregory or Elizabeth Bowen). You can find a much longer list of Irish women writers here. I am sticking to dead writers, though O’Brien is alive. We will come to living ones in a moment. Frankly, I do not think you can compare Molly Keane, Edna O’Brien and Maria Edgeworth to Joyce, Shaw, Yeats and Co. You can see the tea-towel here and, if you cannot read it, the writers are: J M Synge, Flann O’Brien, Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Beckett, W B Yeats, Brendan Behan, Oscar Wilde, Patrick Kavanagh, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey and George Bernard Shaw. You could make a case against Kavanagh and maybe against Behan but the other ten are, in the opinion of most objective critics, superior to Molly Keane, Edna O’Brien and Maria Edgeworth. This is not sexist, it is reality. It may well be that women did not get the opportunities back then but it is generally agreed there was an Irish Literary Renaissance earlier last century and with very few exceptions (such as the aforementioned Lady Gregory) it was mainly men.

Not so much sexist as plain wrong

Boyne goes on to justify his arguments by focussing on the likes of V S Naipaul, Time magazine’s espousal of Jonathan Franzen as the greatest living novelist and the macho pack of John Updike, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. This is shooting fish in a barrel and the whole macho writing style was very wittily rebuked by Helena Fitzgerald here. We can all agree that Franzen, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth are massively overrated (as are most of those in Fitzgerald’s list). And we can all agree that sexism is rampant in the literary world.

A better book by a woman

Again, Boyne goes on to spoil his case. He picks as the best women novelists he has read this year Min Jin Lee, Polly Clark, Elizabeth Day, Molly McCloskey, Gail Honeyman, Kamila Shamsie, Francesca Segal and Celeste Ng. These are all doubtless fine writers but any vaguely competent critic could trump him with male writers as good or better than these eight. Instead I will just trump him with women writers I have read this year that are better than his women writers: Naomi Alderman, Rosa Beltrán, Carmen Boullosa, Teolinda Gersão, Sarah Hall, Nicole Krauss, Maria Gabriela Llansol, Valeria Luiselli, Elena Poniatowska, Joanna Scott, Ece Temelkuran and a few others. But I could do exactly the same with male writers.

Not the greatest living novelist

Oh dear! It gets worse. The Greatest Living Novelist? Easy. It’s Anne Tyler. Or maybe Sarah Waters. Or Margaret Atwood. Or Rose Tremain.. Really? Has he read César Aira, J M Coetzee, Peter Handke, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ismail Kadare, Javier Marías, Haruki Murakami, Cees Nooteboom, Orhan Pamuk, Thomas Pynchon, Mario Vargas Llosa or Enrique Vila-Matas, not to mention Carmen Boullosa, Anne Enright (an Irish novelist mentioned in his article for her mathematical abilities rather than her literary ones), Minae Mizumura, Elena Poniatowska or Marilynne Robinson and many others? Rose Tremain as the greatest living novelist? There must be hundreds better.

And what about Irish women writers? Of the writers he mentions in his list of women writers he has read, there are two Americans, one Korean-American, one Canadian one Englishwoman, one Pakistani and one Scot. He does mention three women writers who have broken through – Sara Baume, Belinda McKeon and Kit de Waal – two Irish and one born in Birmingham (England), albeit with one Irish parent. But where are the other living Irish women writers such as Niamh Boyce, Sarah Crossan, Emma Donoghue, Catherine Dunn, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Deirdre Madden, Audrey Magee, Eimear McBride, Lisa McInerney, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Maggie O’Farrell, Sally Rooney and undoubtedly many others that I am not aware of/have forgotten?

If Boyne prefers reading women writers that it is entirely his prerogative and good luck to him. Just as women who only read women writers and men who only read men writers are missing out of a whole load of good novels, so Boyne is clearly denying himself some worthwhile reading but chacun à son goût. However, to claim that women are better writers than men is nonsense and I am sure that he knows it. Yes, we need to do much more to ensure that women writers are encouraged, published and read. Yes, men can be pompous asses but it’s not just writers. I have even heard that male politicians can be idiots as well. We need to encourage writers of both sexes and not subject them to double standards and we all need to read writers for the quality of their work and not for the nature of their chromosomes.

Maria Gabriela Llansol: Geografia de Rebeldes (Geography of Rebels trilogy)

The latest addition to my website is Maria Gabriela Llansol‘s Geografia de Rebeldes (Geography of Rebels trilogy). This is Llansol’s first work published in English. The first two books focus on Ana del Mercado y Peñalosa, a historical person and friend of St John of the Cross. Ana interacts with St John but also with other important characters, from European intellectual history, including, in particular, Thomas Müntzer. Her interaction is spiritual, not least as she was not a contemporary or many of these peoples. Through the use of imagery and the voices of the characters, she conveys the importance of these people in European intellectual life and history, while also conveying the role of community of women, the role of nature and a radical view of religion. It is a beautiful book, generally eschewing plot and other features of a conventional novel, which may make it challenging but very much worthwhile.

Ece Temelkuran: Düğümlere Üfleyen Kadınlar (Women Who Blow on Knots)

The latest addition to my website is Ece Temelkuran‘s Düğümlere Üfleyen Kadınlar (Women Who Blow on Knots). This is a superb feminist novel about four women – the unnamed Turkish narrator, a Tunisian dancer and hacker, an Egyptian academic and a somewhat mysterious older woman who is Amazigh – who start off in Tunisia in the Arab Spring and then set out on an overland journey to Syria, via Libya (with anti-Gaddafi guerrillas), Alexandria and Beirut. The older Amazigh woman wants to kill an ex-lover, the Egyptian and Tunisian women gradually reveal secrets of their past and all four show that a revolution is not a revolution unless women play a major role in it and women’s issues are to the fore. It is a brilliant adventure story but also a novel raising key topics of great importance to our current world.

Margarita Khemlin: Дознаватель (The Investigator)

The latest addition to my website is Margarita Khemlin‘s Дознаватель (The Investigator). This is a complicated murder mystery, set in Chernihiv (Chernigov in this book), Khemlin’s home town, in the Ukraine in the early 1950s. The eponymous investigator, Police Captain Mikhail Ivanovich Tsupkoy, is not Jewish but the victim, Lilia Vorobeichik, stabbed, and most of the people he deals with during the case are Jewish, as was Khemlin. The murderer is soon found. Her boyfriend, an actor, confesses and soon after kills himself, without leaving a note. However, Mikhail is not convinced and continues the investigation, getting more and more embroiled in the case and in the various activities of the Jewish population. Indeed, his involvement has a serious effect on his marriage, his job and his mental stability. Khemlin tells an excellent and complicated story with something of an unexpected outcome but also shows us the treatment of the Jews in Ukraine and the Soviet Union