Month: February 2012

The Great British Novel

John Lanchester's Capital

I have yet to read John Lanchester’s Capital or, indeed, any of his other books, but will probably do so in the next few weeks. However, I was intrigued by the heading to the review of his novel in the Guardian. The online edition merely said Capital by John Lanchester – review. However, the print edition said The Hunt for the Great British Novel. This raises a few points. Firstly, nowhere in Theo Tait’s review does it mention the Great British Novel, either suggesting Capital is the Great British Novel or discussing the concept. Secondly, what it does do is say if you want to read John Lanchester’s great London novel, then read Mr Phillips. I will ignore the sub’s giant leap from Tait’s suggestion of John Lanchester‘s great London novel to the Great British Novel in general but find it interesting that the assumption is that the Great British Novel may well be the Great London Novel (or vice versa). As I will shortly show, this is very much not the case. Thirdly, there is the interesting idea of the Great British Novel. The concept comes, of course, from the Great American Novel, on which I have a relatively long page on my website. The US literary world is moderately obsessed with this idea and it comes up frequently in US literary discourse, most recently after the publication of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as well as the debate on sexism in the litcrit world. Indeed, as my page shows, there are several novels published in the US called The Great American Novel, most famously Philip Roth’s. Further down on my page, I have links to discussions of other Great…Novels but there is none relating to the Great British Novel. If you google the term, you will find a few hits, such as the Guardian’s very brief intro to the idea and a very feeble attempt to have a joint effort to write the Great British Novel, which leads to a now defunct site. But on the whole, we Brits don’t seem too keen on the concept though we have contributed to various best of lists .

A Scots Quair

So is there a Great British Novel? Firstly, we need to start with the word British. As I mentioned above, saying that the Great British Novel and the Great London Novel are synonymous is wrong not just because many great English novels were written away from and about other regions of England, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish might be even more upset by the idea. So let’s divide the Great British Novel into the Great English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Novels. So let’s start with the Scots. For me, the Scots Quair is the easy winner, though a case could be made for Lanark as well as for Kidnapped, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Waverley (or other Scott novels). My Scotland home page has various lists with suggestions.

Under Milk Wood

Wales is trickier. The two obvious choices are not novels. The Mabinogion is definitely the Welsh classic but it is a collection of legendary tales, not a novel. Under Milk Wood is a radio drama, later made into a film but not a novel. It is, however, the 20th century Welsh classic. While there are a lot of fine Welsh novels, I cannot say that any one is the Great Welsh Novel, not least because the Welsh, like many other nationalities, have been more interested in poetry than prose, as Harri Webb’s poem shows.

Táin Bó Cúalnge

Northern Ireland is going to have to go the same route as Wales, as its great novel is not a novel but a legend, namely The Táin Bó Cúalnge (Cattle Raid at Cooley). Some (particularly the Protestants) may argue that this should be associated with the Republic of Ireland but it was very much part of the Ulster Cycle when Ulster played a major role in pre-Protestant, pre-Cromwell history. Apart from that, At Swim Two Birds might be a possibility, as O’Brien was born in what is now Northern Ireland but I am not sure that he would have wanted to be associated with what we now call Northern Ireland. There are other fine novels from Northern Ireland but probably none could be considered the Great Northern Irish Novel.

Brideshead Revisited

Mrs. Dalloway

Which brings us to England. The 20th/21st centuries are singularly lacking in Great Novels. Brideshead Revisited could possibly be a candidate, as could Mrs. Dalloway or Heart of Darkness. I would stake a claim for Crash though I am not sure many would agree. However, it is probably to the 19th century that we should turn for the Great English Novel. While Mrs. Dalloway is set in London, it is hardly a London novel. The same could be said for Crash. The other two certainly are not, set primarily in Oxford/Yorkshire (given that Brideshead is based on Castle Howard) and the Congo, respectively. The best 19th century novels are even less London novels.

Beauchamp's Career

Wuthering Heights

You can see what I consider to be the best 19th century English novels as they are in my Best 19th century novels list. Beauchamp’s Career and Vanity Fair are set partially in London and partially elsewhere. Bleak House and the Palliser novels are set in London. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Jude the Obscure, Lavengro, Middlemarch and Erewhon are not. All have claim to be the Great English Novel but I would be hard pressed to pick one as the Great English Novel.

Part of the issue with Capital is that, because of the current situation, the Great British/English Novel should be about finance and, for that reason, Capital has been put forward. Till I have read it, I will be unable to say for sure but, I suspect, it is no more worthy of the title than A Week in December, Other People’s Money and other recent financial novels. I will probably come back to this topic of the great British/English novel but let me just conclude by saying that a) it is not clear what is, if any, the Great British/English Novel and b) it is certain that, as yet, no 20th or 21st century novel can lay claim to the title.

The novels of Laos

A glance at my website will show that I am interested in reading and promoting the novels from smaller countries. I have, for example, novels from Cape Verde, Burundi, the Faroe Islands and Niue, as well as from other smaller countries. I have not visited Cape Verde, Burundi, the Faroe Islands or Niue and almost certainly will never do so. Just as I have not visited and never will visit many of the other countries on my website, though I have just counted and find that I have visited sixty-two of the countries, though, of course, that includes some duplications e.g. I have visited Catalonia and Spain.

As a result I do spend some time poking around the web and various publications, trying to find out what novels have been written in these countries and, in particular, what are available in Western European languages that I can read. Part of the problem is that the novel is primarily a Western tradition, with one theory being that it was invented by Samuel Richardson with his Pamela. This is, of course, false. Not only were there other English candidates, there were numerous other candidates from elsewhere. Margaret Anne Doody‘s seminal The True History of the Novel is essential reading on the subject and highly recommended.

Chariton's Callirhoe (Loeb)

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Chariton’s Callirhoe is the first novel she discusses (you can read it here) and there are several other Ancient Greek novels, e.g. this collection. But obviously we could make a claim for the much earlier Epic of Gilgamesh and other Eastern epics. Which brings me back to the issue at hand, namely the fact that the novel is primarily a Western tradition. One of the reasons many countries do not have many novels to read is that their culture did not produce novels but focused rather on poetry, myths/fables and tales. When looking for novels from many of these countries, I easily find examples of poetry, fables and tales but far fewer novels.

The White Nightjar

Which brings me to Laos. Yes, we have finally got here, albeit by a somewhat tortuous route. This link, for example, clearly shows that Laos does have modern novelists but, as far as I can determine, they have not been translated into any Western European language. Anatole-Roger Peltier, for example, has translated classic Lao works into French and English (see The White Nightjar above) but not modern literature. Outhine Bounyavong may well be Laos’ best-known writer but only a collection of his stories has been published in English. When the Sky Turns Upside Down is a collection of stories by two Lao sisters. There is a Thai bookshop selling Lao books but they tend to be books about the history and culture of Laos written by foreigners. The same applies to Monument Books. In short, as far as I can determine, there is no modern Lao novel available in a Western European language. If this is incorrect, I would be grateful for any further information. I look forward to some enterprising publisher taking up the mantle and publishing a Lao novel in a Western European language.


The latest review on my website is of Sarah Quigley‘s The Conductor, set in Leningrad during the siege of that city by the Germans. Though I did not mention it in my review there was one minor annoyance with the book. The characters used plays on words in English which would not work in Russian. For example, Karl Eliasberg states that he is a conductor (as in orchestral conductor) but the lady he is speaking to thinks he means bus conductor. However, in Russian, an orchestral conductor is дирижер, while a bus conductor is кондуктор. A minor point but mildly annoying (to me, at least).

Anna Akhmatova

Amber Room

The blurb on the back points out rightly, that many of the cultural elite left Leningrad during the siege. This is certainly the case, particularly as regards musicians but two did stay behind, at least initially – Olga Bergholz and Anna Akhmatova. Akhmatova was born near Odessa but grew up in Tsarkoye Selo, about fifteen miles from St. Petersburg, home of an imperial palace, the Catherine Palace, famous for its Amber Room (which may have been destroyed or stolen by either the Germans or the Soviets but has since been restored). She lived in St Petersburg but was hounded by the authorities. Her first husband was shot and her second husband died in the gulag. Her son spent many years in the gulag but did survive. Her poetry was censored and, for many years, only circulated in samizdat. She is considered to be one of Russia’s greatest poets and certainly Russia’s greatest woman poet.

But Akhmatova is not the only writer associated with St. Petersburg. Though born in Moscow, Dostoyevsky spent much of his adult life in St. Petersburg, at least when not in exile. There are a couple of novels on my site which feature Dostoevsky and St. Petersburg – Leonid Tsypkin‘s Лето в Бадене (Summer in Baden-Baden) and J M Coetzee‘s The Master of Petersburg. Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Mayakovsky, Blok, Mandelstam, Brodsky, Zamyatin and Nabokov are just some of the writers associated with St. Petersburg (Petrograd, Leningrad).

The Bronze Horseman

However, my favourite and the one who, for me, typifies St. Petersburg, is Andrei Bely and his novel Петербург (Petersburg). This novel which, amazingly enough, has been translated four times into English, has as its main characters a city (St. Petersburg) and a bronze statue – the Bronze Horseman and the poem written about it. If you have ever been to St. Petersburg, you will know that the photo does not and cannot do justice to the magnificence of Falconet’s statue, set by the River Neva. Bely’s novel is, in my view, one of the great novels of the twentieth century and is on my list of the ten best Russian novels of the century and would be top if I did my lists in numerical order. It is also on my list of the best novels of the century and while it would not be top, it would certainly be high up.

There are a few other novels on my site where St. Petersburg appears – Angela Carter‘s Nights at the Circus, David Mitchell‘s Ghostwritten, Kathy Acker‘s Don Quixote as well as Sarah Quigley‘s The Conductor, all, of course, very different novels. I haven’t read Metro Stop Dostoevsky but it had good reviews and seems to sum up St. Petersburg well from the point of view of an outsider.

Vanished Kingdoms, Small Countries

A cursory look at my website will show my interest in small countries, by which I mean not just nation-states that are small in size, such as the Caribbean and Pacific island countries, but countries that are not, for various reasons, nation-states. Many of these countries have never been nation-states in the modern sense of the phrase, though may well have had some sort of independent status many years ago, before modern times. Others are really just ethnic groupings within a modern state and probably do not aspire to being a separate independent state. But they appear on my website because they do have some sort of literary status, producing or having produced some works of literature as, of course, most peoples have done at some time in their history. A quick look at some of these show that some will be generally well known while others will be generally little known to the Western world. Countries like Scotland, Brittany and Catalonia are generally well-known. They are part of modern nation states but, at least for some of the population, aspire to autonomous or independent status. Others such as Abkhazia and Chechnya are known because they have been in the news, usually because of some political and/or military event(s).

Pitsunda Cathedral, Abkhazia (©

Odigitrievsky Cathedral, Ulan-Ude, Buryatia

I imagine, however, that few westerners will be too familiar with Sorbia or Buryatia, though Germans may be familiar with the Sorbians under the deprecatory name of wendisch. A quick browse will probably show others that are also not so well-known. I am very much in favour of balkanisation. The late jazz critic Mike Zwerin once wrote an excellent book called A Case for the Balkanization of Practically Everyone. However, this post is about another book, Norman DaviesVanished Kingdoms.

Davies is writing about those European kingdoms (though not all were kingdoms) that have now become extinct, often, as he says, because it is the victors that write the history. It is a superb book and one that I cannot recommend too highly, even if, on occasion, he gets on his high horse and starts preaching. While I was aware of some of the places he mentions, I was not aware of many of them and, even those that I had heard of, I was not aware of much the information he gave. Take Burgundy,for example. He states that it had fifteen different versions over history and, at various times, included parts of what are now France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Belgium. Burgundians controlled chunks of Italy and even occupied Athens for a while, where Catalan became the de facto official language. For most people, I imagine, it remains associated with wine and a region of France and no more.

Burgundy wine

Savoy Palace

Did you know that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was, at one time, the largest country in Europe? Did you know that the Savoy Hotel was once the Savoy Palace, built on land granted by Henry VIII to the Duke of Savoy, an independent duchy covering parts of what are now France and Italy? That Prussia was formed from the Teutonic Knights? Or that Ruthenia did actually exist as an independent country, albeit for less than a day, under the name Carpatho-Ukraine? Or that there was a kingdom centred on Dumbarton, that stretched down South as far as Rochdale? And that this kingdom was British (i.e.pre-Roman Celtic) and not Gaelic? All these and loads of many other interesting stories can be found in this wonderful book. It all makes you rather sad that some of these places have disappeared and have, in all too many cases, been completely forgotten, even by their inhabitants.

As Davies rightly points out, we tend to think of most countries in the West being permanent fixtures but as we know, e.g. from the Soviet Union, this is definitely not the case. It is a certainty that many countries we now take for granted will soon disappear. In recent years we have seen a whole host of countries go and a whole host come into being. Last year South Sudan came into being. There are two possible changes in Europe in the near future. Scotland is seeking independence while Belgium may split into two. The countries Davies discusses presumably all seemed to their inhabitants to be more or less permanent, except, of course, for Carpatho-Ukraine, though some did seem to change with monotonous regularity, as bits were added and bits taken away. So you may expect to see one or two new countries on my website in the years to come and I shall certainly look forward to reading their literature.

Adam Mars-Jones

A Mars Bar

Marianne Faithfull

Private Eye wittingly refers to him as Adam Mars Bar. Whether this is just a feeble pun on his name or some reference to the alleged Mars Bar scandal, I don’t know and I don’t really care. In any case, this week Adam Mars-Jones won the Hatchet Job prize for most scathing review, a review of Michael Cunningham‘s By Nightfall. I have not read By Nightfall and probably won’t. The only book of Cunningham’s that I have read – A Home at the End of the World – I was not terribly impressed with, though I have not read The Hours, his Virginia Woolf novel which got a lot of praise and was made into a successful film. Mars-Jones’ beef with Cunningham is that the novel is, to use his words, armour-plated with literary references . He claims that this makes Cunningham’s book look lost. He also does not like Cunningham’s Thoughts About Art. I am not sure that this is a valid criticism but, as I have not read the book, I cannot say now annoying it is or how much it detracts from the book. Frankly, I preferred Geoff Dyer’s review of Julian Barnes‘s A Sense of Ending which, of course, won the Man Booker Prize. I am likewise not a great fan of Barnes. I thought he peaked with Flaubert’s Parrot and, while his novels are certainly, on the whole, good, they are not great. I have not read A Sense of Ending and am not sure if I will, though it does have the advantage of being short. However, Dyer’s comments on the book – It isn’t terrible, it is just so . . . average. It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well written: excellent in its averageness! sort of sum up Barnes’ work.

Here are the actual reviews that were short-listed:

  • Geoff Dyer on Julian Barnes’ A Sense of Ending
  • Adam Mars-Jones on Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall
  • Mary Beard on Rome by Robert Hughes (Reader, be warned. Skip the first 200 pages and start this book at chapter six; The “ancient” parts of this book are littered with howlers)
  • Camilla Long on With the Kisses of His Mouth by Monique Roffey (What she has actually produced is 480 pages of sub-Marie Claire overshare, a pointlessly explicit, infuriatingly naive and, at times, plain offputting slither through a series of — wilfully? Maliciously? — unedited sexual slurpings.)
  • Lachlan Mackinnon on Clavics by Geoffrey Hill (Writing this bad cannot earn the kind of attention Hill demands; he is wasting his time and trying to waste ours.)
  • Leo Robson on Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford (Richard Bradford considers himself the man for the job, but I doubt that anyone else will. It is neither exciting nor penetrating. It is neither coherent nor convincing. It is characterised by surreal laziness (testimonies are pasted straight on to the page) and surreal bossiness. It is full of repetition, contradictions and small, avoidable errors: Bradford seems to get things slightly wrong almost as a matter of principle. It is also full of spectacularly bad writing.)
  • Jenni Russell on Honey Money by Catherine Hakim (Honey Money, however, is an acute disappointment. It looks like a book. It has hard covers, 372 pages, chapter headings, dozens of sources and footnotes, a fat price ticket and a press release from its publishers. But looks are deceptive. There is no structured argument being worked through in its pages. Instead, bewildered readers find themselves presented with repetitious, rambling, contradictory, ill-argued assertions, without the faintest sense from the author that she has written these sentences before.)
  • David Sexton on The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy (With Carol Ann Duffy, there’s too much verbal prancing, too little that’s original being said, particularly when the poems are not personal. You end the book thinking that if this is poetry, it’s a trivial art.)

As I have read none of the books under review, I am not competent to judge whether the reviews are fair or accurate. Of course, the reviews are subjective. Somebody thought A Sense of Ending was good enough to win the Man Booker Prize, though now is not the time to get into the politics of that. However, I do welcome the manifesto of the Hatchet Job of the year, not least as there are far too many reviews giving fulsome praise to sub-standard works. There are lots of reasons for this but probably the most common is logrolling – you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. People who review books are probably a very small set of people and they all know one another so do not want to offend and also want good reviews for their works. To a certain extent, bloggers get away from this and can be more brutal. Some are and some aren’t. I try to avoid books I don’t think that I will like but there are a few reviews on my site which, while not hatchet jobs are highly critical. Writers I consider overrated, such as D H Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway and John Updike are included because of their (in my view undeserved) reputations. I have written critical reviews of authors I admire. And I slammed the Philip Roth for the Nobel Prize bandwagon. But I have been reluctant to do more because I would rather spend my time reading books I like than those I don’t like and, unlike the Hatchet Job reviewers, I can choose.

Which brings us back to Adam Mars-Jones. Way back when, Granta produced a list of best young British novelists. They produced another such list ten years later. (They also produced a third list but it is not relevant to my point here.) If you study the first two lists carefully, you will notice that they have one thing in common – Adam Mars-Jones. Yes, Mars-Jones was twice nominated as one of the best young British novelists. As well as being on both lists, Mars-Jones also had one other feature unique to him. In neither case was he a novelist! His first novel was published in 1993, just after the second list has been published. Why was he on both lists without having published a single novel? Potential maybe? I have no idea. His second novel was published in 2008, fifteen years after the second Granta list. It was called Pilcrow. By coincidence, I tried to read it this week. I say that I tried to read it but, unusually though not unknown for me, I had to abandon it.

A pilcrow

A cedilla

A Mars-Jones (the one on the left)

Let’s start with title. Do you know what a pilcrow is? No, nor did I. This is a pilcrow – ¶. It’s that paragraph mark thing that you see in the Bible and sometimes in older legal documents which, as he points out, is difficult to find on a computer keyboard (as it is not there). I would have called it a paragraph mark. The Shady Characters blog has three aricles on it, if you want to know more – one, two and three. The book is the first of a trilogy, with the second being called cedilla. I do know what a cedilla is (it is the squiggly thing on the c here – ç) as it is used in French and Portuguese, which I read, as well as in other languages. So Mars-Jones criticises Michael Cunningham for being too arty and using too many literary references, yet names his books after obscure punctuation marks which the average reader certainly will not have heard of. Mmmmm. But my main complaint about the book, at least the first hundred pages, is that it is boring. John Cromer has rheumatic fever. He stays in bed. He plays games with his mother. Nothing much happens. As James Woods points out in his review it is about the banalities of life, it has dull patches and it boldly refuses the everyday consolations of plot and dramatic structure. Well, I generally like plot and dramatic structure and found Pilcrow just too boring to be worth continuing. Yes, I know we are going to get into the gay man coming of age stuff which more or less worked in The Stranger’s Child but I really have not the patience to pursue it in this book. So I will read Mars-Jones’ scathing reviews but probably leave his novels alone.

Kindle issues Part 2

In a previous post, I mentioned a couple of issues I had with the Kindle. On my holiday in New Zealand, I did have one issue with the Kindle. Not everyone knows that the Kindle has a web browser. When you go to settings you won’t see anything called web browser. They call it Experimental because it is, well, experimental. The UK Kindles used to offer 3G browsing but no more. You can only browse using Wi-Fi. I took both my Viliv N5 and my Kindle to New Zealand. The latter, of course, was primarily for reading books, with the intention of using the Viliv for web browsing. Unfortunately, the Viliv uses crappy old Windows (© Microsoft) so it did at times have difficult connecting to WiFi. I then reverted to the Kindle.

Advantages of the Kindle over the Viliv:

1. It connected far more often and far easier to WiFi than the Viliv.
2. The type face was bigger.

Advantages of the Viliv over the Kindle

1. It had a keyboard. Typing with a virtual keyboard is a pain.
2. When it worked, it was faster.
3. When it worked, it did not freeze and had no difficulty with more complex websites.

General problems with the Kindle as a web browser.

1. It was slow.
2. It froze.
3. Google at times did not like it, saying that it was using an outdated version of Safari.
4. It was monochrome.
5. Difficult to move around the screen.
6. On some sites, it put an outline box over part of the screen. Only by playing around did I realise this was a zoom function.
7. The main problem was that it used a huge amount of battery and, annoyingly, seemed to temporarily hinder recharging. On more than one occasion, after using the web but having switched off WiFi, it did not recharge. On some occasions, it seemed to be recharge but the light did not change colour and the batter icon seemed to suggest it had not charged. Only by unplugging and plugging in again did the light turn green and the battery icon update.

To be fair, it is not intended as a web browser and Amazon had said it was experimental and it was a useful addition, particularly if you have no ready access to anything else. For reading email and basic stuff, it is useful. I hope that a more sophisticated, less battery-using browser will soon come.

Andrew Chubb

Fox Glacier

One the pleasures on our holiday in New Zealand was meeting lots of nice people, such as the people in the bookshops mentioned in the previous post. One other very nice person we did meet was when we visited Fox Glacier (not very good photo at right). We saw him eagerly photographing everything – plants, rocks and so on. We assumed that he was a professional photographer. However, when we started talking to him, we found that he was a pianist and composer from Australia, called Andrew Chubb. He was a charming and interesting man, who plays the piano professionally. He said that he was interested in and influenced by Philip Glass, a composer I also like. He has his own website, where you can listen to some of his own compositions (sadly not yet available commercially, though you can buy a couple of scores).

Bar Beach

On the photography front, he collaborated with photographer Allan Chawner on an exhibition for which Chawner provided the photos and Andrew the music. It is about Bar Beach, a beach near Newcastle, New South Wales (photo at right). Here are links to other videos of his playing. I am looking forward to his coming to England, if he ever does.

New Zealand

I haven’t posted for a while as I have been on holiday to New Zealand. See obligatory pictures of Milford Sound and a kaka bird below.

Milford Sound


The purpose of the holiday was just that – a holiday to see the beauties of New Zealand which, I must say, were well worth the very long journey. Literature definitely took second place. While many towns did seem to have bookshops, which was nice, finding New Zealand literature was trickier, as most shops stocked what you might find in any UK bookshop. The first town we went to was Nelson, in the South Island, and we visited Page and Blackmore where a nice lady recommended a few books, which I hope to get around to reading. It was not till we got to Dunedin that we found a first-class second-hand bookshop, called Scribes (their website seems to be down). It is up in the university area, near the excellent museum. The owner/manager admitted that he did not read much New Zealand literature but, nevertheless, was knowledgeable on the subject and had a good section on it, so I made a few more purchases to add to my list. In particular, I bought a couple of works by my favourite New Zealand writer, Lloyd Jones. Again, I hope to read them soon but…

One New Zealand writer I have yet to read is Janet Frame, though I own several of her books. While staying in Oamaru, we did visit her house at 56 Eden Street, a fairly ordinary house in a residential street, where she lived from the age of six with her parents and siblings, till she left Oamaru after competing secondary school. Photos of her house, typewriter and bedroom below.

Janet Frame house in Oamaru

Janet Frame's typewriter

Janet Frame's bedroom

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