Month: October 2012

Books I haven’t read Part 2

Does anyone outside France read Anatole France anymore?

In my last post, I talked about the books I hadn’t read either because it was difficult to get hold of them or because they were not available in a language I can readily read. There used to be a dinner party game – it may well still exist – where you had to name a famous book that you had not read. People would trot out Ulysses, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, all the usual suspects. Many people are actually quite proud that they have not read any of these. I have to admit that I have read all of these and, as far as I can tell, all the standard 19th century novels in the Western Canon and beyond. I have a list on my site of the ones I like. I must admit that I have not read all the novels in Harold Bloom‘s list (Anatole France!) but I have read most of them, though I don’t think that I would agree with his list. However, were I to attend one of these dinner parties, there is only one omission I can think of that I would admit to and that is To Kill a Mockingbird. It is both popular and considered a classic but I have not read it. I have seen the film and while, it is not a bad film, it is the film that put me off reading the book. It seems so earnest and self-righteous, really not my kind of book. But I will probably read it one day. Of course, talking about books you have not read has now been sanctified.

Herta Müller – still unread (by me)

As the world now knows, Mo Yan won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. I have to admit that I have not read anything by Mo Yan, though I do own a few of his books and will get round to reading him sometime. I do often find that the Nobel Prize winner is announced and I find that I have not read any of the winner’s works. I had read much of Naipaul, Doris Lessing and Vargas Llosa but I only read Coetzee, Jelinek, Le Clézio and Pamuk after they won and I still haven’t read any Herta Müller (but I will do).

Women writers I have read

One of the many problems in trying to do an all-encompassing literary website is that friends do make suggestions. I do welcome these but there are occasions when I think to myself that either I had not thought about including that writer (but should have done) or had thought about the writer but did not think him/her appropriate to include. Various female friends have made suggestions about women writers I really should read and they are quite right, as the number of women writers on my site is pitifully low (subject of a future blog post). (If you are wondering who the writers are in the photo, they are, top row, Kathy Acker and Virginia Woolf, second row, Chiew-Siah Tei and Fausta Cialente, third row, Anita Desai and Joyce Carol Oates).

A Moldovan novel to read

The problem is that I have a huge list – and I mean a huge list – of books I haven’t read and really ought to read. These include all the obvious ones (and, by obvious ones, I mean that while they may not be obvious to British or US readers, they are obvious to readers of other countries) but also the obscurities that I think should get some exposure and, of course, those from lesser-known countries (coming up in the not too distant future, novels from Moldova, Timor-Leste, Azerbaijan and Kosovo). Of course, I browse through the web every day, looking at blogs, websites, online magazines and the like and every day I found something else I really ought to read. I moved three years ago and, at the (firm) request of my significant other (as the new house was much smaller) I got rid of around 7000 books, about half of my stock. I was left with around 7000, most of which are fiction. Since then, of course, I have added many more (far too many), not helped by the fact that I have acquired a Kindle and added ebooks as well. Determining whether I should read (or re-read) that great French novelist before that great Bolivian one is not always an easy decision. Every time I look at my library (or the database I have of all my books), I groan at the books I haven’t read and really should read but know I won’t get round to for a while, if ever. I have a sweatshirt that reads So Many Books, So Little Time (mine is blue). How true! Even writing this post is distressing and I dare not, once again, check my books to determine the hundreds, possibly thousands of books I really should now be reading. So I am now going to return to reading my fascinating Spanish novel and then I will read either the new (in English translation) Pamuk or an Argentinian novel and then… Do others have this problem?

Books I haven’t read Part 1

Not available outside Venezuela

One of the many joys of the Internet is the ability to find out about all the many books that you have not read and, in many cases, will never be able to read. Yesterday, for example, I was looking at a post on contemporary Venezuelan literature (the post is fortunately in both English and Spanish). Guillermo Parra, author of the post, makes a telling point – there’s a big problem: Venezuelan books can’t be found outside Venezuela. They don’t circulate neither in Latin America, nor here in the US. Nor, he might have added, in Europe. I am fairly ignorant of Venezuelan literature as, I imagine, are most people outside Venezuela. I do own fifteen Venezuelan novels, of which I have read only one, which is also available in English. It was, however, written over eighty years ago. As Iván Thays states in his blog (post in Spanish only), if there is a boom in the Venezuelan novel, it is only domestic and for the same reason mentioned above – Venezuelan books do not circulate much outside Venezuela. He concludes la literatura venezolana actual es una incógnita [Contemporary Venezuelan literature is an unknown]. I checked out some of the books mentioned in the post and they are not available on Amazon (including the still not very good Spanish Amazon), other on-line Spanish booksellers, the usual book search sites or anywhere else. I could probably track them down from a Venezuelan online bookseller but when I go to the a site of the publisher of most Venezuelan novels, it refers me to a chain of bookshops that do not seem to sell books online. Even if I did find a Venezuelan bookseller online, the shipping costs would be prohibitive. Anyone who has tried to order a Spanish book from Spain through ABE or other similar site will realise that cost of shipping one book from Spain to the UK is often approaching £20. I can’t imagine that a Venezuelan bookseller would charge much less. I have visited Venezuela once – to Isla Margarita on a Caribbean cruise, for one day, but I doubt that I will ever return, though who knows? The result is that , at least as far as my site is concerned, contemporary Venezuelan literature will remain more or less, as Iván Thays puts it, una incógnita.

Not great Venezuelan literature

Of course, for me, all is not lost. I do have quite a few Venezuelan novels already and will probably be able to eventually track down some others here and there. For people unable to read Spanish, there is a limited choice. The Reading Round the World bloggers have tracked down a few in English. Caribousmom has found, how can I put this delicately?, a work which is not great literature, by a Venezuelan living in Denver (see cover at right). Anne Morgan has gone with Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s Enfermedad, translated as Sickness. She also mentions a few others in her main list, though two of those (Suniaga and Torres) are not available in English translation (though there is a Suniaga available in German) and the only Federico Vegas in English is a book about architecture. Falke, which she mentions, is not available in English. Shoshana mentions only a book about Venezuela, not by a Venezuelan. Fred does identify another Venezuelan translated into English.

Not (to be) translated

I have banged on in this blog and on my site about books that have not been translated into English. Indeed, I have a page on this topic (scroll down), with a selection of books that are on my site which I feel should be translated into English. However, there are a host of books out there which have not been translated into any language that I can read. The page above links to some suggestions, such as Finnegan’s List , the PEN list and an interesting list of untranslated Japanese books. But there are many more. In my blog post on Montenegro, I mentioned the case of Borislav Pekić and his seven-volume Zlatno runo (Golden Fleece) which has been partially translated into French (though they seemed to have stopped) but not at all into English. In my post on Luis Goytisolo’s Antagonía (also not translated into English), I mentioned the case of Miklós Szentkuthy‘s Saint Orpheus’s Breviary sequence, which has been partially translated into French and is now being translated into English. I love Marcie Gray’s Arablit blog but I know that there are many books that she mentions which I shall never be able to read. She published a list of the best 105 Arabic books of the 20th century. Sadly, all too many have not been translated. Lizok’s Bookshelf is essential reading on Russian literature but all too often she mentions an interesting Russian novel which I know that I will be unlikely to ever read. I used to keep a list of books I was hoping would be translated but it depressed me so much that I got rid of it. I could list books of many countries – most of the former Soviet republics, most of South-East Asia, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Portugal – where there are all too many books that have not been translated and probably never will be. But let me focus on one nearer (my) home – Ireland.

Also not translated

The novel on the right – Cré na Cille by Máirtín Ó Cadhain is one of the best-known novels written in Irish. On the right, I say that it has not been translated, In fact, it has as Google books shows. However, it has not been published in English. It is a fascinating novel about a village where the dead go to some underground area and spend the time complaining about each other and their survivors, catching up on the gossip as each arrival turns up. No, I haven’t read it, though I own a copy and can read (a very little) Irish. However, I have seen the film, which is subtitled in English (and other languages) but this probably means that I am going to have make progress with my Irish studies if I am to succeed in reading the original. There are other Irish works not translated into English – Eoghan Ó Tuairisc‘s L”Attaque, Séamus Ó Grianna‘s Caisleáin Óir and Beairtle Ó Conaire’s Fonn na Fola, to mention only three. I could do the same for many other nationalities but it is too frustrating. The next post on this subject will be on books that I have not yet got round to reading.

Nobel and Man Booker prizes – 100% failure

Mo Yan

My predictions for the Man Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize were, as predicted, wrong. I said I always got them wrong and I did. I must admit that I have never read Mo Yan, though I do own a few of his books. I am sure that he is a worthy choice and his name had been floating around for some time. I am glad that Bring Up the Bodies won. I do believe that it was the best book of the six but I didn’t think that they would give it to her again so soon and for a sequel to her previous win. Congrats to Peter “bloggers are detrimental to literature” Stothard and his Committee for their choice. As my choice invariably fails, I am now going to predict next year’s winners, knowing full well that will not win. So I confidently predict that the Nobel Prize will go to the highly overrated Philip Roth and the Man Booker to the also highly overrated Will Self and therefore condemn them to the Not-Winners category for eternity. And very deservedly so, might I say.

Agony and Antagony

A book I haven’t read

Don’t you hate those cute titles for blog posts like the one I have just used? I certainly do. I read most blogs through my News Reader, which gives the title of the blog post. If it has a cutesy title like the one above I am inclined to ignore it. (I am also inclined to ignore it if it has no title, as is the case with Blog of a Bookslut but that is another story.) But i could not resist this one. About ten days ago, I was foolishly lifting some heavy stones for use in my garden and I strained something in my lower back. I say foolishly, as I have had back problems most of my adult life, so it was silly to take the chance. But I did. And now I am paying the price. As a result, I decided to relax a bit (yes, I now know that you shouldn’t relax but I did) and read a book.

Not available in English

And what better book to read than a 1100+ page Spanish novel that has not been translated into English (or any other language but Polish)? In my review of the book on my website, I have translated the Spanish Antagonía as Antagonism, the normal English word for this concept. However, the 1913 Webster had the word antagony, quoting Milton as a source, so I am justified, I feel, in using it here, even though it is not a word used anymore, as far as I am aware. My review gives my views on the book which I did enjoy, though found relatively hard going. There has been a lot about the big US novels – you will find plenty on my site- but there are plenty big European novels that don’t get the publicity, often because they are not available in English. Proust and Joyce, whom I mention in my review are, of course, well known but they are readily available in English. Georges Duhamel‘s Pasquier and Salavin novel sequences are available but are less well-known. Anton Tammsaare‘s Tõde ja õigus (Truth and Justice) series has been translated into French, German and Russian and (partially) into Dutch but not into English. In my post on Montenegro, I mentioned Borislav Pekić‘s His seven-volume Zlatno runo (Golden Fleece), part of which has been translated into French but none of it into English. Miklós Szentkuthy‘s Saint Orpheus’s Breviary sequence has been partially translated into French but the only first novel in the sequence has been translated into English. Miklos Bánffy‘s Transylvanian Trilogy has been translated into English – and an excellent trilogy it is – but is not too well known. These and others are sadly not well-known in the English-speaking world. To be fair, one or two big foreign novels have done well in the English-speaking world but not nearly enough.

A book I have read

As mentioned in the review, Antagonía is not an easy book to read, but then nor are many of the ones mentioned above, particularly the Joyce and Proust. However, I spent ten days reading Antagonía and got very much absorbed into it, the way I got absorbed into the Joyce, Proust, Murakami and Bolaño novels mentioned above and I think it is a pity that it has such a fine reputation in Spain but is unknown in the English-speaking world and is likely to remain so. As is the case with Pekić, Tammsaare and Szentkuthy (and many others I have not mentioned or am unaware of). I do not intend to lift many more heavy stones in order to read any other 1100 page novels. While this is certainly the longest novel I have read this year (though another one came fairly close), I am very glad to have read it and did enjoy getting into Goytisolo’s world. Meanwhile, my back is still sore but I am now going to exercise it somewhat, by walking rather than lifting, but hope to find time for some more long novels.

Bloggers detrimental to literature

A guide for reviewers?

Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS and Chairman of this year’s Man Booker prize committee has said bloggers are detrimental to literature. John Self responds to Stothard much better than I can but I would still like to make a couple of points. Firstly, Stothard says There is a widespread sense in the UK, as well as America, that traditional, confident criticism, based on argument and telling people whether the book is any good, is in decline. It may be widespread in TLS circles but it is not widespread as far as I know. But, even if this were the case, does it matter? Almost invariably, I read a book review to see whether I want to read the book in question. I want to want to know what it is about, what else the author has done if it is an author unknown to me, whether the book is well-written, whether it is in a style I might enjoy and whether it is the sort of book I would enjoy. That is the sort of review I write on my website. I write that sort of review because it is what I want and, I suspect, what a lot of people want. Yes, there are other reasons for reading a review – to see if the author agrees with your assessment of the book, to learn more what the books is about, in the case of a difficult book and to be able to talk about the book without reading it. But, particularly if we have not yet read the book – and the TLS and newspapers review new books, often before they are even for sale – we probably want to see if the book is worth reading so a detailed exegesis is not necessarily what we want.

On the web but not in the TLS

Secondly, he goes on to say As much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off. Self’s apposite responses is there are inessential blogs, just as there are inessential literary critics. Indeed, there are. Throughout history lit crits have recommended books that are rubbish and ignored works of genius. The advantages of bloggers are a) it is a hell of lot cheaper to start a blog than to start a newspaper or magazine. Yes, that means that there are more of them but it also means that a whole range of niche markets, undiscovered books, foreign books, hidden gems and so on are probably going to be unearthed by someone somewhere. b) it is a hell of a lot cheaper to subscribe to a lot of blogs than a lot of magazines and newspaper. I subscribe to around 250 literary blogs (including Stothard’s) in various languages. It costs me nothing beyond my broadband fee. As a result I can see a lot more than if I would if I just limited myself to print sources. I subscribe to just eight literary magazines. The TLS alone costs me £92 a year. I do read the TLS but have to go through every page to see if there is a review or article I want to read but with the blogs I just look at the article heading on my RSS news reader and can make a quick judgement as to whether I want to read further. c) because there are more of them, they cover a whole range of fascinating stuff. I have come across all sorts of interesting books on blogs that I would never have discovered in print media. Yes, I have come across quite a few in the TLS and other publications so I am glad to have both but, if I had to give up the blogs or give up my magazine subscriptions, it would be the magazines that would (reluctantly) go.

What bloggers have done – and this includes the wide range of literary bloggers – is open up possibilities to many readers. If you are interested in bodice rippers or space fiction or novels about cats, there is almost certainly a blog (or, probably, several blogs) for you and that can only be a good thing. Most people do not read the TLS because they can’t afford to or wouldn’t find it interesting or wouldn’t find their type of books in it. But, somewhere on the web, there is a blog for pretty well every reader. I can only hope that there will be many more.

Book prizes – the ultimate statement

Shalom Auslander’s novel

This article by Shalom Auslander has to be the funniest take on book prizes I have seen. His story – Harley was our dog. She is dead now. I want to get a cat. is, of course, sheer brilliance. As Auslander says it contains sadness and rage and pain and even, yes, in the very last sentence, a flicker of hope for the future. I have not come across Shalom Auslander but I shall certainly read his novel Hope in the not too distant future. He is definitely a writer to look out for.

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