American Men of Letters

American Men of Letters?
American Men of Letters?

Alfred A Knopf have posted a Facebook page, laughingly entitled American Men of Letters. I say laughingly as if their five American Men of Letters (they presumably mean United States) are the best they can do, God help US letters. They have done it in, to use a US expression, a half-assed way with a feeble Facebook page. They have also done it to celebrate the release of James Salter’s new book. I must confess that I have never read James Salter. Nor have many other people, if Slate is to be believed . In addition to Salter, they offer us the massively overrated penis-obsessed Philip Roth, Richard Ford (another overrated writer for men with small penises), Richard Russo, highly enjoyable, a pretty good writer but certainly not one of the great men of letters and John Cheever, another overrated writer. We may perhaps ignore the fact that these men are all very old and long since past the best, if they ever had a best. We might also ignore the fact that Knopf seems fit to honour men but ignores the many fine women writers in the United States. But these five as their greats? Norman Mailer will be turning in his grave.

Rupert Thomson: Secrecy

secrecy

The latest addition to my website is Rupert Thomson‘s latest novel Secrecy. Unusually for Thomson, it is set in the past – seventeenth century Florence – and involves several real people, including the main character Gaetano Zummo, who made sculptures out of wax, particularly ones showing decomposing bodies. Zummo comes to work for Grand Duke Cosimo III in Florence who admires Zummo’s work and similar bizarre works of art, and gets caught up in a dirty plot not of his making, involving the Dominicans, Cosimo’s estranged wife and a woman he falls in love with. While it is enjoyable reading, it is not one of Thomson’s best works.

Chinghiz Gusseinov: Магомед, Мамед, Мамиш (Mahomet, Mahmed, Mamish)

mamish

The latest addition to my website is Chinghiz Gusseinov‘s Магомед, Мамед, Мамиш (Mahomet, Mahmed, Mamish), an Azerbaijani novel, the first one from that country on my website. While certainly not a great novel, it is is certainly very enjoyable, telling the story of a rumbunctious family in Baku who both stick closely together while not being averse to stabbing one another in the back. The situation is complicated when Hasai, the patriarch takes a new wife, Rena, who is loved by two other members of the family, and his first wife, whom he does not divorce, is understandably not happy with the situation and is not averse to making her views known. Mamish, son of Hasai’s younger sister, is caught up in all of this mess and does not necessarily extricate himself very successfully.

Margaret Thatcher in literature

carve

I shall not be shedding any tears for Margaret Thatcher. I think that she did untold harm to this country and the day she was kicked out by her own party, despite the fact that she had never lost an election, was a good day. A while ago, I compiled a a list of Thatcher novels, i.e. those novels that feature her in some way. Two stand out. Jonathan Coe‘s What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy) is a superb indictment of her administration, witty, skilfully written and a wonderful novel. J G Ballard‘s Running Wild shows the dark side of Thatcherism in a way that no other writer could. If you want to read about her legacy, read these two novels. And remember that David Cameron, despite his smooth charm, is her political grandson (her political son, of course, is Tony Blair). And here is a quote to show what she was like. On receiving a school prize, aged nine, she commented I wasn’t lucky. I deserved it. Bu we didn’t deserve her.

Emyr Humphreys: Outside the House of Baal

baal

The latest addition to my website is Emyr HumphreysOutside the House of Baal. This is what Humphreys calls a long novel,not only in number of words but also because it covers a long(-ish) time span, namely from the early twentieth century to the 1960s. It tells the story of two families who see many changes in Wales, cultural, economic and political. In particular, we see many of these changes through the eyes of J T. Miles, a left-wing pastor, who is a pacifist and very much concerned with the economic circumstances of his flock and endeavours to work hard to improve them, often at the expense of and to the disgust of his family. He is, of course, fighting a losing battle, as the Great Depression and later the closure of the mines leads to mass poverty and mass emigration. Indeed, the man whom he partially blames for this trend is a Welsh-speaking Welshman, Lloyd George. It is an excellent novel of Wales and deserves to be better-known. It is now back in print with the wonderful Seren Books.

Google fail

Google - April Fool smell jokes but no Mauriac
Google – April Fool smell jokes but no Mauriac

While writing up my review on François Mauriac‘s Thérèse Desqueyroux (Therese; later: Therese Desqueyroux), I decided to check whether Google, in its wisdom, had indexed my previous entries on Mauriac. With the language setting to English only and searching François Mauriac, I got 729 hits, with the proviso, after the last one, In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 729 already displayed. I looked at every one of those hits (yes, really!) and there was no page from my website. Google has indexed my Mauriac page for, if I search François Mauriac site:themodernnovel.org, I get five hits – the author page, reviews of the first two of his novels that I reviewed (the other two have not yet made it to Google) and three other pages where François and Mauriac appear. I do get hits for my blog page which mentions and links to these pages (and which is on a different url), which is strange). If I narrow down the search to François Mauriac Le Baiser au lépreux (A Kiss for the Leper) , my website comes sixth overall (out of 235 hits), ahead of Wikipedia and ahead of my blog post on the book (which comes sixteenth), so clearly Google has not banned me.

Google's view of Mauriac
Google’s view of Mauriac

Obviously, a small site like mine should not appear top in Google rankings. But let’s look at what it is compared with other pages on Mauriac. My webpage has a brief bio, a comprehensive bibliography of his books in both French and English, references to two books about him and links to thirteen other sites about him and reviews of currently four, though then two, of his books. Here is what the top ten, according to Google, are:

  • 1. Wikipedia. Detailed bio and bibliography. Fewer links. No books about him
  • 2. Nobel Prize site. Brief bio. Works in French and separate list of works in English. His Nobel speeches.
  • 3. Britannica. Bio. No biblio. References to books about him.
  • 4. Paris Review interview
  • 5. Eternal Word Television Network interview
  • 6. IMDB page on films of his book
  • 7. Wikiquote page with seven quotes from him and his works
  • 8. biography.com bio of about 100 words plus photo plus (very) brief facts. No biblio; indeed only mention of one of his novels
  • 9. Goodreads quote page. Ten in English and one in Italian. None in French
  • 10. Amazon UK page of his books for sale on their site. I am in the UK. Presumably people from other countries would get Amazon US or another appropriate Amazon

Google also has its brief summary of Mauriac (see photo above at right).

The Bordeaux tourist office view of Mauriac
The Bordeaux tourist office view of Mauriac

This is pathetic. I hate to sound as though I am beating my own drum but… If I am searching for Mauriac (without qualification), I probably want an idea of who he is, what he did, what he wrote and so on. You will find this information (if you only read English) on the Wikipedia site, the Nobel Prize site, enotes and my site. At least I think so because, as my site does not appear in the Google listings, are there other worthwhile sites that are not appearing as well? The answer is, of course, that we do not know. The other eight sites on the first page of the Google page give scant biographical and no bibliographical information (Britannica, biography.com); quotes (Wikiquote; Goodreads) – if I wanted quotes, I would have searched for François Mauriac quotes; interviews (Paris Review and Eternal Word Television Network (whoever they may be) – if I wanted interviews, I would have searched for François Mauriac interviews; films of his books (Imdb) – if I wanted… you know the rest and books of his for sale – if had wanted to buy his books, I would have gone straight to Amazon or another book search site. This is not worrying because it is not showing my site (though that is somewhat worrying) but it is worrying because when I search for other things, be it books or how to repair my lawnmower, am I getting the best results? Answer, almost certainly: no. Why are these sites so highly rated? Well, clearly several of these are very well-known sites, with a well-established web presence and used by thousands of people a day. Even then, Google fails to give the relevant pages. Neither Wikiquote nor the Goodreads quote page should have been high on a basic search for François Mauriac. The same applies to IMDB, Paris Review and the Eternal Word Television Network. Page two, by the way, has four more Amazon links (two from the US, two from the UK), two identical bios from freedictionary.com, quotes from brainyquote.com, another page from the Nobel Prize, a bio from answers.com and a page from the Bordeaux tourist office with a brief bio and where he lived.

What about the other search engines? Yahoo does slightly better than Google. It has the enotes.com, kirjasto.sci.fi and answers.com pages on is first page. My review of Génitrix is No 141 and the front page of my blog No 389 (out of 546). No reference to my main page on Mauriac or any of the blog reviews. Bing is similar to Yahoo and, in fact, has my review of Génitrix at No 142 and the front page of the blog at 460. Another of my blog posts (not about Mauriac) comes way down the list. And that’s it. Duckduckgo seems more akin to Google but it has one of my blog reviews relatively high up (as it uses continuous page scrolling I cannot easily tell how far up). AskJeeves seemed to be very similar to Google. All this leads me to the conclusion, which, of course, I have known for a long time, that search enginees are not yielding the results we are really looking for. All too often when I search for an author, I get presented with sites selling his books instead of sites about him. All too often, when checking up on lawnmower repair or something similar, I get results for another product or for some service in another country. I remember in the early days of the web, when Yahoo was a site that was like a catalogue so that you could search Literature>France>Authors>Mauriac and get all the relevant sites on Mauriac (there almost certainly were very few). Those days have long since gone and are clearly impractical given the size of the web today but there must be another way. Come in, Google, your time is up. Time for a new model and a new player.

François Mauriac: Thérèse Desqueyroux (Therese; later: Therese Desqueyroux)

therese

The latest addition to my website is François Mauriac‘s Thérèse Desqueyroux (Therese; later: Therese Desqueyroux). This is unusual for Mauriac, in that the heroine has committed a criminal act – she has tried to poison her husband. The books starts with her leaving the court, with her father and lawyer, as her husband has perjured herself in order to avoid any scandal in the family. On the way back home, she reflects on her life, what led her to marry and then try and poison her husband and how she is going to explain her act to him. Back home, everything is done both to punish Thérèse but, at the same time, to preserve the appearance of normality for the sake of the family . Naturally, this proves to be a very difficult task. This is one of Mauriac’s best-known novels, with two successful films made of it.

Kate Atkinson: Life After Life

life

The latest addition to my website is Kate Atkinson‘s Life After Life. This is a wonderful novel, a sort of cross between Ken Grimwood’s Replay and the film Groundhog Day. Ursula Todd is still-born, the umbilical cord strangling her. She is immediately born again and this time the umbilical cord does not strangle her. She lives a few years before drowning and then is born again. This continues to happen. Sometimes, she lives a relatively long time, others less so. On two occasions, she has more than one death occurring on the same day but each time the events leading up to that death differ. She is unaware of what is happening but does have dream-like memories of her past lives and does learn from them. It is both a very clever story but also very well-told, as Atkinson is not just interested in the clever tricks but showing how her characters develop. And, oh yes, he’s back .