François Mauriac: Le Mystère Frontenac (UK: The Frontenac Mystery; US: The Frontenacs)

mystere

The latest addition to my website is François Mauriac‘s Le Mystère Frontenac (UK: The Frontenac Mystery; US: The Frontenacs). Unlike some of his other novels, where the family is seen as insidious and threatening, in this novel the family comes across as much more friendly, even if, at times, some of the individuals feel forced into certain actions because of the family. Indeed, the mystery of the title refers to the closeness of the family. The Frontenac family, widow Blanche, her five children and her late husband’s brother, generally stick together and even if Uncle Xavier has a guilty secret (which, though he is unaware of this, everyone knows) they do try and behave as a more or less normal family. Of course, there is pressure on the three boys (the girls are barely mentioned) to conform to a certain way of behaviour and two of them do, after their arms have been mildly twisted, with only Yves, the poet, straying somewhat. Mauriac is such a fine writer that this novel does work and it had considerable success in France and is still much read.

Mohamed Toihiri: La République des Imberbes [The Republic of the Beardless]

toihiri

The latest addition to my website is Mohamed Toihiri‘s La République des Imberbes [The Republic of the Beardless], the first novel from the Comoros on my website. The Comoros have had a tumultuous history since independence from France in 1975 and this novel gives a barely fictionalised account of a specific period when the ruthless Ali Soilih was in power for around two and a half years. The novel starts with his overthrow by a small group of mercenaries, led by John Ménard, the not very well disguised Bob Denard but goes on to give Soilih’s (called Guigoz in the book) thoughts about his life, ranging from his completely closing down the civil service to banning sorcery (and arresting and torturing those who practised it) to appointing young people (hence the title) to key positions. In the meantime, Soilih/Guigoz is totally ruthless, vicious and cruel to all and sundry. A fascinating book, though not available in English, to add the list of novels about dictators.

Ivan Kakovitch: Mount Semele

semele

The latest addition to my website is Ivan Kakovitch‘s Mount Semele, the first Assyrian novel on my website. Most people probably think of the Assyrians as a fierce, warlike people who appeared in the Bible (and also in Byron’s poem The Destruction of Sennacherib) and who were essentially wiped out by the Babylonians and Medes in 605 BC. While this is true, they did continue as a people, even if they did not have their own territory. Unlike most of their neighbours, they turned to Christianity rather than Islam. Though they generally kept on good terms with their Muslim neighbours and rulers, they did suffer some repression throughout their history, particularly from Tamurlane in the 14th century and then again in the 19th and 20th centuries. Kakovitch’s book recounts events in their history from 1915 to the Mount Semele massacre, when their final resistance was destroyed by Iraqi forces. After the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, the Assyrians, like other peoples of the region, such as the Kurds and Armenians, hoped to gain independence. However, because of a combination of opposition by the Western powers, particularly Britain, and opposition from others in the region, this did not happen. Kakovitch’s novel recounts these events through the eyes of his grandmother, Sonia, and, more particularly, his great-uncle, Michel Nona, the de facto leader of the Assyrians during this period. It is a fascinating story and one probably unknown to most Westerners.

Sum Marky: Vila Flogá [Villa Flogá]

marky

The latest addition to my website is Sum Marky‘s Vila Flogá [Villa Flogá], the first, and probably last, novel from São Tomé e Príncipe on my site. As far as I can tell there is no novel from São Tomé e Príncipe that has been published in English or, indeed, any other language but Portuguese. Indeed, there are very few published prose writers from this country. Marky remains one of the few novelists, with his books all out of print. This book was both quite fun and had a serious point, not least because it mentions (albeit in passing) the Batepá massacre and the events leading up to it, particularly the fact that the white government used forced labour to get workers for the white-owned plantations. The story is about a black cook, Sum Olímpio, who works for two white men, Sum Ferón and Sum Raul, confirmed bachelors both, interested in wine, women and song. Sum Olímpio lives in a shack, which he calls Vila Flogá. However, the government’s slum clearance project means that Vila Flogá is going to be bulldozed. Sum Olímpio needs 300 escudos to buy another piece of land, money he does not have. Borrowing (from his employers) and theft (also from his employers) form part of his plan to get the money. Sum Olímpio is something of a figure of fun but Marky (who was white) did show the problems the creoles faced when dealing with the whites.

Provençal literature

Sign in Avignon showing where Mistral's Mirèio was first published
Sign in Avignon showing where Mistral’s Mirèio was first published

I have recently returned frrm a week in Provence so this is a good time to say a few words about their literature. Provençal literature, which should be called Occitan literature, had its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries and influenced many poets, including Petrarch and Dante. Indeed, Petrarch spent much time in Provence and there is a museum devoted to him in Fontaine de Vaucluse, site of the largest underground spring in France. Not a great deal more happened till the founding of the Félibrige in the mid-nineteenth century. The Félibrige was an association of like-minded poets, whose best-known member was Frédéric Mistral, author of Mirèio , a long poem in Provençal, which helped him win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the only Provençal writer to do so.

Max Rouquette - not read in Provence
Max Rouquette – not read in Provence

Occitan literature does not have much of a reputation now. I have one author on my Occitan page though expect to read some authors, such as Joan Bodon (Jean Boudou), Bernat (Bernard) Manciet and Alem Surre-Garcia (link in French). However, I did expect to find other works while in Provence. A tour of the bookshops in Aix-en-Provence (i.e. in Provence) sadly revealed that, apart from the odd copy of Mirèio, the Provençal bookshops had as many books in Mongolian as in Provençal. Nor did they have any of the contemporary Provençal writers translated into French. When I asked for books in Provençal at the wittily named Librairie de Provence, they looked at me as though I was mad. We have books about Provence (i.e. travel, guidebooks, cooking) was the response. Sadly, the language and culture seem to be dying.

Camus' gravestone
Camus’ gravestone

But we did go to Lourmarin, famous perhaps as the home of Peter Mayle (no, we didn’t see him) but also the place where two famous French writers are buried. The first is Albert Camus, who needs no introduction. He bought a place in Lourmarin with the money from his Nobel Prize and died in a car crash less than two years later. Provence, however, is also home to several famous writers who wrote in French but about Provence. They have yet to appear on my site but I have read all of them many years ago and plan to reread them. Marcel Pagnol is probably the best-known, not least because of the films of his book and the films he himself made. Jean Giono is less well-known, at least in the English-speaking world. A few of his books are available in English but, sadly, not too many.

Bosco's gravestone in Loumartin
Bosco’s gravestone in Loumartin

Even less well-known is Henri Bosco, born in Avignon and buried in Lourmarin, not far from Camus. None of his works is in print in English, though some have been translated and, even in France, his reputation is fading, perhaps because he wrote about what he knew – Provence. I will mention, in passing, René Char from Isle sur la Sorgue, a pretty little town, now known for its antiques, and Samuel Beckett who is not from Provence but spent some time in Rousillon, a town famous for its ochre, during the war, hiding from the Germans.

Joanna Scott: Fading, My Parmacheene Belle

fading

The latest addition to my website is Joanna Scott‘s Fading, My Parmacheene Belle, the author’s first novel. Joanna Scott is one of those authors who writes very intelligent novels but somehow seems to get lost in the shuffle. This book, for example, is out of print. It is part fable, part extended fishing metaphor, part old age novel, part picaresque story. The unnamed narrator, an angler/backwoodsman, has been married for fifty-three years to a woman he calls My Parmacheene Belle (a type of fishing fly). They have one child, a mentally disabled son in a home. When she dies of cancer (he blames her for abandoning him), he is visited after the funeral by Gibble, his erstwhile companion and cousin of his late wife, who introduced the pair to one another but who has now become his nemesis. In his anger with Gibble, he throws a chair, hitting the boy. He thinks he has killed him, so he runs off. On his journey, he will be joined by a young woman he calls a mermaiden, who he later learns is running away from her father, and they go off together, looking for the narrator’s wife home town. The two pass through the city before arriving at the sea on their picaresque journey. It is an excellent novel for a first novel though not necessarily an easy one, presumably why it has not had the success it deserves.

Sunjeev Sahota: Ours are the Streets

streets

The latest addition to my website is Sunjeev Sahota‘s Ours are the Streets. Sahota is one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. The novel is the notebooks of a young Englishman of Pakistani origin who moves from being a normal young man, interested in getting on at university, sex, recreational drugs and bettering himself who, after a visit to Pakistan (to accompany the body of his late father) changes into a suicide bomber. While in Pakistan, he is taken by family members and friends to Afghanistan where he sees first-hand and on video what the West is doing to Muslims and decides that being a suicide bomber is the only way. Sahota tells his story well but I was less than convinced that this was the writing of someone who is the future of the British novel.

I had read three of the novelists before Granta announced their list. I now have read three more in the past week or so. The three were picked arbitrarily and come from different backgrounds – an Englishwoman who has spent a lot of time in Australia, a Scottish woman whose childhood was spent in care homes and foster care who does not know anyone she is related to and an Englishman of Punjabi origin. Each has written one novel, though Evie Wyld has another one coming out next month. What was interesting was the similarity between the three novels.

  • All were about outcasts
  • The four main characters (there are two main characters in After the Fire, a Still Small Voice) had committed or were about to commit acts of violence against other people
  • With one possible exception, all had trouble with romantic relationships
  • All of them make a journey away from their place of origin and this journey has a profound influence on their life
  • All have conflict with their parents, except for Anais Hendricks who has no parents but criticises the mother she never knew

Anyone coming from Mars and handed these three novels as representative of British culture, would be horrified and would assume that Britain was bleak, violent and falling apart. This, of course, may well be the case. While it is clearly difficult to judge on first novels (see, for example, some of these), none of these made me think that these writers are going to be the greats of years to come. I will, naturally, be happy to be proved wrong.

Jenni Fagan: Panopticon

fagan

The latest addition to my website is Jenni Fagan‘s Panopticon. Jenni Fagan is the only Scottish writer nominated for the Granta’s Best Young British Novelists list. This novel is not going to be everyone’s idea of fun, telling the story of Anais Hendricks, a fifteen-year old girl who has spent her life in care homes and foster families, not knowing anyone she is related to. Anais is what we might called troubled. She has a long arrest record – drugs, assault, failing to obey curfew orders and arson – and, at the beginning of this novel is strongly suspected of having assaulted a policewoman, who is now in a coma. She is sent to a panopticon, a C-shaped prison, where the guards can observe all residents. (The observer is a Nurse Ratched-like figure called Night Nurse.) The story concerns Anais’ life in the panopticon, her relationship with the other residents (generally good, despite the occasional fight) and with the staff (generally bad) and her attempt, aided by her social worker, Angus, to clear her name of the assault on the policewoman. Fagan spares us little detail of the continual aura of violence, the drug use and petty crime and the fairly hopeless lives that many of the residents live, though Anais, despite her faults and criminal record, is someone we must admire, as she struggles to escape from the negative environment she finds herself in. This novel is presumably at least semi-autobiographical, as Fagan herself was in care homes and has worked as a prison writer, so has seen people in similar situations. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here, if she is going to maintain her reputation as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

Evie Wyld: After the Fire, a Still Small Voice

wyld

The latest addition to my website is Evie Wyld‘s After the Fire, a Still Small Voice. Evie Wyld was one of the Granta’s Best Young British Novelists and this is her first novel. (her second novel will appear next month, i.e. June 2013). This novel, according to Wyld, tells the story of traumatised men, not talking and scary things that people try to ignore. It is set in Australia and focusses firstly on Frank, a young man whose girlfriend has left him as he hits her too much and who heads off to a remote shack where he tries, alone, to get his life back together. When the young daughter of a neighbour disappears, he is suspected. The other apparently unrelated story tells of Leon, the only son of two Dutch Jews who escaped Nazi persecution and came to Australia. There, they set up a bakery business. Leon’s father goes off to fight in Korea and comes back traumatised. Leon works in his parents’ bakery and enjoys decorating cakes. However, when called up, he goes off to Vietnam, where he sees death and destruction and he, too, is affected by his experience. It is a well-told story and Wyld certainly brings out her theme of traumatised men, not talking and scary things that people try to ignore but I am not sure that this novel is indicative of a talent worthy of nomination to the Granta list