Arnon Grunberg: Figuranten (Silent Extras)


The latest addition to my website is Arnon Grunberg‘s Figuranten (Silent Extras). Grunberg tells the story of three young people – two Dutch men and and an Argentinian woman – who want to make it in the world but struggle to do so. They have ambitions to become film or theatre stars but only get auditions for second- or third-rate productions and when one of the young men, known as Broccoli, tries to stage a version of Macbeth with the Argentinian woman, it is not successful. They also have money problems. Ewald, the narrator, lives with his parents, while Broccoli’s parents, who live in Switzerland, have been subsidising him but decide enough is enough and head off for Mexico, leaving him high and dry. Even the other characters struggle to get by. It is a bitter-sweet tale and enjoyable enough, though lacking, in my view, that something special.

Georges Ngal: L’Errance [Wandering]


The latest addition to my website is Georges Ngal‘s L’Errance [Wandering]. This is a follow-up to his Giambatista Viko ou Le Viol du discours africain [Giambatista Viko or the Rape of African Discourse]. Like its predecessor, it is both a mockery of current views of African culture, particularly by Africans, as well as proposals for improving the situation. In the previous book, our two heroes, Giambatista Viko and Niaiseux, were condemned for their betrayal of African culture. We now learn they have been condemned to spend much time in convents of African culture. Their sentence has now finished and they are in the fictitious town of Marmonia, writing an account of their adventures for a major daily newspaper. Virtually the entire novel consists of discussions between the two about the problems with African culture and the perceptions of African culture and what to do to improve it. It does make for interesting reading, even if still written in the rather high blown French of the previous novel, but it does not really read like a novel and, as such, must be accounted a failure. The fact that it is out of print and has not been translated tends to bear this out.

A Reading List for David Gilmour

Aargh! A book by a Canadian woman - a no go for Gilmour
Aargh! A book by a Canadian woman – a no go for Gilmour

As has been extensively reported Canadian writer and professor David Gilmour (no, not that David Gilmour) has made a bit of fool of himself, basically saying that there are no interesting women, Canadian and Chinese writers and saying that he only reads Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth. Quite apart from the sheer stupidity of making such a statement, essentially condemning a whole range of writers purely because of their sex or nationality, and then going public with it, Gilmour’s comments are wrong-headed for other reasons.

Masturbation in public - do Roth & Gilmour both like it?
Masturbation in public – do Roth & Gilmour both like it?

1. His condemnation of women writers and his statement that he only reads heterosexual guys shows that he clearly has concerns about his masculinity. His interview appeared on the Random House Canada blog. If you look further down on that blog, you will find this post. Now we know that one of Gilmour’s literary heroes is the second-rate Philip
Roth, a man who loves masturbating in public. And Henry Miller (who reads him now but the sexually frustrated?) Is this Gilmour’s problem? I think we should be told.
2. More importantly, there are lots of very good women, Chinese and Canadian writers, David. Perhaps you should try reading them. Here is a list to get you going. I have even put links to Amazon Canada for some of them, so you can buy them.

China produced a whole range of first-class prose literature, well before your heterosexual guys were born.

Story of the Stone (aka The Dream of the Red Chamber. Hey, it starts off with the story of a young man who prefers girls to studies. A real heterosexual guy.
The Water Margin. Lots of brawny heterosexual men here, David. Just your sort of man, even if they are not, you know, white.
Journey to the West (aka Monkey, with a monk fighting demons. Tough and maybe even heterosexual.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. More heterosexual guys fighting.

There are modern Chinese writers as well. Gao Xingjian and Mo Yan both won the Nobel Prize. Xiaolu Guo is a woman but she is heterosexual and was on the list, though she is Chinese. Mao Dun was producing great literature when Chekhov and Tolstoy were.

And, yes, your own country produces some great writers (beside you, of course). Up on the top at the left, you will see the cover of a book by a Canadian writer – Margaret Atwood. She is very well known, very well-respected and a woman. There are other good Canadian writers as well – Michael Ondaatje, Timothy Findley and Rohinton Mistry. Some of them write in French – Marie-Clair Blais, Nancy Huston and Gérard Bessette. Here is a detailed list to help you.

As for women writers, I would not know where to start, so I will start with my women writers page. Many of the early writers were women. A Celebration of Women Writers can help you there. Oh, I see that you have apologised. A bit late, David, but do read some of these women, Chinese and Canadian authors. You might even enjoy them.

Thomas Pynchon: Bleeding Edge


The latest addition to my website is Thomas Pynchon‘s Bleeding Edge. This novel continues with Pynchon’s obsession with conspiracies within conspiracies within conspiracies. It is set at the turn of the millennium, so includes conspiracies about 9/11 and, as you can imagine, it is not Al-Qaida who gets the blame. It tells the story of Maxine Tarnow, formerly Loeffler, a fraud investigator, who finds herself investigating, at every turn, a company called hashslingrz, run by the sinister Gabriel Ice, which seems to have a finger in every pie, from deep web-based virtual world games to the dirty deeds of the US government, by way of mysterious Arabs, Mossad and an attempt to control the world server market. It is great fun, not least because Pynchon, as always, keeps the story going at a frenetic pace and throws in wisecracks galore and his usual language games, as well as characters who are, well, characters.

Mario Vargas Llosa: El héroe discreto [The Discreet Hero]


The latest addition to my website is Mario Vargas Llosa‘s El héroe discreto [The Discreet Hero]. This is his latest novel, which has yet to be translated into English, though will undoubtedly appear in English before long. Amazingly, it is already out in German. It is not one of his great works but one of his more light-hearted ones, and most enjoyable to read. It tells two stories. One is about the owner of a transport company, in a not very happy marriage, who stands up to pressure to pay protection money and the consequences of his action. The other is about an insurance executive, Rigoberto, whose boss and owner of the company, a widower, suddenly decides to marry his housekeeper, who is forty years younger than him, with the main aim of disinheriting his reprobate twin sons and the consequences of this decision for Rigoberto and his wife and others. Of course, the two stories coincide and, of course, Vargas Llosa leaves us guessing to the end.

Clemens Meyer: Im Stein [In Stone]


The latest addition to my website is Clemens Meyer‘s Im Stein [In Stone]. This book has been much discussed in Germany for its controversial depiction of a fictitious East German city, focussing on the underbelly of the city. The key element is prostitution and Meyer gives us a vivid description of the prostitutes themselves, their clients and the pimps who claim not to be pimps but businessmen. He focusses on one such “businessman”, Arnie Kraushaar, and his “girls”, as he calls them. Though the prostitutes figure strongly in the book, drugs, petty (and one or two not so petty) criminals, the police and various other denizens of the night and shadows are also depicted. It is a long book but, to all intents and purposes, has no real plot and while Meyer’s writing is superb and its descriptions first-class, I did find that swathes of descriptions sometimes left me longing for more to happen. Maybe that is just a weakness of mine, as critics have generally loved it and it has been shortlisted for the German Book Prize for this year (link in German – see Katy Derbyshire’s discussion of the longlist for a description in English). It has not been translated – only a collection of his stories, translated by the aforementioned Katy Derbyshire has been translated into English of his works – but I would suspect that it will be.

Man Booker Prize – The Yanks are coming! – Part 2

Following on from my post on Monday, the Man Booker Prize now confirms that the Prize is open to all writers writing in English, as expected. However, it now seems – and this is not 100% clear – that publishers can submit one novel as well as proposing other novels for the judges to consider, in order to control the number of novels judges must read. I am not sure of the implications of this. How do publishers tell their authors that they are not the one? There is also a cryptic comment that this will be by reference to longlisting within the previous five years. What does that mean? No doubt all will become clear later.

Ruth Ozeki

The latest additions to my website are two books by Ruth Ozeki. The first is My Year of Meats, a very witty and somewhat polemic attack on various things – sexism, racism, the US obsession with guns and, in particular, the meat industry. It tells two stories of two women in parallel. The first, clearly based on the author, is Jane Takagi-Little, a documentary film maker who gets a job working on a TV programme called American Wife, to be shown in Japan, with the not very subtle intention of promoting meat-eating. Each episode shows a typical, wholesome (i.e. white, middle class) US family, ending up with their eating meat. Jane tries to subtly sabotage this by showing other types of families (Hispanic, African-American, a handicapped child and, finally, a Lesbian couple). The other story concerns Akiko, wife of Joichi Ueno, the advertising executive in Japan, with whom Jane has to deal. He is a sexist, racist bully, drinks, abuses and rapes his wife and and even tries to rape Jane, though preferring big-breasted Texan women. However, Ozeki’s mocking is generally mild, till she gets to the meat industry later in the book, when she lets loose. Meat eaters might want to turn away at this point. However, it is a very funny book, with some serious points to make

The second book is A Tale for the Time Being, her latest book. As with My Year of Meats, this tells two stories, one of a American woman (called Ruth) and one of a Japanese woman, only this Japanese woman is a sixteen year old, called Naoko (Nao). Ruth, who lives by the sea in British Columbia with her husband, Oliver (like her creator) finds washed up a Hello Kitty box containing Nao’s dairy, some letters and an old watch. She slowly reads the diary, learning about Nao’s somewhat difficult life. Nao’s father had worked for a US dotcom but the dotcom had gone bust and he had all his money invested in stock options. He has been unable to find a job in Japan and is suicidal. Nao does not fit in at the Japanese school and is cruelly bullied. Her one comfort becomes her great-grandmother, Jiko, a one hundred and four year old nun. Ruth and Oliver, meanwhile, are worried that Nao might have been killed in the Fukushima disaster. Despite strenuous efforts to find out, they come up with very little. While still somewhat polemical, particularly on environmental issues, Ozeki introduces more philosophical ideas, such as the issue of time, quantum physics and 9/11. The book has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and is a very worthy contender.

Man Booker Prize – The Yanks are coming!

Jonathan Franzen - future Booker Prize winner?
Jonathan Franzen – future Booker Prize winner?

I have been following with interest this weekend the furore over the rumour that the Man Booker will open its eligibility to all novels originally written in English published in UK during the eligibility period (currently 1 October to 30 September) which essentially means allowing US authors to participate. My breakfast copy of The Independent, while giving full coverage to the Lib Dem Conference, managed three separate references to this issue – a teaser on the front page, a full page article inside and an editorial comment by writer Tim Parks. Interestingly enough, as far as I can see, the official site does not mention it, so it is not clear where it is coming from. The main Independent article states the Man Booker prize is set to allow American writers to enter from next year, while Tim Parks is more circumspect – In reportedly opening up to American writers… I have checked with the Man Booker people and they tell me there will an announcement concerning some changes to the rules on Wednesday (18 September) afternoon.

Kazuo Ishiguro does not fear the competition
Kazuo Ishiguro does not fear the competition

Reaction has been mixed but the Brits and those from other currently eligible countries have been very much against. The arguments they have used include the fact that it dilutes the prize, takes away its distinctive nature, that younger British and Commonwealth writers will not get a look in, that smaller UK publishers will suffer, that it will tie us more and more to the US, a tie that is already too great, it would contribute to a growing feeling that the author is an international entertainer rather than an artist involved in a home community with a literary tradition (Tim Parks), that US writers have already got their own prizes, including (but not limited to) the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Awards (and the US authors will want to win one of these prizes rather than the Man Booker) and that four of this year’s shortlisted writers are either US-based or of US origin, so we do not want to encourage any more. Those supporting this move maintain that this will bolster the publicity for the prize and improve the quality, make the British and Commonwealth writers write better, literature is becoming more and more international, with writers less tied to one country and the decision will mean better competition for the upcoming Folio Prize and the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction. Kazuo Ishiguro is quoted in the Independent article as saying the argument was that the standard hadn’t been high enough. Interestingly enough, this is what Ishiguro is quoted as saying in the online edition. However in the print edition he makes another valid point, responding to fears that British writers may struggle to compete with US writers – I wouldn’t be so pessimistic. But if it turned out that way, you’d have to ask why.

P H Newby - the first Booker winner
P H Newby – the first Booker winner

In its main article (scroll to the bottom), the Independent compares past Man Booker winners with possible US winners. Given that its selections are not ones I would always agree with, I decided to have a go myself. Just to make it more fun, I have added an alternative winner, i.e. a book published that year in the UK but one that did not win. Note that the Booker goes from 1 October to 30 September. I have just used the calendar year, so some of these might not work. In addition, for the US possible winners, I have used the date that they were first published in the US which may not be the date they were first published in the UK, the eligibility criterion for the Man Booker. I have started with 1969, the first year of the Booker Prize. Books marked with an asterisk are those where I agree with the Booker judges’ decision. Books marked with two asterisks made the shortlist but did not win. Those marked with three asterisks are where my suggestions for a possible US winner and the Independent‘s suggestion coincide.

Year Booker Winner Possible US Winner Alternative Booker Winner
1969 P.H. Newby-Something to Answer For Joyce Carol Oatesthem John FowlesThe French Lieutenant's Woman
1970 Bernice Rubens-The Elected Member Eudora WeltyLosing Battles Nadine Gordimer A Guest of Honour
1971 V.S. NaipaulIn a Free State George GarrettDeath of the Fox Doris LessingBriefing for a Descent into Hell**
1973 J.G. Farrell-The Siege of Krishnapur Thomas PynchonGravity's Rainbow*** B. S. JohnsonChristie Malry's Own Double-Entry
1974 Nadine GordimerThe Conservationist Alison LurieThe War between the Tates Nadine GordimerThe Conservationist*
1975 Ruth Prawer JhabvalaHeat and Dust William GaddisJ R David MaloufJohnno
1977 Paul Scott-Staying On Robert CooverThe Public Burning Timothy FindleyThe Wars
1979 Penelope Fitzgerald-Offshore William StyronSophie's Choice John McGahernThe Pornographer
1980 William GoldingRites of Passage John Kennedy TooleA Confederacy of Dunces*** Brian AldissLife in the West
1982 Thomas Keneally-Schindler’s Ark Don DeLilloThe Names Bruce ChatwinOn the Black Hill
1985 Keri Hulme-The Bone People Paul AusterCity of Glass Peter CareyIllywhacker**
1987 Kingsley Amis-The Old Devils William T. VollmannYou Bright and Risen Angels Rodney HallKisses of the Enemy
1990 A.S. ByattPossession Joanna ScottArrogance Nicholas MosleyHopeful Monsters
1992 Michael OndaatjeThe English Patient Donna TarttThe Secret History Peter AckroydEnglish Music
1994 James Kelman-How Late It Was How Late Cormac McCarthyThe Crossing J M CoetzeeThe Master of Petersburg
1996 Graham SwiftLast Orders David Foster WallaceInfinite Jest Graham SwiftLast Orders
1997 Arundhati Roy-The God of Small Things Don DeLilloUnderworld Geoff NicholsonBleeding London
1998 Ian McEwanAmsterdam Colson WhiteheadThe Intuitionist Christopher PriestExtremes
2000 Margaret Atwood-The Blind Assassin Mark DanielewskiHouse of Leaves Zadie SmithWhite Teeth
2003 D.B.C. Pierre-Vernon God Little Richard PowersThe Time of Our Singing Monica AliBrick Lane**
2006 Kiran Desai-The Inheritance of Loss Richard PowersThe Echo Maker J G BallardKingdom Come
Now if Roberto Bolaño had been eligible
Now if Roberto Bolaño had been eligible

I have only included a year when I thought there was a good US novel published that year, which is why not every year is covered. What I notice here and what I have noticed generally is that, as regards novels, the US was undoubtedly the leading nation in the 20th century but has been slipping back in the past few years. Indeed, though not relevant here, it is clear to me that the most interesting novels are currently coming from the Spanish-speaking world, though, sadly, relatively few are available in English and, of course, they are not eligible for the Man Booker Prize. However, as I look at the possible US winners, I can see that most of them are superior to the actual winners and, in most cases, superior to my alternatives and I have missed out quite a few worthwhile ones, as well as some less than worthwhile ones but ones that would have been considered worthwhile, such as the Roths and Updikes of this world.

John Berger, a quirky early British winner
John Berger, a quirky early British winner

So where does this leave us? Presumably, Man Booker are going to change the rules. I think that it will be sad, as young and upcoming British and Commonwealth writers will be squeezed out, in that they may no longer make the longlist and will therefore not get the useful publicity that generates. However, as we know from 2007, the Man Booker nominees do not sell very well and certainly not as well as literary giants like Katie Price. But a little publicity for a relatively new author is better than nothing. I used to feel that the Britishness of the prize was important and this can be seen from the early lists with the likes of P H Newby, Bernice Rubens and John Berger winning, quirky Brits all of them. However, this has ceased to be an issue with the rise of top quality writing from the Commonwealth. With the quality of US writing slipping somewhat, I do not think that, as Kazuo Ishiguro stated, it will be a tragedy and it should inspire the British and Commonwealth writers to do better. I look forward to seeing next year’s longlist.

Hans Henny Jahnn: Das Holzschiff (The Ship)


The latest addition to my website is Hans Henny Jahnn‘s Das Holzschiff (The Ship). This is the first book in an incomplete trilogy, with the second book, meant only to provide a tenth chapter to the first one, ending up as 1600 pages. Only this one has been translated into English. Though long since out of print (in both German and English), the English version is to be republished in December 2013. It tells the story of a large, three-masted sailing ship (which, as the German title but, for some reason, not the English one, states) is made out of wood. The ship arrives in a port where it appears to be carrying some mysterious goods which no-one, not even the crew, knows what they are. The captain plans to have his daughter, Ellena, accompany him on the journey but, at the last minute, her fiancé, Gustav, stows away. Gustav and Ellena discover secret passages on the ship and even suspect that the owner may also be stowing away. The strange supercargo adds to the mystery though first Ellena and then Gustav get to know him better. When Ellena disappears, Gustav finds even more peculiar goings-on, all of which upset the crew. It is certainly an interesting book though some of the mysteries are not really explained till the second volume.