Month: January 2014

Gustaf Hellström: Snörmakare Lekholm får en idé (Lacemaker Lekholm Has an Idea)


The latest addition to my website is Gustaf Hellström‘s Snörmakare Lekholm får en idé (Lacemaker Lekholm Has an Idea). This is Hellström’s only book translated into English and a very enjoyable book it is. It is a family saga of the Lekholm family, starting with Pehr Lekholm, a lacemaker who fought in the First Schleswig War, though his continual telling of his bravery has made him more a figure of ridicule than admiration. He tries to improve the status of his family but the debts of his younger brother, Oscar, who is nominally studying medicine but actually just drinking and having fun, and the loss of a lacemaking contract with his former regiment, plunge him into debt and mean the family’s status declines. The story actually starts with the return of his grandson, Kalle, from the United States, where he has lived for the past twenty years with no contact with his family, apparently for a crime he committed, about which we only learn towards the end of the book. We follow the story of Kalle’s son, Carl, who joins the army, Carl’s younger brother, Anders, the musician, who also joins the army but is a drunk as well as being a moderately competent composer, and other family members. Kalle (now known as John Holmes) is worried about the reception he will receive, as the returning prodigal. It is a lively, witty and very enjoyable family saga, which, sadly, is long since out of print.

Marie Darrieussecq: White (White)


The latest addition to my website is Marie Darrieussecq‘s White (White). This covers Darrieussecq’s favourite theme of isolation, helped by the fact that it is set in Antarctica, hence the title. It tells the story of a scientific expedition based in Antarctica, focusing on two people, Peter Tomson, a heating engineer, and Esmée Blanco, a radio engineer. Tomson is originally from an unspecified developing country but has been brought up in Iceland where, because of his skin and hair colour, he has always felt that he was an outsider while Banco is French but married to an American who works for NASA. They have lived in Canada and, more recently, in Houston. The theme of both the remoteness of Antarctica but also the isolation Tomson and Blanco have felt in their lives and from the other members of the party is emphasised and, inevitably, it brings the two of them together. It is certainly an interesting idea, even if not a great deal happens in the novel.

Hans Henny Jahnn: Die Niederschrift des Gustav Anias Horn nachdem er 49 Jahre alt geworden war [The Notebook of Gustav Anias Horn after he was 49 years old]


The latest addition to my website is Hans Henny Jahnn‘s Die Niederschrift des Gustav Anias Horn nachdem er 49 Jahre alt geworden war [The Notebook of Gustav Anias Horn after he was 49 years old]. After Jahnn wrote Das Holzschiff (The Ship), he planned to write a tenth chapter. This book – 1600 pages long – is that tenth chapter. It tells the story of Gustav Horn, more or less from when the ship sank to his death, filling in some details of the sinking of the ship and the murder of Ellna, his fiancée. He learns that Alfred Tutein, one of the sailors, was responsible for Ellena’s death but he not only forgives Alfred but they set up house together, helped by the fact that the Supercargo on the ship had left all his money to Gustav. They move first to South America and then after a trip to Africa, settle in Norway. Gustav becomes a successful composer. The second part of the book is about Alfred’s death and what Gustav does afterwards. The book is full of wonderful lyrical descriptions of nature and the changing seasons but death continues to be prevalent throughout the book. It has not been translated into English nor is it likely to be but it has been translated into French. It is a wonderful book, though clearly overlong.

Chinghiz Aitmatov: Джамиля (Jamila; Jamilia)


The latest addition to my website is Chinghiz Aitmatov‘s Джамиля (Jamila; Jamilia). This is Aitmatov’s first published work and in reality not much more than a longish story. It is set in World War II when most of the adult men are away from the village, leaving the older men, the boys, the women and the injured men. The narrator, Seit, is a fifteen-year old boy and Jamilia is his sister-in-law, his half-brother’s wife. The pair have to drive grain to the central granary and are accompanied by Daniyar, an orphan who had been born in the village but had left, had served in the army and, when injured, had returned to the village of his birth. He is initially taciturn but, after hurting himself carrying a heavy bag of grain and then singing in a beautiful voice, he and Jamilia become much closer and are clearly falling in love. Seti is initially concerned but then supports the couple. It is a charming tale, well told by Aitmatov, and helped to make his name.

Granta’s Best Young British Novelists – an update

Ian McEwan's first book. Did it show promise?

Ian McEwan’s first book. Did it show promise?

I have now read at least one book by all twenty of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists so I feel I should now make a few comments. A couple of caveats. Firstly, with four exceptions, I have only read one work by each of them. Many of them have only written one novel but some have written more. Is it fair to judge them on such a limited output? Probably not but I am going to do so anyway. The second caveat is very obvious. Many novelists do not shine with their first or earlier books. Indeed, some novelists make a determined effort to reject their earlier work. Some novelists, of course, produce brilliant early work and then fade away. However, while some of these may turn out to be brilliant later in their careers, I can only judge them on what I have read.

Kamila Shamsie - not British

Kamila Shamsie – not British

First let’s start with the problems. Granta has always tried to be inclusive and that is as it should be. If you have British nationality, even if you might have been born and bred elsewhere, have another nationality and essentially write about elsewhere, you can qualify. The first list included an Indian (Salman Rushdie), a Nigerian (Buchi Emecheta) and a Trinidadian (Shiva Naipaul). Given that the list says British novelists, I do have something of a problem with that. Yes, Rushdie and Emecheta lived a long time in the UK and Naipaul some time but they were were writing about their culture which was not British. This current list has an American (Benjamin Markovits), a Bangladeshi who studied in the US (Tahmima Anam), a Chinese woman whose forthcoming novel is called I am China (Xiaolu Guo), a Pakistani (Kamila Shamsie) and an Afropolitan (Taiye Selasi) – it’s her term; she has a Ghanaian father, Nigerian mother and was educated and lives in the US, though she was born in London which is presumably why she qualifies. I do not consider these people British and they should not be on the list. I have no problem at all with Nadifa Mohamed, born in Somalia but has lived in the UK since she was five, David Szalay, born in Montreal but moved to the UK when he was one and Evie Wyld, who grew up in New South Wales. And, of course, British literature has been very much enriched by writers with immigrant backgrounds such as Zadie Smith (also on this list) and Hanif Kureishi.

An autobiographical novel

An autobiographical novel

The character Benjamin Markovits in the real Benjamin MarkovitsChildish Loves says The kind of book I like to read, the kind of book I have been trying to write, is a straightforward but textured account of a mildly interesting experience. I think that he is saying that he likes (semi-)autobiographical works of fiction rather than fully imagined ones. The (semi-)autobiographical novel has long been a staple of fiction and there are many fine examples. We are seeing it currently in autofiction, a technique used by many contemporary French writers but there are many other examples. I have to admit that I prefer fully imagined fiction. However, the point to make here is that once you have written your (semi-)autobiographical fiction, where do you go afterwards? You could do like Karl Ove Knausgård and keep on producing more. I must admit that I was not terribly excited by his first one (though many people were) and I have yet to read his second one (though I will) and his third one will appear later this year. But Karl Ove Knausgård was in his forties when he started. These twenty writers are, by definition, all under forty. Do they have enough to sustain more autobiography? Of course, many writers of imagined fiction incorporate autobiographical elements in their work but that is not the same thing.

Showed potential

Showed potential

I enjoyed eighteen of these writers. I did not really enjoy Mr. Fox and The Raw Shark Texts. Both were too contrived and tried to be too clever for my taste. However, by the same token, with the possible exception of Sarah Hall and Zadie Smith, I did not think that I was really going to look forward too much to the future writing of these novelists. Of course, some of them will prove me wrong and produce future works of high quality that I and others will really enjoy. Of the twenty writers, I have only high regard for four of them. As well as Sarah Hall and Zadie Smith, I did like Naomi Alderman‘s The Lessons and thought it showed considerable potential. I felt the same about Taiye Selasi‘s Ghana Must Go, though given its very autobiographical nature, I wonder where she will go with her next work. Zadie Smith needs no introduction. She is one of the finest contemporary British novelists. Yes, I am aware that all four are women and,no, this was not a conscious decision to select women writers, though given that twelve of the twenty were women, maybe this is showing that women are going to take over, particularly when we think of the Man Booker and German Book Prize and Nobel Prize winners. I shall keep a close eye on Alderman and Selasi and will continue to read Hall and Smith.

Kamila Shamsie: Burnt Shadows


The latest addition to my website is Kamila Shamsie‘s Burnt Shadows. This is a story about allegiances (and lack thereof) and identity. All of the main characters struggle with who they are. The main character is Hiroko, a Japanese woman whose father is deemed to be a traitor, who is engaged to a German and who is in Nagasaki when the atom bomb is dropped. She ends up marrying a Pakistani and living in Karachi. Her husband is born an Indian and lives in and loves Delhi but has to become a Pakistani. Their son speaks many languages and seems more sympathetic to the Afghans than to any other nationality. Their friends in India are British (him) and German (her) whose son considers himself Indian, hates England and works for the CIA. Shamsie moves through key historical events – the atom bomb on Nagasaki, the independence and partition of India, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and 9/11 as a background – and her characters move round the world, unsure of where exactly they belong. This is both the strength and weakness of the his novel as her point is a key one for the present day but, at the same time, the novel tends at time to lose focus. Shamsie was one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

Best of 2013

The best book I read in 2013

The best book I read in 2013

I have been watching the best of 2013 lists with interest not least because, pedant as I am, 2013 only finished a few hours ago so it did not seem to comment till today. While it was unlikely a brilliant new book would be published in the last couple of weeks of the year, it was more than possible that I and other critics would not get round to reading some of these books till the end of the year. I am not going to comment too much on these many lists – you can see a fairly complete list of lists at Large-Hearted Boys’s site – except to say that I seem to be the only person who has not read Kevin Power’s Yellow Birds (I promise to do so sometime – really.) What did somewhat disappoint me (though not surprise me) is that most of the best of lists, even those in the posh newspapers, consisted almost entirely of books written originally in English. There were virtually no books in foreign languages (unlike similar lists in French, German, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish) and not all that many translated books. There were, of course, the usual honourable exceptions, namely those blogs/websites that do cover translations but they were few and far between. To my surprise, I read nineteen books last year published in 2013 though the best (see above left) was published in 2012. This book and seven of the books that I read that were published in 2013 are not (yet) available in English.

What the French liked in 2013

What the French liked in 2013

In other languages, the situation was different. It would seem that no great novels were published in Portuguese last year as most Portuguese bloggers opted for books translated mainly though not entirely from English. The French liked Pierre Lemaitre‘s Au revoir là-haut [Goodbye, Up There] which I did enjoy but do not consider to be a great work of literature. It will be published in English next year. The Spanish opted for Rafael ChirbesEn la Orilla [On the Shore] which I plan to read soon. Sadly, apart from his first novel, Chirbes has not been translated into English which is a great pity as he is a very fine writer. The Italians were like the Portuguese, opting more for foreign language books, though the new Mazzantini (Splendore), the new Ferrante (Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta [The Story of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay]) and Martino Gozzi’s Mille volte mi ha portato sulle spalle [A Thousand Times, he Carried me on His Shoulders] about an Italian TV scriptwriter who wants to make a film about the love affair between Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt got some traction. Terézia Mora‘s Das Ungeheuer [The Monster] got the votes in Germany as did Clemens Meyer‘s Im Stein [In Stone]. Katy Derbyshire says that the Mora will be published in the US by HarperCollins/Ecco. Lizok has her favourite Russian books while Marcia Qualey has a superb post on Arab writers’ favourites.

I have no predictions for next year except to say I am looking forward to the new Murakami (which you can already read in Italian, Spanish and other languages). Flavorwire has its 15 Most Anticipated Books of 2014 though I cannot imagine I will read many of them and other such lists have not inspired me. Of course, what I am looking forward to is a new book by an author I have not read of which is original and inspiring. Sadly, it is probable that it won’t be written or even be available in English. Have a Happy New Year.

Helen Oyeyemi: Mr Fox


The latest addition to my website is Helen Oyeyemi‘s Mr Fox. This is a modern updating on the Bluebeard legend. St John Fox is a 1930s US writer whose novels features unpleasant things done to women. Mary Foxe, who is entirely a figment of his imagination, berates him for his treatment of the women. Oyeyemi, using Yoruba myths and inventive storytelling, including fairy tales, as Fox and Foxe slug it out, gives us a fascinating but contrived account of their relationship. When Fox’s real-life wife, Daphne, gets involved and jealous of Mary, things get more heated. While the book is very inventive, witty and has a very valid message, it did not quite work for me. Oyeyemi was one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

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