The latest addition to my website is Rafael Chirbes‘ En la orilla [On the Shore]. This book was generally agreed by Spanish critics to be the best Spanish novel of 2013 and also the best novel on the Spanish economic crisis. As is usual with Chirbes, plot is not key to this book; indeed, there is very little plot. It mainly consists of Esteban, a seventy year old Spaniard, who lives in Olba, a small town he has barely left in his life, who has recently had to close down his carpentry business for financial reasons, a business founded by his grandfather and which he inherited from his father, ruminating on his life and the sad state of affairs in Olba, Spain and the world. The shoreland of the title is used as a dumping ground for all types of waste, including chemical waste and dead bodies, both animal and human and is clearly a symbol for the state of affairs in Spain. Esteban covers all the usual topics – globalisation, immigration, corruption, Internet porn and so on – both in his ruminations and in his barroom chats with his friends. His father, who had fought in the Civil War and been imprisoned, is now over ninety and Esteban keeps him in his house, stuck in front of the television watching westerns and films about terrorism, cared for by Liliana, a Colombian immigrant. Esteban had never been married but has two brothers and a sister with whom he has little contact and for whom he has little respect. It is a very grim picture of contemporary Spain and clearly resonated with the Spanish reading public. It has not been translated into English (though has been translated into German) and I am not sure how well it will go down in the English-speaking world.
The latest addition to my website is Eduard Vilde‘s Mäeküla piimamees (Milkman of the Manor). This novel, which has been called Estonia’s first psychological novel, tells the story of an estate owned by a German, Ulrich von Kremer, and one of his tenant farmers, Tōnu Prillup. Prillup’s wife, Leenu, has died, and he has almost immediately married her younger sister, Mari, to help look after his two children. When Mari goes to the manor to wash windows and, later, to milk, Ulrich von Kremer is very taken with her and wants her for his mistress (he is unmarried and, indeed, has never been married). Eventually, after having some moral doubts, he offers Prillup the lucrative milk contract and then a better farm, if Prillup will let Mari be his mistress. Prillup initially refuses but then sees the financial advantages – he is behind with his rent – and tries to persuade Mari to comply. For a long time she refuses but she, too, eventually agrees. But things do not work out as well as Prillup hoped, with the milk contract not being as lucrative as he hoped and he himself having doubts about letting his wife being the mistress of another man. It is a fairly straightforward, realistic tale but with the psychological element, and has been hailed as a classic of Estonian literature. it is the only one of Vilde’s many novels to be translated into English.
The latest addition to my website is Eric Gamalinda‘s Confessions of a Volcano. It tells the story of Daniel, a thirty-year old Filipino who wins a contest to go to Japan for a month, to do research on an article about Osamu Dazai (see picture at left, taken from the book). However, he also intends to write an article about Filipinos living illegally in Japan, particularly the women, who are exploited for prostitution and as mail order brides. He meets Luisa, a Filipina, who claims to have a permanent visa and to have a Japanese boyfriend, Kato, who runs a club where men go for drink, entertainment and sex. Kato has promised to marry Luisa, though she has found out that he is married with two children. He becomes friends with a Japanese man, Seiji, who falls madly in love with Luisa, and meets both Filipino and Japanese women, and learns about the exploitation. However, he very much likes Japan and is not happy when he has to return to Manila, where he will work as a journalist, dealing with the grim situation in his own country. It is an interesting novel, highlighting the difference between the Filipinos and Japanese, pointing out the exploitation that goes on of Filipinos in Japan but also showing the dark side of the Philippines.
The latest addition to my website is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki‘s 痴人の愛 (Naomi). This was Tanizaki’s first full-length novel, written when he had moved away from Yokohama after the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923. It tells the story of Joji Kawai, a serious young man with a good job in Tokyo who falls for a young woman – she is fifteen when he first sees her – who has come from a poor background and is now working as a waitress in a café. Joji initially says he is going to protect her and pay for her to study (English and music) but it is clear that his real reason is sexual attraction. She is clearly a very attractive young woman, with something of a Eurasian look – Joji thinks that she looks a bit like Mary Pickford – and Joji, while initially happy with her, will soon find that many other men are attracted to her. Naomi is looking for a good time, which means dancing, parties, fine, generally Western-style clothes and good food. All of this costs money, but his main problem is that he is sixteen years older than her and she calls him Papa and there are plenty of men closer to her age who are happy to take her dancing. It was something of a risqué novel for the period, though very tame by our standards but still an interesting novel about how a man can fall in love with a woman to the extent that he is prepared to make any sacrifice to keep her.
The latest addition to my website is Vincent Message‘s Les Veilleurs [The Watchmen]. Oscar Waldo Andreas Nexus is a loner, living in the fictitious town of Regson. One day, he casually shoots three people, apparently selected at random, and then proceeds to lie down on the bodies, showing no resistance when the police arrive. As he seems to be quite lucid and intelligent the few times he does speak during his trial, he is found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. However, the Governor thinks there might be some political motive, as one of the victims was his mistress. He engages two people to thoroughly investigate Nexus. One is a former police officer and now his trusty advisor, Paulus Rilviero, and the other a leading psychiatrist, Joachim Traumfreund. They take Nexus off to a remote retreat in the mountains where Traumfreund finds that he seems to live in a dream world, a country called Sébra where he plays a role in a war there, while Rilviero resorts to more conventional police methods to determine the motive. But is Nexus fooling them both? It is a lengthy novel, with much of the action taking place in the retreat or in Séabra and but also an intriguing one about psychological motivation and what makes us tick and the role of dreams in our lives. Sadly, it has not been translated into any other language.
Flavorwire has a post on Which Books Should We Stop Calling Classics?, asking a handful of critics, writers, and publishing industry people for their views. Interestingly, only three authors made the list more than once – James Joyce for both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Ayn Rand, who is not even vaguely a classic and never has been but is an awful writer and To Kill a Mockingbird, a book, I must confess, I have never read but I have seen the film, which made me think that I probably shall never read the book. I was also glad to see someone mention Updike (though, sadly, no-one mentioned Philip Roth, whom we certainly could do without.) This has been done before. Brigid Brophy and her husband Michael Levey, and Charles Osborne produced a book called Fifty works of English literature we could do without and others have produced similar lists. I could add many more to the list – Hemingway, D H Lawrence and Solzhenitsyn are three obvious candidates and Mailer is now joining the list. I could never read George Meredith but then, I suppose, few people read him anyway. The same could be said for Paradise Lost and Pilgrim’s Progress. I am sure that we all have our candidates but, as some of the writers in the Flavorwire article said, we should be thinking more about adding to the canon, not cutting it. Now, for that I do have a list.
The latest addition to my website is Joël Dicker‘s La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert (The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair). I hesitated about reading this novel as, though it got some good reviews and won the Goncourt Prix des lycéens, it also got some poor reviews. Some reviewers thought it brilliantly combined the detective novel and the literary novel Others thought it merely a poorly written detective novel. As it has been translated into several languages and is coming out in English in May, I decided to overcome my reluctance. However, having read it, I am inclined to the second opinion. It is not very well written (though certainly not badly written) and while it is quite an enjoyable detective novel it is not literary fiction. It tells the story of a successful writer who has an affair with a fifteen-year old girl. She disappears without trace and though he is initially suspected, there is no evidence to tie him to the disappearance. Thirty-three years later, her bones are found buried in his garden, together with a bag containing the manuscript of his book. He is arrested and charged with abduction and murder. The narrator, one of his former students and now himself a successful novelist, comes up to New Hampshire to investigate and help clear his mentor’s name. In a week when Dame Helen Mirren has added her name criticisng the continuing flow of brutal murders of women in TV dramas, this book is clearly not going to be on her reading list. If you enjoy detective novels with a few good twist, it may well be on your reading list and, no doubt, it will get a certain amount of publicity when it comes out in English in May but there are better novels, even better Swiss novels to put on your reading list.
The Guardian has published a list of the most borrowed book from British libraries . I have only read one (the Mantel) and have no plans to read any of the others. I must admit there are many authors on the list whom I have never heard of. Meanwhile, ABE UK has a published a list of the most searched for out of print book. I have read two of these (the McElroy and Koestler), have heard of relatively few and am unlikely to read any of the others. I suppose that this means that I am completely out of touch with what the GBP reads (GBP=Great British Public; the term come from Q D Leavis, a quote you may have come across on my homepage – After that is accomplished the next business in hand is to get on the right side of the Great British Public. And keep your eyebrows well pinned down. It is quite likely you may know it all and feel enormously sorry for the Great B. P. for not having enjoyed all your advantages. But the Great B. P. is not always impressed. Very frequently it is bored stiff. Silly and presumptuous of it, but there it is. Amuse it and cheer up. Chat to it. Bully it a little. Tickle its funny bone. Giggle with it. Confide in it. Give it, now and again, a good old cry. It loves that. But don’t, for your success’s sake, come the superior highbrow over it.) I shall not follow Q.D.s advice to the letter as I shall be happy to say that many of these books are trash. If you enjoy trash, that is fine – my musical tastes have often been criticised as such – but many of them are still trash, whatever your taste.
The latest addition to my website is Grazia Deledda‘s Elias Portolu (Elias Portolu). Deledda was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and she is still the only Italian woman to do so. This book, published in 1903, was set in Sardinia where Deledda was from and tells the story of Elias. Elias had fallen into bad company, been involved in petty theft and sent to jail on the mainland. On his return, he finds that his brother, Pietro, has become engaged to Maddalena. When Elias first meets her, he falls immediately in love with her and, soon after, his love is reciprocated. The book is about the consequences of this love. Elias considers various options – leaving Sardinia, becoming a priest and finding someone else but rejects them all because of his love for Maddalena. She is not happy in her relationship with Pietro, particularly as, after they get married, he becomes drunk and abusive. It does not turn out well for them even when Elias finally decides to become a priest. It is not a bad story and Deledda fills the book with fascinating Sardinian local colour.
The latest addition to my website is Stephen Schneck‘s The Nightclerk, a very funny and somewhat over the top cult novel, long since out of print, about a very fat man – he weighs at least 600 pounds – called J Spenser Blight who is the night clerk at the Travelers Hotel in San Francisco. The hotel caters for transients, would-be suicides, those looking for a place for hidden and often casual sex and party-goers. All are presided over by this enormous man, who hears voices, who is married to a very wealthy woman, who was sexually abused as a child and then pimped by Blight. When they are caught in their activities, Blight escapes to the Travelers but his wife does not. Blight is one of the great fat men of literature – at times gruff, at other sympathetic and thoughtful, spending his time listening to his voices, reading trashy erotic novels and cutting pictures out of magazines, while all and sundry pass through his hotel.