The latest addition to my website is Hans Scherfig‘s Den forsvundne fuldmægtig (The Missing Bureaucrat). This novel takes the form of a detective story, when two men in Copenhagen are found missing within a short while of one another. The first is a respected civil servant, working in the War Department, Teodor Amsted, a man who has always been punctilious in everything he does, both at work and at home. The second is something of a tramp, but clearly an educated one, as he reads books in foreign languages and asks the newsagent for the London Times. Initially, there seems to be no connection between the two but then the police do find a few connections. They also suspect that Amsted may have killed himself, when his office receives a suicide note and, later, the army find a badly exploded body but with Amsted’s watch and wearing the expensive clothes that Amsted wears but which are not common in Copenhagen. However, Scherfig uses this story, as he does in other of his books, to mock the bourgeoisie – their hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness and their self-imposed constraints. It is told in a very dry, ironic style but is very funny and, despite the fact that it is nearly seventy years old, it is probably still relevant today.
Month: February 2014
The new Folio Prize has announced an inaugural short list of eight writers, which is bound to cause some controversy. Five of the writers are from the US, one from Canada, one from England and one from Ireland. The prize was set up as something of a response to the Man Booker Prize, not least because the Man Booker excluded US writers. Now that the Man Booker does include US writers, it could be argued that the Folio Prize is somewhat redundant (though it does include a poet as well as six novelists and a short-story writer.) More to the point, this will confirm the worse fears of those who were opposed to the inclusion of US writers, such as Tim Parks and Philip Hensher. And the list did not even include The Goldfinch! So can we expect US writers to dominate the major UK-based prizes, now they have won the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction, will likely will win this one and should also win the Man Booker? I have only read one of the books on the short list and very good it was, too (US, of course), though I shall get round to the McBride. And good luck to her. She’ll need it.
The latest addition to my website is Lawrence Durrell‘s Monsieur or The Prince of Darkness, the first in Durrell’s Avignon Quintet. It starts with the apparent suicide of Piers de Nogaret, descendant of Guillaume de Nogaret, the man who, in 1307, arrested many of the Templars. Piers’ friend and brother-in-law, Bruce Drexel, a doctor in the British diplomatic service, hurries to Avignon. His wife, Sylvie, Piers’ sister, is in an asylum in Avignon. We learn about the history of the trio and a few others associated with them, in particular their involvement in an Egyptian gnostic sect they had discovered when Bruce and Piers were both serving in Cairo and their involvement with Rob Sutcliffe,a successful novelist who had been married to Bruce’s sister, Pia, and Toby, a historian writing a history of the Templars. We also learn that the whole story may well be a novel within a novel. As always with Durrell, there is a lot of erudition, something of a tortuous plot and a character loosely based on Durrell himself. The book has not fared well critically since it was published but I must say that I did enjoy it, particularly the section set in Macabru, the oasis in Egypt where the gnostic sect is located.
The latest addition to my website is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki‘s 猫と庄造と二人の女 (A Cat, A Man and Two Women). I read some Tanizaki many years ago so now is the time to reread those ones I read before and read those, like this one, I had not read before. This is certainly not one of his greatest works but it is fun, telling the story of a feckless man and his cat. Shozo loves his cat, Lily, but seems less devoted to both wife number one – Shinako – and wife number two – Fukuko. When he divorces Shinako to marry Fukako, Shinako, despite the fact that she does not really like the cat, persuades Fukako to make Shozo give her the cat. Shozo reluctantly agrees but is devastated at losing her and tries to see her without either Shinako or Fukuko finding out. But, as any cat owner knows, there is only going to be one winner here.
As we are completely out of the Nobel Prize for Literature season and, I would hope, no-one else is discussing the matter, I thought it would be time for me to put in my somewhat controversial proposal. When listening to rock music, I have now and then thought that some of the better songwriters would, in the past, have more likely put their thoughts down in literary works rather than songs. Several songwriters have written literary works other than their songs – Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Morrissey and Neil Young are a few obvious examples, though there are others. With the possible exception of Leonard Cohen, none of these works has a great deal of literary merit, though Morrissey did get his autobiography published in Penguin Classics. However, when it comes to the literary quality of some of the lyrics, it is a different story.
Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Pete Townshend, John Lydon, Ray Davies, Joe Strummer, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Robbie Robertson are just some of the lyricists whose lyrics are outstanding. (The sharp-eyed will have noticed two Americans, five Brits and four Canadians. The sharp-eyed will also have noticed no Beatles or Stones.) Can we compare them to current novelists from these countries? When the Nobel Prize circus comes around, two US writers are regularly to be found on the bookies’ lists – Bob Dylan and Philip “I love my penis; do you?” Roth. John “Like the Rolling Stones, I am always one trend behind” Updike was often on the list when he was alive. I have mentioned more than once that Roth and Updike are, in my view, massively overrated and, in fifty years time, will be a footnote to literary history. Most of those songwriters will, I feel, still be recognised. Of course, making these comparisons will bring down charges like those brought down on those who compared the Beatles to Mozart (not, in my view, a valid comparison; the Beatles’ music was generally trite).
When you look at some of these lyrics, you can (or, at least, I can) see considerable talent. Dylan, for example – in my view the best rock lyricist ever – has produced great political lyrics (Hurricane; Masters of War; The Times They Are A-changin’; Talkin’ World War III Blues), poetical lyrics, often with a touch of politics in them (Desolation Row; A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall), sad love songs (Visions of Johanna; Sara), put-downs (Positively 4th Street; Like a Rolling Stone), cryptic poetical lyrics (All Along the Watchtower; My Back Pages), stories (Tweeter And The Monkey Man; The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest) and many others. As you can see from the links above, there are several sites devoted to his lyrics and attempts to explain them. One criticism levelled at my claim was the question of scale. It was said that Dylan and these other lyricists did not actually write all that much. Dylan has written or, more accurately, published over 500 songs. He has probably written many more. During her lifetime, Emily Dickinson published only a handful of poems though left nearly 1800 behind. I have read a few and I have to be honest and say that I find them really rather uninteresting. (Yes, I know that that is sacrilege but they really do not do anything for me.) I have no doubt that, were she alive, she would be considered a candidate for the Nobel Prize. The same goes for other poets who have won the Nobel Prize such as Tomas Tranströmer, Wisława Szymborska, Derek Walcott, Jaroslav Seifert and Vicente Aleixandre. I am sure that all of these are great poets but they do not inspire me or give me any great pleasure the way that Dylan and the others do. And, of course, Pasternak essentially won the Prize on one novel and a few poems.
The Nobel Prize has not always been a great success. Look at some of the winners and the quality has been distinctly uneven. Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (known primarily for having written the Norwegian national anthem), Giosuè Carducci, Paul von Heyse, Verner von Heidenstam, Carl Spitteler and Pearl Buck are little read (outside their home countries) and little valued. Many worthy writers did not win it, even though they qualified. Surely Dylan and Co. can stand comparison to any of those? So are you really suggesting that Bob Dylan should win the Nobel Prize for literature? I hear you say. I would much rather that it were awarded to one of the many worthy writers who I think deserve it – Kadare, Tournier, Butor, Juan Goytisolo, Luis Goytisolo, Oates, Pynchon and Handke. Doubtless, there are other worthy claimants. But, having said that, if the Nobel Prize were to be awarded to Bob Dylan, I would not throw up my hands in horror as some would and as I would if it went to Philip Roth.
The latest addition to my website is Marie Darrieussecq‘s Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes [You Should Love Men a Lot]. This book has not yet been translated into English but almost certainly will be. It tells the story of Solange, whom we met in her previous book Clèves (All the Way). She is now an actress in Hollywood where she gets to play the French woman roles. While at a party at George’s (the Hollywood glitterati are called only by their first name but we guess most of them; George is undoubtedly George Clooney), she meets Kouhouesso, a black actor, a Canadian national but originally from Cameroon, who usually plays the token black roles, such as boxer or drug dealer. She falls madly in love with him – this will be one of the themes of the book as her love is not fully reciprocated – and they start an affair. Kouhouesso, however, wants to make an African film of Heart of Darkness and much of the novel is how he sets this up with the help of George and Oprah. Solange is keen to play the role of Marlow’s Intended and she does get the role though it does not work out as well as she hoped. As well as the relationship between Solange and Kouhouesso and the mild mockery of the Hollywood glitterati, the issue of racism is also key, as Kouhouesso struggles with his film. This is another superb novel from Darrieussecq, confirming her as one of the leading French writers of our day.
The latest addition to my website is Marie Darrieussecq‘s Tom est mort (Tom is Dead). This is (fictitious) tale of a woman whose four-and-a-half year old son dies in an accident – we are not given the details till the end of the book – and what happens to her afterwards. She is writing ten years after the event but is still suffering from the grief at her loss. She is a French woman, married to an Englishman, but they live in Sydney where her husband’s firm has sent him. Tom dies three weeks after he arrives. Darrieussecq tells an intense tale of grief – how the mother remains unable to speak after his death, how she blames herself, how she would be prepared to sacrifice her husband and two other children to have Tom back, how she hears his voice and buys ten tape recorders to record and listen to it, how she thinks about him all the time, how she is totally consumed with the grief at the loss of her son ands struggles very hard to get over it. It is a very well written novel but hard to read. At times, you feel like her husband does at one point in the book – Pull yourself together, woman – but you know that losing a child must be the hardest thing for a parent.
The Amazon editors have produced a list of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime, with an associated Goodreads’ 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime: Readers’ Picks (Amazon, of course, own Goodreads). (Note that this list is on US Amazon; it does not appear to be on the other Amazons.) I enjoy a good list but I must say this one had me bemused. I have read forty-two and may read another three-four on the list. In other words, I shall never read just over half of them. These include a lot of children’s books, memoirs with a US bias and popular fiction (can you really not get through life without reading Gone Girl, The Hunger Games, The Valley of the Dolls and The Shining? Well, I have managed and have no plans to read any of these four. Nor Have I read Peyton Place, which is missing from their trashy novels.) But you have to wonder about many others. Are A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Breath, Eyes, Memory, Dune, Interpreter of Maladies, Life After Life, Of Human Bondage, The Giver and The World According to Garp that worthy? No. I would argue that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Love in the Time of Cholera and The Age of Innocence are not even their author’s best book. And, as far as I can see, Great Expectations and Pride and Prejudice are the only pre-20th century books (Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Dante, Brontës, George Eliot, Flaubert, Balzac, Trollope, Thackeray, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Twain, Hardy, James, Melville, Hawthorne, Stendhal, etc. all missing.) There are only four books originally written in a language other than English – Love in the Time of Cholera, The Little Prince, The Stranger and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. No Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Dante, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Cervantes, Vargas Llosa, Chinese classics, Mann, Proust, Pasternak, Sartre, etc. As for the other books omitted, I could write pages, as could any of you. I could go on for hours but I won’t. This is a terribly sloppy list and Amazon should be ashamed of themselves.
The Guardian had an article about the most significant historical/literary figures of all time. To do this, they claim to use a principled assessment of a person’s achievements, whatever that may mean. They examine various sources but their primary source is Wikipedia where they look for length of article, Google Page rank and number of hits. (For those that do not know Page rank has nothing to with web pages but is named after Google’s Larry Page; it measures the quality and number of links to a page.) The authors have published a book on this which is called Who’s Bigger? and have been criticised, they say, for various reasons. These reasons include the unreliability of Wikipedia (which they reject) and their Anglocentrism which they partially admit but only partially. I have numerous criticisms which I shall use to criticise two of their lists – the overall top 30 and the top 50 literary figures (scroll down the article to find both of these).
The failure of their first list can be seen by the first entry, as it is a fictional figure. (Contrary to what many people will try and tell you, there is absolutely no reliable evidence whatsoever for the existence of Jesus. There is some rudimentary evidence for his non-existence, namely that contemporaries did not write about him.) If you are going to have such figures, then God should be ahead of Jesus and Allah ahead of Mohammed. And what about Buddha who probably did exist and is surely more important than Ulysses S Grant and Beethoven? There are other significant omissions, Mao and Lenin being obvious ones. As for their inclusions, there are three Americans in the top ten, a country that has only existed for 250 years, all ahead of Columbus (No 20), without whom there would have been no US as we know it. The top Englishman is Shakespeare. However important he was as a writer and however interesting, his influence on world events was paltry. Indeed, his influence on events in England (no Scots, Welsh or Irish in the top thirty) was far less than Henry VIII (11), Elizabeth I (13), Queen Victoria (16) as well as a host of others who do not appear – William I, Henry II, Henry V, Simon de Montfort, Oliver Cromwell, the Duke of Wellington, Peel, Gladstone, Disraeli, Lloyd George, Churchill and many others I could think of. The reason for this is clear. Shakespeare is a) interesting and therefore people write about him, link to him and read his Wikipedia page; b) he is known to people and taught around the world, whereas many of the British politicians I have mentioned will not be known outside the UK, despite their importance and influence; c) he wrote a lot of plays, there is still a controversy about him (who wrote Shakespeare?) and he is still performed all over the world, so his Wikipedia article is likely to be long (it is nearly 12000 words in length) (though he is behind Henry VII, around 16500, Elizabeth I, around 13000, Queen Victoria, around 12500, Churchill, around 22000, William I, around 14500, Oliver Cromwell, around 16000, the Duke of Wellington, around 165000, Lloyd George, around 17000, with the others getting less. Henry V, for example, barely tops 3000). The likes of Simon de Montfort, despite their primary importance in English history, are not very interesting even to the English and far less so to other nationalities. Educated foreigners are far more likely to have heard of Shakespeare than de Montfort, even though de Montfort was far more important and had more influence.
To pursue this argument from another perspective, let’s take Adolf Hitler. Most educated people will have heard of him and therefore will be less inclined to read his page. I have never looked at it till just now, to do the word count (around 19000 words). However, I have looked at numerous Wikipedia pages of obscure authors and historical figures, just because I knew little about them, so while the number of hits may have some validity, it may well not tell the true story. Hitler’s article length will be long as a) he was, of course, very controversial, b) he did a lot of things (directly and indirectly) during his life and c) his life and activities are very well documented. Simon de Montfort is almost certainly not as well documented so there will be less to say about him. Others may have done only one or two key things in their life. Gavrilo Princip, for example, who is not on the list but, without whom, we would probably never have heard of Adolf Hitler, did just one thing in his life of import so only merits just over 2000 words. No, he is not as significant as Hitler but, in terms of the influence he had on our world, he is certainly as important as Shakespeare. My final concern is anglocentricity. Twelve of the people on the list are English mother tongue. Sixteen spoke a European language. Only two – Jesus and Mohammed – spoke a non-European tongue. I have already mentioned Buddha and Mao but there are many others of import from the rest of the world who do not appear – from Asia: Mao, Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Nehru, Confucius, Lao Tse; Emperor Hirohito, Akito Morita, Genghis Khan, Harun-al-Rashid, Yassir Arafat, Nasser, Mehmed II; from Latin America: Simon Bolivar, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara; from Africa: Jan Smuts, Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Léopold Senghor, Haile Selassie, Cleopatra… And so on. I am sure that you get the picture. All of these are more important – a lot more important – than Theodore Roosevelt (famous for a) charging up San Juan Hill (irrelevant for most people outside Spain and the US) and b) slaughtering a lot of innocent animals (No 23 on the list) and Beethoven (yes, he wrote a few good tunes) (No 27 on the list). They are probably, for the most part, more important than Queen Victoria who was a constitutional monarch and therefore had little influence and who spent much of her life in mourning for her late husband. Their answer to the charge of anglocentricity is yes, our rankings have an Anglocentric bias. But the depth of Wikipedia is so great that there are hundreds of articles about Chinese poets in the English edition., which must be one of the most inept defences I have ever seen. This list is massively anglocentric; it contains no Chinese poets (because most Westerners know little and care less about Chinese poets); it ignores many far more significant people from elsewhere, as I have shown. And I have not even touched on scientists/inventors – from Arkwright and Pasteur and Watt and Edison and Benz to Jobs and Gates, all of whom have had far more influence on our lives than Shakespeare.
It was not my intention to go on as much about the main list, so let me jump to the literary list. Three Americans in the top ten and five in the top twenty; three Brits in the top ten and nine in the top twenty (plus one if you count an Irishman who was a British citizen during his life). Tagore is the only writer in the list in the top fifty who is not European or American and even he was part of the British Empire during his life. No doubt Michael Gove would approve and he may approve of the fact that only two women – Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson (a ludicrous choice) – make the list (the Brontë sisters, Mary Wollstonecraft, Murasaki Shikibu, George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe, J K Rowling (who has influenced far more readers than Dickinson), Simone de Beauvoir, Rachel Carson, Enid Blyton and Virginia Woolf are all missing in action). We know, of course, that Wikipedia is massively male-centric. The 20th century writers are Stephen King, H G Wells, George Orwell, James Joyce, T S Eliot and, perhaps, Henry James and Tagore, who both wrote some books in the 20th century – three Americans (albeit two of whom were British citizens), two Brits, one Indian and one Irishman (also a British citizen). Magic realism (García Márquez, Rushdie), Africans who have influenced an entire continent (Senghor, Soyinka, Mahfouz, Achebe), various non-Anglophone Europeans who have had more influence than James and Eliot (Grass, Mann, Kafka, Proust, Sartre, Camus) – all missing in action. Do people read Wells or James, outside academic institutions? Well, yes a, few do but not many and their influence is much reduced. This really is a sloppy list and its criteria are even sloppier. This proves, as we have seen elsewhere, letting geeks judge history and literature is not often a good idea.
The latest addition to my website is Antonio Muñoz Molina‘s La noche de los tiempos (UK: The Depths of Time; US: In the Night of Time), a very long book telling the story of a successful architect from a relatively poor background during the period leading up to the Spanish Civil War and the period at the beginning of the war. Ignacio Abel has made a successful but bourgeois marriage. He is not happy in his marriage so when he meets Judith Biely, a US national of Russian descent who loves Madrid, they start an affair. But with the war starting and life difficult, he accepts a job offer in the United States but feels he has betrayed his country by leaving. However, when he returns, the Madrid he finds – violence and death everywhere – is not the Madrid he knew and loved. Muñoz Molina jumps backwards and forwards throughout the novel – from Ignacio’s architectural studies in the Bauhaus to the early part of the Civil War, telling us the story of a man conflicted in both his political and personal life. As always with Antonio Muñoz Molina, it is a first-class story, superbly told and it is nice to find a recent Spanish novel available in English.