Month: March 2014 Page 2 of 3

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 友田と松永の話 [The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga]


The latest addition to my website is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki‘s 友田と松永の話 [The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga]. The narrator, a well-known novelist, receives a letter from Shige Matsunaga, asking him to help locate her husband. They have been happily married, living in the country. However, after a few years of marriage, when she was pregnant, he announced that he was leaving for a while and only returned after around four years. She had received no communication from him during his absence and he returned unannounced, though not looking in very good health. He stays for a few years before doing the same thing again. He has now done it for the third time and she needs help. During his last return, she had found a bag containing a postcard addressed to a man called Tomoda and a seal with the same name. She has no idea who Tomoda is but wonders if it could be her husband. It turns out that the narrator knows Tomoda – an old drinking companion – and his investigations lead him to suspect that Tomoda may well be Shige’s husband, except for one thing. The photo of Shige’s husband bears no resemblance to Tomoda. When he confronts Tomoda, he denies everything and recalls that his bag had been stolen, which explains why Shige’s husband had the postcard and the seal. Shige’s husband again returns and, later, when the narrator is in the area, he meets the husband and confirms that he bears no resemblance to Tomoda. So what is the explanation? Tanizaki, as always, tells a good story so it is sad that this book is not available in English (or French or German).

Hans Scherfig: Det forsømte forår (Stolen Spring)


The latest addition to my website is Hans Scherfig‘s Det forsømte forår (Stolen Spring), a book probably written before but published after Den forsvundne fuldmægtig (The Missing Bureaucrat) but which features some of the characters from that book. It is set primarily in a prestigious fee-paying school in Copenhagen, based on the school Scherfig attended as a boy and which he hated. The story starts with the murder of the headmaster, Blomme, one of whose favourite malt drops is poisoned with strychnine. We then learn of a class twenty-fifth year reunion for former pupils of the school. Most of them have gone on to do well (though not all) and we also learn that the murderer is among their number. We then follow this class over a period of years when they were at school, including the actual murder, of which no-one suspects anything, except the perpetrator. In Scherfig’s view, the teachers were almost all borderline psychopaths and frustrated that they have ended up as teachers in a school. They take it out on the boys, with both physical and psychological abuse, though the boys themselves, doubtless following the example of their teachers, pick on the other, weaker boys. In short, Scherfig paints the portrait of a rather unpleasant school, where the only surprise is that only one teacher is murdered and only one of the class ends up in prison. It is not as good as Den forsvundne fuldmægtig (The Missing Bureaucrat), not least because Scherfig’s bitterness predominates.

Hans Henny Jahnn: Epilog [Epilogue]


The latest addition to my website is Hans Henny Jahnn‘s Epilog [Epilogue], the final part of his monumental and unfinished trilogy. This novel carries on from somewhat before the ending of the previous book. We see that Gemma is happily married to Egil Bohn, the horse dealer and they have four sons. The oldest, Nikolaj, is, in fact, the son of Gustav Horn though he does not know this and Egil treats him like his own son. However, he is different from the other boys and they are aware of this, particularly Asger, the second son. When Gemma reads about Gustav’s death, she is very much in favour of sending Nikolaj to Fastaholm, Gustav’s home. Egil is opposed but, eventually, Nikolaj sets off, though, he will continue to steadfastly maintain that he is Egil’s son, and not Gustav’s. He goes to his father’s home and meets his father’s friend, the vet, Daniel Lien. Eventually, he decides to set off on his travels and arbitrarily takes a train and, arbitrarily, gets off at a lonely station in the middle of nowhere when it is getting dark. He sets off walking and finds a nice hotel where he checks in. There he meets a man, who later claims to be Alfred Tutein, whom we know to be dead. We soon work out that the man is Ajax von Uchri, Gustav’s servant. We also learn that Ajax von Uchri is suspected of having murdered Gustav. Von Uchri/Tutein and Nikolaj become close, with the pair making a contract and Von Uchri/Tutein promising to help Nikolaj in his musical career. However, at this point, the novel fades away, with Nikolaj returning home and the novel focussing on his life at home as well as the life of his half-brothers before ending, incomplete, when Jahnn died. It is a somewhat disappointing novel, leaving the feeling that Jahnn was really just going through the motions to move the story along. Though we do learn both who murdered Gustav and something of what happened to Nikolaj, in the few fragments Jahnn left behind, this work is clearly the weakest link of the trilogy. However, it should not detract from the fact that the previous two parts are great and original works, even if they are barely recognised as such, even in Germany.


I have just uploaded the latest statisticsfor my website. I am not sure of the significance of any of it. Spain has overtaken Ireland into sixth place, as it should. There are also a few new entries. I really have nothing much else to say about them, except, of course, that I have read too few books by women authors but I am well aware of that. I enjoy browsing the stats of other bloggers so you may enjoy browsing mine.

Lawrence Durrell: Livia or Buried Alive


The latest addition to my website is Lawrence Durrell‘s Livia or Buried Alive. This is the second book in Durrell’s Avignon Quintet but not, in my view, as good as the previous one. We learned, at the end of Monsieur, that the whole story had been invented by the writer Blanford and, in this one, we follow Blanford’s life, which he used as a model for the story in Monsieur. His life is frankly not as interesting as that of Piers, Sylvie, Pia and Co., even though his friends are searching for the Templars’ treasure, he meets an Egyptian prince and a Jewish financier who seems to think that the Nazis are harmless and marries the Nazi-loving but sexy and sultry Livia, the model for Pia in Monsieur. Durrell’s set-pieces and his ruminations are always interesting but this will not be remembered as one of his best.

César Aira: El congreso de literatura (The Literary Conference)


The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s El congreso de literatura (The Literary Conference). This is another totally original story from Aira, using Hollywood B movie tropes (mad scientist, unworldly creatures, advanced technology). The hero/narrator César, a literary translator who has not had much work recently because of the financial crisis, manages to find the key to pirate treasure, which has baffled many great brians, and then goes off to the literary conference of the title, in Mérida, Venezuela. There he uses a wasp to get a cell from Carlos Fuentes, so he can clone him as part of his plan to rule the world, all the while enjoying the swimming pool, watching the staging in the airport of a post-modern story of Adam and Eve, which he wrote some time ago, and hoping to bump into a former lover. It is both great fun and also has a serious intent, even if that serious intent is merely to tell a good and unusual story. Fortunately, it is readily available in English, thanks to New Directions.


The only DSK book I have read - so far

The only DSK book I have read – so far

If you know anything about French politics, you will know that the title of this post – DSK – stands for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a man who famously had two of the top jobs within his grasp as well as a very rich wife and managed to lose all three for, allegedly, a bit of sexual titillation. I say allegedly because the case against him collapsed because of the unreliability of the maid he allegedly assaulted, so he was not convicted. However, since that event, other women have come forward, claiming to have been sexually assaulted by him and he is currently facing prosecution for pimping, a charge he denies. Whether any or all the allegations are true, what is certain is that he lost his job as Managing Director of the IMF, that he had to abandon his candidacy for the French presidency (though that could be revived) and he and his wife divorced. What has this got to do with literature? According to Le Figaro, there are now 58 books about him. Some of these include novels – I have read one of these, though written by a Spanish, not a French writer. I had been quite reluctant to read the book but I thought it was brilliant; it should be translated into English but probably won’t be.


There are several other novels about DSK, written by French writers and, as far as I can tell, none has been translated into English. Currently the most famous is Régis Jauffret (link is to English Wikipedia site which does not have the DSK on it). His book, La ballade de Rikers Island is about DSK and DSK is suing him for this. Jauffret has form in this area. His book Sévère was about the banker Edouard Stern and his murder. His family tried to have the book banned but later withdrew their demands (details here – French only). His book Claustria, on the Fritzl case was also controversial. Another writer who has faced the wrath of DSK is Marcela Iacub, an Argentina-born French writer. She wrote a book about an affair she had with a famous person, wittily called La Bella et la Bête [Beauty and the Beast]. His name was not mentioned but, later, in an interview she said that the man was DSK. She also said that he was half-pig, half-man. DSK sued, and her publisher and the Nouvel Observateur, which had published an extract, were fined and the publisher had to insert a leaflet in each copy of the book outlining DSK’s position. Iacub’s stance was not helped by the fact that, earlier, she had written articles in favour of DSK, without mentioning that they were having an affair. Stéphane Zagdanski’s Chaos brûlant [Burning Chaos] recounts the reactions of the DSK affair to the patients at the Manhattan Psychiatric Center, while Marc Weitzmann’s Une matière inflammable [An Inflammable Affair] tells the story of a young man who works for a highly successful couple who are clearly based on DSK and Anne Sinclair. Doubtless there will be others, though Michel Taubmann’s Le Roman vrai de DSK [The True Novel of DSK] is, in fact, non-fiction.

Christine Angot

Christine Angot

France has had plenty of cases of writers, particularly autofiction writers, writing about real people and getting into trouble for it. Christine Angot wrote about her ex-lover. His previous partner recognised herself in Angot’s books and sued. Raphaël Duroy was a bit annoyed to find, in a book by his father, Lionel Duroy, an actual email he had sent to his father. He sued the publisher. Christine Fizscher’s novel La Dernière Femme de sa vie [The Last Woman of His Life]. Dan Franck’s novel La Séparation was about his separation from his wife, Elisabeth. The result was that she asked for a divorce. Anasthasie Tudieshe, however, sued her ex Nicolas Fargues for the portrait of her in his J’étais derrière toi [I Was Behind You] but lost. However when Catherine Breillat wrote of Christophe Rocancourt that he scratched his balls on the sofa, he won 1 Euro damages. There have been many more, with the rise in autofiction, some of which have ended up in court and some have just ended in tears. Which is one reason why, on the whole, I do not like autofiction but prefer a novel made up entirely from the imagination. However, the DSK story is larger than life – after all even lovers of novelists are unlikely to lose two major world jobs and a very rich wife for a bit of sexual titillation, so I have read one DSK novel and may well try one or two others.

Jean-Luc Seigle: En vieillissant les hommes pleurent [Men Cry As They Get Older]


The latest addition to my website is Jean-Luc Seigle‘s En vieillissant les hommes pleurent [Men Cry As They Get Older]. It is set primarily in July 1961 and concerns the Chassaing family – Albert, a working class man who works for Michelin but who still feels the shame of the surrender of the French army in 1940, which led to his spending nearly five years as a German prisoner-of-war, his wife Suzanne, who never knew her parents, hates the past and adores her son, Henri, who is serving in Algeria, and Gilles, the youngest son, spurned by his mother, adored by his father (though he does not realise this) and who spends almost all his free time in a book, something quite unusual in both his family and in the village where they live. All the characters seem to be looking for something, though they are not always quite sure what, particularly Albert, who cannot come to terms with the French surrender, who loves his wife but cannot express this either in words or in sex and who cannot quite find where he fits in. The purchase of a television, the first in the village, in order to see a programme on Algeria in which Henri will make a brief appearance leads to Albert finally making his grand and futile gesture, while his wife has an affair with the postman and his son is learning to appreciate literature with Monsieur Antoine, a retired schoolmaster. It is an excellent book about a fairly ordinary French family at a difficult time in French history. Of course, it has not been translated into English, though it has been translated into Italian and Spanish.


Joseph Conrad, a Ukranian writer

Joseph Conrad, a Ukranian writer

John Dugdale, in the Guardian, has produced an interesting list of writers born in Ukraine but not usually associated with that country . It includes the likes of Gogol, Conrad, Lem, Lispector, Bulgakov and Isaac Babel, who is not on my site as he did not write any novels but who was a brilliant writer. I would add to his list Vasily Grossman, Ilf and Petrov and Jan Potocki, well outside the period of my site but whose Saragossa Manuscript is a superb work, which was made into a superb film by Wojciech Has. Though obviously not a writer, I would also add Sergei Prokofiev. When you add the writers that we know to be Ukrainian, it does seem to show that the country was a fertile literary breeding ground.

Backing the wrong horse - again

Backing the wrong horse – again

I am going to take the opportunity to comment on the current situation in Ukraine. Whatever you, I or John Kerry may think of Viktor Yanukovych, he was the democratically elected president. I do not often agree with Putin/Medvedev, but here they are right. The democratically elected president was kicked out of office by an unruly mob, some of which were/are right-wing nuts. What would we think if Obama was driven out by a Tea Party mob or Cameron driven out by a UKIP mob or Hollande kicked out by a mob of Le Pen supporters? We would be against it. (We, meaning normal rational people and not Ted Cruz, Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen.) Something similar has been happening in Thailand and Cambodia though, so far, the democratically elected party has held onto power. Will we ever learn? No. Let us not forget Syria, Lebanon, the Iran-Iraq war, Chile, Zaire and many other examples from the past fifty years where the US, all too often backed by the pusillanimous UK government, has backed the wrong horse or failed to realise that the opponents of people we do not like are not necessarily saints but may well be just as bad as or even worse than the people we are trying to get rid off (Assad vs al-Qaida, for example). As George Santayana very wisely remarked Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Rant over. Back to real life – books.

Vladimir Lorchenkov: Все там будем (The Good Life Elsewhere)


The latest addition to my website is Vladimir Lorchenkov‘s Все там будем (The Good Life Elsewhere). This Moldovan novel is a wickedly funny satire on all things Moldovan. The basic plot concerns a small village of 523 people where all the inhabitants want to emigrate to Italy, as life in their village is very grim, indeed far worse than under the Soviets. Lorchenkov viciously mocks their pitiful attempts to escape – paying 4000 euros to a travel agency, setting up a curling team which can get visas to play abroad, converting a tractor into a plane and then a submarine, starting two crusades under the local priest and, in the case of the president of Moldova, faking an air crash. Many people die in quite unpleasant ways but Lorchenkov finds it all wildly amusing as he knocks the ignorance of the peasants, the corruption of all officials, the hypocrisy of religion and the ultimate failure of his country and people. Tt is firmly in the great tradition of East European black humour and stands comparison with Hašek, Voinovich and will have you laughing – unless, of course, you are a sensitive soul.

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