The latest addition to my website is Carmen Boullosa‘s El Velázquez de París [The Velazquez of Paris], another wonderful post-modernist, feminist romp through history. This one tell the story of Velázquez‘s painting The Expulsion of the Moriscos (the Moriscos were the descendants of the Moors who occupied Spain and who had converted to Christianity but were still, in many cases, expelled to North Africa). The painting is believed to have been lost in 1734 when the Alcázar Place burned down. However, Boullosa, who is the main character in her own novel, overhears an old man telling two attractive women who are accompanying him, that the painting was saved and that he now owns it, though the women are indifferent and have never heard of Velázquez. Boullosa the author (but not the character) goes on to tell how it was saved by Mají, a twelve-year old boy, son of a servant in the palace who rescues it, not because of his love of art but because one of the women in the painting is apparently his grandmother’s grandmother and he is saving his own heritage. Mají flees the palace with the painting but falls in with a gypsy couple and it is through the gypsy woman, Isabella, that the painting is passed down. It is great fun, very well-told, always lively, witty and intelligent. Sadly, it has not been translated.
The latest addition to my website is Saber Mansouri‘s Je suis né huit fois [I Was Born Eight Times], a Tunisian novel published last year. Sadly, it is not about the Tunisian Arab Spring, as it is set entirely in the last century, though there is a certain amount of satire on and criticism of corruption and dirty dealings in the Ben Ali administration. Mostly, it is about Massyre, the youngest of eight (he has seven older sisters). Massyre has to work various jobs to help the struggling family (his father lost his job when his public corporation was privatised to the benefit of the rich). We get a detailed account of these various jobs, including goat herding, collecting and selling rare snails, which are a delicacy, selling newspaper for wrapping paper and selling used clothes. But Massyre is intelligent and he is able to go to school, where he does well, except in maths and with the opposite sex. He manages to go onto university and become a teacher himself, teaching history and geography but his love life again goes awry. It is not a bad novel, even if Mansouri too often gets carried away in his descriptions and it certainly mocks and criticises the Tunisian government, but only mildly. It has not been translated into English and, frankly, I do not think that it will be.
The latest addition to my website is Marlene van Niekerk‘s Agaat (UK: The Way of the Women; US, SA: Agaat). This a superb book about two women. The first – Milla – is a white South African woman, daughter of farmers and herself a farmer, who marries a man, Jak, who is good-looking, sociable and well-liked but who is also abusive, racist and thinks he knows everything about farming, which he does not. The second is Agaat, an African woman who, when Milla was twenty-two, was rescued from an abusive and neglectful family when she was five, by Milla, who takes her in, almost as a daughter. Agaat is intelligent, though hindered by having a stunted arm. However, she is resented by the other Africans, who see her getting what they consider special treatment and she does not mix well with them, even struggling with their language. Things get complicated when Milla has a son, Jakkie, whom Agaat takes care of, leaving both Milla and Jak fighting for his affection and loyalty. Jak wants his son to be the man he was not and he is overjoyed when Jakkie joins the South African Air Force, fighting the Cubans in Angola. Milla wants to run the farm but also have a son who loves her more than he loves Agaat. At the start of the book, Milla has motor neurone disease and can barely move and it is Agaat who looks after her – Jak is long since dead – but who now reverses the earlier roles and it is Agaat who takes command. The strength of the book is the relationship between the two women, who struggle, cope and, on occasions fail, in a world where the men are clearly the weaker sex, both black and white.
The latest addition to my website is Oum Suphany‘s រោមតំណក់ទឹកភ្លៀង (Under the Drops of Falling Rain). This is a semi-autobiographical novel about a woman who lives through the Pol Pot regime and all the suffering that resulted. She is separated from her family when the Khmer Rouge suddenly start driving people out of Phnom Penh and never sees them again. (Suphany lost four of her six sisters and her parents.) During the course of the novel, her sister dies in hospital. She herself suffers from being used as slave labour and she is forced to marry a man five years her junior, whom she had never met before. Fortunately, he is a kind and decent man and they become attached, before he is sent off on patrol and never returns. As the Vietnamese take over and drive out the Khmer Rouge, she and others escape and face bombing, harassment by Khmer Rouge soldiers and difficulties in finding food. The book tells, in alternate chapters, the story of the Pol Pot days and the story of more recent times. The account of the earlier period is definitely grim and made more horrific because of its personal nature, while the account of the later period is less interesting, not least because things seem to be much better. Overall, it is a well-told story of a terrible period.
The latest addition to my website is Gerard Reve‘s De avonden [The Evenings]. This book was voted top in a poll by De Amsterdamse Leesgroep (The Amsterdam Reading Group) of the best Dutch literature of the 20th century. It was written while Reve was in prison for having helped a prisoner escape, while he was serving in the Dutch East Indies (later Indonesia). The original manuscript was destroyed by the guards but, fortunately, he had made a copy and he took this with him, when he escaped and fled to Belgium. The story is relatively straightforward. It recounts ten days in the life of Fritz van Egters, starting on 22 December, 1946 and ending shortly after the first hour of New Year’s Day. Fritz is a twenty-three year old Dutch man, who lives with his parents and works in a boring office job. He seems to have no romantic attachments; indeed, he shows virtually no interest in such matters and does very little during the ten days of the novel, except go to a few low-key parties, meet a few friends, get drunk once and talk to his parents. However, he does have something of a dark side, having recounted his childhood love of torturing animals, telling stories which are often macabre or sick and sometimes downright nasty and being quite cruel to various friends, who seem to be used to his remarks. Nothing major happens and the story begin and ends with him in bed, with his life continuing the same as always. I found it an interesting story, as Reve writes well and the dark side of Fritz is interesting, as you wonder where it might lead, but I am not sure that it qualifies as the best Dutch novel of the twentieth century. While it has been translated into various languages, it has not been translated into English. Perhaps, like the guards who destroyed the original manuscript, US and UK publishers found the book nihilist and immoral.
The Daily Telegraph has published what it laughingly calls the 20 best British and Irish novels of all time. Three are ludicrous choices – Jilly Cooper, The Sea, The Sea and The Sea. One is a US writer. Henry James took British citizenship just a few months before he died, well after he had written all his famous novels, and is generally agreed to be a US and not British writer. Boyd and Spark are, presumably, included as token Scots. Powell and Burgess are enjoyable enough and are certainly fine writers but not really in the twenty greatest. The same could be said for Graves and Powell. I would not include D H Lawrence but, if I did, it would not be Lady C but Sons and Lovers or Women in Love. And no Bronte? Disgraceful!
So here is my list. It’s (fairly) idiosyncratic. Most people would not agree, including, probably, me tomorrow. No Austen, no Welsh novels and only five women. But it is hell of a lot better than the Daily Telegraph’s list.
- Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights
- Charles Dickens: Bleak House
- George Eliot: Middlemarch
- Henry Fielding: Tom Jones
- Ford Madox Ford: Parade’s End
- E. M. Forster: Howards End
- Lewis Grassic Gibbon: The Scots Quair
- Alasdair Gray: Lanark
- Thomas Hardy: Jude the Obscure
- James Joyce: Ulysses
- Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
- Doris Lessing: The Golden Notebook
- Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano
- John McGahern: Amongst Women
- Zadie Smith: White Teeth
- Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
- William Thackeray: Vanity Fair
- Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited
- Henry Williamson: The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight
- Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway
The latest addition to my website is Lawrence Durrell‘s Constance or Solitary Practices, the third book in Durrell’s Quincunx series. This one is set during World War II, with the various characters we have met in Avignon, scattering before the advancing Germans. Aubrey Blanford, the writer, goes off to Egypt as secretary to Prince Hassan, where he will be badly injured, while Constance’s lover, Sam, will be killed, as a result of British shelling. Constance herself will go to Geneva to work for the Red Cross (she is a doctor) but will return to Avignon with the Red Cross, as she is a Swiss citizen. Livia is in Germany but will return to Avignon as a nurse and we will learn her real reason for going to Germany. Meanwhile, we also follow the career of German General von Esslin, a Catholic aristocrat, who is mildly injured in the invasion of Poland but enjoys both the North African campaign and capture of Paris but ends up with the meagre reward of being in charge of Avignon, where he has to find the Templar treasure for Hitler. Durrell has his usual lyrical set-pieces, though less of his pompous erudition, as he focuses on the course of the war and its effects on the key characters.
The latest addition to my website is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki‘s 卍 (Quicksand). This a very erotic novel, even by Tanizaki’s standard. Sonoko Kakiuchi is a widow, telling her story to the author. She had been married to a lawyer and had accompanied him into town to go to art school. There she had met Mitsuko, a very beautiful young woman, who was a fellow art student. The two had become friends and then lesbian lovers. However, Mitsuko is deceitful, selfish and seemingly without scruples. She deceives Sonoko on more than one occasion, though Sonoko herself is hardly a model citizen, having had an affair (with a man) before and now having an affair with a woman, behind her husband’s back. Things get complicated, when Sonoko finds out that Mitsuko has a boyfriend, Watanaki, who seems even more unscrupulous than she and gradually first Sonoko and then her husband are dragged into a series of murky and ultimately fatal situations. Its is a very accomplished novel, dealing with both the issue of where does truth lie and who is telling it (we hear the entire story solely from Sonoko’s perspective) as well as describing complex sexual relationships.
I have now read twenty Icelandic novels in a row, which may seem and, indeed, probably is mildly obsessive. However, I shall now be calling a break and returning to to other nationalities. I still have quite a few unread Icelandic novels in my collection so if ever I feel the urge to read another Icelandic novel I will not lack for choice. I must say that Iceland does seem to have quite a few good novelists for such a small country. Its current population is around 320,000. That is just over half the population of Wyoming, the US state with the smallest population and around the same size as the population of Northumberland which is part of what, English readers may recall, Lord Howell, Conservative Energy Minister, called the desolate north-east of England. In terms of area, Iceland is just a bit smaller than Kentucky, the 37th largest state, and only a little bit smaller than the whole of England.
What have I learned from this? Like many Northern Europeans, Icelanders can be very gloomy. Icelanders are still very much obsessed with their past. Of course, this is true of many other nationalities – the number of books about the US Civil War from US writers and the Spanish Civil War from Spanish writers and the two world wars from everyone are just a few examples of this. Iceland, however, has a fairly unusual situation, at least for a Western European country. It has gone from being almost entirely an agricultural and fishing economy to a modern economy in a relatively short space of time and this is key to the Icelandic novel and features heavily in it. You may well argue that a similar situation occurred in other European countries, such as Spain, but Spain did have some industry and, of course, was held back by its Civil War. Many Icelandic novels, and not just those set in the past, refer to the hard life suffered by farming and fishing families and also refer to the oppression that these people suffered from the occupying Danish, and the Icelandic officials and religious authorities as well as the later British and US occupations. In other words, like many countries, Iceland is its past as much as its present. I have not read any Icelandic novels dealing with the economic recession, though there are some. Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s Unraveled has been translated into English, while Guðmundur Óskarsson’s Bankster has been translated into German (but not English). I will be curious to see if there are more. Incidentally Michael Ridpath’s 66° North, the second in his Fire & Ice series, also features the Icelandic economic crisis.
Other themes of icelandic literature are, of course, the sagas. Many of the books I read mention them, if only in passing, though one or two give them more prominence. Another key issue is emigration. Clearly, many Icelanders have felt the need to go abroad to pursue education, career or their romantic life, even if abroad is only Denmark though, at least in the novels I read, Iceland remains in their thoughts. The landscape is always a key feature. Its bleakness appears in many of the novels but also the beauty of the sea, even if that beauty is often harsh. Finally, we cannot forget the weather. It can be cold and wet, often both, sometimes just one. Even in summer, it can be cold, wet and miserable and in winter it is certainly cold, if not wet. The weather is featured in many novels, as the people deal with the weather, struggle with it or simply just survive it. But don’t let that put you off. It is a beautiful country. But if you can’t go, there are a lot of interesting novels to read about it. Oh yes, and last and maybe least – butterflies. Several of the novels had butterflies making a very brief appearance. They were usually indicative of the fact that, even if the weather was miserable and likely to get more miserable, if there were butterflies around, there was still some hope, some life, some colour.
The latest addition to my website is Ólafur Jóhann Sigurðsson‘s Bréf séra Böðvars (Pastor Bodvar’s Letter). This is a short tale about a retired pastor, Bodvar V Gunnlaugsson, living with his wife, Gudrid, in Reykjavik. It recounts the fairly mundane events of one day. The book starts and ends with his trying to write a letter to their daughter, Svava, who lives with her American husband on Long Island. He is struggling to find anything to say, as nothing much happens in their lives though, by the end, he has come up with some ideas. In the meantime, he performs his usual ordinary tasks, – shopping, rereading an article he had written – before the couple go out for a short walk together. During the whole of the walk, they bicker. He does not like her hat; she does not like his. He wants to feed the ducks but she is reluctant to give him any bread to do so. They meet the man who painted their previous house quite few years ago and she wants to talk to him but he cannot stand the man. This continues till they return home, still bickering. He then retires to his study to finish the letter to their daughter. It is something of a simple tale but interesting to read about a couple drifting into old age, bickering and arguing but also being forgetful and, at least in his case, feeling less and less able to do much The book has been translated into English but is long out of print and, amazingly, it is available second hand on Amazon Canada for C$31,830.39 (plus shipping)!