The latest addition to my website is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki‘s お艶殺し (A Spring-Time Case). This is the earliest of Tanizaki’s works to be translated into English, though the English text is very difficult to get hold of, having first been published in 1927 in Japan and never reprinted. This fairly short novel tells the story of Shinsuke, an apprentice pawnbroker, who is love with his master’s daughter, an only child. She – O-Tsuya – is also in love with him but it it is clear to him that he would not be acceptable to her parents. However, she persuades him to elope, something he is reluctant to do but his passion wins over. They are aided by a pleasure boat owner, Seiji, who agrees to put them up, while he negotiates with her parents. But Seiji is deceiving them and they stay at his house for a year, while he continues to tells them that negotiations are delicate. Finally, Shinsuke is tricked out of the house where he is set upon by Santa, Seiji’s assistant but manages to overcome and kill Santa and conceal the body. Meanwhile O-Tsuya has been kidnapped and, as we later learn, sold to become a geisha. Shinsuke finally tracks her own but finds that, while she still loves him, she also enjoys being a geisha. Despite the mounting body toll, Shinsuke wants her to return to her parents and is prepared to give himself up to the police but she drags him deeper into the mire. It is fine tale of a seductive and scheming woman dragging a (relatively) innocent man down, a theme we will find later in Tanizaki’s work.
The latest addition to my website is Sebastiano Vassalli‘s La notte della cometa (The Night of the Comet), surprisingly translated into English and, though out of print, readily available. This is a novelised biography of the Italian poet Dino Campana, a poète maudit. Vassalli has chosen to use the novel form rather than write a conventional biography (I am aware of at least four conventional biographies of Campana in Italian), primarily because it allows him to speculate about Campana and his life. There are gaps in his life, not least because he had the habit of going wandering off without telling anyone where he was going and where he had been. Campana himself had considerable mental health problems and we learn that there were mental health issues on both sides of his family. Indeed, after his younger brother was born, his mother essentially rejected Dino. Campana was anti-social, preferring to immerse himself in books, and found it difficult to adjust to normal life. He spent much of his adult life in and out of institutions and the two careers he tried – the military and pharmaceutics – both failed before he really got started. He had not shown an inclination to be a poet when young, though he took to it later but only published one work – Canti Orfici (Orphic Songs) which he had to self-publish but which is now considered a masterpiece of Italian literature. Vassalli tends to focus on his troubled mental health and family issues though we learn about his problems with the opposite sex. Much of his sexual life was with prostitutes, though he did have an affair with the Italian writer, Sibilla Aleramo, who very much admired his poetry. Vassalli makes the story of Campana’s life interesting, with his speculations, though he does tend to focus more on Campana’s maternal and family problems than on his literary work but it is still a very worthwhile book.
The latest addition to my website is Marlene van Niekerk‘s Triomf (Triomf). This is a very funny novel about a poor white South African family, that is totally dysfunctional. They live in the suburb of Triomf, specially built for poor whites on top of a bulldozed black shantytown, Sophiatown. The Benade family consists of Mol, her husband, Pop, her brother Treppie and her thirty-nine year old son, Lambert. Lambert is epileptic and therefore has never held a job. Nor has he had any sexual liaison, except with his mother, who early on had realised that sex was the only way to calm him down when he had one of his fits. Poor Mol also has sex with her brother and finds having sex with three men tiring but does not seem concerned about the morality of it. Lambert, who can be prone to violent outbursts, is good at scavenging useful things from rubbish bins and dustbins and good at repairing things. One of the running jokes is his continual repair of the mailbox, which he has built out of scrap metal and affixed to the gate. It gets knocked down and damaged on a regular basis, as Pop or Treppie hit it with their decrepit car. The only real plot is the lead-up to Lambert’s fortieth birthday, for which he has been promised a woman by his parents and for which he and Treppie repair two broken-down fridges in his bedroom, so as to store food and drink for the woman. However, much of the book is a series of very funny scenes, such as Lambert celebrating Guy Fawkes night by almost burning the house down and burning himself or by getting into a fight with the men next door as he spies on their wives sunbathing (he is an inveterate Peeping Tom). The family stumbles through life, with Mol and Pop the generally innocent victims of the erratic behaviour of Treppie and Lambert. Yet, somehow, they just about survive, leaving us with some wonderful literary characters and some superb-story-telling.
I have now read all the novels on the Baileys Womens Prize for fiction shortlist. As a reminder, they are;
Cutting straight to the chase, there is no doubt in my mind that Americanah is the superior novel of the six. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells a good love story but, more particularly, her take on race and racism is brilliant. She tells it both by being directly polemical – her heroine, Ifemelu, writes a clever blog on the issue – but she illustrates this in many ways throughout the novel. Her take on racism is not just white racism towards blacks, though that certainly occurs, both in the US and in England, but also the differences between African-Americans and what she calls American-Africans, i.e. Africans who have emigrated to the US, and even between different Africans. It is brilliantly done and shows what many critics have already said, namely that Adichie is now one of the foremost novelists of the twenty-first century. This is not to do down the other five novels. However, they unfortunately happened to be up against a strong contender. I enjoyed four of the five. Indeed, I thought all could have been strong contenders, were it not for Americanah. However, I have to admit that I did not particularly enjoy A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Some critics thought it was the work of genius so don’t take my word for it. But beware. It is written in stream of consciousness/ disjointed sentences style somewhat à la Joyce so if that is what you enjoy, you may well appreciate McBride’s take on the usual Irish stereotypes of drink, sex, sexual abuse, religion, etc.
Last year’s shortlist had five very experienced and well thought of novelists. None of the six was a first-time novelist. This year’s list has three first-time novelists, which is a fine achievement and it is good to know that there are so many good novelists coming through. Last year’s list had three British and three US writers. This year there are no British writers and five different nationalities represented. I have not read any of the other writers on the longlist except for Eleanor Catton‘s The Luminaries, a surprise omission from the shortlist. This omission os a decision I can more or less agree with, as I thought Catton’s previous book, Rehearsal was the better book. There are two or three others on the longlist that I hope to get to.
A few facts
Nationalities represented: Australia, India, Ireland (two), Nigeria, USA
First novels: Burial Rites; The Undertaking; A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing
Second novels: The Lowland
Third novels: Americanah; The Goldfinch
Longest novel: The Goldfinch (784 pages)
Shortest novel: A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing (224 pages)
Novels in which the main character is a woman: Americanah; Burial Rites; The Undertaking (jointly with a man); A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing
Novels in which there are multiple violent deaths: Burial Rites; The Undertaking; The Lowland; The Goldfinch
Novels in which a language other than English is (occasionally) used: Burial Rites (Icelandic); The Undertaking (German); A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing (Irish); The Goldfinch (Dutch). The Lowland has a quote from Giorgio Bassani in Italian in the foreword
Are women now writing better novels than men? Based on what I have seen this past year, at least in the English-speaking world, the answer is a categorical yes.
The latest addition to my website is Eimear McBride‘s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. McBride has been hailed as a genius for this novel and it has received quite a few positive reviews, though some less positive. I am afraid that I am in the latter camp. It is written in a stream of consciousness style, starting in the womb and therefore written in baby talk. McBride has said that she was writing the images she saw in her head as she tells the story of an unnamed girl, who comes from a poor background in rural Ireland. Her father runs off and then dies and her mother is somewhat useless. Her brother, whom she is very fond of, gets a brain tumour and though he initially recovers – he will get worse later in the book – he is not the same as he was. She is sexually assaulted by her uncle (her mother’s brother) when she is thirteen. She does badly at school and leaves to become a shelf-stacker, living on her own and having numerous casual sexual relationships, including with the abusive uncle, and drinking and misbehaving, till her brother gets worse again. It seems to be me – and McBride has more or less admitted this – that this book just trots out the usual Irish stereotypes – drink, religion, sex and sexual abuse, drugs and so on – and while, obviously, this could be the basis for a fine novel, I do not think this one is. All power to McBride and her publisher, the very small Galley Beggar Press, for publishing this novel but it just did not work for me.
The latest addition to my website is Hannah Kent‘s Burial Rites. Though Kent is Australian, this novel is set entirely in Iceland, where Kent spent some time. It tells the story, based on an actual historical incident, of the murder of two men at a remote farm. Three people have been arrested and found guilty of the crime. The story focuses on one of these three, one of the two women, Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Agnes is thirty-four, single, and had been both the servant and lover of Natan Ketilsson, the owner of the farm and one of the two men murdered. Because there was no proper prison in the region, it has been decided that she will stay at the farm of Jón Jónsson, and his wife Margrét. The couple and their two adult daughters are not too happy about this but have to accept it. Agnes is brought to them in poor condition. She has been beaten, not allowed to wash, not been fed or even given anything to drink all day (the party arrives around midnight). Margrét, while opposed to her presence, shows a certain sympathy towards her, though expects her to work , which she does. We follow Agnes’ stay at the farm as well as her story, both in her thoughts as well her recounting of her tale to the priest who is caring for her soul during her last days, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson. We gradually learn what really happened but we also learn a lot about Agnes, who has had a hard life. She was illegitimate, disowned by her father and soon abandoned by her mother and has worked as a maid all her life. She is clearly an intelligent, conscientious, knowledgeable and diligent woman and, as Kent intends, we feel a certain amount of sympathy for her and for her plight, particularly when we learn the story of the murders. Kent tells her story very well and Agnes is a fascinating portrayal of a woman facing death. This novel is on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Well, I am glad someone said it. While I have quite enjoyed the two volumes of Karl Ove Knausgård‘s six-volume My Struggle, I have been somehwat baffled that Knausgård has been hailed as the next big thing, possible Nobel Prize winner, a Norwegian Proust or Proustian, if you prefer, or even a modern Proust. In the national article linked, William Deresiewicz puts it much better than I can: The prose consists, for the most part, of a flat record of superficial detail, unenlivened by the touch of literary art: by simile or metaphor, syntactic complexity or linguistic compression, the development of symbols or elaboration of structures—by beauty, density or form. Nothing happens, for the most part, in the thinking, either—no insight into the situations being described, no penetration of the characters involved, no unexpected angles or perspectives/. While I might not go as far as that, I agree with him to a great extent. I am glad that I am not alone. So, for the record, Knausgård’s My Struggle (FFS, spell his name correctly, at least) is not a literary masterpiece, it is not the second coming of Proust (or Joyce or Woolf or Ibsen or anyone else) and is not Nobel Prize-worthy. Now, can we get back to reading real fiction, please?
The latest addition to my website is Audrey Magee‘s The Undertaking, one of the books on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. This is Magee’s first novel and a fine novel it is. The hero is Peter Faber, a German soldier in World War II, who is fighting on the Russian front. He has been allowed to marry a German woman remotely. A pastor marries him and a photo of the woman (Katarina Spinell) in Russia while, at the same time, she marries a photo of him back in Berlin. The advantage for him is that he gets three weeks leave back in Germany. The advantage for her is that, if he is killed, she gets a widow’s pension. Peter’s father, when he finds out about the marriage later, thinks that it is merely part of the German breeding programme. On his leave, the two get on well and after he returns, she finds that she is pregnant. Meanwhile, he has met his parents-in-law and a friend of his father-in-law, Dr Weinart, who is both a medical doctor as well as a senior Nazi official. Dr Weinart takes Peter out at night to hunt out Jews, which Peter does. After Peter’s return, the Spinells are given a much nicer flat, taken from a Jewish family. However, back in Russia things are not going well for the Germans and Peter and his comrades are cold and hungry. Once they get to Stalingrad, things get worse and, as we know, the soldiers are soon abandoned by their generals. Meanwhile, things are not going well in Berlin either. While this certainly is a well-written and enjoyable novel, I do not see it winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
The writer and former president of Yugoslavia, Dobrica Ćosić, died two days ago. There are not all that many leaders of countries who are also noted writers but Dobrica Ćosić is one. Several of his books have been translated into English (see picture at left). They are all long out of print, though readily available from the usual sources. I own a couple but have yet to read them. They tend to deal with the wars that the Serbs have had to face – World War II and the struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire. As a key Serbian nationalist, he initially supported Milosevic but later moved away from him.
The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction have launched #ThisBook, where they have asked nineteen well-known (in the UK but probably not elsewhere) women to nominate the novel written by a woman that most impacted, shaped or changed your life. The results are interesting, if not surprising. With the possible exception of Helen Forrester‘s autobiography, there is nothing obscure. Many of the books are very worthy. Only one book appears twice (To Kill a Mockingbird). Only one author has two different books on the list (Toni Morrison), though two sisters (the Brontës) appear. Surprise omissions – Jane Austen, Simone de Beauvoir, George Eliot, Doris Lessing, Carson McCullers, Sylvia Plath, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf. I am not sure that I can say that any novel, whether written by a man or a woman, has changed my life. However, I have a list of the 96 Best novels by women, which are all from the period covered by my site, i.e. 20th and 21st century. If I have to pick one novel by a woman that made the most impression on me, it would be Wuthering Heights or The Golden Notebook though I was very, very impressed by the novel I mentioned earlier today, Americanah. You can make your own nomination through Twitter at #ThisBook.