The latest addition to my website is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Americanah, her third novel. As should happen, her second novel was much better than her first and this one is much better than her second one and, given that the second one was a very fine novel that definitely means that this one is a very fine novel indeed. First of all, this novel is a love story. Ifemelu, like her creator and the heroines of the two previous novels, is an Igbo woman. At high school, she meets and falls for Obinze. They start a relationship and everything seems to be going very well She then gets an opportunity to go and study in the United States. It is planned that Obinze will join her later. However, he cannot get a visa, while she has a lot of difficulty in the US, primarily financial, and falls into a state of depression. As a result of her depression, she stops communicating with Obinze, not answering his phone calls or his emails. Eventually, she gets out of her depression but then starts a relationship with the rich, white cousin of her employer (she works as a babysitter). Meanwhile, Obinze has been to England and been deported when his visa expires, become a successful businessman back in Nigeria, thanks to connections, and married and had a child. At the start of the book, Ifemelu has been thirteen years in the US and wants to return to Nigeria. While planning to do so, she contacts Obinze and they resume an email correspondence.
A great novel on racism but Americanah is almost as good
While it is a nice love story, that is not what makes this book. Ifemelu has a blog while in the US called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black which gives lots of incisive comments about race, not just the racism of whites to blacks (and vice versa) but the differences between African-Americans and American-Africans (i.e. Africans who have come to live in the US) and between Africans of different countries. While this blog is a superb commentary on the issue, Adichie superbly illustrates the issue of racism through the story, with events, comments by different characters and the astute observations of Ifemelu. I challenge anybody and certainly any white person not to learn a lot about the issue from this novel. However, it is not a lecture or diatribe. It is cleverly told, full of humour but with telling comments on the issue and, while it is mainly aimed at people in the US, whether US-born or those that have come to the US from Africa, Obinze’s stay in England and the situation in Nigeria (Ifemelu and Adichie are both Igbos and, therefore different from the Yorubas and Hausas) give her the opportunity to cover other situations. For me, the best novel on racism, at least racism in the United States towards African-Americans, is Invisible Man but this novel comes very close to that brilliant novel. Though I had always planned to read this novel, my reason for reading it now is because it is on the shortlist for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. I have now read three and a half of the novels on the shortlist and intend to read the remaining two and half in the next few days. There is no doubt that this novel is immeasurably superior to the ones that I have already read, all of which are very fine novels, that it should win hands down.
The latest addition to my website is Gerard Reve‘s Bezorgde Ouders (Parents Worry). This novel tells the story of Hugo Treger, an alcoholic, homosexual, Catholic poet and translator. We follow one day in his life (a short time before Christmas) and, though the story is told in the third person, the story consists entirely of his inner thoughts. These thoughts are often about his sadistic, homosexual lusts, aimed partially at his room-mate, Unicorn, eighteen years his junior, but partially at other men he sees. Unicorn – we never learn his real name; his nickname is derived from the size of his penis – is a passive young man, nominally studying, though exactly how much study he is doing is unsure. Treger fantasises about Unicorn in various sexual encounters, generally involving other men, but also thinks about his Catholicism (like Treger himself, he only converted in middle age), has racist thoughts, some involving sexual encounters with Unicorn, and tries to scavenge what he can, as he is not very well-off and Unicorn contributes little financially. Treger is a very conflicted man, though he himself is not aware of this, struggling with is poetry, drinking large quantities, not a very good Catholic, though this does not bother him, and, above all, a man whose lusts drive him to continual sexual fantasies. It is the only book of Reve’s published in English and, given the strong homsexual fanatasies, it is easy to see that this book would not be everyone’s liking.
The latest addition to my wesbite is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Purple Hibiscus, her first novel. I was a bit disappointed with this book, as it was a bit unsubtle, telling the story of a teenage Nigerian girl, Kambili, and how she had suffered at the hands of her very rich but very religious father, Eugene. Eugene is very harsh with his two children and his wife, when he feels that they might be committing a sin, and his definition of sin is very broad. Indeed, his behaviour is not just abusive but close to torture. However, there is a different view of him in the community. He is very generous to very many people and in his newspaper, The Standard, he is not afraid to stand up to the dictatorial government, resisting both threats and bribes. When thing get bad with the newspaper, the children are sent off to their Aunt Ifeoma, Eugene’s sister, in Nsukka and she is a very different person. Though somewhat religious, she is very open-minded and happy to let the children be children. Kambili finds it difficult to adapt to this new-found freedom but, with the help of the priest, she does make some progress. However, Eugene drags the two children back, when he finds that his father, who has stuck to the traditional religion and is therefore considered a pagan by his son, is sleeping under the same roof as the two children. However, Eugene’s violence gets worse as does the political situation and the children again return to Aunt Ifeoma’s, though she has her own political issues to face. However, I found it all too predictable and, though Adichie tells her story well, it is not a great work.
My bath-time reading of the Guardian Literary Review recently involved reading D J Taylor’s interesting article, rather badly titled Literary hero to zero (I am guessing that the title is a sub’s and not Taylor’s.) However, before getting to the article, I am going to go off on a tangent, which will lead to another tangent, which will lead to… and eventually, I hope, back to Taylor’s article, though I may get lost on the way. This, of course, is a literary trope, a variation of the story-with-a-story or nested story, which I happen to enjoy. Indeed, it is found in three of my favourite novels: Italo Calvino‘s Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller), Potocki’s The Saragossa Manuscript and Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer. So if I don’t get back to the beginning, please forgive me and remember that far greater writers than I have had the same problem.
I have finally read it!
I keep quite a few lists of books. Some are on my website, while others are either on my computer or in my head. Yes, I am clearly very anal-retentive. They even used bits of one of my lists (many years ago) on the David Letterman Top Ten list. One of the lists (in my head) is the list of books that everyone else seems to have read but which I have not yet got around to reading. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been on that list or a while but she is about to come off it, as I have just read Half of a Yellow Sun and will shortly read her other two novels. I have to admit that there is something of an ulterior motive here. (Warning! Tangent coming!) But before I tangent, I would mention that I have another list which is Books that everyone else seems to have read but which I have no intention of reading. It includes the likes of Harry Potter, Dan Brown, E L James and most of Philip Roth and Martin Amis. Back to the tangent.
On the the shortlist for the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize
It won the Pulitzer. It is on the Bailey’s shortlist. Will it make the ManBooker shortlist?
When this shortlist was announced, there was a communal throwing of hands in the air in the British press at the fact that there were no British authors on the list. (It contained two Irish authors, one US, one Indian, one Australian and one Nigerian.) Given that the Folio Prize went to a US writer and he shortlist of eight only had one British writer on it and that the ManBooker is now allowing US writers, this seemingly looks like the end of civilisation as we know it. It seems likely that no British writer will win any of the major three literary prizes. People say that this is unfair. After all the Pulitzer Prize is only for US writers (Only U.S. citizens are eligible to apply for the Prizes in Letters, Drama and Music; it went to The Goldfinch this year) as are The National Book Awards (All authors must be U.S. citizens.). So why not not a British award just for British writers? It is a valid point. But are British writers up to it?
Alan Bennett – prefers US authors
Alan Bennett has recently caused another collective throwing-up of the arms in the air with his remarks that he prefers US authors to British authors. He rather spoils his argument by mentioning only one writer – the execrable Philip Roth. However, his general point is certainly valid. A quick look at the statistics for my site reveals that I have covered more English books than those of any other nationality. If you added in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it would be a lot more. This does not, of course, represent where the best novels have come from since the beginning of the last century. There is no doubt in my mind and, presumably in Bennett’s mind (disclosure: I was born about four miles from where he was born but I hope the similarity ends there) that US writing since the beginning of the last century has been generally far superior to English writing, particularly as far as the novel goes. Right now, things are not looking too good in England in this area. My reading of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists was, frankly, disappointing. There were two or three good ones but the rest were certainly readable but far from being great. Of course, these were the young novelists and they may go on to write the Great British Novel but I am not optimistic. The older generation – Amis Jr, Swift, McEwan, Ishiguro, Barnes, Byatt and Co – is, well, getting old and clearly have their best days behind them. The generation after them produced Mantel, Winterson and Coe. None has really approached greatness, even though they are fine writers.
No-one reads him but his biography is in print
Which brings us back to D J Taylor or, rather, his article. He mentions Beverley Nichols who briskly informed his friends, in 200 years’ time he would be spoken of in the same breath as Jane Austen and Beatrix Potter. Taylor says that there is still a long way to go but clearly it is not going to happen. Have you read Beverley Nichols? No, nor have I. Have you even heard of him? I vaguely remember my parents reading him, many years ago but I certainly never read him. Wikipedia says he is best remembered for his gardening books which may put him in the company of Vita Sackville-West, though I doubt that Nichols slept with Virginia Woolf, as Sackville-West did, nor did he own a beautiful house and garden, now a famous National Trust property. In short, Nichols is almost entirely forgotten as a novelist. Of course, many novelists slip out of the public consciousness, as Taylor shows in his article. In this context I always think of Christopher Morley who was very well-known in the US in the 1920s and 1930s and is now almost completely forgotten. I bought a copy of his Thunder on the Left at the 4th Avenue Bookstore but have never read it. (Another tangent would be sad reminiscences of bookshops that have disappeared. If I did it, which I probably won’t, I would start with the bookstores of New York, including the 4th Avenue Bookstore.) So will these British writers slip away into the mists? A few will remain but, I suspect, many will be forgotten, along with Beverley Nichols, in fifty years time and certainly in 200 years time.
Kushner for the ManBooker?
Which brings me back to the beginning. An interesting Bailey’s Women’s Fiction list but no British writers, with, presumably, Tartt and Adichie as favourites and the ManBooker longlist coming out in just over two months, with Sarah Churchwell, Professor of American Literature at the University of East Anglia as one of the judges. Will she go for Tartt and other US writers? What about Richard Powers‘ Orfeo? Philipp Meyer’s The Son? Kushner? Saunders? Doctorow? Oyeyemi? Oops. Not a single Brit there. Oh well.
The latest addition to my website is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Half of a Yellow Sun, a stunning novel about the period just before and during the Biafran War. Adichie is an Igbo, the tribe on the losing side in the Biafran War so she naturally tells the tale from the side of her people who suffer a lot from the war. It is estimated that over a million people died, many from disease and starvation, during the war. Adichie focusses primarily on five people. Odenigbo is a university lecturer at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. he is very pro-Igbo and against colonialism (he is very critical of the British), racism and non-Igbo Nigerians. He meets and falls in love with Olanna, who has recently obtained her Master’s in London and comes to work at the same university. They move in together and, eventually, marry. Olanna has a twin sister, Kainene, who starts a relationship with Richard Churchill, a white Englishman, who has come to Nigeria to write a book about Igbo-Ukwu art, though the book changes its focus during the course of this novel. The fifth key character is Ugwa, who is thirteen at the start of the novel. He is Odenigbo’s houseboy and is fiercely loyal to Odenigbo and then to Olanna as well but gives us an interesting and different perspective on events. We follow the gradual build-up to the war and then the war itself. Adichie spares us no details of the war – death, brutality, corruption, rape, starvation, kwashiorkor and arbitrary violence on a large scale. Our protagonists have to flee the advancing Nigerian army and, inevitably, suffer a lot during the course of the war. Adichie tells us a very fine tale of the horrors of war, albeit from the perspective of her people, and this is a book that deservedly has a very high reputation. It has been made into a film, which has had a few problems.
The latest addition to my website is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki‘s 蓼喰う蟲 (Some Prefer Nettles). This is wonderful little novel on the gradual falling apart of a marriage but one that it is falling apart without bitterness and recriminations but just because the couple are, as Kaname, the husband, says, no longer excited by one another. Misako, his wife, has a new lover, Aso, and Kaname is happy for her to see him and is happy to divorce her and for her to marry Aso,whom he has met more than once. He himself has a lover, a Eurasian courtesan called Louise, who wants him to set her up in a flat. As with deciding about his divorce, he is dragging his feet on this. Meanwhile, Misako’s father, who has a mistress younger than his daughter, is concerned with traditional Japanese culture and does not like the increasing influence of Western culture, both on art – theatre, music and traditional dress – but on daily life, such as food and even toilets. It is Takanatsu, Kaname’s cousin, who is visiting from Shanghai, where he lives, who tries to persuade Kaname, not very successfully, to make some decision and to think about his own and Misako’s future, as well as the future of Hiroshi, their son. It is a superb novel about a marriage drifting away but also about one of Tanizaki’s favourite themes, traditional Japanese culture versus modern Western culture and, as always, Tanziako tells his tale beautifully.
The latest addition to my website is Lawrence Durrell‘s Sebastian or Ruling Passions, the fourth in his Avignon Quintet. This is definitely the weakest (and shortest) one so far and it rather seems as if Durrell is just filling in gaps and cruising. There are two main plot lines. The first concerns Mnemidis, a patient in the asylum under Constance’s care who her boss, Schwarz, thinks should be handed over to the civil authorities, because of his violence. Constance believes that she can help cure him and is not worried about any danger, as the guard, Pierre, is a giant of man and very strong. Inevitably, Mnemidis escapes. The second plot line concerns Affad, who, we learned, at the end of the previous book, is called Sebastian. By having an affair with Constance, as he did in the previous book, he has betrayed the mysterious gnostic sect to which he and the Prince belong and he must face a trial. At the trial – a typical Durrell set-piece with a dark chamber, mysterious figures and with the trial held, of course, at midnight – he learns that he has been sent a letter telling him to expect his imminent death. This is not connected with his affair but something that can happen to any member of the sect and is a great honour. The letter has obviously got mislaid while he was travelling to Egypt and, in fact, Constance has got it but Mnemidis has found it and thinks it refers to him. But it is all rather tiresome and lacks the panache of the earlier books, even if Aubrey Blanford and his creation, Rob Sutcliffe resume their bizarre relationship and other characters from earlier books make a brief appearance.
The latest addition to my website is Karl Ove Knausgård‘s Min kamp. Andre book (Book Two: A Man In Love), the second in his six-volume My Struggle autobiographical novel series. As the third one is already out in English, I thought that I should get to this one sooner rather than later. While I admit that he writes well, I have to say that the autobiographical novel does not generally excite me. In this book, as the title indicates, he is in love but what the title does not say is that he is also the father of three children. I know what it is like to bring up children and reading about others doing it does not really excite me. Where he is interesting is in some of his semi-philosophical asides and, in particular, his continual criticisms of Sweden, somewhat surprising as, at the beginning of the novel, we learn that he has abandoned Norway and his first wife to go and live in Sweden, where he meets a Swedish woman whom he will fall in love with and marry. Even when his Swedish wife suggests that they go and live in Norway, primarily to escape their very unpleasant Russian neighbour, he declines. Like Knausgård, I shall struggle – to read all six of this series – though my struggle, like his, will be something of a tongue-in-cheek struggle.
The latest addition to my website is Danièle Sallenave‘s La vie fantôme (Phantom Life). This is the story of a conventional love affair. He (Pierre) is married, with two children, and works as a school teacher in the school where he himself was taught. She (Laure) is single and a librarian. The affair has been going on for four years when the books starts and despite the fact that it is a small town and several people know – he has told a few friends and his father-in-law has discovered it, while she has told her best friend, Ghislaine – Annie, Pierre’s wife, still knows nothing. Sallenave beautifully dissects the affair. Both are very conventional, liking the easy, straightforward life. He is looking for a bit of sex and passion in his life, while she is looking for a bit of love, romance and passion in hers, but neither seems to want to take it much further, despite the fact that Sallenave cleverly shows their occasional discomfort with the status quo. We see their various ways of accommodating the affair, particularly with Laure having to make most of the adaptation to Pierre’s marriage and job, not always willingly. Sallenave makes sure that we are aware that both are ordinary people but their ordinary affair in an ordinary town becomes interesting as their ordinariness is challenged by the affair. This is the only book by Sallenave to be translated into English and though it is out of print, it is not difficult to obtain second-hand from the usual sources.
I noticed Will Self‘s tired article on the death of the novel a couple of days ago but, having skimmed through it, I felt it really was not worth reading but a tired rehash of the old story, not least the idea that the idea of the novel being dead really meant that people aren’t buying Will Self’s book. And who can blame them? I read Umbrella, only because I had vowed to read all the short list for the Man Booker that year (2012) but I found it a very tiresome and uninteresting novel. The pity was that it had a good idea but Self had messed it up by being resolutely post-modern. You know the sort of thing – disjointed plots, people speaking but you have no idea who is speaking, quotes from pop songs, etc, etc, etc. I have dipped into a couple of his other novels and found them equally tiresome. However, reading the Guardian Review in the bath, as one does, I came across the print version of Self’s article and more or less persevered. (I do tend to read the Guardian Review in the bath, though there is a slight disadvantage, as the Guardian sometimes has this annoying habit of having one page printed on a single sheet instead of a double sheet, and this occasionally falls in the bath, which can be inconvenient. It is not the only annoying thing about The Guardian.)
While we are doing annoying, I have to confess to finding Self annoying. When you see him on TV, which I very much try to avoid, or when you read him in the press – he is sadly ubiquitous in the posh British press – he comes across as arrogant, pompous and very much full of himself. The photo on the right of Self holding his book over the heads of the other candidates at the Man Booker promotional photo shoot is an example. I have to admit, I was expecting to be annoyed by Self’s article and I was not disappointed. Conversational Reading had already expertly trashed him, so I thought I might just focus on his language. In the first sentence he used the word benison. At first I thought it was a Guardian type for venison. For non-UK readers, I should point out that the Guardian is famous for its misprints and, indeed, is often known as The Grauniad to reflect this. I soon realised that it was not a misprint. I vaguely recalled what benison was, not least because it comes from the French bénir, meaning to bless. However, I can safely say that it is a word I have never used and do not recall seeing used outside a religious context. He goes on to talk about queered demographics. As he must know and we all do, queer and queered are now used by the gay community to refer to gays and gay issues. But just as only blacks can say nigger (ask Jeremy Clarkson; on the page on the Self article linked to above, there is a reference to Clarkson begging for forgiveness for using it (this may differ for you, depending when and from where you link to the page)), it is generally not PC for non-homosexuals to use queer. I could go on about his use of language but I won’t as it is very boring for me and very boring for you.
Certainly better than many 80s English novels
Self’s thesis starts with one of his canaries. Canary seems to be the word he uses for children. This is partially explained by the fact that the canary he is mentioning is an aspiring rock guitarist but, as he uses it to refer to all of his children, it seems that it is not used in the sense that canaries are known songbirds. He bangs on about how music has changed with the advent of the web. I don’t entirely agree with him but we are here to talk about the death of the novel. He starts In the early 1980s, and I would argue throughout the second half of the last century, the literary novel was perceived to be the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour. It was? Classical music? Fine art? Opera? Theatre? And what novels does he cite to bolster his arguments? Those well known 1980s novels Ulysses and To the Lighthouse. What was happening in the early 1980s in the novel? Sticking only to the English novel, the likes of Anthony Burgess, Lawrence Durrell and John Fowles were fading away, Doris Lessing was on her sci-fi thing and the likes of Julian Barnes, Graham Swift, Ian McEwan, Peter Ackroyd, Pat Barker, Kazuo Ishiguro and Martin Amis were getting going. Oh, young Will was reading PPE at Oxford. That’s Politics, Philosophy and Economics, not Literature. To be quite honest, the works of those young writers (and the old writers) were not nearly as important and relevant as a work that appeared two weeks before the start of the 1980s – The Clash‘s London Calling.
He goes on. Those who reject the high arts feel not merely entitled to their opinion, but wholly justified in it. (For which read, those who reject Will Self novels feel wholly justified in it. Yes, Will, I do.) Of course, the readers of Barbara Cartland, Jeffrey Archer and other low-brow writers have always felt justified in damning Ulysses and To the Lighthouse and, frankly, I do not blame them. Neither is an easy read and both require a certain amount of commitment, learning and dedication to fully appreciate and, if people do not feel like giving this commitment, learning and dedication, I, for one, do not mind. However, Self’s arguments come down to five things. 1) E-books are bad (but I use them). 2) Amazon is bad (but I use it). 3) The gatekeepers who kept us away from the crap are disappearing and now crap is everywhere. 4) Creative writing programmes are bad (even though I teach one). 5) My first book was not published in hardback. What an affront! 1, 2 and 4 have been regurgitated on websites and in blogs galore. I do need to add anything except to say I have generally found both 1 & 2 positive from my point of view, though I can understand why authors are less enthusiastic. As for 3, did the gatekeepers really do a good job?
No Will Self on Smashwords
Self likes slinging in a few quotes so here is one. The great American novel has not only already been written, it has already been rejected (Somerset Maugham). In short, the gatekeepers rejected many great novels and promoted many crap novels. A free-for-all democracy, where anyone can publish a novel on the web, with self-publishing or in Kindle format and sell it through Amazon is, I think, a good thing. The gatekeepers are still there. The literary reviews in newspapers or in the better quality reviews like the TLS or NYRB still review (primarily) books that have been published in hard copy and by accredited publishers. That does not mean that Will Self is going to be reviewed before E L James but it does mean that someone somewhere is making a judgement, however flawed, as has always been the case. And, yes, there are many blogs and websites that do review on-line books and good for them. The likes of Smashwords are to be encouraged.
Gaddis – difficult but highly enjoyable
The current resistance of a lot of the literate public to difficulty in the form is only a subconscious response to having a moribund message pushed at them, he states. In other words, all too many people do not like Self’s deliberate obfuscation (a nice Selfian word) either in this article or in his novels. I have read many difficult books. Yes, Will, I have read Finnegans Wake and enjoyed it. I enjoyed The Pale King, which many did not. I love William Gaddis. But all of these writers had a point to their difficulty. If there was a point to the difficulty of Umbrella, I missed it. I had the feeling from reading the book and reading Self’s comments on it that the difficult style was the point. He could have made it more readable without losing anything but chose not to.
A very good book from Latin America
In conclusion, I will say one thing (though I could say a lot more). In 1960, if you wanted to be considered well-read in the contemporary novel, you would have had to read a fair amount of novels from the UK, US, Ireland, France and perhaps one or two other countries. You might have read the odd novel from Italy, Germany, Japan, Scandinavia and China. Indeed, unless you could read other languages, you probably could not read all that many novels from the twentieth century from non-English-speaking countries. I have reviewed books from 209 countries on my website. While you do not have to have read books from all 209 to be considered well-read in the contemporary novel, you certainly should have read books from at least twenty-five different countries and probably more. The novel dead? Of course it isn’t. People are reading. More and more books are being published every year and that is excluding the many, many ebooks that are not published in hard copy and it also excludes self-published books. While many of them may be non-fiction, reprints or plain crap, I find that every year there are more and more books I want to read because more and more worthwhile book are being published, both in the English-speaking world and elsewhere. Have you been to Latin America recently, Will? They are reading books there – good books – and writing them and talking about them. The novel dead? Hell, no. Maybe it is just you who are.
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