The latest addition to my website is Javier Marías‘ Así empieza lo malo [Thus Bad Begins]. This is another excellent novel from Marías about marital relations, the enduring effect of the Civil War and the Franco era on contemporary Spain and betrayal and deceit. Juan de Vere is now around fifty but tells of events when he was twenty-three, in around 1980. He was working as the secretary to Eduardo Muriel, a film director who had had some success in the past but had not had much recently. Muriel asks him a vague question about how he, de Vere, would react if someone who was close to him may have betrayed him but refuses to give further details. He finally admits that it concerns a friend of his, a Dr Van Vechten and later he asks de Vere to take him with him when he goes out at night, to see how Van Vechten behaves with women. De Vere makes some interesting discoveries about Van Vechten. Meanwhile, when spending the night there, de Vere has heard Muriel being very cruel towards his wife, Beatriz. He determines to investigate but, while his investigations do not lead to any conclusions, he finally gets Muriel to tell him the full story. Betrayal, lying, deceit and the legacy of the Civil War and the Franco period are all involved. It is an excellent story and Marías keeps us guessing to the end as to what is really going on.
The latest addition to my website is Kirsti Paltto‘s Guržo luottat, the first Sámi novel on my website, and, apparently, the first novel written by a Sámi woman. I have not put a title in English as the Sámi sources I have found do not given a translation for the title. The Finnish translation of the book was Run Now, Son of Njalla while the Germans means Signs of Destruction. The book tells the story of a group of Sámi people in Finland at the end of World War II and during the period just after. As the Finns were fighting the Soviet Union, they were nominally allies with the Germans but the Germans took advantage of this to essentially invade Finland. At the beginning of the book, the Sámi have to evacuate though some, in particular, Antaras, our hero, decide to stay illegally. The first part of the book follows the story of Antaras, the others who stay behind and Aimo, a young Sámi who was in the Finnish army but has got separated from his detachment and joins up with Antaras and his friends. When the war ends, the people cannot immediately return because there are many mines in the area. When it is finally safe to return, Sofe, Antaras’ wife, and her children do return, though one child has died in evacuation. When they get home they find chaos but no Antaras. Is he simply herding his reindeer or has he fled because he did not join the Finnish army when summoned (he is, in fact, a Norwegian national) or because he has stolen some of the reindeer of the other people, as some accuse him of doing? We follow the stories of the community as they try and put their lives back together, await Antaras’ return and deal with the the problems they have as a semi-nomadic, minority people inside a larger nation that tends to look down on them. It is an excellent story, not sentimentalised in any way, though Paltto is clearly concerned about the fate of her people. Sadly, it is not available in English.
The latest addition to my website is Réda Dalil‘s Le Job [The Job]. Having decided, unlike the past two years, not to read all the Man Booker shortlist entries, as I frankly was not very inspired by them, I decided to have a look at some other prize lists. This novel won the Moroccan Mamounia Prize though, I must say, while I enjoyed it, it certainly is not a great work and makes me wonder what the other novels were like. This novel tells the story of Ghali Habchi, a thirty-year old, unmarried Moroccan banker who has been made redundant from his Moroccan-based bank – one of 30,000 – as a result of the sub-prime crisis in the USA. The novel tells of his vain attempts to find another job. He applies for some twenty jobs a day but only manages three interviews during the course of the book. The first turns out to be for a receptionist’s job. When he does not hear from the second, he waits in front of the building, looking out for the woman who had interviewed him. When he finally spots her, he dashes across the road, only to be knocked down by a car. The third is also disastrous. Meanwhile, his friend, Ali, married with a daughter, is also redundant and taking it even worse than Ghali. Eventually, unable to pay the rent, he and his family come and live with Ghali. Ali finds Allah, while Ghali and Sofia, Ali’s wife, find each other. It is well told and fascinating, not least because I did not expect the first novel I read about the sub-prime crisis to be Moroccan, but there must be better Moroccan novels out there.
The latest addition to my website is Wilson Harris‘ The Eye of the Scarecrow. This is another strange novel from Harris, about a trip into the Guyanese jungle to find a lost city. As with his other works, plot very much takes second place to imagery and we get, once again, some wonderful images, including dreams, ghost-like appearance and the images of the jungle. The narrator is currently (1964) living in the United Kingdom but is writing about his boyhood in then British Guiana in the 1920s and about 1948, the year of the big strike. He has a friend K., an engineer, who lost his parents while young. K. leads an expedition into the jungle to find a lost city, Raven’s Head, which some developers are eager to develop. They rely on a larger than life woman, Hebra, to help them and they quarrel over her. It is not clear what happens but it seems that Hebra is killed and the narrator, as happened to both his father and step-father, is injured in the jungle and nearly dies. Looking back from 1964, while writing to K., he can only conclude, as we must, that it is not clear what happened and that it is language that that is both the aid and the stumbling block.
The most recent addition to my website is Pierre Mertens‘ Les éblouissements (Shadowlight), Mertens’ best-known novel. It tells the story of German poet Gottfried Benn, starting with a section on his participation in a Belgian literary festival in Knokke in 1952 but then with each subsequent chapter taking place ten years after the preceding one, starting in 1906, when he was twenty, ending with his death in 1956. Mertens gives us a portrait of Benn the doctor (he was a doctor for most of his adult life, specialising, initially, in venereal diseases), Benn the man (three wives, lots of prostitutes, a survivor of two world wars, the first spent mainly in Brussels as a military doctor, the second in Berlin, where he was banned by the Nazis from both medicine and publishing) and, of course, Benn the poet. We see little of his actual poetry, though he does discuss poetry and other art forms with family and friends but we do see a man who observes life (and, very much so, death) and clearly uses his life experiences in his poetry. Mertens gives us a superb portrait of this complex man, right up to his death. This novel has deservedly been acclaimed and, though currently out of print, it has been translated into English and is fairly easy to find.
The latest addition to my website is Ian McEwan‘s The Children Act. This novel did not make the Man Booker 20124 longlist and, while it certainly is not a bad book, it is not McEwan back to his old form. It tells the story of Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in the Family Division, who is dealing with two difficult cases, involving religious issues, while her sixty-old husband is telling her that he is going to have an affair with a twenty-nine year old woman, as the passion has gone out of their marriage. Much of the novel concerns one of the religious cases, involving Jehovah’s Witnesses. A seventeen year old boy, Adam Henry, is suffering from leukaemia and, according to the doctors, unless he has an urgent blood transfusion, he is likely to die and his death will not be pleasant. However, his religion strictly forbids blood transfusion and he and his parents are adamant that he should not have one. The entire matter, in their view, is in God’s hands. As he is only three months away from his eighteenth birthday, his parents and their lawyers maintain that his decision should prevail. Fiona Maye has to decide – urgently – whether that is right. Inevitably, the decision is based on abstruse legal decisions. However, there is a moral element to it, as McEwan shows that Fiona cannot entirely detach herself from the moral aspect of her decision. While this is certainly an interesting story and McEwan does get involved in moral arguments about this issue and others, I have to wonder, if it had not been written by Ian McEwan, whether many people would read this book.
The latest addition to my website is David Mitchell‘s The Bone Clocks. While this did make the Man Booker 2014 longlist, it surprisingly did not make the shortlist. I suspect that the fantasy elements in the book, which at times come close to being Dan Brown-ish, may have put off some of the judges, as they seemed to put off some reviewers. The story follows Holly Sykes from age fifteen in the 1980s to her mid-seventies, well into the future. In the 1980s, she is seemingly a fairly normal girl – arguing with her mother, fed up with school – and she is eager to run away to live with her boyfriend, ten years her senior. As a child she had voices and then visits from a strange woman who eased the voices, sitting on her bed talking to her. When the woman caused the death of a bully, Holly had a collapse and a doctor was able to cure the voices. Holly ran away, both from her mother but also from her boyfriend, whom she found in bed with her best friend. We follow Holly over the years, mainly through the eyes of others but, as we follow her story, we learn of a mysterious conspiracy, of which the strange woman on Holly’s bed is clearly part, and of a group of people determined to combat the conspirators. The conspiracy, and Holly’s role in it, is only gradually revealed, as we also learn the various roles of the people she meets in the various chapters. Mitchell throws in his views on the Iraq War, environmental issues, literary conferences and overrated novelists, which all add to the flavour of the book. I thought it an excellent read, highly original and very well told, even it does occasionally stray too close to Dan Brown territory.
The latest addition to my website is Orhan Pamuk‘s Cevdet Bey ve Oğullari [Cevdet Bey and His Sons]. This is his first book, which has yet to be translated into English, though is available in several other languages. It is not like his later books, in that it is a realist family saga, set over three generations, rather than a post-modernist work that he is better known for. Cevdet Bey has taken over his father’s timber shop and converted it into a lighting and hardware shop, where he has done very well, thanks to a city lighting contract obtained by bribery. The first part of the novel is set in 1905 and follows a day in the life of Cevdet Bey. He is thirty-seven years old and has got engaged to a pasha’s daughter but is dealing with a sick and cantankerous brother. The second and main part is set between 1936 and 1939 and follows Cevdet Bey’s three children and, in particular, Refik, his second son and Refik’s two friends. All three are unhappy with their lot, even though they come from prosperous families, unhappy with the way Turkey is going and unhappy with Turkey’s place in the world. The final part is set in 1970 and follows Ahmed, Refik’s son, and his artistic endeavours and his romantic relationship. While not of the quality of his later works, this is is still an interesting family saga that gives a portrait of Turkey in the twentieth century, albeit from the perspective of the prosperous. But why can you read it in Arabic, Bosnian or Chinese but not English?
I have just returned from a trip to Sweden and Lithuania. In Sweden, I stayed in the small town of Växjö (small but with a large university in its outskirts). Despite its size, it is the birthplace of several writers, including Jonas Jonasson, author of Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann (The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared), Pär Lagerkvist, author of Dvärgen (The Dwarf) and Barabbas, Peder Sjögren, only one of whose books has been translated into English, Kärlekens bröd (Bread of Love), and, from nearby, Carl Linnaeus, who was educated in Växjö. However, as for current literature, Växjö is going the way of the rest of us – online and ebooks. There are two bookshops in town, both part of the Akademibokhandeln chain (link in Swedish only). See photo above, left, for the largest of the two.
And here is what they are reading or, at least what Akademibokhandeln is selling (all links to English-language sites, unless otherwise indicated).
Sara Stridsberg has not been translated into English but has been translated into other languages. I have a copy of her Drömfakulteten [The Faculty of Dreams] in French. Her latest novel Beckomberga is doing well. It is subtitled Ode to My Family but is about and set in the famous Beckomberga mental institution.
Gabriella Håkansson is another Swedish writer not translated into English but translated into other European languages. She writes Gothic, historical novels. Kättarnas tempel [Temple of the Heretics], second part of a trilogy, has just been published.
Lena Andersson is another author who has not been translated into English. Last year her first novel about love – Egenmäktigt förfarande [Arbitrary Decision] – was published and it has now come out in paperback and is selling well. It is about how much we are willing to deceive ourselves in our desire to be loved.
Hanne-Vibeke Holst is a Danish writer whose latest work, Knud, den store [Knud, the Great], about her father the writer, Knud Holst, has just appeared in Swedish. Do I need to tell you that nine of her novels have been translated into German but none into English?
Christian Jungersen‘s Du Forsvinder (You Disappear) has just appeared in Swedish but, amazingly enough, is already available in English.
Majgull Axelsson has had a couple of her books translated into English – Aprilhäxan (April Witch) and Rosario är död (Rosario Is Dead) (the latter is non-fiction). Her latest novel – Jag heter inte Miriam [My Name Is Not Miriam] is just out in Sweden.
As for translated novels, they are reading the Knausgård epic – all are available in Swedish (we are still on the third) and the fifth is massive!- the new Murakami, The Goldfinch, Stoner (I must read it one day), Gone Girl, Philipp Meyer’s The Son and Siri Hustvedt‘s Den lysande världen, which we know as The Blazing World, though they also like the romantic novelist, Jojo Moyes.
Vilnius is a charming little town that claims to have the largest old town in Europe. Lithuania has, like most East European countries, had a turbulent history. It only ever had one king and he lived eight hundred years ago. (They nearly had another but he died just before his coronation.) For most of the time they were a Grand Duchy, more or less, subordinate to Poland though, interestingly enough, the Polish royal family, the Jagiellonians, descended from Lithuanians as much as from Poles. At one time, they were much bigger than they are now, encompassing not only modern-day Lithuania but also parts of what are now Latvia, Poland, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. It is strange to think that cities like Smolensk and Vitebsk, that we think of as Russian, were once Lithuanian. Vilnius itself also changed hands and, indeed, was part of Poland till the end of World War II when Stalin generously gave it back to Lithuania. The Polish national poet, Adam Mickiewicz, studied and spent some time in Vilnius. The unprepossessing house pictured, right above, is where he lived but there are several other markers in Vilnius of places where he lived and studied. He is best-known for writing Poland’s national epic, Pan Tadeusz, whose opening lines are
Lithuania, my fatherland! You are like health;
How much you must be valued, will only discover
The one who has lost you.
The book is in print in English and readily available.
In Vilnius I visited Eureka! Knygynas. (Russian speakers will recognise the second word as being related to the Russian word for books, книги). I asked them which Lithuanian novelists are still being read and here is what they suggested.
Jurgis Kunčinas was a poet and novelist, who died in 2002. None of his works has, of course, been translated into English but two of his novels are available in German.
Kristina Sabaliauskaitė lives in London and writes historical novels, none of which has been translated.
Jurga Ivanauskaitė died aged forty-five but is still very much read. She wrote poetry, short stories and novels. A poetry collection has been translated into English. Two of her novels, both of which I have, have been translated into German.
Romas Gudaitis is best-known as a politician but he also wrote four novels, none of which has been translated but which are still read in Lithuania.
Romualdas Granauskas is only known in English in the anthology Come into my Time, though a couple of his novels have been translated into German and one into Italian and Spanish. Though in his seventies, he is still publishing and still selling well in Lithuania.
Juozas Erlickas is known for his humorous works, making fun of post-independence Lithuania. He mainly writes plays and poems and has not, of course, been translated into English.
Sigitas Parulskis writes mainly poetry and plays. One of his poetry collections has been translated into English. One of his novels has been translated into German.
Other sites for more information:
Brief introduction to recent Lithuanian Literature (PowerPoint document)
Fiction in Lithuania
I am not terribly impressed with this year’s shortlist:
Joshua Ferris: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Karen Joy Fowler: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Howard Jacobson: J
Neel Mukherjee: The Lives of Others
Ali Smith: How to be Both
One Englishman, a Scot, an Indian, an Australian, and two from the US. Two women. One previous winner. All fairly well-known writers. No first novels.
I have read one – the Flanagan, which I thought was quite good but not great. Unlike the past two years, I certainly shall not read the rest, though may read the Mukherjee and Smith, but not before the announcement. I do not see an obvious winner and shall not predict one as that will curse him/her to lose. I had hoped the addition of US writers would enhance the list. it seems to have had the opposite effect.