The latest addition to my website is Mark Danielewski‘s The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May. This is apparently the first of a twenty-seven volume series, with the next volume appearing in October of this year. This one takes 880 pages essentially to outline a plot which consists of twelve-year old epileptic girl in Los Angeles, going with her father to pick up a dog as a present for her and rescuing a drowning kitten and going home with it. Yes, of course, there is more to it, with several sub-plots, not apparently in any way related to the main one and loads of post-modernist tricks – graphics, font changes, multiple languages, text shooting off in different directions, annoying multiple nested brackets and the word familiar invariably printed in a sickly pale mauve colour. The story of the girl is sweet, as she struggles with her epilepsy and with her father, inventor of a powerful game engine and always asking questions and not, in fact, her biological father. Oh, and the book is printed on glossy paper and is very heavy, 1.3 kg (3lb 10oz in old money). I don’t think I shall be reading the remaining twenty-six volumes.
The latest addition to my website is Nuruddin Farah‘s Close Sesame. While we are again dealing with opposition to the Somalia dictatorship, this one is slightly different from many of his others, in that the main character is not a Somali expatriate returned home. The story centres around Deeriye. He is now an elderly man, living with his son, Mursal. He had been appointed to be head of his clan when very young and almost immediately faced his first problem The Italian colonisers were looking for a man who had killed an Italian officer, apparently in self-defence. They have learned that Deeriye’s clan is sheltering him. However, Deeirye refuses to give him up. As punishment, the clan’s cattle are slaughtered and Deriye is sent to prison. He will spend twelve years of his life in prison, both before and after independence. However, he has always espoused non-violence. However, he now learns that Mursal, and three other young men, including Mahad, son of the man who killed the Italian and nephew of Rooble, Deeriye’s best friend, are planning some sort of violent attack. He initially opposed any sort of violence but gradually changes his views when faced with the reality of the situation. The history worth studying is one of resistance, not capitulation and all great men have one thing in common: the shaping force of their lives has been resistance is a phrase Mursal quotes back at him having learned it from his father. It covers much of the same ground as his previous novels but Deeriye’s doubts and soul-searching certainly make it one of Farah’s more interesting novels.
The latest addition to my website is Bogdan Suceavă‘s Miruna, o poveste (Miruna, A Tale). Suceavă spent much of his childhood with his grandparents in the remote Romanian countryside and this novel is based on that experience. The narrator, Trajan, and his sister, Miruna, listen to the tales that their grandfather, Niculae,tells them. Many of the tales are about Constantine, Niculae’s father. Constantine came home from fighting in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, which led to Romanian gaining its independence. Returning soldiers were granted land, taken from the monasteries. Constantine, was given a remote , rocky and barren plot but, through dint of hard work and with help of some magic, manages to tame the land. We learn of the old witch, Fira, who is also the local gossip, how Constantine conquers the ferocious wolves and lynxes, discovers water on his apparently completely dry land with magic but how the witchcraft is bitterly opposed by the priest. We hear of the local bandit, Constantine’s magical journey to Greece and his return, how he persuaded the unwilling Domnica to become his wife and how the Germans are outwitted. It is a wonderful story, whether you believe in magic or not and shows a Romania very different from the urban Romania we may may be more familiar with from other Romanian novels.
The latest addition to my website is Enrique Vila-Matas‘ Doctor Pasavento. This is typical Vila-Matas, a wonderfully inventive story, full of digressions literary learning, speculations, complications and stories. It is narrated by an unnamed narrator but a man who assumes various identities, including that of Dr (and dottore, i.e. the Italian for doctor) Pasavento, Dr Pynchon and Dr Pinchon. He is concerned with the idea of disappearance and (unsuccessfully) plans his own disappearance. It is unsuccessful only in that no-one realises he has disappeared. But he discusses the disappearances of others, including of those who go into an asylum (Robert Walser), those who temporarily disappear (Agatha Christie) and recluses like Pynchon. But he also goes off on all sorts of digressions, including a mild obsession with Rue Vaneau in Paris, where he stays in a hotel. He finds out that there are numerous associations – Gide, Julien Green, Saint-Exupéry and Karl Marx all lived there for a while and the French Prime Minister’s official residence is there, as is the Syrian Embassy. As he finds out more, this becomes one of the running themes. He travels round Europe meeting various people, both fictitious and real, ending up in the fictitious Lokunowo, where he assumes various identities. It is enormous fun but chaotic and complicated. Sadly, it has not been translated into English, though has been translated into five other languages.
The latest addition to my website is Alisa Ganieva‘s Праздничная гора (The Mountain and the Wall), a novel from Dagestan. Dagestan is a republic which is still part of Russia and next door to Chechnya. The Chechen war has spilled over into Dagestan. As an Islamic republic, like Chechnya, there is a rise in Islamisation, since the breakup of the Soviet Union. This is the basis of Ganieva’s novel. The story follows a few characters in contemporary Dagestan but, in particular, Shamil, a young journalist. We first meet him, interviewing some goldsmiths in an ancient village where the craft tradition goes back many hundreds of years, though where the craftsmen seem now more intent on making money from the tourist trade than their craft. The idea of the ancient traditions of Dagestan will remain in the background of this novel. However, on return to the city, Shamil learns of a rumour that the Russians have built or are building a wall between Russia and the Caucasian republics. The rest of the novel follows both a few key characters, in particular but not only Shamil, as well as the effect of the Wall on the country. We have already learned that Islamisation is very much on the rise, with previously fairly liberal people becoming strict Muslims, women taking the veil and men having multiple wives. Now this increases. The beards, as the strict Muslims are called, are taking over with all that that implies. Meanwhile, the Internet seems not to work, TV is intermittent, the airports are closed and the bosses and police have fled or are in hiding. Ganieva tells a first-class story, giving us something of an impressionistic view of the various people we meet, the increasing chaos in the country and the diverging opinions on the Islamisation. The English translation, which will be out at the end of June, comes from Deep Vellum, which is rapidly becoming a most interesting publisher and I look forward to more from them.
The latest addition to my website is Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz‘s La Grande Peur dans la montagne (Terror on the Mountain). This is a first-class 1920s Swiss novel, which has been translated into English though is sadly long since out of print in English. It tells the story of a small Alpine community. There is some wonderful grazing land in the mountains. However, when it was used twenty years ago, something happened. What exactly happened is not clear but what is clear is that two people died, strange noises were heard and the remaining men were so terrified that they fled, never to return. However, there is now a new generation in charge and they plan on sending some of the communal cattle up to this grazing land. The older generation are totally opposed but they are outvoted. Seven men are, with difficulty, recruited for the task of looking after the cattle and making the cheese over the three month summer period, including one of the men who was there twenty years ago. He, however,is protected by a piece of paper with a blessing from Saint Maurice. However, when they get there, there are strange noises, the shadows from the setting sun give the impression of strange creatures and the glacier seems to be moving towards them. The youngest one flees and returns to his mother, in a state of absolute terror. The castle mysteriously contract foot and mouth disease, though none of the cattle in the valley get it. Gradually, the minds of the men start imagining more and more. This is a superb book about imagined fear. There are no monsters, at least none that we see, only the mountain having its way.
The latest addition to my website is Herta Müller‘s Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt (The Passport). This short novel tells the story of a small German community left in Romania after World War II. The main character is Windisch, the miller. He is eager to get a passport to emigrate to West Germany but, while in theory possible, it requires bribery of the mayor and the militiaman and even the priest, in the form of flour, and sex, with his daughter, Amalie. The price keeps going up. His friend, the skinner, manages to get one but Windisch is left there with his friend the nightwatchman, a man who does not reproach his late wife for her extramarital affair but does reproach her for dying and leaving him alone. Windisch also reproaches his wife, for having slept with various men in the internment camps at the end of the war. Windisch’s first wife and his second wife’s husband both died in the war, and the pair miss their respective deceased spouses. All around them, there is death and decay. The nightwatchman has lost his wife. The Widow Kroner dies. A travelling cooper dies and no-one knows where he is from or even what his name is. All they can hope for is that their passport application will eventually be approved.
The latest addition to my website is Herta Müller‘s Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet (The Appointment). This is a grim tale of life in Communist Romania. The narrator is on her second marriage, married to Paul, an alcoholic, who works in an engineering factory. She works in a clothing factory, a job she hates. She had had a brief affair with her boss but she ended it. She has been accused of planting marriage proposals in the shirts she makes, which are destined for Italy, and is accused of defamation of Romania and prostitution. At the beginning of the novel we learn that she has been again been summoned to see Major Albu of the Secret Service. She has clearly been to see him several times before. She believes that the accusations against her – of planting similar notes in clothes destined for France and Sweden – are the results of revenge tactics by Nelu and claims her innocence. We follow her long bus journey to the appointment with the Major, as well as learning about her early life, such as her father’s affair with a girl she was at school with, the fate of her friend, Lilli, who was planning to flee the country with her lover, before they were caught and what happens to Paul, who seems to be a victim of Nelu’s revenge against the narrator. Müller, who came from the German-speaking minority in Romania, tells a fine tale, whose motto is the last sentence – The trick is not to go mad.
The latest addition to my website is Gerald Murnane‘s A Lifetime on Clouds. This book, Murnane’s second novel, is, quite simply, about the masturbatory fantasies of an Australian teenager living in the poorer part of Melbourne in the 1950s. Adrian Sherd lives with his parents and two younger brothers. About four times a week, he masturbates. His fantasies are based on Hollywood film stars, whose photos he has seen in The Argus, the paper his father takes for its sports coverage. Adrian has never seen these stars in films, as his Catholic parents will not allow him to see such films. He has a train set, whose tracks run on a large, crude map of the United States. He runs the train. Where the train stops is where he locates his fantasies, normally with three of these film stars. He shares these ideas with his schoolfriends, though many of them have seen the film stars at the cinema. He is worried about committing a mortal sin but not worried enough to stop masturbating and he regularly confesses his only sin. However, one day, at church, he sees a girl whom he nicknames Earth Angel. When he finds that she travels on the same train as she does, he makes sure that he is always in the same carriage as she is but is too shy to speak to her. However, his masturbatory fantasies stop. His fantasies are now wholesome fantasies about a Catholic life with the girl. Indeed, his Catholic fantasies go further. While this book is certainly amusing and well written and its mocking of teenage boys and Catholicism is entertaining, I do not share the enthusiasm for this book that others have. However, if teenage sexual angst is your thing, then this book may well work for you.
Kamila Shamsie has written what she calls a provocative article, about gender bias in publishing. I have dealt with this issue before – here, here and here. It has also, of course, been discussed in many other places. I do not know what prompted Shamsie to write her article now but it may well have been the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announcement. Or maybe it was The Women’s Football World Cup. This has led Three Percent to have their Women’s World Cup of Literature (they did the same for the Men’s World Cup last year). (It looks like they have struggled with some of their choices. The Thai entry, for example, is a children’s book, presumably because they were unable to find a Thai adult literary novel written by a woman, in translation.) Or maybe because the Guardian, where Shamsie’s article was published, has also been one of the various publications to show the dearth of women at this year’s rock festivals. Or because of the Cannes controversy. Or the lack of women in TV comedy.
Yes, sexism is alive and well. Shamsie mockingly points out that a conference on The Crisis of American Fiction mentioned only one woman – Eudora Welty, a very fine writer but perhaps best known for her stories and novellas, rather than novels, and dead some fourteen years. Shamsie has done her homework and makes some very valid points and agrees The issue can’t of course be broken down into a story of fair-minded women versus bigoted men. Indeed. In the blog posts listed above, I mentioned many reasons, beyond straightforward sexism, why bloggers (male and female), reviewers (male and female), publishers (male and female) and readers (male and female) seem to be reading/publishing/reviewing more books by men.
Last week I was in Budapest (for a general holiday, not for specifically literary purposes). While there I visited three book shops where they had a (albeit small) stock of books of Hungarian literature translated into English (and French and German, as well.) Nearly all of them were by men, the only exceptions being Magda Szabó and Ágnes Hankiss, the former not well-known in the English-speaking world and the latter virtually unknown, except, perhaps, for her role as a Member of the European Parliament. My website has seven Hungarian male writers and Magda Szabó. I own around a hundred Hungarian novels, two by Szabó, one by Cecile Tormay, one by Ágnes Hankiss and one by Júlia Székely (not available in English), only one of which is in print. The rest are by men. This does not reflect my taste or my innate sexism but, quite simply, availability. A quick glance at modern fiction in Hungarian in the book shops showed, again, that the majority were by men. Authors like Gyula Krúdy, Sándor Márai and Zsigmond Móricz (all dead) figured in abundance.
I do not know how typical Hungary is but I am reasonably sure that there are many other countries where the majority of the novels translated are by men. Shamsie would argue, quite correctly, that this shows sexism by the the people responsible – publishers/agents/national literary organisations, both in the source country and in the target country, primarily the UK and US for English translations. However, what it does not show is sexism by the readers/reviewers of such works who can only read/review books available to them in a language they can read.
Shamsie goes on to propose a radical solution. She suggests that, in 2018, none of the new titles published in that year should be written by men. Naturally, in the comments, she gets viciously criticised, with some of the commenters making sensible points (I will leave you to read them for yourselves). I can only agree that her idea is ridiculous for so many reasons and, obviously, is not going to happen, not least because it will not solve the problem in the long term, as, in 2019, the book trade would be swamped by books with male writers. Let us also not forget what books have sold really well in recent years – E L James, J K Rowling, Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, Donna Tartt and not a penis between them. Amazon’s top-selling UK books have eight women, one man and one committee in the top nine. The Guardian’s top-selling books of all time has two Dan Browns in the top twelve, with the rest by women. Yes, I know that this is not what Shamsie means but she cannot entirely ignore it.
I have banged on about this topic too much. I hope that I have shown that Shamsie is right but she is too simplistic in her analysis of the reasons for the problem. Yes, the publishing industry is undoubtedly sexist. Janet Maslin of the New York Times was recently damned for her all-white summer reading list. Though it did have some women writers, the majority were male. So the publishing industry is racist and sexist. And the Pope is Catholic. I shall still look out for interesting women writers but will read according to my taste and interests which will almost certainly mean that I shall read more male than female writers. I shall follow with interest initiatives like #readwomen2014. And I shall welcome any promotion of worthwhile women writers.