The latest addition to my website is James Salter‘s Solo Faces, a novel about mountain-climbing. We first meet Vernon Rand as a roofer in California but we soon learn that his passion is mountain-climbing. Much of the novel is set in the French Alps where Rand will go mountain climbing, initially with others and then, as the title tells us, on his own. He is loner, fiercely independent. He gets trapped by bad weather, has to help a companion who is badly hurt and even leads a small team to rescue a couple of Italians, one of whom is hurt, trapped in bad weather, which makes him briefly famous. He has a series of relationship with women, always abandoning them and moving on, as he does with the mountains. Rand is actually based on Gary Hemming though Salter certainly did a fair amount of climbing himself, mentioned in this interview.
The latest addition to my website is Victor Pelevin‘s S.N.U.F.F. (S.N.U.F.F.). This is another glorious post-modern romp through Russia and its foibles and, indeed, lots of other places and things and their foibles, which Pelevin inevitably mercilessly mocks. It is set in the future where the two main countries are Big Byz(antion), clearly based on the USA and Western Europe, with advanced technology and more sophistication, and Urkaine (sic) whose inhabitants are called Orks and who are unsophisticated and technologically backward, clearly based on Russia and non-EU Eastern Europe. To keep the people of Big Byz entertained, the news companies periodically start wars, which are filmed by CINEWS (pronounced sinews). The narrator of this story, Damilola, is a camera operator-cum-rocket-operator for CINEWS and he is called on, at the beginning of the book, to start yet another war for the SNUFFs (which stands for Special Newsreel Universal/Feature Film) but which are, of course, snuff films, in the sense that many of the participants are killed. To help, he needs two Orks and finds Grim and Chloe and helps them become TV reality stars. Meanwhile, he cavorts with Kaya, a sura or surrogate wife, i.e. a robot sex doll, whose moods and behaviour can be adjusted but who seems to have a mind of her own. The war takes place. People die but life goes on and Pelevin mocks all of them.
The latest addition to my website is James Salter‘s Light Years. This is a very well-written but ultimately rather gloomy tale of failed relationships and failed lives. Viri and Nedra are seemingly happily married, living in a nice house in upstate New York with their two daughters. He is an architect. She likes to go into New York, have a drink, see friends and go to the theatre. They regularly entertain and are entertained. However, beneath the happy surface there is an indication that things are not quite right. She is looking for something but is not sure what. He falls in love with someone who works for him but his passion is not reciprocated. She has a brief affair. Meanwhile, around them, things are going wrong for others: a young neighbourhood girl dies of cancer, a friend is mugged and loses an eye. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Viri and Nedra drift apart but, even after they divorce, things just do not seem to work out for either of them. Salter tells his tale well and he is a superb writer of moods and perceptions but this is a depressing novel.
The latest addition to my website is Thea Astley‘s The Well Dressed Explorer. The eponymous well-dressed explorer is George Brewster who, when a young teenager falls in love with Nita. Nita is happy to play along but also wants to enjoy herself and not just with George. He hovers around her, returning even when his family move, but she will not be tied down. He gradually makes his name in the newspaper business, ending up in Sydney. Nita actually suggests marriage but he has no money so she goes off and marries someone else. It is no consolation to George that she is not faithful to her husband. In a fit of pique, he contacts one of the bridesmaids and, in no time at all, has married her. However, George is a thoroughly self-centred man and is continually unfaithful to Alice, his wife, as well as being unfaithful to his various mistresses. He drifts through life, drinking and chasing women or, rather, loving being adored by women, and not really achieving much in his career, where he seems to be rather mediocre. Even his daughter eventually comes to despise him. Though this book won won the Miles Franklin Award in 1962, it did not really work for me, as George Brewster was actually rather a dull character while, at the same time, being too much like too many people both in fiction and real life.
The latest addition to my website is Jaan Kross‘s Vastutuulelaev: Bernhard Schmidti roman (Sailing Against the Wind). This is a superb novelised biography of Bernhard Schmidt – despite his name and the Wikipedia article, an Estonian – who invented various things, including, in particular, sophisticated astronomical telescopes and the boat that sailed against the wind of the title. As a boy, experimenting with a rocket, he lost a hand but, nevertheless, managed to become a first-class craftsman, producing lens of the highest quality, superior to machine-made ones. Being Estonian, he was subject to the vicissitudes of late nineteenth/early twentieth century, particularly at the hands of the Germans and the Russians. He spent a long time in Germany but remained resolutely Estonian. Kross tells us about his inventions and what led him to them but he also tells us about his life, about the inner man, about his dealings with the political situation (not always diplomatically) and about his sex life. It is a first-class story and a first-class biography about a man most of us will never have heard of.
The latest addition to my website is Mouloud Mammeri‘s L’Opium et le Bâton [Opium and the Stick]. This novel reflects Mammeri’s own experiences in the FLN. It is an exciting story of a remote village, Tala, and four siblings from that village and how they react to the French occupation. The youngest, Ali, has joined the FLN and we follow his exploits in the FLN throughout the book. His oldest brother, Belaid, now collaborates with the French and does well out of it. The second brother, Bachir, is, initially, a doctor in Algiers, wondering how he can break off his relationship with a French woman, Claude, who is pregnant. However, he gets caught up in the conflict and becomes the doctor for the FLN in the Tala region. Their sister, Farroudja, a widow, though being criticised for only being a girl, by her mother, does her bit and assists the FLN. The French come out as cruel, vicious, ruthless and murderous, while the Algerians, except for a few collaborators, come out as generally heroic and brave, standing up to the French, at least in this book, in what seems to be a losing cause. Mammeri keeps up the excitement level and makes no pretence at objectivity. Sadly, the book has not been translated into English.
English PEN’s PEn Presents Initiative has had the excellent idea of presenting a list of six books, which are all very worthy but have not been translated into English (yet). The six are Ilva Fabiani, an Italian novelist, Kristien Dieltiens, a Belgian young adult novelist, Antonio Orejudo, a Spanish novelist, Ulrike Almut Sandig, a German poet, Ahmet Yorulmaz, a Turkish novelist and Catherine Dufour, a French science fiction and fantasy writer (see cover of her best-known book to the left). I was familiar with Orejudo, whose Reconstrucción I plan to get to some time and Dufour, who has made something of a stir, though I don’t expect to read her but was not familiar with the other four. I shall certainly look out for Fabiani. It is good to see six untranslated novelists appearing sometime soon in English.
The latest addition to my website is Erhard von Büren‘s Abdankung. Ein Bericht (Epitaph for a Working Man). Von Büren wrote this, his first novel, when he was nearly fifty. It is the affectionate portrait of an ordinary, hard-working Swiss stonemason, in the last year of his life. Alois Haller has worked all his life. He is now living in an old people’s home but is determined to carry on working and carry on in his independent ways. When he get a growth on his back, the local doctor removes it but does not have it checked. When it reappears and he has to go to hospital, it is soon realised that it is cancerous. We follow the development of his illness and his treatment, up to his death, about which we learn from the very beginning of the book. All the while, Alois remains fiercely independent, fiercely critical of the doctors and the home and determined to carry on working and being his own man, which includes drinking and smoking. Much of this we see through the eyes of his son, who is quite different from his father. He is an out-of-work typesetter, who is married to Sophie (they have no children). She is having an affair with her boss and her husband is well aware of this and seemingly not too bothered about it. Indeed, he does not seem bothered about anything, half-heartedly looking (unsuccessfully) for work. Von Büren clearly has a strong feeling for Alois Haller, an ordinary but very independent man.
The latest addition to my website is Mirza Waheed‘s The Collaborator. This is the first novel on my site from Kashmir. This novel is set in the India-Kashmir conflict and tells the story of a teenage boy who, unlike the other boys in the village, does not go off and join the freedom fighters but stays behind in the village. At the start of the novel, the village has been completely abandoned, except for the narrator and his parents. The narrator is working for the local Indian army captain. His job is to go into the valley, which used to be beautiful and where he and his friends played but is now the place where the freedom fighters try to infiltrate Indian from Pakistan and where they are, for the most part, mown down by the Indian army and their corpses left. In the valley, he has to take the IDs and weapons from the corpses and give them to the Indian army captain. The novel tells of how the village was before the conflict, before the villagers left and how he deals with the Indian army captain. Though there is not much plot, the novel certainly gives an interesting portrait of a village at the front line of conflict.
The latest addition to my website is Jenny Erpenbeck‘s Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days). This is a non-whimsical variation on a technique we have seen in Kate Atkinson‘s Life After Life. In this case, the heroine, who is only named at the end and then only with her married name, Frau Hoffmann, dies four times, before her final death shortly after her ninetieth birthday. In each case, we are told what happened had she died but we are then given a series of logical scenarios in which her life could have been spared. Erpenbeck picks one of these and Frau Hoffmann’s life carries on. Not only does she have these events (unlike in the Atkinson book, she is completely unaware of the alternative scenarios), she lives through troubled times. She is born in Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but now part of Poland, of a Jewish mother, whose family had been the victims of anti-Semitic attacks, and a non-Jewish father. She lives through Vienna during and after World War I, with major food shortages, emigrates to the Soviet Union when Hitler takes power and returns to East Germany after the War, living through the fall of the Berlin Wall. As a communist with a Jewish background, her life is not easy. Erpenbeck tells a very serious story well, focussing on the randomness of life but also its harshness.