Javier Marías: Berta Isla

The latest addition to my website is Javier MaríasBerta Isla. This is, in my view, by far his masterpiece. It tells the story of Tomás, half-English, half-Spanish, with a gift for languages and the eponymous Berta Isla. They meet and fall in love in Madrid. Tomás goes to university in Oxford, while Berta stays in Madrid. In Oxford, he risks a prison sentence and can only escape if he joins the British Secret Service, which he does. Returning to Madrid, he marries Berta and nominally works in the British Embassy in Madrid. However, his work requires increasingly long absences and it is only during one of these absences that Berta has reason to suspect his double life. He will neither deny nor confirm it. He then goes off at the beginning of the Falklands War and then disappears for years, without any word. Berta has to worry firstly what has happened to him and also whether, as she says at the beginning of the novel, is he the man she married. The power of the state, the horrors of war and, in particular, dirty war as well as the effect of Tomás’ double life on the couple are the key themes of this book, which is superbly written and tells a very original story.

Secure hosting/https

There is no reason why you would have noticed but yesterday this blog and my main website switched from http to https. If you are a user, your links, bookmarks, etc will still work with http (you will be automatically redirected).

Many of you will be aware that many sites that need security – financial institutions, online selling sites and other sites needing added security have long since adopted https, as have many other sites, such as the main social media sites and a host of others, from Wikipedia to online newspapers. A couple of years ago Google decided to persuade everyone to switch by saying those sites with https would do better in Google ratings. Some sites did adapt – I know because I have seen them in the links on my site – but many did not. It requires some work and, for most blogs and the like, there is no need to have the additional security, you may think. They do not handle financial transactions and do not store secure data. Google disagrees.

There are lots of articles out there explaining why you do need to move to https. This is one. As you can see there is a risk on an unsecured site and now Google Chrome (and Firefox) are going to shame sites that do not have https. If you go to any site now with Chrome or Firefox, you will see at the left of the URL bar a symbol that looks like the symbols to the left, above. If the site has the locked padlock, that means it is secure. If there is no padlock, it is not. If you click on the thing that looks an inverted exclamation mark in a circle, you will be told that the site is secure or not secure, as the case may be, and whether you have or not granted the site any special permissions. In short, if anyone notices, there will be a certain shaming for non-https sites.

To be quite honest, I am not convinced that anyone is going to hack a small blog but, to quote the great Fats Waller, One never do know, do one? I shall continue to visit unsecured sites and I am sure that I will be safe. For a long time (many years ago) I did not wear a seat belt in a car but now I always do. I don’t think it saved my life but it could have done. I moved to https so as not to upset the Great God Google and get a black mark on my site. I get some twelve-fifteen hack attempts a day and not one has got through – yet. So I would hope a bit of added security for you, my readers, and maybe Google might move me slightly up its rankings.

Robert Walser: Der Spaziergang (The Walk)

The latest addition to my website is Robert Walser‘s Der Spaziergang (The Walk). This simply tells the story of a writer out for a walk in a provincial Swiss town. However, as the writer is based on Walser, he is not averse to giving his opinion on all and sundry, 1000 lashes for those cutting down trees, a particularly rude letter to an unknown recipient for an unknown reason, a verbal assault on the unfortunate tailor who has not made his new suit properly and even a complaint to his hostess, Frau Aebi, that she is feeding him too much. He can be complimentary – a woman passerby is told she should be an actress, a woman singing that she should be an opera singer – and can also enjoy the beauties of the walk but still thinks, when he sees children, that Age one day will terrify and bridle them. Another witty and very colourful work from Walser.

Amélie Nothomb: Frappe-toi le coeur [Strike Your Heart]

The latest addition to my website is Amélie Nothomb‘s Frappe-toi le coeur [Strike Your Heart], her latest annual novel. This is something of a change from her normal style, as it is a damning indictment of two mothers, for both neglecting and spoiling their children, with dire consequences. The heroine is Diane, whose mother Marie is looking forward to the good life, which does not include motherhood. She virtually ignores Diane, her first child, but indulges her son, Nicolas, and then overspoils her daughter, Celia. Diane goes on to study cardiology and becomes close to her university lecturer, Olivia Aubusson, who also neglects her daughter, Mariel. Diane helps Olivia become a full professor, something she has been denied for sexist reasons, but then feels betrayed by Olivia. Olivia and Marie will pay a bitter price and they will leave three scarred daughters.

César Aira: La liebre (The Hare)

The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s La liebre (The Hare). If you know and love Aira, as I do, you will know what to expect: the Southern plains of Argentina, strange adventures, philosophical discussion, things not being what they seem, fantasy/magic realism. This novel is set in the nineteenth century and involves an English naturalist,Clarke, who is looking for the legendary Legibrerian hare. Much of the time, he spends with the Mapuches, gets involved in their politics and war, has philosophical discussions about the semantics of their language, learns that his hare can fly (perhaps), meets his double and is promoted to be general of the Indian tribe. It is all wonderful fun, as usual, with fanciful adventures, things not being what they seem and a complex and contorted plot involving everybody being connected in some way, even Charles Darwin.

Kate Roberts: Y Byw Sy’n Cysgu (The Living Sleep; later: The Awakening)

The latest addition to my website is Kate RobertsY Byw Sy’n Cysgu (The Living Sleep; later: The Awakening). This is a feminist novel, telling the story of Lora Ffennig, who learns one day that her husband has left her, stolen her nest egg and stolen from his employer, and run off with a another woman, abandoning Lora and their two children, a boy and a girl. The story is about the fall-out for Lora from this. While the community is initially sympathetic, they condemn her when Aleth Meurig, the local solicitor and former employee of both Lora’s husband and his lady friend, starts calling frequently, even though he only does so when she is not alone. Lora struggles with her own concerns, the reactions of others, the view of the community, her sister, her sister-in-law and mother-in-law, her children and simply trying to get her life back on track. It is a fine novel, well known in Wales but which should better known outside Wales.

Joyce Cary: Prisoner of Grace

The latest addition to my website is Joyce Cary‘s Prisoner of Grace, the first book of his second trilogy. The story is told by Nina Latter, formerly Nimmo, née Woodville. She had been married for some time to Chester Nimmo who became a successful and (on the whole) principled politician in the early part of the twentieth century in the Liberal governments before and during World War I. She had not wanted to marry Chester but she was pregnant by another man – her cousin, Jim, whom we know from the beginning she will later marry – who could not marry her because of his army career. Chester is happy to marry her (her £5000 inheritance was not a deterrent though certainly not the main reason) and she helps him in his political career. He eventually becomes a minister. The book is both about his political career but also about the politics of their marriage, which are often more complicated than his political career. Cary gives us another first-class book about what is ultimately a failed career and a failed marriage, albeit with its high points as well.

Jean Giono: Un roi sans divertissement [A King Without Distraction]

The latest addition to my website is Jean Giono‘s Un roi sans divertissement [A King Without Distraction]. The title comes from a quote by Pascal and is the last sentence of the book. This was Giono’s first book published after World War II, when he had been imprisoned for both pacifism (at the beginning) and possible collaboration (after liberation). It is a change in style for him – less lyrical, darker, more humour and. mockery and set well in the past (1843-1848). It is still set in a remote village in the South of France and tells of the hunt for a mysterious man who is murdering some of the locals, followed by a wolf hunt and concluding with the man leading the man-hunt and wolf-hunt, Langlois, trying to settle down with his new wife. While still a fine book, I did not enjoy it as much as his earlier ones. It has been translated into eight languages but not English.

Lize Spit: Het smelt [The Melting]

The latest addition to my website is Lize Spit‘s Het smelt [The Melting]. This is a début novel by a young Belgian writer and a superb novel it is. Surprisingly for a début novel, it has already been published in three other languages, with two more early next year and rights sold in several other languages, including English. It tells the story of Eva who lives in a Belgian farming village We learn a lot about her, her family and friends but follow, in alternating chapters, her story in the summer of 2002, when her two close male friends, Pim and Laurens, started behaving very badly and dragged her along with their behaviour, culminating in a traumatic event for all three, and also the present day when she is invited to an event where, it seems she will try to get her revenge for what happened in 2002. Spit gradually reveals bits of the puzzle – what happened that day, what is Eva planning, what happened to Eva’s sister, why did Pim’s brother really die – and shows a conventional Belgian village which hides many grim secrets.

Boualem Sansal: Harraga (Harraga)

The latest addition to my website is Boualem Sansal‘s Harraga (Harraga). Surprisingly enough for an Algerian novel novel this has been published in English and by a fairly mainstream publisher at that. It tells the story of Lamia, an unmarried thirty-five year old Algerian doctor, who lives on her own in the family house. One day there is a knock at the door and she is greeted by Chérifa, a very much pregnant sixteen-year old, who has been sent by Sofiane, Lamia’s younger brother, who disappeared a year ago, presumably to become a harraga, i.e. a migrant to Europe. Lamia soon takes on the role of surrogate mother but finds Chérifa’s ways difficult, not least because she is very untidy and also keeps disappearing for days at a time. Lamia manages to track her down, with some assistance, but they get on and then they quarrel and then she disappears again. Sansal tells an excellent story through the thoughts and views of Lamia, who is free and independent, but also cynical about her life and her country but eager to be a mother of a lost child.