End of the year review 2017

Like many of you, I have been browsing the best of the year lists. (If you missed them, Large-Hearted Boy has a huge list.) As regards best novels, I have been very disappointed. I did not come across a single novel I had not heard of. There were also relatively few books originally written in languages other than English. Worse still, there were relatively few books from small presses. Indeed, in those lists which consisted of B- and C-list celebrities naming their best books, there were almost none. As a well-known man who does not read books might have said: Sad!

A book on Bomb’s list I have not read

One of the few lists that I found of particular interest was 3 a.m.Magazine’s. You will notice that none of these books actually exists. The other best-of(?) list I really enjoyed which was not an end of the year list but just happened to be published this month was Helena Fitzgerald‘s 20 Authors I Don’t Have to Read Because I’ve Dated Men for 16 Years. I agree with many of her choices (but not all). Finally, I did enjoy Bomb magazine’s genuine and serious list.

A 1000-page novel I didn’t read

There were, as always, a load of books I intended to read but never got round to. These are mainly books originally written in English. You know the ones I mean: Lincoln in Bardo, Moonglow, The Sparsholt Affair, Jerusalem, Commonwealth, Mothering Sunday, My Absolute Darling, Solar Bones, etc. Maybe I will read them next year but, then again, maybe I won’t. I was also going to read some of the literary prize winners: Lincoln in Bardo again, Robert Menasse’s Die Hauptstadt (German Book Prize), Jonas Lüscher’s Kraft (Swiss Book Prize), Paolo Cognetti’s Le otto montagne (Italian Strega Prize and Prix Médicis étranger), which will appear in English as Eight Mountains next March, so I hope to read it soon, Alice Zeniter’s L’Art de perdre (Le Goncourt des Lycéens)… Not surprisingly I have a sweatshirt that reads So Many Books, So Little Time.

A Giono novel first published this year in English

I did, however, manage to read a hundred and thirty-two books, fewer than last year and clearly not nearly enough. Mexico was top as, in accordance with my usual custom, it was selected as the country where I read twenty books in a row, earlier this year. It was followed by fourteen from France (mainly Jean Giono and Julien Gracq), eleven from the United States, ten from Argentina and seven from Ireland (all but one by Joyce Cary). Smaller (as in less-read, not in necessarily in size) countries from which I read a book include: Barbados, Belarus, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Czech Republic, Dagestan, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, South Korea, Norway, Occitania, Palestine, Peru, Puerto Rico, Romania, Scotland, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Turkey, Ukraine and Wales.

A lot of these books were published by small presses so I would like to pay tribute to Actes Sud, And Other Stories, Charco, Coffee House Press, Contra Mundum Press, Dalkey Archive, Deep Vellum, Fitzcarraldo, Glagoslav, Maclehose, New Directions, Parthian, Seagull and Unnamed Press, all of whom published some first-class novels, which I read this year. I can only urge you to browse their offerings and read their books. You won’t be disappointed. Apologies to those wonderful small presses whose work I did not get round to reading this year or (possibly) did but have forgotten to include. Without the efforts of small presses, my reading and your reading would not be nearly so interesting and they deserve your full support.

There were so many good books I read this year that it is going to be difficult to single out only a few. I did very much enjoy reading eight books by Jean Giono, all but one of which have been translated into English. He clearly has not been forgotten in English as his somewhat strange Pour saluer Melville (Melville: A Novel) was only published in English this year but his other books are all well worth reading. I very much enjoyed discovering what is happening in Mexico, a country, I think, that has been underestimated by English-speaking readers, and found some wonderful novels, not all of which, sadly, have yet appeared in English.

I continue to slowly make my way through the extensive oeuvre of César Aira and have rarely been disappointed. He is a thoroughly original writer who is more and more appearing on possible Nobel Prize winner lists. English speakers are fortunate that New Directions has published quite a few in English. And, talking of Argentinians, I finally got to grips with Martín Caparrós‘ monumental La Historia [History], a cult novel that has been very hard to find but has now been published in a new edition, though not, sadly, in English. It was worth the wait. It was also one of two books I read this year over a thousand pages in length. And, still on Argentina, Luis Sagasti‘s Bellas artes (Fireflies) was a wonderful original and quirky book from new publisher Charco Press.

I only read thirty-five works by women, not as good as last year’s forty-four. Let me mention a few. Carmen Boullosa remains one of my favourite writers. It is such a shame that only a few of her books have been translated. I will almost certainly read at least one more next year. Valeria Luiselli‘s La historia de mis dientes (The Story of My Teeth) was a very clever book. Rosa Beltrán‘s Efectos secundarios [Secondary Effects] was a first-class work on the violence in Mexico.

Of those women writers who are not Mexican, I very much enjoyed Teolinda Gersão‘s A cidade de Ulisses (City of Ulysses) which Dalkey Archive Press published in English. I have read two other books by her, neither of which has been translated into English. She really should be better known, which means more of her books should be translated into English. Doubtless being both a woman and Portuguese has kept her off the radar. Despite the lack of attention from the English-speaking world, her website is partially in English. (She studied English at university and tweets in both English and Portuguese.) Another Portuguese woman who has not received the attention she deserves in the English-speaking world (or, for that matter, in her own country) is Maria Gabriela Llansol whose Geografia de Rebeldes (Geography of Rebels trilogy) was the first book of hers published in English, by Deep Vellum. It was a strange and difficult book but well worth reading.

I was also impressed by Lize Spit‘s very dark Het smelt [The Melting], a wonderful debut novel. I am sure that you will be hearing more of this book when it finally makes it into English (not till 2019), though you can read it now in the original Flemish or in Catalan, French, German, Italian or Spanish translation. Cristina from Barcelona, for example, had it in her best of the year list.

I read a fair amount of books from Eastern Europe – Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Ukraine – every one of which I enjoyed. This is partially because UK and US publishers (primarily small presses, of course) have been publishing books from this part of the world. They have realised and I have realised that Eastern Europe is now matching Latin America as the source of some of the most interesting writing being produced. I would particularly mention Slovenia. I have visited the country twice now (once this year) and will probably do so again in the near future. It is a lovely country with lovely people. I read three books from Slovenia this year and have quite a few more to read. It is wonderful that such a small country is producing so many worthwhile novels and that they are appearing in English.

I was glad to have discovered Pierre Senges, a most original writer, whose work is starting to appear in English. Three are already out in English and I hope more are to come. I hope to read one or two more soon.

Speaking of writing in French, I was particularly impressed with Kamel Daoud‘s latest Zabor ou Les psaumes [Zabor or The Psalms], which will be appearing in English in 2019 from And Other Stories, after they have published his Chroniques: Selected Columns, 2010–2016. I thought it a better book than the well-received Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter Investigation).

Javier MaríasBerta Isla appeared in Spanish this year and will doubtless appear in English soon. It is, in my opinion, his best, about one of his favourite topics, British spies.

Yoshio Aramaki‘s 神聖代 (The Sacred Era) was published by the University of Minnesota Press, his first book in English. It does not seem to have got much publicity but that is a pity. This is perhaps because he is seen more as a science fiction writer but this one is less sci-fi than his later ones though it is set on a planet that is not Earth but resembles Earth in many ways and deals with the highly topical subject of climate change. I know someone who should perhaps read it but he won’t. Sad!

I could go through all of the books I read, as all of them are worthwhile. Indeed, there was only one bad book – Angus Robertson‘s An t-Ogha Mór: No, Am Fear-Sgeòil air Uilinn (The Ogha Mor) – and it was interesting as the first novel published in Scots Gaelic to be translated into English and the only the second novel written in Scots Gaelic.

On the technical side, I moved both the main site and blog from http to https. This is seemingly becoming more and more important as this article shows. However, apart from favour in the eyes of Google, I cannot think that readers are going to be any safer from blogs they know and trust but it does, I suppose, make you feel safer for a blog or site you do not know. When checking links, I found that a significant number of other sites have moved to https. In practical terms, it makes no difference in accessing sites. If you type in http://www.themodernnovel.org, you will be automatically and immediately forwarded to https://www.themodernnovel.org.

Next year I am looking forward to new books by Hamid Ismailov, Eugene Vodolazkin and Sara Stridsberg though I have no doubt that there will be new authors I will discover whom I shall enjoy as much. I do know that many of the most interesting translations I read will be published by small, independent presses. Long may they survive and continue to give us first-class books to read.

I also joined Twitter which I have enjoyed more than I expected, with lots of interesting info about new books and authors and publishers, not to mention photos of people’s breakfasts and unseemly and highly critical remarks about the President of the United States. It is interesting to me to note that the most active and most interesting publishers on Twitter are the small ones. The larger publishers do tweet but they are not so interesting. I have felt tempted to add the latest Trump jokes but have resisted so far.

I must close with thanks to my fellow bloggers. You can see the links to many of them on the right and up a bit. As always, I have learned a lot from them. They have read many interesting books, some I have read, many I have not. While I may not always agree with them – which is good – I have enjoyed their points of view, their pointing me to interesting books and authors and, of course, their lively interest in fine literature.

A Happy 2018 to all of you and your families and read lots of books. There are some really first-class ones that have come out recently and are coming out next year.

Ali Smith: Like

The latest addition to my website is Ali Smith‘s Like. This is Ali Smith’s first novel and a very accomplished novel it is. It tells two related stories. Amy was destined for an academic career at Cambridge University. She had had lesbian relationships and, in particular, she was having an on-again off-again affair with Aisling McCarthy, a Scottish woman. It all went drastically wrong. Amy has had a breakdown and now is living in Scotland with her seven-year old daughter, Kate, working on a caravan site and apparently unable to read. Aisling McCarthy went on to become a famous actress but seems to have dropped out. We follow her lesbian relationships at school, culminating in her meeting Amy, and later following Amy to Cambridge, where she causes the downfall not only of Amy but another woman with whom she had had an affair. The story is narrated from the present day, first by Amy and Kate and then by Aisling. Smith tells an excellent story and pulls us into the story of the two women and young girl.

Daniel Kehlmann: Tyll [Till]

The latest addition to my website is Daniel Kehlmann‘s Tyll [Till]. It is based on the legend of the trickster Till Eulenspiegel though Kehlmann has moved him from his traditional 14th century date to the Thirty Years’ War. We follow Till’s childhood – his father is executed by the Jesuits for witchcraft – and his escape from his village with Nele, his girlfriend who is not his girlfriend. They become travelling players and their reputation spreads far and wide, so much so that Till becomes the official fool of Frederick V of the Palatinate. We follow political events through the eyes of Frederick’s wife, the Scottish Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, known to history as the Winter Queen. Frederick dies of an infection while seeking help in his war from Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Kehlmann is eager to point out the horrors of war, and this war is bloody, messy and very badly organised. It is not Kehlmann’s best – jumping from Till and his adventures to Elizabeth Stuart and her problems and the problems of her husband, but is still worth reading.

Miklós Szentkuthy: Széljegyzetek Casanovához (Marginalia on Casanova)

The latest addition to my website is Miklós Szentkuthy‘s Széljegyzetek Casanovához (Marginalia on Casanova). This is the first in series of ten novels (incomplete at the time of the author’s death) written over a period of fifty-four years, albeit with a thirty year gap because of the political situation. It can best be described as a romp through European history. This novel, the only one so far translated into English, is, as the title tells us, about Casanova and is the author’s highly idiosyncratic commentary on Casanova’s Memoirs (the German version). While Szentkuthy does not shy away from Casanova’s amorous exploits (the book was banned when first published), he is equally interested in Casanova’s thoughts, Casanova’s Venice and Casanova’s era and draws in comparisons from pre-Casanova period and the modern period. He frequently gets carried away with his comments but manages to produce a highly learned work, full of erudite commentary, as well as a highly enjoyable, witty and colourful work.

Luis Sagasti: Bellas artes (Fireflies)

The latest addition to my website is Luis Sagasti‘s Bellas artes (Fireflies). This is an amazing book from new publisher Charco Press in which Sagasti ruminates on creativity, suicide, how we look at works of art, imagination and story-telling. If it is has a unifying theme it might be Without the slightest doubt, art is the answer. What we can’t be sure about is the question.. Part of the book is looking for that question, while much of the book is stories told about the real and the fictitious (he arbitrarily mixes the two) with stories about real people being often just as fanciful and just and invented as those about the fictitious. From Wittgenstein to Yuri Gagarin, from The Beatles to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, we learn about stories we don’t know about people we do know, some of which are true and some of which are not. Sagasti is such a gifted story-teller – hablador as the Spanish call it – that you cannot help but both enjoy and learn from his work.

Alisa Ganieva: Жених и невеста (Bride and Groom)

The latest addition to my website is Alisa Ganieva‘s Жених и невеста (Bride and Groom). As the title tells us, the story is, to a great extent, about marriage. Patya and Marat are both from the same town in Dagestan, though they do not know one another. Both are working in Moscow at the beginning of the book but return home. In both cases, their parents are eager for them to get married and both parents have potential partners in mind. The younger generation is split between those wanting greater freedom and those who have reverted to a more traditional Islam. The latter includes Timur, with whom Patya has been having an on-line discussion but whom she finally meets on returning to Dagestan. She is not impressed. She is, of course, more impressed with Marat, whom she meets but there are complications, including the respective parents, the local strong man and Timur, who has influential connections. It is another fine novel from Ganieva about tradition vs modernity and the role of women.

Paul Murray: The Mark and the Void

The latest addition to my website is Paul Murray‘s The Mark and the Void. This is a hilarious satire on the banking crisis of 2008 onwards and follows the story of an Everyman, Claude, a Frenchman working in a Dublin-based investment bank. We follow the nefarious and wittily described doings of the bank which are, at best, immoral and often illegal. We also follow Claude’s failed love life and, in particular, his friend Paul (possibly Murray), a failed writer, who comes up with various ideas to make his living, including robbing Claude’s bank and setting up a waitress porn website. Murray mocks bankers and banking, writers and publishers, the modern art world, the English, politicians, Eastern Europeans, lovers and anything else that comes into his sight, all the while exposing the failure of the banking crisis in a hilarious way. Unless you think bankers and writers are the salt of the earth, you cannot fail to enjoy this novel.

Women are better writers than men

This provocative headline comes from an article by Irish writer, John Boyne. It is, of course, absolute nonsense. Women are not better writers than men. I can only assume The Guardian published it to be provocative and get more hits on their page (they are rather desperate at the moment). I would, of course, point out that men writers are not better than women writers. Some men writers are better than some women writers and some women writers are better than some men writers but to categorically say that all of one sex is better than all of the other sex is rubbish or even that most of one sex is better than most of the other sex is wrong.

Of course, I am well aware that publishing (including publishers, agents, critics, bloggers and so forth is sexist (and racist). Sadly, as we have been reading in this Harvey Weinstein/Donald Trump era, so is the world. I have now touched on this issue on several occasions in this blog: here, here, here and here. Others worthier than me continue to rightly point this out. In my end of the year review (appearing, unlike many others, at the end of the year, i.e. 31 December) I will show that, despite a conscious effort, women writers still lag massively behind men on my site. Unlike Boyne, many of the writers I enjoy are male (though quite a few are female).

Amazon’s most-read book this year

If you look at Amazon charts and scroll down, you will see Top 10 Most Read Fiction Books in 2017. Half of them are by women. Admittedly most of that half is taken up by J K Rowling and the remaining one by a book that sold well because of the TV adaptation. The Most Listened to on Alexa book was also by a woman (yes, J K again). However, the top five a books were all by men. This is not, of course, what Boyne was discussing.

He starts off with the literary tea-towel, an ubiquitous tea-towel – Twelve writers, supposedly our greatest ever, and not a vagina between them. He then somewhat ruins his case by suggesting Molly Keane, Edna O’Brien and Maria Edgeworth (but not more worthy Irish women writers such as Lady Gregory or Elizabeth Bowen). You can find a much longer list of Irish women writers here. I am sticking to dead writers, though O’Brien is alive. We will come to living ones in a moment. Frankly, I do not think you can compare Molly Keane, Edna O’Brien and Maria Edgeworth to Joyce, Shaw, Yeats and Co. You can see the tea-towel here and, if you cannot read it, the writers are: J M Synge, Flann O’Brien, Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Beckett, W B Yeats, Brendan Behan, Oscar Wilde, Patrick Kavanagh, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey and George Bernard Shaw. You could make a case against Kavanagh and maybe against Behan but the other ten are, in the opinion of most objective critics, superior to Molly Keane, Edna O’Brien and Maria Edgeworth. This is not sexist, it is reality. It may well be that women did not get the opportunities back then but it is generally agreed there was an Irish Literary Renaissance earlier last century and with very few exceptions (such as the aforementioned Lady Gregory) it was mainly men.

Not so much sexist as plain wrong

Boyne goes on to justify his arguments by focussing on the likes of V S Naipaul, Time magazine’s espousal of Jonathan Franzen as the greatest living novelist and the macho pack of John Updike, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. This is shooting fish in a barrel and the whole macho writing style was very wittily rebuked by Helena Fitzgerald here. We can all agree that Franzen, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth are massively overrated (as are most of those in Fitzgerald’s list). And we can all agree that sexism is rampant in the literary world.

A better book by a woman

Again, Boyne goes on to spoil his case. He picks as the best women novelists he has read this year Min Jin Lee, Polly Clark, Elizabeth Day, Molly McCloskey, Gail Honeyman, Kamila Shamsie, Francesca Segal and Celeste Ng. These are all doubtless fine writers but any vaguely competent critic could trump him with male writers as good or better than these eight. Instead I will just trump him with women writers I have read this year that are better than his women writers: Naomi Alderman, Rosa Beltrán, Carmen Boullosa, Teolinda Gersão, Sarah Hall, Nicole Krauss, Maria Gabriela Llansol, Valeria Luiselli, Elena Poniatowska, Joanna Scott, Ece Temelkuran and a few others. But I could do exactly the same with male writers.

Not the greatest living novelist

Oh dear! It gets worse. The Greatest Living Novelist? Easy. It’s Anne Tyler. Or maybe Sarah Waters. Or Margaret Atwood. Or Rose Tremain.. Really? Has he read César Aira, J M Coetzee, Peter Handke, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ismail Kadare, Javier Marías, Haruki Murakami, Cees Nooteboom, Orhan Pamuk, Thomas Pynchon, Mario Vargas Llosa or Enrique Vila-Matas, not to mention Carmen Boullosa, Anne Enright (an Irish novelist mentioned in his article for her mathematical abilities rather than her literary ones), Minae Mizumura, Elena Poniatowska or Marilynne Robinson and many others? Rose Tremain as the greatest living novelist? There must be hundreds better.

And what about Irish women writers? Of the writers he mentions in his list of women writers he has read, there are two Americans, one Korean-American, one Canadian one Englishwoman, one Pakistani and one Scot. He does mention three women writers who have broken through – Sara Baume, Belinda McKeon and Kit de Waal – two Irish and one born in Birmingham (England), albeit with one Irish parent. But where are the other living Irish women writers such as Niamh Boyce, Sarah Crossan, Emma Donoghue, Catherine Dunn, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Deirdre Madden, Audrey Magee, Eimear McBride, Lisa McInerney, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Maggie O’Farrell, Sally Rooney and undoubtedly many others that I am not aware of/have forgotten?

If Boyne prefers reading women writers that it is entirely his prerogative and good luck to him. Just as women who only read women writers and men who only read men writers are missing out of a whole load of good novels, so Boyne is clearly denying himself some worthwhile reading but chacun à son goût. However, to claim that women are better writers than men is nonsense and I am sure that he knows it. Yes, we need to do much more to ensure that women writers are encouraged, published and read. Yes, men can be pompous asses but it’s not just writers. I have even heard that male politicians can be idiots as well. We need to encourage writers of both sexes and not subject them to double standards and we all need to read writers for the quality of their work and not for the nature of their chromosomes.

Clemens J. Setz: Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre [The Hour Between Woman and Guitar]

The latest addition to my website is Clemens J. Setz‘s Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre [The Hour Between Woman and Guitar]. This is a monumental novel – 1021 pages – so unlikely to appear in English, though it has been translated into French. It is set in a care home and involves a young care assistant, Natalie Reinegger, who has to look after a man in wheel chair, Alexander Dorm, who had been a stalker and had driven a woman he stalked to commit suicide. To Natalie’s surprise, his only visitor is Christopher Hollberg, the widower of the woman who committed suicide. On the surface, the two men seem to get on well but gradually Natalie is dragged into their relationship which is not as straightforward as it seems. At the same time we are following Natalie’s own life – her casual affairs, her friends, her IPhone, her imaginary mouse and her real cat as well as the stories of the other care assistants and other patients. The book is way too long but Setz keeps on going and keeps the reader’s attention, despite no major plot revelations.

Kamel Daoud: Zabor ou Les psaumes [Zabor or The Psalms]

The latest addition to my website is Kamel Daoud‘s Zabor ou Les psaumes [Zabor or The Psalms]. This novel, by the author of Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter Investigation), is a superb novel, better, in my view, than Meursault, about an Algerian man who lives alone with his aunt, only comes out at night and writes the stories of the dying, so that they will be remembered in a remote Algerian town, where illiteracy is high. He has had a troubled relationship with his father who abandoned his mother early on (she died not long afterwards) and now has a large family with Zabor’s step-mother. He does not get on with his step-mother or step-brothers. However, his father is now dying and he is summoned to write his story. Nothing good can come out of this. Zabor is a contrarian, a lover of reading and writing and, apart from sex (he is a virgin), not much else but he is a wonderful, colourful creation. Other Press plan to publish it in English in 2019.