The latest addition to my website is Ada Castells‘ Mirada [Look]. It seemingly tells the story of a ghost, a former detective, who is obsessed with a beautiful model called Blanca and falls from scaffolding and dies when spying on her. As a ghost he continues to spy on her. He notices a growth on her shoulder which her father, a doctor, examines and tells her that she must keep out of the light. She works as a barmaid and then exotic dancer in the club but, when the lights shine on her, she realises that she is invisible. However, we also learn from the detective’s wife that this is merely a story that her husband is writing basing Blanca on her and she is very upset about it. It is a clever story and makes a change from the usual Catalan novel about the past and Franco and the Civil War.
The latest addition to my website is Montserrat Roig‘s El temps de les cireres [The Time of Cherries]. It tells the story of Natalia, who has been away twelve years from her home town of Barcelona, primarily in England, and is now returning home, in 1974, aged forty and just eighteen months before the death of Franco. She has issues with her family, primarily her father and brother, and we follow the difficult life of her mother (now dead), her sister-in-law and her aunt, all of whom have had less than successful marriages. We see the influence of the Civil War on all of these people, invariably negative, and we see that in some respects that Barcelona has not changed but, in other respects, is doing so. Natalia tries to come to terms with both her family and late-Franco Barcelona.
The latest addition to my website is Xavier Benguerel‘s Icària, Icària, a Catalan novel set in Barcelona in 1922 and in the United States some seventy-five years earlier. Clemente Rovira’s father has been arrested by the police, tortured and killed. He joins a group engaged in political assassinations, led by Aurelio who is now in a wheelchair. The assassination attempts do not, on the whole, go well. Aurelio tells them of Étienne Cabet and the Icarians. Cabet was a French socialist who tried to set up a socialist community in Texas. As we follow events in Barcelona in 1922, we also follow, at the same time, the attempt to set up the community in Texas and, later, in Nauvoo, Illinois. The whole exercise is an unmitigated disaster, badly planned and badly organised but with some connections to the Barcelona group. Benguerel seems to be saying that both these models – political assassination and idealistic socialist communities are doomed to failure. Sadly, the book appeared simultaneously in Catalan and Spanish but has not been translated into any other language since.
The latest addition to my website is Lluís-Anton Baulenas‘ Alfons XIV : un crim d’estat [Alfonso XIV: A Crime of State]. Though one of his novels has been translated into English, this one, sadly, has not. This one, set in 1962, tells the story of a Spanish general close to Franco, Pozos, and, in particular his assistant, Captain Tutusaus, a skilled killer, who are involved in investigating a potential heir to Franco. The man, a rich industrialist, is though he does not know it, a son of King Alfonso XIII, the last King of Spain before Franco, and, in theory the next in line to the throne. Franco has identified him as a possible heir rather than Juan Carlos (who, historically, became king after Franco’s death) and Pozos and Tutusaus have to check him out and then protect him from various enemies. There is a very complicated plot about how they try to do this which does not end particularly well for anyone. The character of Tutusaus is superbly done, a man fiercely loyal, yet a man of his own principles and some contradictions.
There has been a lot of discussion recently by and about translators of novels, the fact that they do not get the credit they deserve and are not recognised. This intelligent article on the subject by Katy Derbyshire, a blogger and translator from the German, is one example. She mentions the sort of things we should look out for when judging whether a translation is good or bad but then adds what is for me the crux of the matter: I realize it’s difficult to spot some of these things if you don’t speak the original language. I would go two steps further. Firstly, it is not just difficult, it is well nigh impossible. Secondly, even if you do speak/read the original language, how many non-academics read the original and the translation side by side?
I read a lot of translations, both translations into English and translations into other languages (where a work is not available in English translation). If I do read a translation, it is either because the work was written in a language I do not read (or do not read well) or, in the case of books I read in translation where I do read the original language, because the original is difficult and/or expensive to obtain or, yes, I admit it, sometimes out of laziness. However, in all cases, I read only the translation, not the original. Only once have I ventured to compare the original with the English translation and that was because I read something in the translation which I did not understand and referred to the original to see what was meant. In my view, in that case, the translator had misunderstood the original.
Let me give you two examples of why, despite Katy Derbyshire’s suggestions, I do not feel competent to evaluate a translation when only reading the translation. Both come from my previous professional life as a translator. The first concerns a translator who is long since deceased but, nevertheless, I will try to be as vague as possible so as not to identify him. We worked for an organisation which did not deal with fiction but with technical, economic, administrative and related texts. He translated into his mother tongue, i.e. from English into this language. His colleagues of the same language praised his texts for the beauty of the language and compared his writing to that of a famous (long since deceased) writer of that language. I once had occasion to consult his translations to check on how some specific text had been translated and I took advantage of it to read his translation. It was indeed beautifully written. I am not competent to compare it to the author mentioned. However, I soon noticed that however beautiful the target language was, it did not always reflect what the original English text said. Indeed, there were quite a few errors in translation. However, unless you compared it to the original English, you would not have been aware of these errors. Was it a good translation? Of course not. But only I knew.
On another occasion I was called on to judge a translation competition. A selection of books were submitted that had been translated from a foreign language into English. One of the books I reviewed was written by an author known for his streetwise, one might almost say punk style in writing. The translation was technically accurate. However, it read as though it was written by Jane Austen and not by a streetwise punk. However, unless you knew of the original author and/or had access to the original and could read that language, you would have been none the wiser.
There is one way I feel able to evaluate translations and that is in their use of English. I am, sadly, finding too many translations that use English solecisms. These are solecisms often of US origin but unfortunately creeping into English English. These include such usages as different than, between you and I, most well-known and off of. These are not repeating the bad grammar used by characters in the original but appear in the descriptive text, Presumably the translator does not know his/her language as well as s/he should or is not aware that these are solecisms. Presumably there is also no editor to correct the errors.
Another example of where I have been able to spot what I think might be errors is the tone used. Not so very long ago, I read an English translation of a book written in a language I do not know. It was clear that many of the characters spoke in slang in the original. The translator had endeavoured to convey this slang but, in my view, did not do a good job. The book was published some time ago and, for me, the slang seemed very outdated. Secondly, it was English regional slang, which would have undoubtedly jarred with those not familiar with it, even more than it did with me. I fully appreciate how difficult this is for a translator. How do you convey the slang and idiom of one place with the slang of another? I certainly would not be able to do so. As a result, I did not comment on this in my review as doubtless the translator was trying his/her best to convey the flavour of the original.
In her article, Katy Derbyshire says critics seek to engage with our work but in a negative way, pointing out its flaws. This post seems to be what I have done. Let me say that I really appreciate all the translators out there, particularly of course, those translating from languages I do not know. Without them, my reading life would be very much the poorer. The greatest compliment I can pay them is, I think, to point out that, on the whole I do not notice them, by which I mean reading the translation is like reading the original. Apart from the examples I have mentioned above, I am sure that most translators of novels do a first-class job. However, I can only repeat that I am not competent to judge the quality of any translation I read. I can judge whether it reads well, whether it contains grammatical infelicities and whether the tone seems to jar but, without reference to the original, I cannot judge its accuracy and would not presume to do so. So it would be quite wrong of me to say that such and such a work is a good translation or bad translation and I do not intend to change that view. So thank you very much, Katy Derbyshire and all the other translators of novels for making available these novels to me. I am sure that 99% of you are doing a good job but I am unable to say whether you are in the 99% or the 1%.
British readers and, perhaps, others will recognise the title as a quote from the sitcom Dad’s Army, frequently uttered by Private Frazer. I must say that I never took to Dad’s Army but I know quite a few people who did, so I am aware of the phrase. Other may perhaps recognise it as the headline from a silly interview with Will Self in the Guardian this past weekend. I have read one Self novel and found it pretty well unreadable. I have dipped into a couple of others and found them even more unreadable. It is possible that, somewhere, deeply hidden, there is a smidgen of talent but Self chooses to conceal it by his faux avant-garde, which makes his book pretty well inaccessible and not worth trying to access for most readers, this one included.
Simon Savidge of the interesting blog Savidge Reads summed up Self in a Twitter post as The Lord of ‘Please Talk About My Amazingly Alienating Avant-Garde Literature Even Though The Novel Is Dead’, which I think is as good a description as any of Self. Thank you, Simon.
I shall ignore Self’s own self-promotion and focus on his the novel is doomed scenario. Better people than I have responded. Roxane Gay put it most succinctly, when she said White men love to declare an end to things when they no longer succeed in that arena. As others have commented, the death of the novel has been forecast since the invention of the radio. Julian Barnes famously said:
Two famous deaths have been intermittently proclaimed for some time now: the death of God and the death of the novel. Both are exaggerated. And since God was one of the fictional impulse’s earliest and finest creations, I’ll bet on the novel – in however mutated a version – to outlast even God.
Indeed, the novel is still doing quite well, even compared to God.
Possibly the first major African novel, published in 1958
If, in, shall we say, 1960, you wished to be considered well-read in the 20th century novel, you would only have had to read novels from a few countries: the United States, England (but not Wales or Scotland), Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, a (very) few from China, Japan, Italy and Russia, maybe one or two from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Though there were novels from Latin America, Africa, Australia, the Middle East and other parts of Asia, you could safely ignore them to be considered well read. Chinua Achebe‘s first novel appeared in 1958 but did not make much of a splash. Latin American writers such as Jorge Amado had been publishing for years by 1960 but till Avon produced its excellent paperback series, very few were available in English. There were Indian writers but, except for Tagore (who did write novels but they were and, indeed, still are not well-known) they were not much read outside India. Patrick White had written five novels by 1960 but was little known outside and even in Australia. The only Spanish novel most English-speaking readers could name was Don Quixote; the only Belgian novelist Georges Simenon and forget the Dutch, even though Louis Couperus and Max Havelaar had been translated. The Middle East novel had not taken off, at least as far as translations were concerned.
A novel you must read to be considered well-read
In 2018, things have changed a lot. I have reviewed books from 225 different nationalities on my website. You do not have to read novels from 225 nationalities or, as some have done or tried to do, read a novel from every country. However, I would argue that to be considered well-read in the 20th and 21st century novel, you should have read at least one novel from at least fifty different countries. As well as the ones mentioned for the 1960s well-read reader, this would include at least half-dozen different Latin American countries, a few Caribbean ones, at least half a dozen African countries (ideally more. There are fifty five African countries if you count Western Sahara), most of the European countries, excluding the smaller countries, Australia, Canada, several other Asian countries and so on.
In 1960, you would not have been able to read novels from many of these countries. Firstly, many of the countries did not produce novels. Secondly, if they did, they were not translated. Thirdly, they were very difficult to get hold of, whether in the original language or translation. Fourthly, with no Internet, it was not easy to find out about them. The weekend book reviews and literary journals paid scant attention to works in translation. (Some would argue that this has not improved much.)
In 2018 many more countries are producing novels. In some cases, though it is not their mother tongue, some writers are writing in a Western European language, usually English, French or German. There are many wonderful small presses coming into being that are making available a wide range of novels in translation (including translation into French, German and other Western European languages). Many writers are now writing novels, as they accept that this is the way to make their name, whereas their forefathers might have focussed on poetry, short stories or myths/legends. In short, there are a lot more novels available to read than there were in 1960, even if you only read English and even more still if you read another language. Many of these novels are well worth reading.
I read a lot of novels. I find, as I am sure is the same with my fellow bloggers, that there are just too many novels to read. I have a huge list of novels waiting to be read. Some have been on the list for years. No, Will, the novel is not doomed. It is alive and well and thriving.
Dead but not doomed
Self says the novel is absolutely doomed to become a marginal cultural form, along with easel painting and the classical symphony. This is, of course, very much apples and oranges. People are not currently writing classical symphonies. However, they are playing them and listening to them. I remember, way back, it was very easy to get tickets for the The Proms, the BBC’s annual series of classical concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Nowadays, unless it is something particularly obscure, you have to jump on them the first day they are available and even then you may not get tickets for the ones you want. Easel painting is often done for the joy of the painter rather than as a means of selling a work. Other art forms – Renaissance painting, traditional blues and jazz music, sonnets, for example – may not be still being produced but they are still enjoyed.
The novel is very different from these examples. The novel is still being written in large numbers and is still being sold in large numbers. Though overall book sales are (slightly) declining (at least in the US), the number of books being published is increasing dramatically. It is the same in the UK and, I expect, in many other countries. Obviously many of these books are not novels but quite a few are. The proliferation of ebooks has helped. If I want to publish a novel and no publisher will take it on, I can publish it myself in just a few minutes. Yes, of course, it probably means no-one will buy it or know about it, but some ebook writers have been quite savvy at marketing themselves. Fifty Shades of Grey anyone?
A water-cooler novel?
Self also stated It’s impossible to think of a novel that’s been a water-cooler moment in England, or in Britain, since Trainspotting, probably. On Twitter someone mentioned Girl on a Train. I would add Fifty Shades of Grey, Game of Thrones (driven, of course by the TV series), and Harry Potter. I have read none of those and, frankly, do not care about water-cooler moment books. Why does it matter? What I do know is that I have read a large number of first-class novels over recent years, that I have a lot of fascinating novels sitting on my bookshelves that I am looking forward to reading and that I know that there many worthwhile novels of which I am completely unaware that will come to my attention over the next few years.
So, in conclusion:
1) Novel not dead or doomed.
2) As usual, Will Self has his head stuck up his arse.
3) There are many, many first-class novels out there to be read – far more than Will Self or I are aware of – and many more will be published over the coming years. None of them, however, will be written by Will Self.
4) Will Self really needs to look around and he will find that, far from being doomed, the novel, very much including the literary novel, is booming more than it has ever done.
5) Will Self needs to acquaint himself with some of the many excellent blogs out there which will introduce him to the many excellent novels that he clearly has not read or even heard of.
6) Don’t waste your time reading Will Self. There is much, much more worthwhile reading.
The latest novel on my website is Jordi Coca‘s Sota la pols (Under the Dust). This is a very grim fictionalised autobiography of a boy growing up in the slums of Barcelona during the Franco era. Our unnamed narrator lives in poverty (no running water in their one-room flat), with an abusive father. His younger brother dies of meningitis, his grandfather was shot at the end of the Civil War (though it is not clear why), he is bullied at school and, as his best friend succinctly puts it, life was shit. His only vague redemption is meeting an even poorer family who, at least, have some books and he is introduced to Crime and Punishment and Robinson Crusoe but even there, he seems to abandon reading. His father falls out with his brother – they are running a business together – and is also in trouble with the law. There seems to be no hope of escape, with only the prospect of a badly paid job ahead.
The latest addition to my website is Llorenç Villalonga‘s Bearn o la sala de las muñecas (Bearn or The Doll’s Room; The Doll’s Room). The book has been published in English with two different titles (see above), though the translation is the same. It tells the story of an old Mallorcan noble family, the Bearns. The Senyors – Don Toni and Dona Maria Antònia – both die within an hour of one another at the beginning of the book, having had no children (or, rather, no legitimate children; Don Toni has various illegitimate children he does not recognise). The story is told by Don Joan, the family chaplain, who was unofficially adopted by the Senyors as a child, when destined for a career as a swineherd. Don Joan has a lot of affection for the Senyors, despite Don Toni’s many faults (he runs off to Paris with his eighteen-year old niece, Xima; he is, in Don Joan’s eyes, often heretical). Then there is the mystery of the dolls’ room, permanently locked with no-one allowed to enter it. What does it contain? Above all, this is an affectionate account of a way of life that has long since gone (the story is set in the nineteenth century) and which Villalonga clearly – to some degree – regrets.
The latest addition to my website is Joan Sales‘ Incerta glòria (Uncertain Glory). This is a long rambling novel but is considered the best Catalan Civil War novel. It focusses on four people. The first is Lluis, an intellectual and a lawyer who lives in his own world, though he has a common-law wife, Trini, and a son back in Barcelona. He meets the widow of the local lord of the manor, a working woman who had married the lord, and he falls for her. His best friend is the cynical Soleràs, who is secretly in love with Trini himself but whom she considers as a brother rather than a lover. The second part of the novel follows Trini in Barcelona, both her life before the War and her current life, agonising over Lluis and his fidelity (he hardly writes to her) and suffering the problems in Barcelona, while reminiscing about her past. The third part focusses on Cruells, the unit medical orderly, who is religious (a dangerous, at times fatal thing to be in Barcelona), who becomes increasingly disillusioned. We see the war is 99% boredom, 1% sheer terror approach, as the unit sees some action, which gets worse as the war progresses, but much of the time they spend drinking, chasing women and philosophising. It is perhaps a bit long but still a worthwhile read to see a picture of the Republican cause that is not always rosy.
José de Almada Negreiros was born in 1893 in São Tomé and Príncipe. His father was a Portuguese cavalry lieutenant based in São Tomé and Príncipe while his mother was born on the island but died when her son was only three. His father was later posted to Paris but José and his brother were sent to boarding school in Lisbon. He graduated from the International School in Lisbon and, by now, was drawing and sketching, particularly satirical works. An exhibition of his work was held at the International School and it was there that he met Fernando Pessoa. As well as producing sketches, he was also writing poetry and other works for Orpheu, a progressive literary journal. He also designed a ballet. He published his first novel, A Engomadeira (it means a woman who starches and irons clothes) in 1915. (I have a copy which I hope to read some time in the not too distant future.)
He was also responsible for the famous Anti-Dantas Manifesto (link in Portuguese). Dantas was Júlio Dantas, a Portuguese playwright, who was fairly conventional. The Manifesto, supported by other prominent modernist Portuguese writers, including Fernando Pessoa, was a pro-modernist, anti-traditional manifesto. It caused quite a stir as Almada Negreiros did not hold back in his views. The text in Portuguese is here.
He spent time in both Paris and Madrid and became involved in a wide variety of artistic activities. In writing, he wrote novels, stories, poetry, plays and screenplays. He worked for a while as a dancer. He acted in films. He painted, he sketched, he designed. He married the artist Sarah Afonso (link in Portuguese). He died in 1970.
There is a wonderful description of his acting career in the exhibition:
I played the part of a very wicked aristocrat who gets killed right at the beginning. So, I was overjoyed. I got murdered in one of the first scenes, for kidnapping a girl. There was actually an incident sort of disastrous there. The girl was Maria Sampiao, and at some point, she fell from the horse we were riding, damn it! But I fell down with her… It was a very bad movie, a big mess, a beastly thing. I had to do a jump, a twenty-feet jump, from the top of a wall. Of course, I would lay (sic) down on my belly with outstretched arms, lower myself as much as possible on the wall and flip my legs over it. I could always pull it off just fine. Well, I used to be a gymnast […] I simply remember that it took them sixty-seven takes to kill me. And it was very hard for me to die, because I had to fall to the ground. Stabbed to death!
[Note that the English text is the translation used in the exhibition and not mine. The original Portuguese is not as badly written.]
Section of storyboard designed by Almada Negreiros for a film
As you can see, Almada Negreiros had a very varied career. Here is what he said about that:
I draw, I write, I sculpt, I do stained glass, I dance, I do theatre, I do cinema, and, if my art doesn’t speak through any of these voices, what can we do then? Just pretend that I am already dead – and that I left behind these posthumous works.
Many of his works can be seen at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. If any of them are available in the UK or US, I am not aware of them. Not surprisingly, none of his written work has appeared in English, the fate of most Portuguese writers, though one or two are available in French and Spanish. I hope to get to get round or one or two of them in the not too remote future. It seems to be stating the obvious when I say that he should be better known in the English-speaking world and undoubtedly would be, were he to be French or German. By the way, this exhibition sadly finishes on 18 March.
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