Month: December 2019 Page 1 of 2

End of year review 2019

As the world seems to get worse and worse, reading books seems increasingly to be the best escape. It has been helped (for me) this year by the fact that I have read more longer, often very long books. I do enjoy a really long, good book not least because you can really get immersed in another world (or worlds). This year, I have really enjoyed (in no particular order) Lucy Ellmann‘s Ducks, Newburyport, Oğuz Atay ‘s Tutunamayanlar (The Disconnected), Nino Haratischwili‘s Das achte Leben (The Eighth Life), several novels by Mircea Cărtărescu, Christophe Bernard‘s La Bête Creuse [The Hollow Beast], Miloš Crnjanski‘s Roman o Londonu (Novel of London), Vasily Grossman‘s За правое дело (Stalingrad) and Valeria Luiselli‘s El archivo de los niños perdidos; Desierto Sonoro (Lost Children Archive). Only two were originally written in English (the Ellmann and the Luiselli) and several are not available in English, though the Crnjanski should be out in 2020.

Of course, it has not all been long books. I have continued ploughing through the ever-growing work of César Aira, most of which are short but still enjoyable. It is my view that he should get the Nobel Prize but he did not.

Which leads me on to the prizes this year. I was a bit surprised that the Nobel Prize for Literature this year went to two Central European writers. What happened to the African and Asian writers? What happened to César Aira and Haruki Murakami? Maybe next year…

I thought Olga Tokarczuk was an excellent choice. I am slowly wending my way through her books. There are a few not available in English but available in other Western European languages. I thought Peter Handke was an excellent choice from the literary point of view. I have read eleven of his novels and now plan to read some more. Not all of his works, of course, have been translated into English. However, the concern about him was his views on Serbian nationalism and his support for Milosevic. PEN International issued a a strongly worded criticism of the award. I have been following the issue in the German and Austrian press and, while it has been divided, there has been a lot of criticism of Handke and the Nobel Prize Committee. His publisher, Suhrkamp, even issued a long defence of Handke (in English).

I have mixed views on this. I deplore Handke’s views on Serbian nationalism, though having read a couple of books this year by the Serbian author Miloš Crnjanski, I am much more aware that the Serbs have not had a particularly happy history.

If we are to decide not to read books by people whose views we do not like we will be reducing our reading a lot. Many authors, for example, supported the Nazis, including, famously, Céline, Henry Williamson, Knut Hamsun, Ezra Pound, Francis Stuart, Unity and Diana Mitford and doubtless many authors I cannot recall. Writers, of course, also supported Stalin, Mao and other unsavoury characters and, of course, there have been writers who have justified colonialism, been sexist, racist, homophobic, beaten up their wives, and so on. It is even possible that some writers voted for Donald Trump or Brexit. Do we stop reading them? The answer, of course, is that each person must make the decision for themselves but I shall certainly continue to read Handke.

While we are on the Nobel Prize, I do hope that they broaden their scope next year and I have three candidates for them. I have already mentioned César Aira and would add Ismail Kadare, a man who was also somewhat politically compromised but a brilliant writer, and a somewhat unexpected choice, the Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov. I have read two of his books this year and thought they were brilliant. I had the opportunity to see him a couple of months ago when he was a participant at a discussion on immigration. He was asked whether he would be likely to get the Nobel Prize and he responded, as we might expect, with a story. When he was at school, he was expecting to win a medal but it went to someone else more politically connected. He added that that has been the story of his life and probably would be with the Nobel Prize. I hope he is wrong because he deserves it and it would be interesting for a Central Asian to win it. I would point out that no Argentinian, no Albanian and no Uzbek has yet won it.

The controversy over the Booker Prize seems minor in comparison. Contrary to their rules, they decided on a joint winner. I have not read Girl, Woman, Other but I did enjoy The Testaments. However, I would have given the award to Ducks, Newburyport, which I thought was a brilliant book.

Earlier this year, there were a couple of articles about book blogs. The first was Top 25 Book Blogs 2019. To my surprise. I had heard of very few of them and, to be quite honest, when I looked at them, I could see why. The article was from a Danish site whose articles, apart from this one, seem to be mainly in Danish. How you can have a list of the 25 best book blogs and not include The Literary Saloon, , The Untranslated , Lizok’s Bookshelf, ArabLit, Tony’s Reading List, The Neglected Books Page, ANZ LitLovers LitBlog and many others (apologies to those omitted) is beyond me.

The other article was The Millions Will Live on, But the Indie Book Blog Is Dead. The article seems to think the only worthwhile book blog is The Millions. While I do look at it now and then, I have never been overly impressed. The only other book blogs it mentions are both defunct – The Elegant Variation and Bookslut. Both were worthwhile blogs but, as I said, both are defunct, so how can the article claim that indie book blog is dead, without actually looking at other blogs? To use a technical English term – Bollocks. The article comes from a site calling itself Vulture with such original articles as The 100 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now and Daisy Ridley Pledges Loyalty to Baby Yoda, Confirms Porgs Are Trash whatever that may mean.

Talking of defunct blogs, the sad news this year is that the wonderful blog The Untranslated has been discontinued. I learned a huge amount from it and if you do not know it, the old posts are still online and well worth reading. I hope that Andrei, author of the blog, will re-emerge with another venture.

It seems that I have not been able to really keep away from politics and, indeed, I must confess to reading two Brexit novels: Ali Smith‘s Spring and Ian McEwan‘s The Cockroach. I have not read a Trump book but he does briefly pop up in Ducks, Newburyport. However, it is not just Brexit and Trump. I read twenty-one Turkish novels this year and most of them had political overtones or undertones. From racism in Sweden in Johannes Anyuru‘s De kommer att drunkna i sina mödrars tårar (They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears) to Trump’s immigration policies (though he is not mentioned by name) in Valeria Luiselli‘s superb El archivo de los niños perdidos; Desierto Sonoro (Lost Children Archive), from US interference in Guatemala in Mario Vargas Llosa‘s Tiempos recios [Hard Times] to John Lanchester‘s Trumpian British Wall in The Wall, I seem to have read a lot of political books this year.

And now to the figures. I have read 138 books this year (surprisingly, exactly the same as last year). As my country of the year, Turkey was clear top, with twenty-one books. There were forty-three different nationalities, with twelve books from Argentinian writers, nine French, eight Russian, six Spanish and five English and five Italian as well as five books by the Romanian writerMircea Cărtărescu. Nothing else above four. Less well represented countries read this year include Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ecuador, Georgia, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Mongolia, Montenegro, Niger, Palestine, Serbia, Sweden, Uruguay and Uzbekistan.

I read only thirty-six books by women (26%), down from last year’s forty-three. However, I must say there were some really first-class books by women writers this year. I have already mentioned above three long books by women I really enjoyed: Lucy Ellmann‘s Ducks, Newburyport, Nino Haratischwili‘s Das achte Leben (The Eighth Life) and
Valeria Luiselli‘s El archivo de los niños perdidos; Desierto Sonoro (Lost Children Archive). I have also enjoyed other books by women writers. Esther Kinsky‘s Am Fluss (River) was a gem. This year I read another gem by her: Hain (Grove). I read it in German but it will be out in English in 2020 from Fitzcarraldo

One of the several Argentinian writers I read this year was Pola Oloixarac. Her Las constelaciones oscuras (Dark Constellations) was one of the most intelligent novels I have read with a scientific theme. Ibtisam Azem‘s وسفر الاختفاء (The Book of Disappearance) was a very original novel on the Palestinian situation, which is well worth reading, whatever your views on the conflict. Finally, I must mention Olga Tokarczuk. I read the four of her books available in English and, as mentioned above, I hope to get round next year to those of her works translated in French but not English. As also mentioned above, she is a superb writer and fully deserving of her prize.

While I enjoyed everything I read this year, I do not think the men were of quite the same level. Apart from Tokarczuk, there were four other writers of whose work I read four or more books: Patrick Modiano, Eduardo Mendoza, César Aira and Mircea Cărtărescu. Modiano and Mendoza are excellent writers but not, in my view, great writers. Aira is sui generis, unique and brilliant. I have read twenty-nine of his works and will continue to plough through his oeuvre, though some are difficult to obtain. None of the five Cărtărescu works I read this year has been translated into English, which is a great pity, as he is a brilliant writer and he should be better known.

I note that I have read twenty-six books that have not (yet) been translated into English, which must be a high. The sad reason for this is simply that far too many worthwhile books are not being translated into English. The most recent book I read and reviewed was Mircea Cărtărescu‘s Travesti [Travesty], which has been translated into ten different languages (at least) but not English. My apologies for this, if you do not read these languages but some of them will come out in English anyway and I have a vain hope that, just occasionally, some enterprising publisher will decide to publish them in English – eventually. Another book I read and reviewed recently – Magda Szabó‘s Abigél (Abigail) – will be published in January 2020, fifty years after it was first published in Hungarian. A French version appeared in 2017, a German one 1978, an Italian one in 2007, a Latvian one in 1996, a Polish one in 1977 and a Romanian one in 2003. At least we got there eventually.

Last year I mentioned several books that were to appear this year. Elfriede Jelinek‘s Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead) (in English translation), Eleanor CattonBirnam Wood and Zadie Smith‘s Fraud were all due to appear this year. All three have disappeared, though I have contacted the Yale University Press re the Jelinek, and they tell me it should be out in a couple of years. Vikram Seth‘s A Suitable Girl has not disappeared but nor has it appeared. Given my forecasts clearly put a curse on forthcoming books, I shall not predict any forthcoming books, except for three – César Aira’s Artforum, which will be out in English and I shall be reviewing it, as I already have a copy, I have already mentioned Esther Kinsky‘s Hain (Grove) and, finally, there is a distinct possibility that Hilary Mantel‘s The Mirror and the Light, the third in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, will appear, but I would not bet on it.

I am normally extraordinarily lazy at looking who is looking where on my website but I have done it for this year and, to me, it is somewhat surprising. The most viewed page after the homepage was the page on Ifeoma Okoye‘s Behind the Clouds. The next two were also both African, with, less surprisingly, Sérotonine (Serotonin) in fourth place. Middle England was the only British novel in the top fifty, which had no novels from the US and Spain, only Sérotonine (Serotonin) from France and only one from Italy. Perhaps I should stop reading Western European and North American novels.

As next year brings Brexit and the US presidential elections, it would seem to be a time to escape more and more into books, so I wish you all good reading in 2020.

Mircea Cărtărescu: Travesti [Travesty]

The latest addition to my website is Mircea Cărtărescu‘s Travesti [Travesty]. The novel is narrated by the thirty-four year old Victor, a successful writer but with a troubled mind, clearly traumatised by an event that happened when he was seventeen. He is now writing the book about the event which took place on a school week long trip to a remote forest encampment. He is a loner and does not join in the rowdiness of his schoolmates, preferring either to go off on his own or with a couple of the serious pupils. We learn about his success as a writer in later life, all the while building up to the key event that takes place at the fancy dress party during the closing evening. Lulu, a boy, dresses up as a girl at the party and then tries to seduce Victor. What happens next, which is not simply what you might expect, but involves Cărtărescu’s trademark intense visions, will leave him permanently traumatised. As always with Cărtărescu, it is these intense visions that make the novel, with Victor living in his own world but also in a world that most of us do not see, hidden away in the recesses of his mind. Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, this book has been translated into ten languages but not English.

Magda Szabó: Abigél (Abigail)

The latest addition to my website is Magda Szabó‘s Abigél (Abigail). This first appeared in Hungary fifty years ago where it has been Szabó’s most popular novel. It is set in 1943-44 and tells the story of the fourteen-fifteen year old Georgina (Gina) Vitay. Her mother died when she was two and she has been brought up by her father, a military general and a French governess. He suddenly decides to send the governess back to France, as Hungary and France are at war and Gina to a boarding school in a remote part of Hungary. Much of the story is set there and deals with her problems fitting in to a conventional, strict and religious school but also the fallout from the war and the reasons her father finally gives her for sending her there. There is clearly opposition in the town and, perhaps, in the school to the conduct of the war and the alliance with and subsequent occupation by the Germans and all of this has an effect on Gina. It is a very well-written book, as we follow Gina’s travails both with her classmates and the staff as well as what is happening in the outside world.

Amélie Nothomb: Les prénoms épicènes [The Epicene First Names]

Latest on my website: Amélie Nothomb‘s Les prénoms épicènes [The Epicene First Names]. This is a Nothomb parable, telling the tale of a couple with epicene first names, (names which can be used for either sex) and their daughter called Epicène. He (Claude) had seduced her (Dominique) and persuaded her to marry him and move with him to Paris (from Brest). She could not get pregnant for a long time but, when she did, she had a daughter whom they called Epicène. However, there is considerable antipathy, turning to hate, between father and daughter, and things only get worse, till we learn of a dastardly plot by Claude at the expense of his wife and daughter, for which he will have to pay a high price. As always, Nothomb tells her tale well and makes her point.

Sara Lidman: Tjärdalen [The Tar Still]

The latest addition to my website is Sara Lidman‘s Tjärdalen [The Tar Still]. This is Lidman’s first novel, telling the story of a remote Swedish village. Nils has spent a long time building a tar still, from which he hopes to make some money. However, just before he is to light it, he finds it destroyed. The culprit, Jonas, is lying in the ruins, badly injured. Jonas had worked for Nils and they had had a run-in and this is Jonas’ revenge. The villagers reluctantly look after Jonas but Nils has something of a breakdown. Petrus, a good but flawed man, tries to comfort Nils but Nils has a fit. Blom, the evangelical, says it is the work of the devil, Petrus says it is an epileptic fit. The second part of the novel is about the struggle for soul of the village between Petrus and the evangelical Blom. Lidman writes a fine novel, not getting carried away, but making her point.

A. G. Porta: Me llamo Vila-Matas, como todo el mundo [My Name is Vila-Matas, Like Everyone]

The latest addition to my website is A. G. Porta‘s Me llamo Vila-Matas, como todo el mundo [My Name is Vila-Matas, Like Everyone. This is a short absurdist book, consisting of a dialogue between two unnamed people, who are called Vila-Matas, like everyone. The basic premise is that the Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas has come to New York to appear in an Off-Broadway version of one of his books. However, Allison, the promoter, has disappeared and Vila-Matas is searching for her (both in the real world and in various books), while also putting on two plays of his own. Meanwhile, our two dialoguers are discussing Vila-Matas and his search, the future of the novel, absurdist literature, the theatre and similar topics, all the while maintaining that they are Enrique Vila-Matas like everyone, except, of course, when they are someone else. It is clever, it is witty, it is absurdist. Like everything else.

Enrique Vila-Matas: Esta bruma insensata [That Mindless Mist]

The latest addition to my website is Enrique Vila-MatasEsta bruma insensata [That Mindless Mist]. This is Vila-Matas on form with his intellectual, literary, post-modern games. We follow the story of Simon Schneider, a man from Barcelona, who makes his living providing quotations to a successful US-based author, who turns out to be his younger brother. Simon has not seen Rainer, his brother, for twenty years and communicates only by email, Moreover, Rainer is a Pynchon-like recluse and no-one has seen him. One day Simon gets an email from his brother that he his coming to Barcelona and wants to meet him. He also learns that he is planning a non-fiction book, in which Simon dies. It is clever, witty, tricky, post-modern and a joy to read.

Eduardo Mendoza: Una comedia ligera (A Light Comedy)

The latest addition to my website is Eduardo Mendoza‘s Una comedia ligera (A Light Comedy) . It set in the late 1940s, in and around Barcelona, as with most of Mendoza’s work. Our hero is Carlos Prullàs, a popular and successful playwright, who writes light comedies. We follow him around for a long while – food, women, gossip – when, about halfway through the book, there is a murder and he is the prime suspect. In usual Mendoza style, there is complex investigation, with Carlos coming in touch with all strata of Barcelona society and Mendoza mocking them. With dirty deeds in high places, a royalist plot and Carlos almost getting murdered himself, the second half is definitely more lively than the first. The book has been translated into English but is long since out of print.

Ibtisam Azem: وسفر الاختفاء (The Book of Disappearance)

The latest addition to my website is Ibtisam Azem‘s وسفر الاختفاء (The Book of Disappearance). The book is set primarily in Jaffa. Alaa is a Palestinian who works as a cameraman. At the beginning of the book his beloved grandmother dies and much of the book is tribute to her and the sufferings she and the other Palestinians have suffered since the nakba. While we are learning about various Palestinians and what they have suffered, suddenly, overnight, all the Palestinians in Israel simply disappear. No explanation is given. We follow the reactions, with Ariel, Alaa’s Israeli friend, who is reading Alaa’s notebook about his grandmother and his views, while many other Israelis are rejoicing that their problem has gone. This is a wonderful book, showing both what the Palestinians have suffered and continue to suffer and the Israelis’ reaction to their disappearance.

Patrick Modiano: Quartier perdu (A Trace of Malice)

The latest addition to my website is Patrick Modiano‘s Quartier perdu (A Trace of Malice). This has several of Modiano’s favourite themes – looking for the past, finding Paris has changed a lot, a hero who has two personalities – his present and his past one and some murky secret which will gradually come out. Jean Dekker has been living in England under the name Ambrose Guise, where he is a successful detective story writer but now visits Paris for the first time in nearly twenty years. There he tries to reconnect with his past – many of the people are dead – and investigate events of twenty years ago which led to his departure from France. The book was published in English by a publisher who is long since defunct so the book is difficult to obtain in translation.

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