End of year review 2018

In a recent interview, Pat Barker said Contemporary fiction is going through a “so what” moment, with very few novels generating a real sense of passion in readers and fiction, or the reading of fiction, was not in good health. I very much disagree with her and imagine she has spent too much time reading the likes of Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgård and other popular novelists and is unaware of or has been ignoring the many first-class works published by the ever-increasing number of small presses, who have continued to publish some excellent works this year.

She is not the only one. At the beginning of the year Tim Lott complained about modern literary fiction but failed to mention any author writing in a language other than English, where the most exciting literary fiction is being written.

In March I had a go at will Self (whom, surely, Tim Lott would not have liked) for saying the novel is doomed. As I pointed out, the novel is not doomed and certainly not the literary novel, particularly the literary novel originally written in languages other than English.

A difficult novel?

I wonder what Barker’s views were on Anna Burns’ Milkman, which won the Man Booker Prize this year. Some commentators claimed it was too difficult, a comment refuted by Sam Leith. I have read all the books in his list at the end of his article, except for the Cusk novel. I wonder how many Barker has read and what she thought of them. I think she needs to look around more and she will find some wonderful books out there. I certainly did.

As happens every year, I only read books from one country for a period during the early part of the year. This year the country was Catalonia. I read twenty books from twenty different Catalan authors, partially in sympathy with the Catalan independence movement, and enjoyed them all. Sadly, quite a few were not available in English.

Jaume Cabré‘s Jo confesso (Confessions), which is available in English and lots of other languages (I saw a Greek version at the London Book Fair) and Lluís-Anton BaulenasAlfons XIV : un crim d’estat [Alfonso XIV: A Crime of State] (not available in English) were particular favourites but there were no disappointments. If you have not read any Catalan novels, I would strongly encourage you to do so. There are twenty-three Catalan authors on my website and quite a few have been translated into English.

I read 138 novels this year (last year 132).  43 were by women (35 last year, so a slight improvement).  Apart from Catalonia, less well-represented countries include Basque, Bosnia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Dominican Republic, Greece, Greenland, Guatemala, Iran, Iraq, Latvia, Norway, Panama, Philippines, Poland, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Slovakia, Syria, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

One of César Aira novel I read

Of the countries that I read most, Catalonia was, of course, in first place followed by Argentina (nine, of which six were by César Aira), England (eight), Scotland (seven, six by Ali Smith), France (seven), Japan (six), Norway (six), China (six, four by Mo Yan), Croatia (four, three by Dubravka Ugrešić), Hungary (four, all by Miklós Szentkuthy), Italy (four) and Mexico (four).

Much of my reading, as in the past, was of books published by independent presses and, once again, they have produced a wonderful assortment of books for our enjoyment. Here are the ones whose books I read this year. If you are short of reading matter, you could no worse than browse their offerings: And Other Stories, Arcadia, Archipelago, Bellevue Literary Press, Cadmus, Canongate, Catapult, Contra Mundum, Dalkey Archive Press, Editions de Minuit, Fitzcarraldo, Granta, Grove Atlantic, Hoopoe, Inside the Castle, Istros, José Corti, Lilliput, Maclehose Press, New Directions, New Vessel Press, Nordisk, Oneworld Publications, Open Letter, Other Press, Parthian, Phébus, Peirene, Pushkin Press, Restless, Riverhead Press, Scribe Publications, Seren, Serpent’s Tail, Skyhorse, Tilted Axis, Two Dollar Radio, Urbanomic, Verba Mundi and Virago. A big thanks to all of them. My reading this year would have been much less interesting without them and also so would yours. I would also add thanks to the independent presses not mentioned here, all too often because I did not have time to get round to their books but would have done so if I had seriously curtailed my other activities.

I do make an effort to read only books that I am going to enjoy, so it is difficult to do a best-of list. There are plenty of those around, though, sadly, translated literature is generally not very well represented. As usual, Large-Hearted Boy has a comprehensive list. The TLS, for example, had a very comprehensive list of best books, particularly in non-fiction. However, there only six translated novels, three proposed by the admirable Lydia Davis and only two published this year and one published next year. Not surprisingly, we have to turn to World Literature Today for a comprehensive list of 2018’s translated highlights. Other lists of interest: Translating Women and The Best Reviewed Books of 2018: Literature in Translation. Best slightly quirky list: Best Books to Pretend to Have Read in 2018.

There were several firsts. I read and reviewed my first graphic novel: Hariton Pushwagner‘s Soft City, prompted by Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina being longlisted for the Man Booker. While I certainly enjoyed it, I think I much prefer words rather than pictures in my novels.

I read three collaborative novels this year definitely a new experience. These were Shatila Stories, a novel written by a group of refugees in the Shatila refugee camp, and two novels by Wu Ming, the Italian collective. All three were certainly interesting reads, though I am not entirely sure that this is the future of the novel.

I also read and reviewed, for the first time, on my site, a novel in which a character has a medical procedure to change sex: Rita Indiana‘s La mucama de Omicunlé (Tentacle). It is not the first transgender novel on my site: this one is. I suspect that we shall see more novels by and about transgender people.

Here is a rundown on the highlights of my reading this year. Apart from the Catalan works mentioned above, I particularly enjoyed the following:

I continue to make my way through the oeuvre of César Aira. I find his work to be particularly original and it must only be a matter of time till he wins the Nobel Prize, if it is ever awarded again. Quite a few have been published in English, mainly by New Directions.

The English cover of Patria (Homeland)

Sticking to the Spanish-speaking world, Fernando Aramburu‘s Patria (Homeland) is a book you are likely to hear about next year. It concerns the ETA, the Basque terrorists/freedom fighters (depending on your point of view) and Spain’s attempt to come to terms with the issue. It has been hugely successful in Spain and has been translated into several languages. An eight-part TV series based on the book will be shown in Spain in 2020. It is coming out in English in March 2019.

Sticking with the Spanish-speaking world, I recently read Yolanda Oreamuno‘s La ruta de su evasión [The Route of Her Escape], a Costa Rican feminist novel from 1948 which I found excellent and I am surprised that it has not been translated into any other language.

The most controversial novel on my site this year was also, perhaps, from Latin America. Javier Pedro Zabala‘s The Mad Patagonian. I say perhaps because we do not know who Zabala is and where is from. We do know he is not Javier Pedro Zabala, as there is no such person.

The novel had a detailed biography of the author, which I was able to show was, at least, in part fake. The publishers replied in detail to my claims but admitted that the name, at least, was a pseudonym. While I enjoyed the book and said it was not a bad book, it was not as great as they claimed.

Moving to Asia I particularly enjoyed a couple of newly translated books from South-East Asia. Sayaka Murata‘s ンビニ人間 (Convenience Store Woman) is a Japanese novel about a young woman who takes a temporary job working in a convenience store and, eighteen years later, is still there. Despite an unpromising subject, it works very well, partially, perhaps, because it is based on the author’s own experiences. It is also one of quite a few novels I read this year with a fairly common theme – the person who does not fit in with societal norms. If I were a psychologist, I would say these people were often on the autistic spectrum but, as I am not a psychologist, I won’t.

The other one is from China: Yan Lianke‘s 日熄 (The Day the Sun Died). Quite a few of Yan Lianke’s novels have been translated into English and I hope to get round to the others some time. This one is about burials (which are not allowed in China – the issue also appears in Mo Yan‘s novels) and about a village (Yan Lianke’s own village – he is a character in the novel) whose inhabitants nearly all start sleepwalking.

The Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov currently lives in London, which may explain why four of his novels have been translated into English. His Jinlar Bazmi (The Devil’s Dance) appeared in English this year and a very fine novel it is. It is about the Uzbek writer Abdulla Qodiriy, who wrote the first full-length novel in Uzbek but who was executed in Stalin’s time. He mixes in Qodiriy’s story with the story of nineteenth century Uzbekistan and, in particular, the Great Game.

Sticking to the East but moving a bit West, specifically to Russia, Vladimir Sharov sadly died this year. I read two of his novels: Репетиции (Rehearsals) and До и во время (Before and During). Both books have something of a religious theme but don’t let this put you off. Both also jump between the present time and a historical period in Russia and make for fascinating reading.

Staying in Eastern Europe and, specifically, Hungary, I have now read all the books of Miklós Szentkuthy‘s Saint Orpheus’s Breviary series published in French and superb books they are, both anarchic and highly original. Sadly, Phébus, the French publisher, have stopped publishing them. Contra Mundum are planning to publish the entire series in English, which will be most welcome, but they seem to have been a bit quiet recently.

Moving further West. I have read more Norwegian books than I usually do. I read two books by Jon Fosse and two by Dag Solstad. While I was well aware of both, they are two of the many authors I should have read and have just not got round to. As regards Fosse, Lars Hertervig, the protagonist of his two Melancholia books and a very real person, is one of those mentioned above, someone who does not fit into into his society. Fosse’s portrait of insanity is masterful.

Two new Solstad novels came out in English this year, which means I still have to read a couple of his novels that appeared before. This year’s two – Armand V. (Armand V.) and T. Singer (T. Singer) – are both different, one quite political (Norway-US relations are key) as seen through the eyes of a Norwegian diplomat, with the novel essentially the footnotes to a novel and the other about an ordinary man who is, like most ordinary people, less ordinary. Both are very original and well worth reading. Nevertheless, they do not seem to have garnered the publicity they deserve.

Esther Kinsky clearly spent some time in Hackney, North London. Her Am Fluss (River) is a brilliantly evocative novel about the narrator’s time in Hackney, about the local river, the River Lea, and about other rivers. It is one of those novels that, on the face of it, might seem boring, but is so well written that it is a wonderful work that I cannot recommend too highly.

Paolo Cognetti‘s Le otto montagne (The Eight Mountains) has been translated into quite a few languages, including English but seems to have been more successful elsewhere than in the UK and US. It is a superb novel about the joys of mountaineering.

Closer to home, I enjoyed Jonathan Coe‘s Middle England, an anti-Brexit novel and a return to form for Coe.

This year I have been reading Ali Smith. It has been suggested that she is the only likely British candidate for the Nobel Prize and I could not disagree. She certainly one of the best if not the best current British novelist.

The German cover for Children of the Dead

I have not really caught up with what is coming out next year – I like to be surprised – but will mention a few. Elfriede Jelinek‘s Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead) is, in theory, coming out from Yale University Press. At least that is what they told me a couple of years ago. However, there is no reference to it on their website. Wikipedia confirms this but cites me as the main source. So maybe it has been delayed again. I read it a while back and it is a brilliant book and a devastating attack on Austria.

Michel Houellebecq‘s new book Sérotonine is coming out in French on 4 January. Here is a link from the publisher’s website about it (in French). Ce roman sur les ravages d’un monde sans bonté, sans solidarité, aux mutations devenues incontrôlables, est aussi un roman sur le remords et le regret. [This novel of the ravages of a world without goodness, without solidarity, with changes which have become unchecked, is also a novel about remorse and regret.]. If I were paranoid, knowing of his dislike for the British, I would think he was having a go at Brexit.

As mentioned above Fernando Aramburu‘s Patria (Homeland) will be appearing in March.

The Comoros are not the first place you would look for to find a great novel but I really enjoyed Ali Zamir‘s Anguille sous Roche (it means Eel under Rock). Jacaranda will be publishing an English translation in 2019, entitled A Girl Called Eel. I can recommend it.

Vasily Grossman‘s Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate) is one of the great World War II novels. He had previously published За правое дело [For a Just Cause] which had far more success in the Soviet Union which, unlike its successor, more or less toes the Soviet line. This book has been translated into French but not into English. Its original title was Stalingrad as it is about Grossman’s experiences in Stalingrad during the siege of that city. To make matters more complicated, he did publish a book called Stalingrad but it is a book of his reporting, i.e. non-fiction. To make matters even more complicated, the New York Review of Books will be publishing За правое дело in English under the title Stalingrad in 2019.

Various English-speaking women writers will be publishing new books in 2019. Margaret Atwood will be publishing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale called The Testaments. Eleanor Catton will be publishing a book called Birnam Wood, set in a remote area of New Zealand where scores of ultra-rich foreigners are building fortress-like homes and stockpiling weapons in preparation for a coming global catastrophe. However, this was announced a couple of years ago and seems to have fallen off the radar like the Jelinek.

In Europe, Jeanette Winterson‘s Frankissstein will breathe new life into Mary Shelley’s horror story, grappling with issues of identity, technology and sexuality. Zadie Smith‘s new novel will be called Fraud and is inspired by real events from the 1830s to the 1870s England, a time when the streets of North West London still bordered fields and Kilburn’s ‘Shoot-Up Hill’ was named for a highwayman. Sticking to England but changing sex, I enjoyed Max Porter‘s Grief is the Thing With Feathers and shall look forward to his Lanny, coming out in 2019

Enrique Vila-MatasMac y su contratiempo will be published in English by New Directions as Mac’s Problem and László Krasznahorkai‘s Baron Wenckeim’s Homecoming will be coming out in May.

Clarice Lispector is one of Brazil’s foremost writers. New Directions will be publishing her The Besieged City in 2019, which I am looking forward to.

Finally, will Vikram Seth‘s A Suitable Girl, a follow-up to his A Suitable Boy, appear in 2019? The answer is definitely maybe.

If you want to know more, The Literary Saloon has A list of lists of forthcoming books.

It just remains me for me to thank all of my fellow bloggers, from whom I learned much this year as every year. You will find a list of many of them on the right, further up.

I wish you happy reading in 2019.

End of year review

She didn’t win the Nobel Prize and could not remember the words but she was there

If, twelve months ago, you had said that Donald Trump would be elected as US President, the UK would vote to leave the EU, Theresa May would become prime minister of the UK, Bob Dylan would win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Leicester City would win the English Premiership and the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series, you would have been quite rightly locked up. But, fortunately, you did not predict any of those things and nor did I. In a year that has also seen Aleppo, ISIS leaving Mosul and Palmyra and retaking Palmyra, the European refugee crisis, Putin playing games in Ukraine, Hollande becoming the first post-war president of France not to stand for a second term, the Zika virus, the Turkish failed coup d’état and the vicious repercussions, the athletics doping (no, it wasn’t just the Russians. Ask Lance Armstrong) and leadership turmoil in Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gambia, Italy, New Zealand, South Korea and, doubtless, other countries, I can only start with a negative approach.

Things I did not do this year

  • Vote for Trump or Brexit
  • Play Pokémon Go
  • Go to a Wellness Clinic/Seminar or, indeed, do anything involving wellness
  • Read Knausgaard or Ferrante. Nor I did read Matar’s The Return, The Underground Railway, My Name Is Lucy Barton or any of the Man Booker shortlist. I may do so at some time in the future. But not Knausgaard or Ferrante. This list claims to be the list of lists of best books (English-language version) of 2016. I have read two of them. I may read a few more.
  • Use the following words: gift (as a verb. The verbal form of gift is give); curate; literally when I meant figuratively (my daughter gave me a mug which had on it the phrase I am figuratively dying for a cup of tea; she thinks that I am pedantic. She is right); post-truth (Oxford English Dictionary word of the year for 2016 but first coined in 2004 in Eric Alterman’s When Presidents Lie and first used in a UK book in Peter Oborne’s The Rise of Political Lying in 2005); alt-right; mindfulness; sharing economy
  • Watched The Hunger Game of Thrones or whatever it is called.
  • What you should be looking at on Instagram – bookporn
  • Take a photo of my dinner for Instagram or post a naked selfie on Instagram. Indeed, I did not do anything on Instagram, not least because I do not have an Instagram account. And nor did I take a selfie, naked or clothed.
  • Read Arno Schmidt’s Bottom’s Dream. Yes I know that Michael Orthofer at the Complete Review and that others braver than I have done so but I suspect I am neither intellectually or physically able to cope with it. My bad. Sorry, Michael.
  • Compile a list of must-read or your favourite books. There is no such thing as a must-read book and I do not know what your favourite books are and I would not presume to guess.
  • Read any book with the word girl in the title. See my last year’s review for more on this.
  • Ride an Uber taxi or stay in an AirBnB room
  • Use WhatsApp
  • Tweet
  • Buy anything that was advertised as The Perfect Gift. Perfect for whom? The seller, of course, because he wants to get rid of it.

Things I did do this year

The longest title of the year

I read 148 books from forty-five different nationalities. Forty-four were by women which is not a good ratio but better than previous years. Quite a few were from relatively small nations, including: Basque, Bolivia, Burundi, Catalonia, Comoros, Cyprus, Estonia, Greenland, Inuit, Kashmir, Kurdistan, Kuwait, Oman, Palestine and Puerto Rico. The most read nationality was Japan, because I focussed only on Japan early in the year, with USA second and Russia third. The longest title was Hendrik Groen‘s Pogingen om iets van het leven te maken. Het geheime dagboek van Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 jaar (Attempts to Make Something of Life. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old) and the shortest Claire-Louise Bennett‘s Pond and Thea Astley‘s Coda.

Ferrante 100 hundred years before Ferrante, one of my favourites

As mentioned above, I seemed to avoid the Booker Prize shortlist books, not because I thought they were no good – far from it – but nothing really attracted me enough to read it, instead of what I had planned to read. I can certainly see myself reading one or two of them at some time but then I might not and the same applied, more or less to the other prizes, except the French prizes

I also note, though this was not planned, that I have managed to read at least one book from every decade of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Indeed, I am well aware that there are many very fine novels out there from days of yore that I have not read. The earliest novel I read this year was Sibilla Aleramo‘s Una donna (A Woman at Bay; later: A Woman) (first published in 1906) who was writing Ferrante-type novels a hundred years before Ferrante, and doing, in my opinion, a better job.

Talking of women writers, too much neglected on this site, I would mention some others I enjoyed. I read three of Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer‘s novels and very much enjoyed them all and may well read some more. My Korean reading has been somewhat neglected but I did enjoy Han Kang‘s two novels, both of which were fairly gruesome but very well written. I read seven novels by the Australian writer Thea Astley and am convinced that, outside Australia, she has been sorely neglected. Zofia Nałkowska‘s Granica (Boundary) was first published in 1935 but has only just appeared in English and is well worth reading. Finally, I will mention a novel that did get good publicity at least in its native United States but did seem to do so well in the UK or elsewhere: C. E. Morgan‘s The Sport of Kings, though the Daily Telegraph did say it might be a candidate for the Great American Novel. If horse racing is not your thing, do not let that put you off. It is not my thing either but I really enjoyed this book.

The Great Basque novel?

Of the men, I was glad to have finally read Max Aub‘s El laberinto mágico [The Magic Labyrinth] six volume Spanish Civil War series. Yes, it is thoroughly partial (anti-Franco) but it does tell the story of the ordinary people opposing Franco in great detail. I do really enjoy a good long novel and this year read two excellent ones from smaller countries: Ramon Saizarbitoria‘s Martutene (Martutene) and Bakhtiyar Ali‘s Ghazalnūs wa bāghakānı̄ khayāl (I Stared at the Night of the City), the first one Basque and the second Kurdish. I really enjoyed Michal Ajvaz‘s Zlatý věk (The Golden Age), a thoroughly original novel. I must just mention three novels which deserve to be better known: Rober Racine‘s Le Mal de Vienne [The Vienna Sickness], a wonderful post-modernist romp, which has not been translated into any other language; Yoshikichi Furui‘s 白髪の唄 (White-Haired Melody) and Kyusaku Yumeno‘s ドグラマグラ [Dogra Magra], also sadly not available in English.

A well-known writer I enjoyed

Of the well-known names, most were not terribly exciting. I enjoyed Zadie Smith‘s Swing Time and Don DeLillo‘s Zero K but new works from Ian McEwan, Vargas Llosa and Eimar McBride disappointed. I still have something of a backlog in this area.

Will we enjoy the new Murakami?

I have looked at what is coming out next year and have not been terribly impressed so far but then the most interesting novels to come out in 2016 were not known to me this time last year. In 2017 we have the new Murakami (Men Without Women) (sounds like Hemingway, doesn’t it?), the first novel by renowned short story writer George Saunders (Lincoln in Bardo) and a new work from the eighty-four year old Robert Coover (Huck Out West), all of which may or may not be interesting. In Spain, there is a new Javier Cercas (another Spanish Civil War novel), a new Vila-Matas and a new Luis Goytisolo.

So onto 2017. If you thought 2016 was bad, remember 2017 will see President-elect Trumpelstiltskin become President Trumpelstiltskin. Theresa Maybot and her Three Stooges will continue to dither around on Brexit, breakfast, brisket, Brontosaurus, bric-à-brac and brain fade. We have three elections in Europe – France, Germany and the Netherlands – where a right-wing nut and/or a right-wing nut party will do well and may even win. Italy and Greece will face financial collapse. Italy may face a major volcanic eruption. And Putin, well, he will do something unpleasant. Last year I wished you a Trump-free 2016. That didn’t work out well so this year I can only wish you a joyful, interesting and exciting selection of books to read. I shall make only one prediction. A singer/songwriter will not win the Nobel Prize for Literature. But only because David Bowie and Leonard Cohen died this year. Though, of course, Patti Smith is a singer/songwriter, did turn up at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm this year (to represent Dylan) and is a published poet. And it is about time a woman won the Nobel Prize for Literature…

End of year review

I have never really understand why others have their annual reviews early in December. Don’t they read any books between then and the end of the year? I certainly do. Like others, I have been browsing the end of year reviews – you can catch up with them at Large-Hearted Boy. I was surprised to read many reviewers saying what a good year it has been – at least in the English speaking world as other cultures seem not to do this sort of thing so much. Frankly, I have not been too impressed.

Ellis Sharp - an author I enjoyed
Ellis Sharp – an author I enjoyed

On this side of the pond, we have had Kazuo Ishiguro‘s disappointing The Buried Giant, Jonathan Coe‘s OK but not much more than that Number 11, Rupert Thomson‘s OK but not much more than that Katherine Carlyle and Jeanette Winterson‘s interesting but certainly not brilliant reimagining of Shakespeare – The Gap of Time. I shall probably get round to Pat Barker‘s Noonday, Tom McCarthy‘s Satin Island, David Mitchell‘s Slade House and Kate Atkinson‘s A God in Ruins but none is high on my list. I did, however read three books by Ellis Sharp, all published this year and enjoyed all three. I am well aware that they are not everyone’s cup of tea but they are certainly more original than most works coming out of this country. All power to the two small publishers, Zoilus and Jetstone, that published them.

Across the Irish Sea, I enjoyed Anne Enright‘s The Green Road. I will probably get round to Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone and Paul Murray‘s The Mark and the Void.

Another book I enjoyed
Another book I enjoyed

Over the pond I read Jonathan Franzen‘s Purity and quite enjoyed it. I did not enjoy Mark Danielewski‘s The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May but I don’t think many people did. I did, however, enjoy Alexandra Kleeman‘s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. Not much else from over there has seemed particularly exciting this year. I might get round to Man Booker favourite Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life but I probably won’t. I might also get round to the winner, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, from Jamaica but I might not. I have read three on the longlist but none on the shortlist. Nothing really inspired me.

A book that was called Woman when I read it
A book that was called Woman when I read it

I have managed to avoid any book with the word girl in the title. No Girl Gone , Girl on the Train, Luckiest Girl Alive, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Girl Online, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, The Good Girl, The Boston Girl, The Girl from Krakow, Not That Kind of Girl and A Danish Girl, though last year I read Ismail Kadare‘s E penguara: E penguara: Requiem për Linda B. (A Girl in Exile) in French and translated the title as A Banished Woman (woman, not girl) but now see that Vintage will be publishing it in May 2016 as A Girl in Exile. What happened to women?

As for books in other languages, things have been a bit more impressive.

Another worthwhile book from Enrique Vila-Matas
Another worthwhile book from Enrique Vila-Matas

I did not see much praise in the end of the year lists for Enrique Vila-MatasKassel no invita a la lógica (The Illogic of Kassel) which appeared in Spanish in 2014 but in English this year. Not his best but another fine work. Some people enjoyed his Because She Never Asked but that is only one of the stories in his Exploradores del abismo [Explorers of the Abyss], which I did read this year and particularly enjoyed Because She Never Asked. I read Kamel Daoud‘s Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter Investigation) last year in French but it came out in English this year and was certainly worthwhile.

I tried – I really did try – to enjoy Elsa Ferrante. Not bad but what was all the fuss about? I managed to read the first two but gave up at that point. Am I missing something? It would appear so but there seem to be so many better books. Knausgaard I have long since given up. I think he produced another book in English this year. If so, I did not read it and almost certainly never will. I don’t get him, either.

One of the books from a small publisher I really enjoyed
One of the books from a small publisher I really enjoyed

Inevitably, it is the small publishers that most impressed me. I read and enjoyed Alisa Ganieva‘s Праздничная гора (The Mountain and the Wall), Leila S Chudori‘s Pulang (Home) and Fiston Mwanza Mujila‘s Tram 83 (Tram 83), all from the very wonderful Deep Vellum. Cuban Books gave us a few Cuban translations and I read and enjoyed Mirta Yáñez‘s Sangra por la herida (Bleeding Wound). Twisted Spoon published Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic‘s Gotická duše (Gothic Soul) this year. Hardly a new book – it first appeared in Czech in 1900 – but worth the wait.

A first-class Georgian novel
A first-class Georgian novel

I would like to mention five books that particularly impressed me this year. The first is a book that I had been wanting to read for some time and it finally appeared in English this year: Mikheil Javakhishvili‘s Kvachi. It was a real treat to read and we can only heartily thank Dalkey Archive Press for bringing out so many Georgian works, which do not seem to be getting the publicity they deserve.

Eugene Vodolazkin‘s Лавр (Laurus), was a wonderful tale of medieval Russia, superbly translated by Lisa Hayden (of Lizok’s Bookshelf , the essential blog on Russian literature) and published by another publisher worthy of attention: OneWorld, who also published Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter Investigation) and the Man Booker prizewinner, Marlon James’A Brief History of Seven Killings.

I read Héctor Aguilar Camín‘s Morir en el golfo (Death in Veracruz) in Spanish a while ago and I thought it an excellent novel. Thirty-five years after it was first published in Spanish, it has now appeared in English from Schaffner Press, a small Tucson-based publisher. I know very little about their other authors but I am glad to see that they have published the Camín. Sadly, it has been barely noticed.

I was very glad that another small press, the Dorothy Project, published the first novel by Austrian writer Marianne Fritz to have been published in English, Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse (The Weight of Things). Inevitably, it only got a few reviews and barely a mention in end of year lists.

And finally, Máirtín Ó Cadhain‘s Irish-language classic Cré na Cille (The Dirty Dust) made it into English. Read the book! See the film!

An excellent Russian novel yet to be published in English
An excellent Russian novel yet to be published in English

In late winter/early spring, I did my annual one-nationality-readathon which, this year, was Russia. It confirmed to me that there is a lot of interesting work coming out of Russia. I particularly enjoyed Vasily Golovanov‘s Остров или Оправдание бессмысленных путешествий [Island or A Justification for Meaningless Travel], which has yet to appear in English. I hope an English-language publisher does pick it up.

One book I read this year that has not been translated into English but almost certainly will be is Mathias Enard‘s Boussole [Compass]. It was not the same as Zone (Zone) by any means but you can see the similarities.

Not too much excites me of the announced books for next year. You can see some examples here, here, here and here. Two books that I have read in the original are coming out in English next year and I can recommend both. Clemens Meyer‘s Im Stein (Hearts Like Diamonds) has been translated by Katy Derbyshire of the blog LoveGerman Books and one of my favourite books of last year, Rafael ChirbesEn la orilla (On the Edge) is coming out in January.

For me, the biggest effort of the year has been converting my website to WordPress which has been an interesting experience. WordPress has lots of advantages but some strange quirks which I am slowly learning and/or adapting to. One advantage has been a link checker plug-in. I am well aware that you can get a link checker for any site but a built-in one makes it much easier. To my surprise/horror, I have 22219 links on my site. This is not as much as it may seem, as many of them are internal. For example, every page has a set of links at the top of the page to show you where you are and how you can move up to a higher level. Even so I have a lot and, to my greater surprise, quite a lot (several thousand) were either broken (i.e. led nowhere) or were redirects. Redirects mean that the link was automatically redirected. This might be a simple redirect to the same page but with a different URL, e.g. because the site has moved from http to https or they have changed their main page (guardian.co.uk to theguardian.com) or generally redesigned their site but had a redirect to the new page. However, it could also be a redirect to an error page (as you will get on my site if you enter an invalid URL), to a different page, often but not always the front page or a page which it tries to guess may be the right one, which sometimes it is and sometimes it is not (thank you, salon.com).

Several things surprised me. First of all, I was surprised at the number of sites which, like me, have not only redesigned their site but changed their URLs. Secondly, I was surprised at the number of sites that have died, from the interesting Finnish literary site www.kirjasto.sci.fi to, the past week, essortment.com, an encyclopedia-type site. Thirdly, I was surprised at the number of sites that have simply removed very interesting page from their websites. Fourthly, I remain surprised that every day, yes, every day, some site disappears, some site removes some pages, some site changes its URLs and/or some site has temporary difficulties (e.g. bandwidth exceeded, we are aware of the problem and are working on it). It is often ten-twelve sites a day. We have all known that the Internet is fluid and that sites come and go. Hosts like Geocities disappear or, like Yahoo, remove massive amounts of personal sites. Bloggers get bored, move on, die. However, seeing this every day brings home to me how impermanent the Internet is. Most books, I imagine, get saved somewhere, unless produced by a very small press, a vanity press or a self-publishing press, though this is presumably less so in this day and age of e-books. But websites, unless picked up by archive.org (which has a very English-language and, indeed, very North American bias) or something similar just disappear. Lots of good stuff is going.

Can Donald read?
Can Donald read?

I hope that you have enjoyed my main site and my blog and found some interesting books to read and that you have discovered lots of worthy gems here and elsewhere. I maintain that it is something of a golden age for quality novels, particularly if you are lucky enough to be able to read books in other languages. This end of the year review would not be complete without a big thank you to all the excellent bloggers out there, who provide me with much of the interesting information about and knowledge of books and authors, far more than I obtain from more mainstream sites. And, of course, a thanks to the authors for writing them and publishers for publishing them and, where appropriate, translators for translating them. May I wish you a Trump-free, posturing-Putin-free, World War III-free 2016 and, above all, lots of good reading of books from all over the world.

Adam Mars-Jones

A Mars Bar

Marianne Faithfull

Private Eye wittingly refers to him as Adam Mars Bar. Whether this is just a feeble pun on his name or some reference to the alleged Mars Bar scandal, I don’t know and I don’t really care. In any case, this week Adam Mars-Jones won the Hatchet Job prize for most scathing review, a review of Michael Cunningham‘s By Nightfall. I have not read By Nightfall and probably won’t. The only book of Cunningham’s that I have read – A Home at the End of the World – I was not terribly impressed with, though I have not read The Hours, his Virginia Woolf novel which got a lot of praise and was made into a successful film. Mars-Jones’ beef with Cunningham is that the novel is, to use his words, armour-plated with literary references . He claims that this makes Cunningham’s book look lost. He also does not like Cunningham’s Thoughts About Art. I am not sure that this is a valid criticism but, as I have not read the book, I cannot say now annoying it is or how much it detracts from the book. Frankly, I preferred Geoff Dyer’s review of Julian Barnes‘s A Sense of Ending which, of course, won the Man Booker Prize. I am likewise not a great fan of Barnes. I thought he peaked with Flaubert’s Parrot and, while his novels are certainly, on the whole, good, they are not great. I have not read A Sense of Ending and am not sure if I will, though it does have the advantage of being short. However, Dyer’s comments on the book – It isn’t terrible, it is just so . . . average. It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well written: excellent in its averageness! sort of sum up Barnes’ work.

Here are the actual reviews that were short-listed:

  • Geoff Dyer on Julian Barnes’ A Sense of Ending
  • Adam Mars-Jones on Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall
  • Mary Beard on Rome by Robert Hughes (Reader, be warned. Skip the first 200 pages and start this book at chapter six; The “ancient” parts of this book are littered with howlers)
  • Camilla Long on With the Kisses of His Mouth by Monique Roffey (What she has actually produced is 480 pages of sub-Marie Claire overshare, a pointlessly explicit, infuriatingly naive and, at times, plain offputting slither through a series of — wilfully? Maliciously? — unedited sexual slurpings.)
  • Lachlan Mackinnon on Clavics by Geoffrey Hill (Writing this bad cannot earn the kind of attention Hill demands; he is wasting his time and trying to waste ours.)
  • Leo Robson on Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford (Richard Bradford considers himself the man for the job, but I doubt that anyone else will. It is neither exciting nor penetrating. It is neither coherent nor convincing. It is characterised by surreal laziness (testimonies are pasted straight on to the page) and surreal bossiness. It is full of repetition, contradictions and small, avoidable errors: Bradford seems to get things slightly wrong almost as a matter of principle. It is also full of spectacularly bad writing.)
  • Jenni Russell on Honey Money by Catherine Hakim (Honey Money, however, is an acute disappointment. It looks like a book. It has hard covers, 372 pages, chapter headings, dozens of sources and footnotes, a fat price ticket and a press release from its publishers. But looks are deceptive. There is no structured argument being worked through in its pages. Instead, bewildered readers find themselves presented with repetitious, rambling, contradictory, ill-argued assertions, without the faintest sense from the author that she has written these sentences before.)
  • David Sexton on The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy (With Carol Ann Duffy, there’s too much verbal prancing, too little that’s original being said, particularly when the poems are not personal. You end the book thinking that if this is poetry, it’s a trivial art.)

As I have read none of the books under review, I am not competent to judge whether the reviews are fair or accurate. Of course, the reviews are subjective. Somebody thought A Sense of Ending was good enough to win the Man Booker Prize, though now is not the time to get into the politics of that. However, I do welcome the manifesto of the Hatchet Job of the year, not least as there are far too many reviews giving fulsome praise to sub-standard works. There are lots of reasons for this but probably the most common is logrolling – you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. People who review books are probably a very small set of people and they all know one another so do not want to offend and also want good reviews for their works. To a certain extent, bloggers get away from this and can be more brutal. Some are and some aren’t. I try to avoid books I don’t think that I will like but there are a few reviews on my site which, while not hatchet jobs are highly critical. Writers I consider overrated, such as D H Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway and John Updike are included because of their (in my view undeserved) reputations. I have written critical reviews of authors I admire. And I slammed the Philip Roth for the Nobel Prize bandwagon. But I have been reluctant to do more because I would rather spend my time reading books I like than those I don’t like and, unlike the Hatchet Job reviewers, I can choose.

Which brings us back to Adam Mars-Jones. Way back when, Granta produced a list of best young British novelists. They produced another such list ten years later. (They also produced a third list but it is not relevant to my point here.) If you study the first two lists carefully, you will notice that they have one thing in common – Adam Mars-Jones. Yes, Mars-Jones was twice nominated as one of the best young British novelists. As well as being on both lists, Mars-Jones also had one other feature unique to him. In neither case was he a novelist! His first novel was published in 1993, just after the second list has been published. Why was he on both lists without having published a single novel? Potential maybe? I have no idea. His second novel was published in 2008, fifteen years after the second Granta list. It was called Pilcrow. By coincidence, I tried to read it this week. I say that I tried to read it but, unusually though not unknown for me, I had to abandon it.

A pilcrow

A cedilla

A Mars-Jones (the one on the left)

Let’s start with title. Do you know what a pilcrow is? No, nor did I. This is a pilcrow – ¶. It’s that paragraph mark thing that you see in the Bible and sometimes in older legal documents which, as he points out, is difficult to find on a computer keyboard (as it is not there). I would have called it a paragraph mark. The Shady Characters blog has three aricles on it, if you want to know more – one, two and three. The book is the first of a trilogy, with the second being called cedilla. I do know what a cedilla is (it is the squiggly thing on the c here – ç) as it is used in French and Portuguese, which I read, as well as in other languages. So Mars-Jones criticises Michael Cunningham for being too arty and using too many literary references, yet names his books after obscure punctuation marks which the average reader certainly will not have heard of. Mmmmm. But my main complaint about the book, at least the first hundred pages, is that it is boring. John Cromer has rheumatic fever. He stays in bed. He plays games with his mother. Nothing much happens. As James Woods points out in his review it is about the banalities of life, it has dull patches and it boldly refuses the everyday consolations of plot and dramatic structure. Well, I generally like plot and dramatic structure and found Pilcrow just too boring to be worth continuing. Yes, I know we are going to get into the gay man coming of age stuff which more or less worked in The Stranger’s Child but I really have not the patience to pursue it in this book. So I will read Mars-Jones’ scathing reviews but probably leave his novels alone.