The latest addition to my website is Milena Ercolani‘s Figlie della luna [Daughters of the Moon]. It is not a novel but rather a collection of short stories, nominally linked by a common theme (a feminist sensibility). Given that there is not much from San Marino, it is here but it really is not very good and I am not too convinced by the feminist sensibility thing either. Of course, it is only available in Italian and I very much doubt that it will every make it into English or, indeed, any other language.
The latest addition to my website is Rafael Chirbes‘ Crematorio [The Crematorium]. Like La larga marcha [The Long March] and La caída de Madrid [The Fall of Madrid], this one is a portrait of Spain, this time set in the 1990s/early 2000s and shows the complete and utter corruption of the construction boom, as the fictitious town of Misent has been massively over-developed to the benefit or Rubén Bertomeu. Rubén’s brother Matías, who opposed his brother’s activities, has just died and we follow, through a stream-of-consciousness approach, the thoughts and feelings of those associated with the brothers. Chirbes gives us a wonderful picture of a thoroughly decadent and corrupt society at the height of the Spanish development boom, a boom that we know will come crashing down. Sadly, though this is a first-class novel, you will not be able to read it in English.
The latest additions to my website are two Anne Enright novels. The first is What Are You Like?, an earlier novel. Frankly, this story of two young women looking for their origins did not really work for me. I found that, while Enright’s writing is, as always, superb, the plotting was somewhat unstructured and wooly and did not awaken my interest as the two women, Maria Delahunty and Rose Cotter, just drifted around. I could not feel any great sympathy for them or, indeed, any interest in them, despite their need to know where they came from and who they were.
The Gathering, however, is a different matter. It deservedly won the Man Booker Prize, apparently unanimously, despite not being the favourite. It is a wonderful story of Veronica Hegarty, one of twelve, whose brother, Liam, eleven months her senior, has just killed himself. Why did he kill himself and what was the role of Ada, her grandmother? The complex nature of large and somewhat dysfunctional families is examined. While, as in What Are You Like?, she jumps around, you always have the feeling that she is focussed on the main issue, Liam’s death, Ada’s role and the problems of large families, unlike in What Are You Like? where the focus seems to drift away from the main issue. This is definitely a book worth reading
The latest addition to my website is Shalom Auslander‘s Hope: A Tragedy, one of the funniest books I have read in a long while. It is very politically incorrect, featuring a still alive but smelly and cantankerous Anne Frank, struggling to write a novel, a Jewish man whose fatal flaw is hope, his mother who spends her life bemoaning her fate as a Holocaust victim, despite the fact that she was born in Brooklyn in 1945 and, like all her close relatives, never went anywhere near Europe, and an arsonist. Solomon Kugel joins the list of literary Jewish heroes who struggle with life and with mothers.
I have just returned from two weeks in Burma, where I saw the biggest book in the world (see photo at left). Other sites of literary interest included the Nationa Museum where they had samples of the handwriting of many Burmese writers, including Ma Ma Lay. I only have one Burmese book on my site – Ma Ma Lay’s Mone Ywe Mahu (Not Out of Hate). I went to the Bagan Book House, the best bookshop in Burma for English language books. They had a small but impressive collection of books but they were all non-fiction – travel, history, ethnography, botany/biology, etc, including some rare out of print memoirs – but no fiction to add to my collection. There were a lot of street sellers selling books in Burmese though obviously I was not able to judge what they were selling.
While there, I read Amitav Ghosh‘s The Glass Palace, the latest addition to my website. It is set in Burma (and India and Malaya as well), and is a family saga, with the various members moving between those three countries. However, it starts with the British invasion of Burma in 1885 and ends with Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest by the generals. It roundly condemns colonialism but shows that the concept is not always too simple, not least with the Burmese objecting to the Indian presence in Burma and, of course, the Japanese invasion of South-East Asia. It is well worth reading whether you know those three countries or not.
Loukis Akritas‘s Νέος με καλάς συστάσεις (Young Man Seeks Position: Good References) is the latest addition to my website and the second Cypriot novel. Both of the Cypriot novels are autobiographical novels. This one is about a young man who leaves Cyprus for Athens in the 1930s but is unable to find any work and suffers considerably – hunger, leaking shoes, poor clothing – while he and many others seek work. It is well told though not particularly original. However, the scenes where he is really is desperate are excellent.
The most recent additions to my website are two César Aira novels. I continue to be amazed by everything I read of his. Varamo (Varamo), which has been translated into English, is a novel about a low level Panamanian civil servant who goes home one evening and, though he has never written, indeed, never even read a single line of poetry, writes, without correction, one of the (fictitious) classics of Central American poetry. As this Aira, lots of other things happen in the space of a fairly short novel, involving forged money, embalming, a possible revolution, the smuggling of golf clubs, pirate publishing and the hearing of voices.
Las noches de Flores [The Nights of Flores], sadly, has yet to be published in English (though it has been translated into several other languages). It tells the story of a pizza delivery service in the Flores suburb of Buenos Aires. It starts off fairly low key, with the account of an elderly couple who work for the service, delivering on foot, as well as stories of some of the young men who work for the service. In particular, there is a kidnapping and murder of a delivery driver. Suddenly, the novel explodes, as a massive conspiracy is revealed and all hell breaks loose. This, like the other six Aira novels I have read, only confirms Aira as one of the leading novelists of the age.
The latest review on my site is Rafael Chirbes‘ La caída de Madrid [The Fall of Madrid]. This follows on from his La larga marcha [The Long March] but this time telling the story of a group of Spaniards, who are all connected to each other, on 19 September 1975, hours before Franco dies. The various participants have their own concerns about Franco’s imminent demise and what it will mean to them. Chirbes tells his story very well, ending it that evening, shortly before Franco actually dies. Sadly, like La larga marcha [The Long March], it has not been translated into English, though it is available in French, German, Croatian and Serbian.
After promising in both the first part and then second part of this topic, here is my mea culpa as to why I have so few women writers on my site. Many years ago, soon after it came out, I read Gail Godwin‘s A Mother and Two Daughters. The book, at least in the United States, had done very well both critically and commercially. A couple of women friends said that I had absolutely had to read it and, being aware that I had not read enough women writers (though not suspecting that I would be doing a website and blog on literary matters), I did read it. It really did not work for me. In fact, to be quite honest, I hated it. I tried to read Elizabeth Taylor (the British writer not the British actress. You didn’t know that the actress was British? Born in Hampstead Garden Suburb, kept British citizenship all her life.) The Guardian, in the link, may call her brilliant. Loved the actress, found the novelist, well, boring. Barbara Pym? Same thing. I just did not get it.
When I started doing my website, I made a (very long) list of the writers I wanted to include, many of whom I had already read, many whom I had not. Though I never bothered checking, it is clear, with hindsight that the majority were men. This was not a conscious decision but just that the writers I thought most interesting were mainly men. No Godwin, no Taylor, no Pym, no chicklit. Since then, of course, I have added many, many writers to the list. I do now make something of conscious effort to seek out women writers but still find that most of the writers I want to read are men. This is partially for the reason explained in the previous post , namely that most canonical novelists do tend to be men (rightly or wrongly and, yes, I know, the canon is mainly set by men). As I also showed in my previous post this (unconscious) bias is also shared by women bloggers. Quick anecdote. We had a visit from a woman friend who works for a publisher. She complained that I had too few women writers on my site and said she would send me a list of women writers I should read. She sent the name of just one writer – a man.
When I became aware of my failings here, I tried to expiate my sins by having a women writers page on my site, with direct links to the women writers on my site. Setting up the links for this site helped me to find out about other women writers that I was not aware of. I have created a list of the best novels written by women on my site. There are some very fine works there and, I hope, some that not everyone is familiar with and that people coming to my site might be tempted to try and read (sadly a few are not available in English). However, knowing how infrequently I add a new name to the list of women writers on my site only brings home to me how few women writers there are on the site.
I spend a certain amount of time seeking out interesting new writers, mainly though not exclusively from other websites. I do try and to find interesting women writers on these sites and certainly I sometimes succeed. But I am not going to continue apologising for failing to do so. So there is no doubt that the ratio of men to women writers on this site will remain about the same. Quality is a highly subjective matter but, for me, many of the most interesting writers are male and while I will continue to read and enjoy women writers and will continue to post women’s novels on this site, men will predominate.
In last Saturday’s Guardian, Rachel Cooke had an interesting article and/interview with Adam Thorpe. I read Ulverton about a year after it first came out, when it started to get some publicity, and was very impressed with it. Firstly there are very few worthwhile novels about the English Civil War (though lots about other civil wars). Secondly, and more importantly, it was and is a very fine book, telling the story of an English village through the ages, from the Civil War to the present day. As I said in my review it is a loving portrait of the rural proletariat in England over a long period and the changes and misfortunes that they have had to suffer and is in the tradition of English rural writers, of which, sadly, there are fewer and fewer. Cooke does mention a few, though none of them is a novelist. As Cooke points out in the article, it has now become a modern classic but his subsequent novels have not fared nearly so well. Both Cooke and Thorpe are baffled by this. Cooke states They are inevitably superb … and always well-reviewed, and yet you look for his name in vain on Booker and bestseller lists alike. To me, this is as baffling as it is unfair, and I wonder how he accounts for it. Thorpe himself has no explanation and comments One can hardly say I’ve been unambitious. Cooke picks up on this and feels that, as each book is different, this may account for his lack of sales. He’s uncategorisable, and perhaps such unpredictability is simply too much for some readers.
But then she inadvertently reveals the real problem, by comparing Thorpe to Hilary Mantel. He goes on to compare, at least as regards sales, Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels to his own Hodd. Hodd, as you can see from the review in the link, is a version of the Robin Hood tale. Thorpe tells a very clever tale, demystifying Robin Hood, and, to use his own words, being fairly ambitious with his use of comments and the various characters who are similar to the characters that we know from the traditional Robin Hood legend. But, and this is the key, here, as with Ulverton and Pieces of Light, and even in Still, where he uses a stream of consciousness approach, frankly we not only do not identify with the main character, as I said in my review of Pieces of Light, we tend to find his main characters irritating or just not very sympathetic.
Compare this approach to that of Hilary Mantel. Thomas Cromwell has not fared well in history books. He was something of the Dick Cheney of his day – devious, ruthless, committed to an ideology that was not one shared by most people (in Cromwell’s case, that of whatever it was that Henry VIII wanted), serving an unpopular master and not averse to torturing his enemies when he felt it appropriate. He was responsible for the deaths of Thomas More, later canonised, and Anne Boleyn, both of whom fared much better in the history books. Yet, when we read Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, we cannot help but feel a certain identification with Cromwell. Mantel is not interested, as Thorpe seems to be, in telling a faux history, as he does in Hodd. She is not a historian but a novelist and well aware of that. As a result she is telling the story of her character, based on a historical character, of course, but very much her own creation as well. As one of our foremost novelists, if not the foremost novelist writing in Britain today, she does it very, very well. We know that Cromwell is supporting the evil Henry VIII. We know that he has his political opponents tortured. We know that he is going to send Thomas More and Anne Boleyn to the scaffold. And, yet, we cannot but feel a grudging admiration and sympathy for him, as though his problems were ours and his course of action one we would feel bound to take or, at least, strongly consider. This is why Hilary Mantel has twice won the Booker Prize and may well win it again and why she is such a superb novelist.
Yes, Thorpe has been ambitious, not too ambitious as he and Cooke imply, as that is not necessarily a drawback. Mantel has written other novels which are not about famous historical characters and done them very well too. Think of Beyond Black where she has us thinking that spiritualists may not be the slightly deranged people that many of her readers would normally think. Thorpe, meanwhile, produces a succession of characters who, frankly, are distinctly less than appealing and he makes little attempt to have us identify with them. If, as he claims, he is a friend of Hilary Mantel, he could perhaps read her books more closely and learn from them. He is clearly a writer of talent and imagination and it would be nice if he could produce another great book.